Sunday, June 30, 2013

Yeshua’s People

Most likely, as I have noted, the famous young woodworker from Nazareth at the heart of the Christian faith was known as Yeshua ben Yosif (Joshua son of Joseph). I repeat this to emphasize that one cannot even begin to understand the Christian “good news” without reference to the pre-Christian story of the Jews.

These summaries cannot possibly substitute for reading the stories of the Hebrew Bible, which Jesus, the apostles and their hearers knew as the context for what was said among them. Instead, perhaps it would be helpful to begin with a few main themes.


The story of the relationship between the descendants of Abraham (variously called the Jews, the Hebrews or Israel) and their God is narrated poetically by prophets and psalmists as the tale of a marriage between of an often wayward and unfaithful wife (Israel) to a reliable, faithful and ever-forgiving husband (Jehovah or Yahweh, as God is called), who has chosen her for all time.

Many of the principal figures of the Hebrew Bible are unsavory and rebellious. Some slay entire towns upon receiving what they perceive as a divine command. Others try to deceive God. Some get drunk and commit incest. But they are heroes and heroines because they keep coming home to faith and are ultimately faithful to God.


From Moses’ Ten Commandments on, the Hebrews are bound by a set of ordinances of divine origin—613 in the modern rabbinical count. These are found in the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch, or Torah. They encompass every aspect of the “good life” a Jew must lead.

The rabbis did not write the law; none would dare usurp the divine prerogative. However, rabbis, teachers and erudite students of the law, often were called upon to apply the law to circumstances; sometimes they disagreed. They wrote endlessly, attempting to help the God-fearing Jew. Some were inspired in teachings of pre-Christian rabbis such as Hillel, whose sayings are found in Jesus’ teachings. All of the principal rabbinical writings are collected in the Talmud, a book that is not in the Bible, compiled or written between the second and fifth centuries of our era.


In the course of roughly two millennia before Christ, God sent certain individuals (they are mostly men but a few women stand out, too) who discern the divine will for the Chosen People at critical times. Some of these are formally known as prophets, although some stood as judges and kings over the blessed nation.

Prophecy is not a matter of magic, not foretelling but forth telling. The person chosen to speak the divine command decisively to the people often warns about the future. Often the stories told about them in this regard are retrojections of after-the-fact biblical writers who no doubt realized the truth of the sages’ dire words: they warned us we would be conquered if we didn’t change our ways and we were!

The person sent to lead and speak is often an unlikely candidate. Moses grew up a comfortable Egyptian prince in the royal household. Jeremiah complained to God that he was to young, no one would listen to him. David was a king and an adulterer before he penned many of, but probably not all, the psalms.

In sum, the biblical story depicts a Chosen People, the ancestors of Jesus, as ultimately and courageously steadfast, obedient and prophetic. The gospels constantly insist that Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Burning Bushes

Somewhere in the created, humanly miscued world, there arose people who somehow managed to hear the voice of God. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, the patriarchs and prophets, Jesus, the apostles and various people deemed to be in the presence of God after their deaths.

I seize on the image of the burning bush from which Moses heard a voice that said it was that of God because, to me, it offers a fitting metaphor of what hearing and talking to God is all about.

Yes, I know the joke: talking to God is prayer and hearing God is a symptom of schizophrenia. I am a modern man and do not disdain science; I only propose that science does not yet know everything. Scientifically, God is profoundly unobservable and as a result nothing pertaining to the divine can be the subject of empirical analysis.

Thus, I welcome you, as Rod Serling might have, to the twilight zone of faith. I find it difficult to grasp that Abraham, Moses, Jesus and their pals heard the voice of God like you and I hear the voice of a friend on the telephone. Note that none of them even knew what a telephone was.

Parascientists such as Erich von Daniken have proposed pseudo-explanations that sound like science fiction: for example, the Tabernacle of the ancient Hebrews, from which the supposed voice of God was heard, but only by priests and rabbis, was really a radio left behind by extraterrestrials.

Let us consider something different.

Abraham, Moses, Jesus and company, like Gautama Buddha, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Lao-Tse and so forth, all ancient men in robes who spoke with wisdom that seemed divine, were men of prayer and deep, deep meditation. Men who were somehow distinctive for seeking an intuitive path to truth at a time of great empirical ignorance.

Is it impossible to imagine a spiritual search (yes, a clash of created chemicals in their created minds) resulting in an ineffable experience that communicated a goal, a command, a feeling of peace, a certainty that defied explanation (other than it was God speaking)?

God came to Samuel and Daniel in dreams, to Moses in a burning bush, to Jesus at his baptism as a voice heard only by those who were listening for it, to saints and apostles as apparitions. Elijah discovers that God is in the quiet hush of wind. Jeremiah cannot dissuade God that he is too young and awkward to be a prophet.

The consistent thread is an ineffable, life-transforming communication that is recognized as divine and beyond appeal. When God speaks, you can only follow or disobey. You cannot see God's face and you must only believe through God's wonders (or even without them).

God speaks in riddles sometimes, makes absurd and curious demands (or maybe the human hearing is off).

God often speaks what is already in the person's mind, almost confirming a chosen path. Abraham’s father is the first to come up with the idea that he and Lot and their wives are to go to Canaan. Then God calls upon Abraham to do so and makes his covenant. (See Genesis at the end of chapter 11 and beginning of 12.)

It is not magic. It is not delusion. It is the voice of God.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Out of Eden

Whenever the subject of the moral significance of Eden pops up, I am drawn to a poem by James Joyce that, in part, says
    Of the dark past
    A child is born;
    With joy and grief
    My heart is torn.
Isn’t that the truth of all births? We don’t begin as blank slates, “innocent” as popular lore has it. Babies are profoundly selfish, by necessity some would argue—but there you have it.

The second part of the creation story in Genesis attempts to explain why things around us are a moral mess, especially given that when all was created “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10).

The problem of evil haunts all faith. How can there be X evil if there is a good God? “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God demands of Job in response (Job 38:4).

St. Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo, North Africa, and the first major Christian philosopher, described our personal problem of evil with the word “concupiscence,” from the Latin for “with desire.” This is what came to be known by the hoary traditional term of “original sin” (please check out a humorous take in Tom Lehrer’s song “Vatican Rag”).

The idea is really roughly similar to the view of Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha (ca. fourth century BCE) concerning life and enlightenment. Put simply, in the earthly life we know we are caught in Samsara, a perpetual and cyclical wandering that, in the Hinduist roots of Buddhism, goes through death and rebirth. We are trapped in this cycle because of desire. Bingo! Concupiscence!

Although neither the kin religions of Islam and Judaism have a teaching of original sin, both share with the Christian faith the notion of a human status quo ante, before evil, in the story of Eden. Hinduism has a more complicated, more spiritual, version.

The point, alluded to by St. Ireneaus (130-202), bishop of Lyons, in disputes concerning this teaching, is pretty much what the Joyce poem puts forth: we start out with ancestral or inherited wrongs.

Some of us are born in mansions, built and maintained by the accumulated sweat and suffering of others, transmuted into profits and money. Some of us are born in hovels, like Jesus, without a sou to our name. Some are born from married ladies who primp for church every Sunday, others fight our way out of drug-addicted whores in alleyways.

This is not the divine order: this is the human injustice and error we have wrought by deceiving ourselves into thinking we are moral arbiters as powerful as the Creator.