Beyond Wood and Stone

Rev. Elisabeth's Cedar Park Blog site

Month: August 2011

The Name of God

Readings for this Sunday can be found at this link: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=157.   The text for preaching  this week will be the reading from Exodus 3:1-15,  which tells of the encounter of Moses with God in the desert of Midian.

 As one commentary rightly points out, this is one of the “Top Ten” biblical stories known by most people who have some Christian or Jewish background.  For many there is even a reinforcing visual memory from the night-time scene in Cecil B. de Mille’s classic  The Ten Commandments (if you want to see it, try this link from movieclips.com:http://cli.ps/ZMLYH).  And for our younger generations, they now have their own visual cue from Dreamwork Studio’s  Prince of Egypt. (YouTube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VTH5SWDFq4).  

Often familiarity with a story dulls our attention to its oddness. The writers of the book of Exodus were trying to convey something of the awesome mystery of the way God chooses to come alongside humanity in intimate encounters like this one, while still trying to honour the ‘otherness’ or mystery of God.  

God comes close yet still remains mysterious.   This is perhaps how many of us experience God;  we may have a moment we can recall, of sensing the closeness and realness of God. For some this can be in a moment of awe at creation’s splendour, for others it is in the sense of a personal disaster averted, or the life-giving touch of another human with a sense of divine love or power that’s so radically different than everyday interaction.   In this way it’s likely that many of us can relate to this particular story – we know God comes close, but still remains mysterious.

Another way this story seeks to convey God’s  otherness is in the way God answers Moses’ very useful question in verse 13: “If they ask me what your name is, what shall I tell them?”  The NRSV uses upper case letters to signify that God’s answer is a name. “I AM WHO I AM.”   If this looks more like a sentence than I name, you’re right.  God’s Name is essentially a verb. (The qal imperfect first personal singular form of hayah, for those that want to know!)

It’s wise at this point to turn to Jewish scholars to get a handle on what this might mean, but there answers may prove less than satisfactory if you want to reduce God’s name to something logically or scientifically comprehensible.  As one such scholar sums up three thousand years of scholarship:  ” The name of God is by its very construction beyond all attributes of language, and beyond all possibilty of defnition; it connotes simply that God is the source of all verbs, all actions, all being.”  

An ancient Rabbinic commentary on this verse of Scripture writes: 

“The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to those, You want to know my name? I am called according to my actions.” (Exodus Rabbah 3:6).

Within Jewish, and some parts of Christian tradition, this utter mystery of the God who is called by a Verb –  “I am who I am” (or “I will be who I will be”) was conveyed in print and spoken words in a distinctive way; God’s Name (see above)  was no longer spoken aloud, and in some Hebrew Bibles was not even written out in full, or contained a deliberate error, so that people would not read it aloud by mistake.   If a reader saw these four Hebrew consonants, they would say instead “Adonai” = the Lord.  Or would simply say “HaShem” = the Name. 

When Christian scholars in the Sixteenth century learned Hebrew, they tried to create a way of saying “The Name” that fit with the four consonants, first needing to identify letters in our own alphabet that matched the Hebrew: JHVH  or YHWH. If you add vowel sounds, the result that some came up with was JeHoVah  –  we still sing this word in the famous hymn “Guide me O thou Great Jehovah”,  or “YaHWeh” – the pronunciation you’ll find in the Roman Catholic  New Jerusalem Bible,  and in many contemporary sacred songs written in the 1970s and 1980s. 

In contemporary Jewish tradition you will still see the reverence with which the Name of God is treated, portrayed in written texts, as “G-d” (not writing out the name in full), or in written and spoken English as simply “The Name”  – e.g. some of the wonderful sacred poetry written by Leonard Cohen in Book of Mercy.

 

 

 

 

(For Aug 21) Musings on Matthew and Moses

The Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday (August 21) are:

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Matthew 16:13-20
Romans 12:1-8

You can find them all at this link: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=156, and if you prefer to read the Message, you can use this link: http://www.biblegateway.com/.

Because this Sunday’s Service will be an “All Ages Garden Worship”, this gives me a wonderful opportunity to ‘play’ with the upside of these texts, finding rich blessing and affirmation in them, suitable for our Summer worship format. However both the Exodus and Matthew passages have deep shadow sides also, and I’ll explore both of those here on the blog.

The Exodus passage is not just a cute story about a baby in a basket in the bullrushes. It’s also about slavery, ethnic cleansing, genocide,  and an act of courageous civil disobedience that (in the words of one scholar, David Lose) changed the world. Any adult who has lived more than three decades cannot fail to see in this reading echoes of our own world and time; political leaders protecting their power by picking on a weaker group, dehumanizing or demonizing them (think Poles, Gays, Jews in Hitler’s Europe, and the tendency to belittle another ethnic group by name calling -Chinks, Wops, and more I can barely dare to print).  No less destructive to the beauty and health of human community is the tendency, seen in this reading, and in our own time, for fear-driven immigration policies, inequities in local and global economic structures that protect the powerful at the expense of the weak, or weakening of rights for children and women.  There is much to be gleaned from reading this ancient story for clues to the choices we must continue to make in our own time to choose the path of hospitality, humility, and healing wholeness in the face of the seductions of oppressive power.  The two midwives, Shiprah and Puah stand for all who have stared power in the face with a defiant conviction that “choosing life” is closer to God’s way.

 

To the Matthew reading.  It’s on this passage that the global structure of the Roman Catholic church has been built. It’s an awkward heritage in some respects, because often those of us who are not Catholic feel somewhat cut off from this story. Are we part of this “Church” that Jesus founded on the “Rock” called Peter? At another level, this story gives many scholars a bit of a shiver, because it’s so obviously a “Matthean” creation – what does that mean? Probably those lofty words Matthew puts into Jesus’ mouth directed to Peter  were never spoken by him.  Matthew, part of a community trying to form its identity in the generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, needed to have a “Roots” story that anchored them to the ministry of Jesus around Galilee, and around the big fisherman, Simon Peter. This story gave them that anchor.   For my part, I try to imagine a day by the lake, when Jesus is chewing on a freshly cooked fish, and asks the close friends and followers, “What do you make of all this fuss and bother about who I am?”  When Peter says something to the effect “Well, as far as I’m concerned, Jesus, you’ve changed my life! You’ve given me meaning, you’ve loved me no matter how many times I’ve messed up. You mean the world to me, man, and I’d follow you to the ends of the earth!” I then imagine Jesus, not getting all lofty and pompous, but tearing up a little, reaching over and giving the big bombastic fisherman a bear hug and saying “I know you would! And it’s because you would that I know that everything I’ve lived for, talked about, cared about, been persecuted for, is going to carry on after me. Thank you, you’re a rock, Peter!”   The “Way” of Jesus carried on not because of some special ceremony, but because of a bond of love and shared vision that even death couldn’t crush.  We are heirs of Peter, all of us, because of the Love of Jesus.

 

 

 

Filling in the blanks on Joseph’s Saga.

Nancy introduced the reading from Genesis 35 last week as the first part of a two-part mini series in the Lectionary’s treatment of the Saga of Joseph.  That’s almost true… though I think it may be more accurate to say that we only get episodes 2 and 4 of a five part series.  If you don’t know the story of Joseph, that makes it VERY hard to keep up with what’s happening in a reading in Church on a Sunday morning ( and no wonder then that folk give up and say “This Bible’s too complicated!”

I chose the word “Saga” deliberately. It is a ripping yarn (ooh what a pun for a guy who had his technicolour dreamcoat ripped to shreds!), folkloric, epic, full of suspense, intrigue, twists and sleazy characters, so much so that I stick by my characterization of the Saga as more like the Sopranos than an edifying or uplifting moral tale that we  might expect from Scripture.

Sooo, how to fill in the blanks??? One way might be for you to find a copy of the Lloyd-WJoseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.jpgeber and Tim Rice classic  musical ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.”

Or you can read what’s below, which is a “Jones-Notes” version of the Saga in very NON Biblical language,  but I promise the story’s the same!

Joseph’s Dad was a man called Jacob. Jacob himself was a twin, the scrawny little twin, the crafty one who managed to steal the inheritance due to his elder twin Esau, so Jake and Ees didn’t get on so well, which meant that Joseph and his soccer team of older brothers grew up in what we’d now call a “dysfunctional family”.  If you’ve watched your Dad and your Uncle scream and yell and set the dogs on each other every time they met,  you’d grow up thinking sibling rivallry was ”normal” too.    Which is what happened to Joseph and his older brothers.  Daddy Jacob didn’t help by playing favourites.  While the big boys were cleaning out the sheep pens, milking the goats, digging potatoes and scrubbing toilets, Joseph was allowed to snack on cookies in the kitchen, play Wii (or it’s ancient near eastern equivalent), and get the fanciest duds from the best teen fashion stores in Mesopotamia.  “No FAIR!” was true enough in this family.

So when Joseph rubbed his brothers’ noses in his own good fortune, jealousy was the expected result, violent jealousy that Jacob couldn’t criticize since he’d spent a life time dealing out the same stuff to his own brother.  Joseph was also a dreamer – literally. One of those people who remembers their dreams, and can figure out what they mean. (Then as now, this is a rare, but prized talent that weirds a lot of non-dreamers out).  ONe of his dreams was about how great he’d be, while his brothers would just be low-lifes.  Joe told his brothers the dream, and got the expected response. They didn’t like it!  (This is where we picked up the story last week). 17 years of precocious little brother, and then this dream, and they’d had it with Joseph, so they plotted to kill him. Thanks to one brother, Reuben, his sentence was commuted to slavery and exile, while they went home and lied to Jacob about the death of his favourite son, and ‘proved’ it by wrecking his coat and covering it in goat’s blood.

While Jacob mourns his supposed death, Joseph’s life takes another crazy twist. He is traded like a hockey player from Midian to Egypt where he gets into trouble,  accused of ungentlemanly conduct with the wife of a Egyptian bigwig, and once again fears for his life – or should, except Joseph the dreamer presumes his dreams are true.  They are.  This dreaming talent saves his skin, and he exchanges shackles for new fancy duds from Egypt’s finest outfitters, as payment for his new profession as Pharaoh’s Dream Interpreter (PDI for short).

Before long, Joseph looked, walked, talked like an Egyptian, and even got a new Egyptian name… wait for it Zaphenath-panea  (or Zeep for short). Then in true Biblical fashion, “a famine came upon the land.”  Then, as now, this was an all too common occurrence in that region of the world. The famine was severe enough that (as now) whole populations were on the move, desperate to find a grain of rice, a cup of water.  Egypt was subject to the drought too, but had stored surplus harvests (at PDI Joseph’s say-so), and so Egypt was the go-to place for……… none other than Jacob’s brothers!!!

Remember that the pimply 17 year old had grown up into the most powerful man in Egypt, and was consequently big, impressive, well-fed, Egyptianized with an unpronouncable Egyptian name, so it’s not surprising that we have one of those pantomime scenes were we know and Joseph knows what the brothers don’t. They beg this fancy Egyptian potentate for food, he knows exactly who they are,  and strings them along with various conditions and return trips and traps, and a certain amount of inner turmoil… he knows with a flick of his fan he could have them clapped in irons or worse… could he? should he?  But there is some inner voice, and the kernel of brotherly love – for his younger brother , one too young to have been involved in his initial dump down the drain – that holds him back from wielding the power he’d predicted would be his and destroying his brothers…. but he plays them like trout on a fishing line.

This is where episode 4 starts, the one for this Sunday…. the moment when Joseph can’t do anything other than reveal his true identity.  It’s an awesome scene in  Joseph and the ATDC, and in the Bible. We see this huge expulsion of emotion -weeping so loud he can be heard a block away…. imagine what all that sobbing contained, a life time of jealousies, fears, hurts, losses, thoughts of vengeance, recrimination, pouring out  like pent up lava in a volcanic cone,  or fill in your own more graphic analogies of that pent up hurt that must be cleaned out in order for healing to begin.   

It’s too easy to think this is the normal reaction…. to always choose ‘the better path’,  but we know the story of human history far too well to be fooled.  That wailing signals to us how hard, how scary such a choice to forgive really is.  It wrenches your guts out.. leaves you spent, but somehow also emptied of burden, poison, rage, and somehow breathing again, fresh,  like the scent of crushed lavender after summer cloudburst. 

There’s an episode 5 too,  but this is enough for now…. dwelling on the painful process of choosing life….

 

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