In the Same Boat

The Bible, as we have seen in the story of Esau and Jacob (see the post It’s Good to See You, Bro), subverts our expectations. Along this line, as we have said, there are no heroes in the Bible. All our forefathers failed in some manner, with their failures necessitating, if you will, God’s graciousness to bail them out.

While there are many “sacred” idols that are subverted, none is more troubling for us than the Scriptural message that the oppressor and the oppressed are in the same boat.

Accustomed as we are to theology (or theologies), we can miss entirely one of the major concerns of the Bible — power and its abuse. Who has power? How is it wielded? How is authority abused? How is this abuse perpetuated across generations?

So we have religious authority that conspires to sentence the innocent Jesus death, with the religious authorities colluding with the oppressors. We have a proprietor king (David) sending the brave husband (Uriah the Hittite) of the woman he impregnated to a death in a war for which he took no personal responsibility. Worse, Uriah is a foreigner, so wouldn’t that be okay, then?

You see how people can justify all sorts of abuse and oppression. We do it all the time.

So where does the “they’re in the same predicament” come from?

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practised under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. 

This is from Ecclesiastes 4: 1. Notice the concern of the authors with the oppressed. We can agree with this — often, the oppressed have no one to comfort them.

But the real surprise is how the oppressors are viewed — as people under the control and abuse of power, who themselves need to be comforted. The authors of Scripture remind them and us, that oppressors must have learned their control from somewhere. They are living out, as oppressors, a cycle of violence taught to them and likely expected of them.

Can they be freed from this cycle? Yes. What does this look like? Well, we will look at two examples in a future post.

Sufficient for now is to state that human history has shown what happens when the oppressed take up arms against their oppressors. Not only are rivers of blood shed, but should the oppressed succeed in overthrowing their oppressors, they eventually become the new oppressors. The same story continues.

The cycle never ends until both the oppressor and the oppressed can look into one another’s eyes, and walk together. The oppressors, to be freed from the power that rules over them, and for the oppressed to no longer fear their oppressor.

How is this possible? Stay tuned.

Plato’s March of Folly, Round One

It was the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who said that, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

The influence of Plato on the Western philosophical tradition cannot be overstated. Whitehead was correct in that Plato’s ruminations led countless generations after him to “play ball” by taking his ideas seriously. Plato led to Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy was seen as a “handmaiden to theology,” while in the Byzantine East it provided, through neo-Platonism, the language and terminology for theology. Then with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the western philosophical tradition really took off, often grouped into geographical regions that mirrored the rise of nations and European empires (i..e, British Empiricism, French Rationalism, German Idealism, etc.).

Think of this — is it a coincidence that the last five hundred years of Western history have also involved absolutist inter-state conflict on a large scale, as nations and empires with different philosophical traditions vied for dominance? One worldview fights another.

All this can be traced to Plato and his Republic. Plato’s Republic was not just a pitch for a new model of society. It was a cultural re-programming, so much so that the introduction of Plato to any region would entail, de facto, a re-wiring of a society’s norms and traditions. This re-programming is written into the DNA of philosophy, since the philosopher lives a quest for a newer society. Of course, newer for whom?

The thought of having this power over the society is tempting and beguiling fruit (Genesis 3.1 – 7; The Rise of Scripture, chapter 1), and is a foreign and corrupting practice introduced into the garden of the Earth created by God.

While Plato was even too much for the ancient Greek city-states to handle (as far as we know, no one in the city-states accepted his sales pitch in his lifetime, as each local society had its own traditions they likely wished to preserve), after his death Alexander of Macedon introduced Plato’s writings to the ancient Near East and to a foreign peoples no less who were conquered by him. These people, with a civilization predating the Hellenistic peoples, were on their way to being culturally erased from history.

So, the cultures of the ancient Near east became a kind of “test case” of rule by a philosopher-king (Alexander). As we saw in the previous post Tasks, though, the project was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Interestingly, it is not known whether these writings were introduced to Afghanistan, also a place conquered by the Macedonian armies. There are places, in fact, where Greek is spoken to this day in remote Afghani villages. Had Alexander not actually introduced Plato’s writings there but did so only in the more developed Near East, then this would support the contention that Plato’s march of folly (a term I borrowed from the late historian Barbara Tuchman) is a cultural re-formatting of society.

Yes, this was an attempt at a cultural reformatting of an entire people, of many languages and traditions, from the least to the greatest. While Alexander was the first to accept the challenge, others have followed after him, with even more passion and destruction, and their own special self-affirming brand of philosophy. As conquerors try to create their perfect world (perfect for who?), the beguiling quest and thought remains that, “I just might succeed where others failed.” This is why, in the history of the West, kinetic wars have been fought to advance ideology, thus affecting entire societies.

With Plato, the march of folly clearly has its costs.

Tasks

A good way of helping people read and understand Scripture is to present a hyperbolic task for them to solve. For example, in Genesis 11 we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

The task at hand is to explain what is happening in Genesis 11 and how this relates to modern geopolitics.

A good case can be made that the so-called Old Testament Scriptures were written in the wake of (and as a response to) the Hellenistic conquest of the entire ancient Near East by the armies of Alexander of Macedon (i.e., the Great). This is the thesis of Fr. Paul Nadim Tarazi in The Rise of Scripture (OCABS Press, published in 2017). But Alexander would not live long to see his empire survive, as he died young at age thirty three. While scholars are divided as to whether he actually made Babylon his new capital, he was at least on the way to making it so.

In Genesis 11 we have a building being constructed where people would live, speaking the same language. The word language here does not just mean words, syntax, an alphabet so to speak, but also ideas. Speaking the same language, they would have the same ideas.

Instead of migrating throughout the whole earth, to fulfill the command of God to “be fruitful and multiply” over the face of the Earth, the people in Genesis 11 decide to settle and build a capital city (11.4), the visual embodiment of any empire.

God then takes down this construction by sending moisture to wet the brick that is being used to build Babel. Unable to support the weight, Babel collapses (11. 7-8).

Here we can see that original languages are important. As per Fr. Tarazi, modern translations translate בָּלַל as “confuse,” when the word also means “moisten.” Moisten is the antidote to the brick and bitumen of 11.3.

So, what is Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel all about? Simply, it is a message to all emperors and would be emperors that no empire lasts forever. They all fall.

And it so happens, their fall can be imperceptible, from an unforeseen event, recognized only until after it is too late.

So what is the lesson for modern geopolitics? Simple — nations and groups of people ought to learn to live in concord with one another, to forgo empire of any kind. While people have their grand plans, God still controls the rain.

It’s Good to See You, Bro

Suppose you have an older brother. It is just the two of you and your parents. Your brother, as the oldest, is granted certain privileges by society, which you resent, considering you and he are twins and it was just chance that he was born first.

Opportunity presents itself, and you have a once in a lifetime chance to harm your brother. The attention and privileges you crave can now be yours — in abundance! So you frame your brother and eventually have him exiled from the home. He is now homeless, without family, left to fend for himself in this cruel world.

But because you are a schemer, life catches up with you as God has His ways. Your life hasn’t gone as you had hoped; you get stuck in your father in law’s home as, essentially, an indentured servant, with two wives, and broken dreams. You do not have what you planned schemed for, but at least you reach the point when you are free to go home. On the way back you have time to sort things out. As you leave to go back to your ancestral home, with your wives and servants, you hear something — your learn that your brother is over the hills, coming straight at you with an army of over four hundred men!

What would be going through your mind at this point?

This is, of course, an outline of what happened to Jacob, who, jealous of his older brother Esau, connived to have him banished, only to meet him along the way with his army.

People reading the Bible do so going in thinking that Jacob is a hero. After all, he is a patriarch, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel and sort of the two half tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh). Because of our study notes version of the Bible, this is what we get. If he’s a hero, then he’s always in the right, correct?

But there are no heroes in the Bible.

These blinders cause us to miss the actual message, because when Esau sees Jacob again, he (Esau) is overwhelmed with emotion, kisses his brother, and offers to walk with him back home (Genesis 33. 1-17)!

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept (Genesis 33.4).

Sadly, still not trusting, Jacob declines the offer of protection and goes his own way.

This story is about many things. It is about forgiveness; it is about compassion; it is about honor; it is about sharing the Earth.

But is is also so very importantly about not fearing the other. That other may surprise you at the end of the day, mostly because it just might be they who end up doing the will of God, and not you!

Whose View?

The late French philosopher and urban theorist Paul Virillio showed in his incredible book (actually, incredibly hard to read but still awesome) War and Cinema that what we see on television, or in our case now, smartphones and laptops is a development of what were originally military requirements involving field of vision.

We see what the camera shows us. The camera provides us our field of vision. This matter is so important that directors insist on using only a certain type of film, whether 35 or 70 mm, to capture and tell the story. For example, David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia in panoramic view. This is how the movie is designed to be seen and understood.

While the Bible is not a movie, it is a narrative, and therefore it has a field of vision. That field of vision encompasses not only the entire narrative, but also the names of places, of people, and the literary topography mentioned in the previous post.

Part of literary reality, of course, is that we look at what happens in a story and we relate it to our own lives. The story of the shepherd boy David who became the immoral proprietor king of Judah is a story to which many people can relate. After all, how many people do we know or have heard of who were gentle and kind souls who “lost their way” in the pursuit of wealth and acquisition of power? You do not need to start out as a shepherd and end up as a king for that to resonate.

With the Bible, this goes to another level. The Old Testament was written in a language that is foreign to us. This language has one fantastic characteristic — it has no vowels. It is all consonants. Almost barbaric sounding to ancient ears. To us Indo-Europeans who have such expressive words and phrases, biblical Hebrew is, well, not a cocktail party language of conversation.

But it is the language of Scripture.

And language defines the field of vision. It makes the vision possible.

In biblical Hebrew, names have a meaning. Even words that seem just a part of the sentence also have place value, so to speak. They are put there by the authors of the Bible on purpose and can only be picked up and understood by those who know the original language.

This is why we have to come to terms with and learn as much as we can what the original authors said.

The Literary Topography of the Bible

One of the ways of helping to understand the Bible, especially what is called the Old Testament, is to appreciate what I call its literary topography.

Topography is the science of the layout of the land, so to speak. It’s not just geographical boundaries, or hills, mountains, rivers, and valleys; it is also about human additions. (As an aside, it’s a fun field of study.)

In the Bible, the Old Testament story takes place in a geographic space that extends from Egypt to present day Saudi Arabia and Oman. The literary topography of this area is such that the entire Old Testament narrative takes place there. It is a large area, and in Scripture, this area is a microcosm of the entire world.

In the Book of Jeremiah, we have a detailed description of this place, which is identified as “the nations.” You can find it in Jeremiah 25: 17 – 26. Many of the ancient nations of what we call today’s Middle East are there, with their biblical names — e.g., Egypt, Uz, Babylon.

This area, where the entire narrative beginning with Genesis takes place, functions as the entire planet. It is as if one had a lens and examined this place, along with the human behaviors there. Move the lens to a different part of the globe, and the story is the same.

The literary topography of the Bible, then, is not a historical marker in that we are simply recounting names and places. Its value is that the story we read is a story of us as well.

In the next post, we will look at why you and I cannot change the names and places to make them more contemporary. That is, we will look at why the primary field of vision in this field of activity is the one the Bible gives to us.

Whose Story Is It?

One of the recurring themes of the Scriptures is a tension between what is called the will of man and the will of God. The former is also called the will according to the flesh.

There are many examples of what this entails in the Bible, from the Garden narrative to the decision of Sarah for Abraham to father a child through Hagar. God promises Abraham, who has no heir, that he will be the father of many nations, so Sarah (who is advanced in age) concocts a plan to make him a father on her own terms. She encourages Abraham to father a child through her slave girl Hagar, and in this way, the human being would move God’s plan along (Genesis 16). A child named Ishmael is born.

But God fulfills His promise to Abraham according to His plan. Sarah gives birth to a boy named Isaac. He is a miracle child. The sad state of affairs is that out of jealousy Sarah later has Hagar and her (and Abraham’s biological) son Ishmael exiled, enacting horrible abuse towards other human beings who were actually part of the same household. While not the child of promise, Ishmael is still part of Abraham’s household. Now, he becomes homeless.

The will of man in Scripture is not just a case of willful disobedience; it is more along the lines of “I know better, so we’ll do it this way.” Or, “I know better than God,” “Here, Lord, let me help.”

We see these examples in the larger narrative of Scripture (e.g., Israel ends up in Egypt for over four hundred years because of Jacob’s willfulness), but this tension between God’s will and the human will in the Bible stories also happens directly between the text and us.

An example of this is Luke 1 and what happens to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist.

In the narrative, Zachariah encounters the angel Gabriel as he, Zachariah, is serving in the Temple. He is told by Gabriel that Elizabeth, who is Zachariah’s wife, will conceive and give birth to a son named John, and that this child will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v. 17).

However, because Zachariah doubted the angel’s words, Gabriel makes him mute until the time the child is to be born (v. 20). Considering Elizabeth’s age, the birth of John is a miracle.

It is here where questions should arise. After all, why mute Zachariah when a miracle has happened? If it were up to us, would we not have announced this miracle for everyone to know?

We would have had the story go differently. If it were up to us. If it were up to us, Gabriel would have told Zachariah to announce the miracle, so people could believe. If it were up to us, sure, we would say, Zachariah might have made a mistake in not believing the angel, but he should have been given a pass. If it were up to us.

But it’s not our story. So it is not up to us.

One of the hardest aspects of reading or hearing the Scriptures is that we say, “well, I would have done it differently.” Or, we contort the actual story to fit a prearranged box of truths we have set up to read the Bible, kind of like having Bible Cliff Notes*. Because we are not reading it with an open mind, we miss the tension in the stories.

*These are books that summarize the major points or plot sequences, themes, and character traits found in a work of literature. If you buy and read the Cliff Notes, you can, in theory, write a serious sounding paper or test answer — without ever having read Steinbeck or struggled with The Grapes of Wrath. But the Cliff Notes miss the emotive aspect of a story.

In the same way, to the question as to why Gabriel muted Zachariah, it is because, for Luke, this is the will of God. It is His story, and this is how He chooses to tell it. Not everything that is of God needs to be publicized.

Instead of just a retelling of the birth of the Baptist, this event now becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on how our efforts as humans may not always advance the Kingdom.