Genesis 17 & Circumcision

The covenant of circumcision is introduced in Genesis 17, and it later comes to occupy a central place in Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and Romans. For Paul, circumcision came to be seen as a form of religious identity within 1st century Jerusalem-based Judaism, with being circumcised taking precedence over following the Torah.

In Romans, he makes the point that, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (Romans 2. 28 – 29).

It is this physical and external aspect of circumcision that is to us the most obvious characteristic, as the act is a physical one. So, how did Paul make the claim that real circumcision is a matter of the heart, being spiritual and not literal?

In Genesis 17, we hear the following:

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you (vv. 10 – 11).

Later in the same passage, we hear:

Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.  And his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin (vv. 24 – 25).

The term “flesh of your/his foreskin” is repeated. If circumcision is what it is, the addition of “flesh” and “foreskin” seems unnecessary, so it naturally raises the question why it is included.

I believe the solution to how circumcision is actually meant to be a “spiritual circumcision of the heart,” is to be located in verse 14, which reads:

Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (v. 14)

The “shall be cut off” is the biblical Hebrew word כָּרַת, which (according to Biblehub) may have the meaning of “to cut off; to cut down.”

In other words, Genesis likens circumcision to a branch of a tree being trimmed, in such a manner that Abraham is being challenged to, so to speak, “trim the branch he is sitting upon,” so as not be be cut off by God.

The physical act, then, is simply meant to actualize the trust. In this sense, Paul’s understanding of circumcision as an issue of trust/faith, and not of identity, is borne out by verse 14. Indeed, the issue of being “cut off” was foremost for Paul, which is why we hear him say in Galatians, “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (5.4).


Schrödinger’s David

In the Bible, we are presented with two Davids. The one is a proprietor king, stealing a man’s wife and then having his life taken; a schemer in his own way, and someone corrupted by power.

But there is also the David of the Psalms, who glorifies God, is repentant, and sings poems to the heavenly Zion.

So, is Schrödinger’s David at play here? Are both David’s both here and there at the same time?

In the essay On a Limb, the following point was made:

Therefore, the path between the will of the flesh (i.e., our will) and that of God wholly resides with us. What direction will our life take? I think this is part of what Saint Paul was getting at. I also think he is saying that even the children of slavery can become free children, full members of the household of God. Your path is not predetermined. All it takes is to be born according to the Spirit, whoever you are, whatever your social status, and wherever you may live.

In Genesis 9, in the aftermath of the Flood, Noah pronounces a curse on Canaan, the son of Ham, and a blessing on Shem. In the Table of Nations from chapter 10, we have the territory of the sons of Canaan and that of the sons of Shem intersecting.

So, where Canaan begins and ends geographically. . . is tricky. The ambiguity is intentional, in that the land can become either a place filled with God’s blessing, or a curse, depending on human behavior.

In this sense, there is no one David. The David of the Bible can be either the one who glorifies God, or the one who harms the neighbor. Shem or Canaan.

What path will your life take?

Melchizedek and Psalms 23

In Genesis 14, in the wake of a highly improbable yet resounding victory against the Four Kings, the victorious Abram is visited by Melchizedek, king and high priest of Salem.

We do not know much about him, except that he blesses Abram four times on behalf of God Most High, and offers Abram a meal of bread and wine. He does so in open territory, in a valley setting, in view of all.

The imagery involved here is reminiscent of Psalms 23:

A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

The war in which Abram participated involved two Valleys, those of Siddim (i.e. a valley near the Dead Sea) and that of the Kings. The Hebrew word translated as valley is a word that means “vale,” and it is used only three times in the Bible, all in Genesis 14.

In Psalms 23, the poet writes about God the Shepherd leading David through “the valley of the shadow of death.” The word for “valley” here is a different word than the one used in Genesis, but they mean the same thing. In Genesis, they are not just any valleys, but the Valleys of Siddim and of the Kings, so they are called vales since these are proper nouns. In Psalms, we have an unnamed valley.

Melchizedek comes and lays a table for Abram in the wilderness. He prepares a table before him, in the presence of his enemies, just as the Psalmist receives from God the Shepherd.

For a long time, Christian apologetics made the claim that the Old Testament is understandable only “in light of the New.” But within the Old Testament, one passage also gives insight into another. It’s a woven tapestry filled with clues.

Melchizedek has been sent by God Most High to remind Abram that God Most High is his shepherd. Soon, as we will see, this Shepherd will begin to form the flock.

Noah and Abram/Abraham

In Genesis 6. 8 – 9, we have the following:

“But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”

As we learn from Genesis 6 – 9, the exalted status of Noah was not to last long, as he would emerge from the Ark and soon thereafter plant a vineyard and . . . get drunk. His inebriation would provide the background to his curse of Ham’s son (Canaan). The Bible would then essentially dismiss the remainder of Noah’s life with the words, “After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years” (9.28); that is, there is nothing else to say.

So, with the story of Noah, we have a human being who is blameless, righteous, and who walks with God (clean sweep) at the beginning, but who falters at the end. It was through him that humanity was supposed to be given a second chance, so what is God to do now? In Genesis 9, God backstops himself from repeating the Flood, with an everlasting covenant sealed by a rainbow. God cannot wash his hands clean and forget about it all, since through his promise he has committed to humanity.

In Genesis 11 – 12, we are introduced to Abram (i.e., “exalted human being”), a city dweller with . . . many slaves. In chapter 12 we encounter an arrogant, entitled, and selfish human being, who places his wife’s life in jeopardy just to save his own skin. He gets richer through deceit and ends up with . . . more slaves.

By chapter 15, his trust will be accounted to him as righteousness, and in chapter 17, God will command him to “walk before me, and be blameless” (17.1).

So, what is going on?

Well, God will not again begin with the perfect, only to see them falter at the end. He begins with a typical, self-entitled human being, and reforms that human to walk before God and to be blameless. He begins with a broken vessel and fixes it. He teaches him how to walk before God and how to be blameless. It takes time.

Abram is us — exalted in our thinking, entitled, possessive, and all too relatable.

Jesus later on will explain this when he says that those who are high will be brought low, and the humble will be exalted (Matthew 23. 12). It is not how you begin life, but how you end.

Habakkuk and the Sermon on the Mount

In an earlier post, Habakkuk’s Lament, we saw that Habakukk was on the receiving end of a “teachable moment” by God, precipitated by a complaint lodged actually by Habakkuk — why does he see violence and injustice all around him, and God remains silent?

As was shown, Habakkuk is actually asking a narrow, ethnically based question. He wants to know why he sees violence and injustice, but his concern is really for his own people.

In three very short chapters, however, a kind of character realignment takes place for Habakkuk. Obsessed with godly revenge on enemies in chapter one, he comes to be in awe of what God can do, and by chapter three instead prays to God that, “in wrath may you remember mercy” (3.2).

So, what happened?

Like us, Habakkuk has a kind of selective morality. Angered by injustice and violence, he calls on God to act (1. 1 – 4). God’s response is, “Well, of course. Look! I can raise a people more violent than the ones you are worried about, and I will send them over to clean house. Look at my power!” This troubles Habakkuk, since this does not seem like a solution at all, and so he demands a better response from God (2.1). God comes across in chapter one as arrogant and violent, whose solution will only bring more suffering.

The Lord’s response in chapter two is a panoramic view of his power, and he shows the justice he can mete out to the enemies of righteous people all over the earth. But a question is implied for us, which Habakkuk realizes: if every person suffering around the earth asks God for the same thing (i..e, punishment of one’s enemies), then what?

Human beings express outrage, demand justice (especially from God ), and so for certain wrongs, but fail to recognize their own failures to act justly, or to right wrongs when they can. Habakkuk’s realization of his selective morality and outrage is seen in 3.2 when he asks God to forgo violence and revenge against the nations, and rather to shows the power of his mercy. In other words, give them a chance!

While nations rise according to the mercy of God and are removed by him because of their sin (Tarazi, Land and Covenant), these events take place over vast time periods. But what about injustice today?

This remarkable short book is a lesson for us to do something about how we see things, beginning with an examination of our own selective morality. For example, we protest wars in other lands, but have remained silent when our own country enacts violence. Worse is when we have “God on our side.”

Still, Habakkuk’s value is immense throughout the Bible. As has been expressed many times on this blog, Jesus carries the arc of Scripture to its conclusion . He alone is its true interpreter, sent by the Father to save the Scriptures from a religious and political class that appropriated it for its own use, including calling on the God of Scripture to punish enemies.

All that appears in the New Testament has its basis in what was already written. This is why I believe Jesus uses Habakkuk as a basis for the Sermon on the Mount:

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5. 43-48)

Shem, Japheth . . . and Translations of the Bible

In a conversation recently, the question of the meaning of certain words in the Bible came up. In this particular case, predestination. I was asked: why don’t you preach about predestination, since it’s in the Bible? Well, there’s a word there translated as “predestination,” but there is not a theory of predestination in the Bible.

How do I know that? Because I know biblical Greek and have read Paul many times in the original. As the post Sounding Out the Readings showed, there are simply things in the Bible you will not learn in English. To put it bluntly — the Bible in English, French, Spanish, etc is not the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible and thus, open to legitimate literary criticism.

So, then, wouldn’t God want his message to be translated into as many languages so as to reach as many people as possible?

Here is the issue. Maybe this is the wrong question.

In Decoding Genesis 1 – 11, Father Tarazi engages in a magisterial overview of the opening chapters of the first Book of Scripture. Lamenting the abuse (yes, abuse!) of the Scriptures by Europeans and North Americans who not only failed to submit to the original text, but also appropriated it for their own ends, he takes us back to one of the most important passages in the early chapters of Genesis — Noah’s blessing upon Shem, his conditional blessing of Japheth, and the cursing of Ham’s son Canaan.

In Genesis 9 we hear:

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,
‘Cursed be Canaan;
   lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
26He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.
27 May God make space for* Japheth,
   and let him live in the tents of Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.’

Well, who are the descendants of Shem? Simply, in the Bible, they are the peoples who inhabit the Syrian desert and surrounding regions, for whom shepherdism is a way of life.

And the Japhethites? Well, in the Bible, they come to be known as he “island peoples,” whom we would recognize today as the sea-faring Greeks and Romans. There are no North Americans or Northern/Central Europeans in the Scriptures. But they must function as if they were Japhethites. Why? Because they are not part of the Scriptural story at baseline but must be invited into it.

And that is the issue here. Anyone outside the story of the Bible has, in order to share in the blessings of Shem, to actually dwell in the tents of Shem — where the scroll of Scripture is unveiled and read in its original languages.

And so, Noah’s (i.e, Scripture’s) blessing of Shem as the “gold-standard” for those outside of the original purview of Scripture to embrace, holds lessons for us when it comes to biblical translations.

The translation will always, like the Japhethites, be by invitation, and will receive a blessing only by being fully within the tents of Shem. And that means knowing the original languages.

In an earlier post, Baseline, I argued that the West appropriated so many of the treasures of the peoples of the Middle East — most recently since 2003 with the invasion of Iraq — that we have again come to see everything out there as belonging to us. To walk with the God of Scripture, it would help if we entered fully the tents of Shem, instead of thinking we made those tents and that they belong to us.

Skepticism and the Bible

I am currently in the middle of reading the late Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark. Sagan tackles the superstitions and false beliefs that give rise to a kind of mental, if not political and economic, slavery. The way out of this word of superstition, often perpetrated by religion, is for a society to have broad scientific knowledge capable of asking relevant and critical questions borne of skepticism.

There is one section that caught my attention the most, and it it is this section that is worth reflection. In chapter 7, eponymously entitled “The Demon-Haunted World,” Dr. Sagan quotes the British historian Edward Gibbon who, commenting upon the philosophers who became Christians, makes this observation:

“The most curious, or the most credulous, among the Pagans were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers” (TDHW, page 126).

The result for Gibbon, and Sagan, was that superstition came to eventually replace reason and critical thinking.

In his The Mythic Past, biblical scholar Thomas Thompson makes the case that the authors of the Bible often tackled philosophical questions about suffering and our views as humans of the divine, as in the case of the Book of Job. Thompson asks if the God portrayed in the book actually answers Job’s questions, because it looks like he pulls rank on poor Job, in effect telling him “who are you to question me?” Thompson (if I am reading him correctly) sees this as the authors actually questioning the widely held human awe of the divine that all cultures share. When we look at Elijah, do we see a righteous man eager for the Lord (our standard view of him), or a zealot who slays others in contravention of the commandment not to kill? God has to teach Elijah in the silence of Horeb that he is not the God of fire, wind, or earthquakes (i.e., violence; see 1 Kings 19).

So, skepticism of human views of the gods (indeed, of superstition) and of human behavior is very much woven into the fabric of the Bible. It is a book that introduced skepticism of religious traditions, and the dangers of excessive piety long before modern science entered the scene (Mark 7. 1 – 13).

In earlier posts on this blog, it was established that Plato and his followers “did a number” on the human race. We are still paying for Plato’s dreams. Sagan is partial to philosophy, presumably as a critical and skeptical practice, but it seems strange, because at the end of the philosopher’s discussions, nothing remains resolved.

So, it is not accidental that when Paul goes to Athens (Acts 17), he encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” along with the rest of the Athenians.

I consider this passage to be one of the most indicting comments in the Bible of philosophy and how uncritical it is, as it is devoid of actual engagement with the real world. All the philosophers of Athens would do is talk, and frankly, behave like the rich man in Luke, ignoring Lazarus at the gate. That is, they would feed themselves and do nothing for the poor and needy who surrounded them, and who were invisible to them.

Scripture invites us to open our eyes — as Jesus says, to “look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6) — and be critical of the lessons we are being taught. Asking questions is very much part of the biblical tradition.

If the Dead Are Not Raised . . .

On Pascha, it helps to take a look at Paul’s prose in 1 Corinthians 15. Again, because it bears repeating, Paul (along with the other authors of Scripture), does not have a “theology of” or a pre-set view of some issue. Chapter 15 follows chapter 14, which follows 13, all the way from chapter 1. There is a narrative flow.

So there is no Pauline “view” of the Resurrection. Paul, true to Scripture, is taking the promises of God made in the law and the prophets that God’s message will reach the Gentiles, and Paul then explains this message. Anything Paul “says” about the Resurrection is what his predecessors already wrote, which he now presents to the Gentiles.

Because we have been conditioned to think that we need to find pre-Christ references in the Old Testament, we tend to see even the issue of the Resurrection exclusively in this manner, i.e., as being concerned mainly, if not solely, with Jesus Christ. But Jesus, as we have shown in Arc of the Covenant, comes at the end of the Scriptural story, where he carries the entire arc of Scripture to the Cross. As we wrote in part two of that essay, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the Father’s restoration of the entirety of Scripture as a living word that must reach all nations. If Jesus dies and is forgotten, so are the promises of God.

Hence, as we wrote then:

“And so, if the death of Christ was supposed to lead to the loss of the “message of God,” [i.e., by the conspirators who put him to death], then what does the resurrection of Jesus from the dead mean but that this word is a word of life that can never be buried into oblivion?”

And so, to what is Paul referring when he writes that, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised” (15. 13)?

It helps to look at Paul’s imagery in 1 Corinthians. Throughout the letter, he uses the image of the body or a building to help the hearers understand what he is saying. In chapter 15, he introduces the image of a seed (vv. 42 – 44 ff). A seed grows after it is buried into the ground.

What was the purpose of the Resurrection of Jesus? Well, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead happened only because God had already decided to raise all the dead. But subject to human manipulation, even the word of God could be used to cause harm, as Jesus and the prophets before him showed. Jesus’ interpretation of the law and the prophets, being the only valid one, “protects” the Scriptures as a life-giving word. His being raised from the dead by the Father was done to bring that message to us.

This is why hope is so prominent in the New Testament writings. We now have hope, based upon the teachings we have received as disciples.

But what type of “hope?”

In the Scriptural readings of Holy Week in the Orthodox liturgical cycle, an important “axial” segment were the readings devoted to Jesus’ betrayal. This betrayal was repeated so much one could not lose sight of some important messages: an innocent man was being betrayed, and a judge (Pilate) representing the prized Roman legal system washed his hands of everything and knowingly sentenced an innocent man to death.

Jesus’ death on a cross was simply meant to erase him from history and the face of the earth, to be buried into oblivion. But we remember him and the lessons he taught against the control of the Scriptures exerted by religious authorities and the crimes of unjust judges.

Hope. But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish (Psalms 9. 18). Though the world may forget you, cast you into oblivion, God will not. Jesus’ death on the cross is indeed a promise by God that no innocent human being will ever be forgotten by God, and on the “last day,” will not only be justified, by glorified in His kingdom.

Christ is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!

Habakkuk’s Lament

It’s only three chapters long, but the prophecy of Habakkuk packs a decent punch.

It helps, before diving into some of the gems in this book, to repeat a point made throughout this blog — if you read the Bible with pre-set assumptions, or filtered lenses, you will lose sight of what it is saying. As explained recently, in the essay Circling Back to the Text, we can easily overlook, since our assumptions prevent us from looking any deeper, that the fact Uriah is a Hittite is earth-shattering and damning to the Davidic saga. You can only “see” this if you study the text long enough to recognize the connections the authors make for us.

Because of centuries of theological training, it became the norm for people to see the prophets as people “predicting” the future, be it the coming of the Messiah or world events. Lost in this view was a more basic human concern, such as taking up a complaint with God for all the pain and injustices in the world. We tend to overlook this aspect of the prophets, but the prophets are filled with their own very real complaints about how God does things. And they want answers.

Habakkuk is a good place to look at how the authors of Scripture address human complaints against God and what they learn, and we from them, in this process of challenging God. The Book of Habakkuk is essentially the questions of a human being for why the vulnerable suffer in war.

The Complaint

Habakukk’s lament is expressed in the opening verses:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise” (1. 2-3)

Habakukk is expressing the position of being part of a people who are on the receiving end of a war, and with the violence he observes (“destruction and violence are before me”), he is calling on the Lord to answer for this. But the response, far from being an exercise in hand holding, seems to add fuel to the fire. In his retort, the Lord is admittedly proud of raising up foreign armies to punish the disobedient and wayward nations (vv. 6 – 11), including Habakkuk’s!

The Lord’s response in verses 6-11 gives the reader the impression that God relishes war. Not satisfied at all with this reply, Habakkuk continues:

“I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (2.1). In other words, I won’t leave from here until he gives me a decent reply.

In chapter two, verse 2, the Lord responds. What is important here is that we, along with Habakkuk, are learning that the prophet’s original question was myopic.

In his extended response in chapter two, the Lord expresses that his concern is for all the earth (2.8), something absent from Habakkuk’s original complaint: “destruction and violence are before me” (1.2). The key verse in the Lord’s response is 2.4: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

Where are these righteous found? All over the earth (2.14).

The Lord has to teach Habakkuk to enlarge his concern. Noble as it is to lament the violence against our own people, or people like us, the Lord is educating the prophet to also be concerned about the violence against people over the face of all the earth. In other words, compassion is not ethnic, national, or geographical.

After a lengthy song of praise, the prophecy ends with the words, “God, the Lord, is my strength” (3. 19). The only hope for strength is trust in the Lord. Strength is not the number of chariots or the size of the treasury of a state.

In three short chapters, Habakkuk learns that the Lord is not a God who relishes violence. At the same time, he learns also that a human being’s concern must be for all those suffering on the earth. Human compassion must mirror that of God’s.

He Has Been Chosen!

I had a great conversation recently with someone about God’s choices, as what we hear/read in Romans 9. 11 – 13. There, in discussing the birth of Jacob and Esau to Rebekah, Paul writes:

Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’

As we learn, Jacob is born, and he is an ambitious fellow who has no problem being conniving and short-sighted, among other things. The question is, would you want him as a brother? A son in law? A son? A husband? A friend? He steals his older brother’s birthright and for this, Esau is exiled by Isaac.

As we addressed in one of the earlier essays, “It’s Good to See You, Bro,” Jacob is of course petrified to learn (as he is finally granted release by Laban to go home) that his older brother Esau is literally over the hills coming straight at him with an army of four hundred plus men. To repeat, Jacob was the reason for why Esau was exiled from his father’s house and became a wanderer, having to fend for himself. But, as we see, God was good to him and to Jacob — well, Jacob struggled his whole life.

So, what benefit did having been chosen bring Jacob? Is chosen-ness a de-facto benefit in Scripture?

Looking at the Bible, it looks more the case that the authors of the Bible are taking a very real human fascination with chosen-ness, which exists in every culture and tribal society — and dynamiting it from within. It’s another construct humans create — in politics, religion, sports (e.g. MVP), you name it.

But behind this outside is an inside that tells a different story. Being chosen is not a priori a safety net, but more the case that God may very well make of you an example.

So in Romans 9, Paul is not really talking about Jacob being preferred over Esau. And he is not creating a “Scriptural approach to election and chosen-ness.” All he is doing is highlighting that, whether or not Israel (another chosen group) followed the Law is irrelevant, because God can even use human failures for His purposes.