On a Limb

In Galatians 4: 21 – 31, Paul raises this issue: who is a child of Abraham? If you read this passage quickly, at a surface glance he is comparing the free child and a slave child to someone born according to promise and someone born “according to the flesh.” Two mothers, two different covenants. In other words, Sarah is good, Hagar is bad.

Looking at this passage carefully, I am not so sure this contrast between Sarah and Hagar, and their children, is what Paul is getting at. I’ve read this passage dozens of times, and I thought I understood the general thrust of Paul’s point.

But here’s the problem: Scripture gets you like that. It’s like a cut fastball in baseball, which looks like it is coming straight at you, but then breaks at the end.

The problem here, for me at least, is that I checked up on Paul’s reference in 4.29. Go back to Genesis, to which this verse refers, and see if the two match up. They don’t. Genesis 21. 9 – 12 does not deal with a child persecuting another child. So, was Paul reading something in the Bible that isn’t there, was he making something up, or have we just been dealt a cut fastball?

I’ll go out on a limb here, I admit, and try to make sense of this passage.

First, a recap. As we saw in Whose Story is It? Ishmael is conceived and born according to the manipulations of Sarah. She has Abraham be with her slave-girl Hagar to produce a child. She attempts to hijack God’s plan and control it. Ishmael is the child born out of this attempt.

Isaac’s conception comes from God, but to to be clear, he is not the result of Abraham and Sarah’s efforts. He is born to Sarah, and is acknowledged as Abraham’s son because he was promised by God and because he was born into Abraham’s house. God’s purpose is still fulfilled, in spite of Sarah’s efforts.

Yes, both children were born into Abraham’s house, and they are both his.

In Genesis 21. 9 – 12, we encounter a situation where Ishmael, the biological son of Hagar and Abraham, is playing with Isaac, the child of promise. All Genesis says is that Ishmael was playing. That’s it. There is nothing there about persecution.

Sarah wants Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, because she is jealous of Ishmael and wants her son Isaac to be “the one.” She gets her way; God intervenes and calls on Abraham to listen to the voice of his wife. Hagar and Ishmael leave the home, but they never leave the household of Abraham.

What just happened?

Well, Ishmael’s descendants, too, can become children of Abraham, whether or not they physically live in the same home. Ishmael’s descendants will eventually become part of the nations who will be called to become precisely those children. In this way, God’s purpose is fulfilled, regardless of what Sarah wants.

But why does Paul mention persecution in Galatians 4. 29 when this isn’t mentioned at all in Genesis? It’s just two boys playing.

I think what is happening is that Paul is drawing our attention to Sarah as the constant in both these births. It is her manipulations that led to Ishamel’s birth and exile, but it is also her failure that showed how God’s will cannot be thwarted by humans.

So, it is Sarah who is the one doing the persecuting. She persecutes Hagar and Ishmael. It is also Sarah who, without realizing it, shows how God’s will and purpose will prosper no matter the will of man.

Sarah is, therefore, a metaphor in many ways. She can be the one who persecutes; she can be the one tries to outdo God and control His will. As the master of a slave woman, she can be cruel to another human being.

The free woman to which Paul refers in 4.23 is therefore not Sarah. He does not name Sarah at all in Galatians 4. 21 – 31. The free woman of Galatians is the New Jerusalem, out of which the Spirit comes.

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.

Who Reveals Whom?

Does God reveal the Bible?

This is one of the greatest classical theological chicken and egg dilemmas that, . . . . No, wait. Stop. Just kidding. This was never really a dilemma.

Although, this idea was treated like a scientific truth for centuries and more. You know, the idea that God, in the heavens above, revealed the text of the Bible we have. Simple as that.

It is hard for people to wrap their minds around the notion that God did not “reveal the Bible.” Saying he does would imply we have a God in our minds who we know exists, who has certain characteristics we mentally assign to him, and who then reveals a text about Himself we call the Bible. Again, not to be beat on the same drum, but what is this if not Platonism and its eternal perfect Idea with copies of said Idea(s) here on earth (i.e., the Bible).

The consequences of this line of thinking is that, in practice, one group of people may choose to follow this Bible on their own terms, while another may draw the conclusion they can bypass the Bible and just appeal directly to God. So, the theoretical height, weight, depth, and “character traits” of the eternal God can be anything we wish them to be, again a priori, in theory.

Rather than the above, we should appreciate that it is the Bible that reveals God. Let’s repeat. The Bible reveals God, the real God, not the one set in our minds through which filter we selectively read or listen to the Bible.

One of the solutions to all of these mental gymnastics, of course, is to recognize that the Bible addresses issues outside of our conceptions of God. For example, the Scriptures address issues such as racism, war and violence, as well as the difference in social classes.

Let’s look at how racism is addressed in the Bible. It’s not done explicitly, you have to see it in how the story is told.

Of course, person A will tell you that racism is “bad,” while person B will inform you that God made humanity “in His image,” so there is really only one race, the human race. With this last point we are getting closer to understanding the mechanism of how the Scriptures functions. It’s far more powerful to say, “hey, look, there’s only one race on this pale blue dot, and that’s all of us included,” than to just label something.

Here’s an experiment: ask yourself what racism is, and how you would recognize it. Now, read this passage, ask yourself the same question and answer it again.

We are looking at a passage mentioned in a previous post. We have king David, who is fresh from using his power to seduce and appropriate another man’s wife, Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite. How often have we allowed our own assumptions in hearing or reading the Bible to cover up for us that David is a racist and not just an adulterer?

Uriah was one of the kingdom’s honorable warriors, but he was a foreigner (i..e, a Hittite). David is lounging and enjoying himself as he sent men to die in battle for his wars. This is seen by the use of the words, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem (v. 1). That is, these were casual wars of choice, and like a coward David stays behind as people die.

When David learns that Bathsheba is pregnant, he calls Uriah back from the war, hoping Uriah would take the time home to go be with his wife. But Uriah is an honorable man, unlike David, and he refuses to even see his wife. Why not? “When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house,’ David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Honorable men are dying on the front lines, and you want me to have a romantic evening?

So, David concocts the plan to send Uriah to the front lines, where he will surely die, and does (vv. 14 -18).

It’s all so horrible, all of it. What makes it even worse is that Uriah is a foreigner, and so he was expendable. He had no established family in the kingdom, and no children. There was no social group David might have considered that would have deterred him before he seduced Bathsheba. David explicitly inquired who Bathsheba was, and when he learned her husband was a Hittite, he called for her (vv. 2-3). This horrible story is one way the Bible paints racism for us. It is a different definition than the one we are used to today, where racism is a form of a priori hate, but nonetheless this story involves the abuse of power over a minority.

Here we have it: racism as appropriating and stealing from someone or a group because you consider them expendable.

Such is the language of Scripture.

Baseline

This post concludes the series devoted to the congruence of philosophy and the West, and the implication this had had on the study of the Bible and its place in peoples’ lives

In the previous post (Consult the Book of Armaments!), we examined the difficulties of biblical interpretation. Historically, much ink was used within Christendom in defending one “school” over another, but in any event, we ended up in the 20th and 21st centuries with a tendency to use the Bible as a manual of sorts, especially as a map to the end-times.

So, what is a good place to begin in getting back to the roots, that is, the field of vision? Well, this word Christendom is a great starting point.

In his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington presented a series of maps showing the influence of the West throughout history. Guess what? The maps show the influence of the West (the book was written in the 1990s) waning. Yes, by the late 1990s the influence was smaller and smaller, which was odd considering how far and wide the reach of the West has been.

After all, ever since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the West claimed ideological lineage with the ancient societies of Greece and Rome. Classical studies abounded. Archeology, the nexus between academia and a civilization’s physical historical memory, also came out of the West.

And with all this came cultural appropriation through war and colonialism (honest question — how many of the items in the British Museum were actually made in England?).

But, alas, in a more recent time, March 2003, the same historical mechanism was at work. The Fall of Baghdad to American forces led to an event that occupied, interestingly, the news cycle for several days — the looting of the Baghdad Museum, and with it, the disappearance from Mesopotamia, of the historical cultural artifacts thousands of years old. See here for a reality check.

The Scriptures, which are Semitic documents, also became a part of the Western intellectual tradition by cultural appropriation as well. It is not so much that original manuscripts disappeared — there are not many to be found! — but that the Bible came to be seen as western document. Its interpretation in the modern world (post 1500) was done primarily by Western scholars; the publication of the Bible into different languages by the West; and as Christendom approached non-Christian peoples, the Bible was always “there.”

So, a work of literature can still be stolen if it is appropriated as a cultural weapon of sorts, as if one culture or civilization claims exclusive rights to it.

So what is the solution to this? Well, we need to establish a baseline. For one, the people of the Middle East are perfectly capable of preserving their own artifacts. The second, relative to Scripture, is that we need to recognize the Bible as an ancient Near Eastern/eastern Mediterranean literature. It is not the cultural property of anyone outside the region that produced it.

The Bible ought to be restored to where it belongs, and from where it grew, the Middle East. It doesn’t belong to us. It is given to us so that we learn not to appropriate its riches. And it is a message for every culture, civilization, and peoples to walk hearing the voice of the Scriptural God. Blessed are those civilizations that come to see the Scriptures in this way.

Consult the Book of Armaments!

In the history of biblical interpretation, for a very long time there were two “schools” of thought on the matter. These views were named after the cities where this kind of early research, if you will, was concentrated, namely Antioch and Alexandria.

The group in Antioch took a kind of “matter of fact” view, that the Bible should be read “as is,” without a tendency to speculate about deeper meanings. This school of bible study also led to some dedicated attempts to understand the languages of the Bible (i.e., Lucian of Antioch).

The speculative aspect is what the group out of Alexandra, Egypt did, which made sense since they were disciples of neo-Platonism, and speculation is the name of the game with philosophy. So, under this scenario, the Bible has a plain meaning, but also deeper “spiritual” meanings that spiritual people can unlock. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea is a metaphor for knowing God.

Of course, either system also has its extremes. The Antiochian school can tend towards fundamentalism, while the Alexandrian tends towards mysticism and guru-like devotion (“tell me, Master, what does it mean?!”).

With all the ink spilled in battles over which way is the best of reading the Bible, have you ever wondered if there is, well, a clearly wrong way of reading the Bible? I present to you this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Behold, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!

Was this a comedic critique of how the Middle Ages used the Scriptures (“Consult the Book of Armaments!”) or how we do it today?

More importantly, what does this scene also say about how we use the Bible as a justification to wage war on our enemies? That is, when the Bible is a weapon itself. What does this say about how we engage in false piety? The king lowered his head as the reading took place from “the Book of Armaments,” heard the directions, and still counted wrong (i.e., he was not listening).

And of this focus on seeing the Bible as a handbook for war, or as a text that needs to be “consulted.” Yes, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) is filled with battles, and presents the hearers with God as Warrior and record title holder. But the purpose of all those scenes is to tire out even the most die-hard warrior, and to show how war is ultimately a futile act. Better the silence of the cave at Horeb than the tumult of battlefield victory (1 Kings 18-19).

The other aspect of “how not to” involves the tendency to use the Bible as a generic handbook or manual. Chapters and verses become verbal weapons in our arguments with ideological Philistines. This mindset has even penetrated to the popular level, as people “see,” especially in end-times books like Revelation, which country represents which enemy of God.

How did we get here? Well, only a modern industrialized society, used to putting things together (like a new cabinet or TV stand), could have created the “Bible as Manual for Living” school of popular Bible studies. In this way of reading, the Bible becomes no different than a map for “making it to heaven.”

If we want to see the Bible for what it “really is,” and listen to what it actually says, then we need to pay attention to how we are hearing and reading it. Begin with the “how” over the “what.” The Bible has its own field of vision. We are to see what “it” sees. And that begins by foregoing the inclination to think we control the text. You can do it! It’s not too late!