Maternal Imagery and the LORD’s Pain in Genesis 6.5-8

This post continues my short series on Noah and the Flood (Genesis 6-9).

It seems safe to say that God experiences great joy in creation (and in creating). The repeated refrain in Genesis 1 that God “saw that it was good/very good”, and the numerous scriptural references to divine attention given to the creatures of this world, suggest a pleasure in and concern for all that God has made. How then, do we get to Genesis 6.5-8 where the LORD is sorry to have created anything (6.7)?

‘The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found favour in the sight of the LORD.”’

Such a grieved response does not seem to make much sense if we are imagining a creator who controls every aspect of what has been created. This creator surely cannot be grieved by what is seen, because it has been controlled and expected. However, the pain felt in the LORD’s heart begins to make sense when we think of the creator who risks creating.

The idea of creation as a risk might be understood in terms of what is commonly called “free will”; or perhaps the divine establishing of evolutionary processes in the world. But however we might understand it, the ways in which God created the earth and everything in it mean that life will proceed as it will, existing in relation, but not necessarily in submission, to the creator. In Walter Brueggemann’s Interpretation Genesis commentary, he uses the following phrase when discussing 6.5-8: “creation has refused to be God’s creation” (pp.74; 76). This refusal may be a tragedy, but surely, given the risky nature of creating life, was always a possibility.

Again, thinking about the pain experienced by the LORD in 6.6, it is important to check which God is being imagined when the Flood story is read. It must be acknowledged that there are a great number of different presentations of God in the pages of the Bible – Warrior, Shepherd, King, Potter, Rock, Fortress, Shield, etc. And it must also be admitted that certain types of risk-taking creator might not actually care too much whether what has been made goes badly wrong or not.

So, who is grieved to their heart by the state of creation in Genesis 6.5-8? I think it is a parent; particularly a mother. The mother of all things.

Of course, maternal imagery for God is not unknown in the Bible. For instance, it can be found in Hosea 11 where God speaks of tenderly caring for Israel through their rejection of their divine parent: “the more I called them, the more they went from me…

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    I took them up in my arms;
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with bands of love.
I was to them like those
    who lift infants to their cheeks.
    I bent down to them and fed them ” (Hosea 11.2-4).

The LORD’s pain is intensifies as “my people are bent on turning away from me” (11.7). Here though, post-Genesis flood, God stops short of destruction saying, “How can I give you up… how can I hand you over?… my compassion grows warm and tender” (11.8). It is clear from this passage, as from Genesis 6.5-8, that the maternal nature of God is one that gives and suffers.

There is perhaps a connection with a pregnant woman carrying her child. Her self-giving does not diminish her own self to the extent that she remains able to supply her growing child with nutrition and a safe home for nine months whilst also working, driving, or whatever else she wishes to do. Once the baby is born, it is completely its own person, seeking autonomy as soon as possible, however, the child remains intrinsically connected to the mother. What the child does impact the mother and somehow the child’s actions may also reflect back upon the parent. Clearly, over time as the child grows, learns, and makes their own decisions, it is hoped that they will “turn out alright”, but the opportunities for hurt increase.

In Genesis itself, linguistically the LORD’s pain in 6.6 is the same as that the woman is said to experience in childbearing (3.16). I wonder if this idea of “childbearing” is not simply about the act of giving birth, but a comment upon the self-giving nature of motherhood in general. Just as Eve had birthed and raised Cain and Abel, only to experience their death and downfall; God the mother of all also shared in, and provided for, each generation of those created in the divine image going further and further their own way until “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually”.

Here, somehow I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18.3-4).

I think the element of possibility is the key here: Nothing in a child has been set-in-stone. Everything is there to be learned and experienced as the child grows. But what if, as a mother, you experience that possibility of the person you once grew and nurtured within your own body, going increasingly in all the wrong directions. In some tragic cases, despite their best efforts, parents have to cut ties with their child due to the choices made. Sometimes it is a case of releasing them to go and do their thing. It may be an issue of the family’s safety because of dangerous behaviour. I imagine that such parents – but mothers in particular – hope for their child’s return every day, even if they know the drastic separation is the way it must be.

This is the picture I get when I read Genesis 6.5-7.

The immense gift of freedom given to creation comes with the possibility of good and evil. As such, the giving of the gift cost the LORD greatly and this moment in the narrative is the crisis point. The child has used its possibility in all the wrong directions, and the pain of the LORD in 6.6 is that childbearing/child-raising pain of 3.16. It is too much to bear for the creator of all who suffers like a mother at the hands of Israel elsewhere such as Hosea 11. And the LORD has to act decisively.

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There is hope however, for Noah finds favour in the sight of the LORD (6.8). This is the one about whom it has been said: “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” (5.29). Perhaps, in this work of restoration; in this finding “favour”; it is hoped that Noah might heal the LORD’s pain as well as that of creation itself.

Considering Purim during Lent: Seeking and Finding, Darkness and Light, Sorrow and Joy

I posted this last year at Purim 2020 – I think it still has some useful ideas for Christian appreciation of the festival and I have enjoyed looking over the material again. Enjoy! 🙂

In the next day or two, Jewish communities around the world will celebrate Purim. The origins of this joyous festival are found in the book of Esther. And while neither Esther nor Purim are particularly well-known by contemporary Christians; as a festival with a biblical foundation, I would like to suggest that there is much to be gained by Christians reflecting upon Purim. This, I believe is particularly true as we journey through the season of Lent and look towards Easter.

The book of Esther tells us why the Purim festival is observed annually. Purim is at the very centre of the book, and indeed, the reading of the Esther story in its entirety forms a vital part of the festival’s celebration. To consider Esther without Purim is to miss the purpose of the book! But of course, as a biblical text, there is so much more going on than simply giving the origins of the festival. Esther is a story of the dangers of excess, the uncertainty of life in exile, the need to step up in self-sacrifice for the good of those you love. It is also another great biblical tale of God’s saving action on behalf of the Covenant people!

Now, I know you are going to stop me on that final point because one of the things that everyone knows about Esther is that the name of God is not mentioned in the story. And while this has led some people in recent years to declare Esther a “secular” story whose place in the Bible is a mistake, to me it seems a lot more encouraging to side with the two thousand years or so before our cynical, contemporary age, when readers of Esther felt inspired to look beneath the surface. For the most part, God’s role in the story has been assumed and readers have reflected upon the mystery of the hidden presence of the divine resting in-between the words on the page. And in fact, God’s hidden presence in Esther is vital to an appreciation of Purim:

The festival is to be a time of feasting, joy, and giving gifts to the poor. This is in remembrance of the rest and relief the people were given from their enemies (Est. 9.22). Recall that the plan of Haman had threatened the very existence of the Jewish population in the Persian kingdom. When the Jews had defended themselves against this threat and effectively turned things around, they said that they must remember this rest and relief for all time (9.28). Celebrate with feasting, etc. Yes! But also remember the “times of fasting and lamentation” (9.31). That is, the magnitude of Haman’s threat against the people must never be forgotten – and tragically, history has shown how many other “Haman’s” have risen up against the Jewish communities.

Ancient readers of Esther noted that the Purim festival arose in a situation of dis-order. A people-group is not supposed to have their existence threatened, nor are they supposed to be exiled out of their home country and forced to live under the fierce power of foreign empire.

One major part of the context of dis-order in which Purim takes place is the fact that God is hidden. And here is the point:

Through the “dis-orderly” challenges and uncertainty of exile, and a threat against the community’s existence, suddenly God appears and saves the people, using the people to bring about salvation.

That is to say that God is active within the story, but somehow hidden from view. The focus on the human characters (Esther and Mordecai) might be best understood as a reflection of the ways that God quietly restores order out of dis-order by working with human partners to move towards the divine purposes of salvation. And when God is understood as acting in this way, we can begin to appreciate and share in the joy of Purim.

 Challenges, uncertainty, God hidden from view… these seem to be common human experiences of life. Hence the joy when God suddenly is revealed in a situation and we realise the divine presence had been with us all the time. Recall the celebration in the parables of finding the lost coin or lost sheep (Luke 15) – what if we have temporarily “lost” God?! Well, that is Purim: the unexpected joy at God’s sudden reappearance in our lives!

This should not be seen necessarily as an error, or lack on our part, because there is actually quite a lot of divine hiding going on in the pages of the Bible. Think of Jesus sloping off to be alone or instructing people not to say anything about the miracle that has just happened. There is something in the divine character that wants to be sought and found. The times of our searching are of course, painful, difficult and uncertain. But perhaps this promises a greater joy when we find the Lord again.

In this current season of Lent, many Christians are reflecting upon wilderness times such as the temptations of Jesus. It is important for our faith, to be honest in acknowledging the times when actual life experience makes it hard to detect the Lord’s presence with us. We might know with our heads that God is always beside us, but what is actually happening to us and around us can make it so difficult for that spiritual truth to be experienced as reality.

And again, I am led to consider this season which takes us towards Easter. Think of that pivotal and devastating moment when Jesus cries out from the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Now, we might read the Passion narrative from our twenty-first century position and say that, of course the presence of the Father was with Jesus the Son throughout Good Friday! But for Jesus at that moment, apparently he felt completely alone. And doesn’t that somehow make the joy of the resurrection on Easter Sunday so much greater?! From the lowest point to the highest! From sorrow to celebration! From lamentation to feasting!

Just as Jesus felt abandoned as he lay dying upon the cross, the power of God raised him up to glorious new and everlasting life. And just as the Persian Jews grieved their forthcoming destruction at the hands of Haman, Esther and Mordecai were raised up to work as the Lord’s partners in bringing about a complete reversal which is to be forever remembered by every generation (Est. 9.28).

And this is why I think it is good for Christians to reflect upon Purim. As our Jewish neighbours celebrate their festival, recalling for another year how God saved their ancestors from annihilation and turned their mourning into dancing; we also prepare ourselves to consider yet again the darkness of the crucifixion and the light of the resurrection.

Times of trial will come. The wilderness will find us. The darkness may linger. But, God is with us. And God can be found. Our Lord’s faithfulness in that respect has been proved time and time again.

As we prepare for Easter, why not read the book of Esther and seek some inspiration there! 

Three Roads to the Flood (Genesis 4-6)

Continuing this series of posts on Noah, I highlight what I identify as three roads from Genesis 4-6 leading to the Flood: the line of Cain, the line of Seth, and the strange story of sons of God and Nephilim.

Genesis 4 describes the family line from Cain, who kills his brother Abel, to Lamech who seems to boast of his violent actions in 4.23-24:

“Adah and Zillah hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold”.

It is as though Cain’s violence festers through the generations before culminating in his descendant Lamech. This last named member of Cain’s line, not only does more in terms of violence and vengeance, he also takes more, having multiple wives. As such, we might assume that, having found the evidence for corrupted humanity, we can quite easily jump from Lamech’s words in 4.23-24 to the LORD’s displeasure and subsequent flood in chapter 6.

However, after Cain’s line reaches Lamech, we are taken right back to Adam “who knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth” (4.25). Chapter 5 begins the human story again with a reminder that God created humanity in the divine likeness, “male and female He created them” (5.2), but with the addition that Seth is born also in Adam’s likeness “after his image” (5.3). Through Seth, this new, younger son, we get to Noah.

There is a degree of symmetry in the development of Cain and Seth, with many similar names appearing in the two lists, and both ending up with a descendant named Lamech. We should probably assume that the two Lamechs are near-contemporaries; with one boasting in violence and vengeance, and the other speaking of hope in his son Noah, the comforter (5.29). It seems clear that Cain’s line is to be understood as having gone wrong. But, despite being linked with those who call on the name of the LORD (4.26) and walk with God (5.22-24; 6.9), I am not convinced that this second attempt at humanity through Seth is supposed to be idealised either.

Lamech’s words about his son bringing relief and rest come in the context of a restless and uncomfortable experience of life. There is a need for rest and relief that the father believes his son will bring. I wonder what has stopped the supposedly godly generations of Seth’s line from enacting holiness in some practical sense and stepping into the world around them. It is one thing to recognise the need for change; it is quite another to bring it about.

So, in these two roads that lead to the flood there is a thirst for more (violence, vengeance, sex) in one, and in the other, an inactive recognition that something needs to change. If the increase of these themes is to be understood as the cause of the great Flood, it is interesting to note how they come together in the strange story of divine beings, daughters of humans, and giants in Genesis 6.1-4.

The sons of God see, want, and take, the “fair” daughters of human beings. So doing, they strive for more than they are and appear to disregard the created structures God has set in place of each to their own kind. For instance, we might recall how Adam could not find a companion among all the other creatures (2.20). In any case – in this most confusing of stories – the product of this divine-human mixing appears to be giants! And what seems characteristic of Seth’s line; no one challenges such behaviour. Surely, those of Cain and Seth’s families must have been aware of their daughters being taken by sons of God, and yet they remained passive and did nothing.

~~~~~~~~

In these stories, I have attempted to identify three roads leading to the great Flood. Trying to remain in the biblical text as much as possible, I suggest that the combination of giving into violent desires, striving for a kind of godlike status, and passive recognition of what is going wrong; contribute to the LORD’s displeasure in 6.5.

Perhaps there is a message in there for us…

Tackling Three Assumptions About Noah: is he really a ridiculed, righteous prophet? (Genesis 6-9)

This is the first in a short series about Noah and the great flood of Genesis 6-9. In this post, I am interested in looking at some of the commonly-held assumptions about Noah.

Noah’s ark is one of the best known Bible stories. Everyone seems to know it inside and outside of the church through Sunday-School lessons, children’s books, and popular films such as Evan Almighty. Outside of Christianity, the story is featured in the Qur’an, and there is increasing awareness among religious folk of the prevalence of flood stories in various ancient creation texts.

Given the general awareness of Noah as a religious/legendary figure (depending on your viewpoint), it is perhaps not surprising that certain traditions have become intertwined with the biblical account of Noah. And, in fact, many of the things that we “know” about Noah and the flood are not found in the Genesis text at all. Here, I simply want to highlight a few of these traditions about Noah and ask some questions about them.

The first thing to note is the idea of Noah being mocked as he built the ark. This is such a popular idea that it is hard to separate from the story because… of course he was mocked as he built an ark where there was no water… wasn’t he?!

You may know the song He’ll Take Care of the Rest by Keith Green:

“Think about Noah, shouldering his umbrella when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. His neighbours would laugh at his pet giraffe, and they would snicker as he passed by!”

Similarly, in the Qur’an’s retelling of the story, found in the sura Hud, it is revealed to Noah that no one will believe and, as such, when people pass by his building the ark, they laugh at him. And, in a different religious story surely inspired by Noah; in the Book of Mormon the prophet Nephi is ridiculed as he constructs a ship to take the righteous few of Israel to the Americas as instructed by God.

But in Genesis there is no mockery or ridicule. Noah simply receives the divine revelation and obeys. The other people play no part whatsoever. I wonder if, as time passed and the story was retold in different communities; the notion of that generation mocking Noah provided firm justification for God’s blotting them out in such a violent manner. Something which could not easily be found within the biblical text itself.

Second, is the idea that Noah is a “herald of righteousness”. This comes from 2 Peter 2.5, but similar language can be found elsewhere. In the apocryphal Sirach (44.17-18) for instance he is “perfect and righteous”, and in Genesis itself he is a “righteous man; blameless in his age” (6.9). Of course, this is the reason that Noah is selected as a kind of new Adam tasked with populating the earth after the flood.

But there is a question to be raised: does being “blameless in his age” when that age is one known as being of utter corruption, make the individual particularly praise-worthy? The reason for asking stems from the unquestioning nature of Noah’s obedience. Other heroes of faith like Abraham and Moses, when faced with God’s desire to destroy Sodom (Gen. 18.22-33) and the entire Israelite population (Exodus 32.7-14), speak on behalf of their people and bargain with the LORD to save as many as possible.

It is interesting to pause and consider why Noah does not do the same. Does a “perfect and righteous” person have such lack of compassion that they remain silent when given instructions for the people’s destruction.

Third is the idea that Noah is a Prophet/Preacher. Throughout religious history powerful words have been placed in the mouth of Noah, making him a kind of Jonah figure preaching to his corrupt generation, warning them of the coming destruction. For instance, in chapter 22 of ninth century Midrash, Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, Noah appeals to the people: “Turn from your ways and evil deeds, so that He bring not upon you the water of the flood and destroy all the seed of the children of men”. A similar message is revealed to Noah in the Qur’an’s account as well as in the writing of the Church Fathers.

But in Genesis, Noah does not speak a single word until his curse upon Canaan in 9.25-27. This makes me wonder whether it is necessary to use words when presenting a divinely given message. Because, although saying nothing, Noah actually does a lot! Might his building of the ark be a precursor to the prophetic actions of Ezekiel and Jeremiah who followed divine instructions to represent the siege of Jerusalem with bricks and iron (Ezek. 4), and wear a yoke (Jer. 27.2). Jesus also performed a kind of dramatic prophecy in the turning over of tables in the Temple (Mark 11.15-16). (*although note that words accompanied these performative prophecies*)

Thinking about Noah as a silent dramatic prophet giving the message of the coming destruction through building an ark, would perhaps put an end to the need felt by religious people of putting words in his mouth. It would also allow us to remain as much as possible in the biblical text when interpreting.

I have briefly highlighted three assumptions about Noah. My intention has been to prompt further thought rather than establish any big ideas. While the ridicule Noah suffered can be put down to a later desire for making certain difficulties in the story easier to swallow; and his perfect and righteous character can be questioned with regards his lack of concern for the people around him; I do think there is much more to consider with regards the prophetic nature of Noah’s silent action.

Isolation and Community Care in Leviticus 13/Mark 1.40-45

Since March 2020 people in the UK have been instructed to self-isolate if they display symptoms of Covid-19, or, with the NHS Track and Trace system, if they have come into contact with someone else who has tested positive. The instructions for self-isolation are pretty simple and very strong: Stay at home for ten days, not leaving for any reason, and do not have any visitors. And as a more general preemptive prevention, the British government has repeated this message: Stay at Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives.

In the middle of the Covid crisis, there is an obvious necessity to such measures: to stop the spread of the virus. And as such, I think we can understand that the immediate sacrifice to our social interactions is important for the greater good. Now, when looking at the instructions for those with skin diseases in Leviticus 13, it is easy to make connections with this current corona-virus experience!

This is Lev. 13.45-46:

“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

It has to be said that there is something about the combination of torn clothes, disheveled hair, shouting “unclean”, and living alone, that seems unnecessarily harsh. But it is clear that torn clothes, etc. are a sign of mourning which suggests the disease – or maybe the imposed isolation – is like a death. And death is rarely, if ever, welcomed. The shouts of “unclean” and the separation from the community are surely means of protection, so that the disease and it’s deathly connotations are kept away from the people.

Earlier in Leviticus 13, there seems to be a regular seven day checking system involving the priestly families and those with suspected symptoms. Before the individual takes the action described above – which has no fixed endpoint, until they are healed of their affliction – they have been temporarily isolated and checked for short periods. That is, they still have some contact, if only with the priest or their representative. And, rather than being forced out of the camp, perhaps the individual willingly self-isolates, understanding the threat they pose to the wider community. Much like some people are doing in response to Covid today.

I can imagine how such a system might work in a (relatively) small community such as the Israel of Moses’ day and still preserve the worth of each person, even with their impurity. But as the nation grew and we see communities of “unclean” existing outside of towns and cities (such as 2 Kings 7; Luke 17), I wonder whether the same care was offered.

The question is: what condition were the diseased left in? The initial seven-day checks and opportunity of coming back to the community once healed in Lev. 14, suggest that the self-isolating person was not left completely alone. Surely, it seems most likely that the family attended to them with food and the priestly visits were pastoral as much as they were exploratory. Surely, the community were involved in the care of these isolated individuals.

Furthermore, from their position of isolation outside the community, how was the priest alerted of their healing if and when it comes? 14.2-3 describes the “unclean” person being brought to the priest and the latter coming out of the camp to examine them. Someone must be have been available (and willing) to act as a go-between.

I wonder if the issue of community care is so obvious and assumed by the biblical writer that it was unnecessary for it to be spelled out as Torah.

The problem is that it is not obvious to us. We assume that, because the care of the isolated person is unwritten, it is not present. This can lead to all kinds of negative assumptions about the Jewish life in the first century with regards “clean” and “unclean”. The issue can be further complicated by an assumption that all ancient Levitical teaching was practiced in Jesus’ day exactly as written, without the hundreds of years of interpretation taking place in-between.

In Mark 1.40-45, the man with a skin disease does not appear to be “outside the camp” in strict accordance with Lev. 13.46, but rather in the town, free to approach Jesus. Certainly in Luke’s retelling of the healing story, it is made clear that the meeting takes place “in one of the cities” (5.12). And once the healing has taken place, the man is told to “show yourself to the priest”; something which surely goes against Lev. 14.2-3 where a healing is reported to the priest who goes out of the camp to examine the situation. Unless, such teaching was not as strict as we assume when reading these two biblical texts alongside each other without appreciating the hundreds of years, cultural shifts, etc., standing between them.

By nature of their being understood as living words, Biblical texts are interpreted all the time in new contexts. They have to be, in order to speak to each generation in each location across the globe.

In any case, Jesus is the one adhering to Torah by prompting the healed man to follow the appropriate channels for full integration back into the community. That is, if he had really been outside of it. And there is something about the way in the man runs off to spread the word, apparently ignoring his healer’s advice, that makes me wonder: did he even need the priest? There is nothing in the close of the story to suggest the man’s evangelising was rejected by the locals, appalled that this known “unclean” was suddenly in their presence. It feels a little like he had already been around.

Therefore, I wonder if Jesus – in guiding the man towards the priestly confirmation of the healing – is performing his role as the one fulfilling the “Law and the Prophets”. This is not something we very often consider about Jesus. If we are swept up by his being the liberating force against the supposed restrictions of Torah, we might miss the intrinsic aspect of his character and mission that is to work with Torah – perhaps even enacting Torah as the Word made flesh.

Maybe it is important for Jesus to guide the man towards that which Moses had taught because that is the Word; even if in practice, he knew very well that the healed man was already out and proud as an evangelist in the community!

I want to finish with a quick thought about community as I have suggested these ancient isolated individuals were cared for. And further, that the fact of their being cared for was so natural and obvious, it was left unspoken (or unwritten). A fascinating difference in the current time is that it is being written; people are being told to ask for help during their Covid isolation. For instance, the NHS Track and Trace guidelines say this: “do not leave your home for any reason – if you need food or medicine, order it online or by phone, or ask friends and family to drop it off at your home”.

There have been incredible displays of community spirit in this past year. But it is interesting that there has also been a public call for people to help each other (socially distanced of course). I wonder if we might give the ancient Israelites a break, and look beyond what is written on the page. Perhaps, they did not explicitly prescribe looking after one another in every circumstance because they didn’t need to, perhaps it was already happening.

A Quick Thought on Mark 1.29-39: Modelling Divine Activity and Echoes of the Wilderness

In Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Regained, which is based around the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, Satan tells the Son of God:

“Yet remember what I shall foretell thee; soon thou hast cause to wish thou never hadst rejected, thus nicely or cautiously, my offered aid”.

That is, in the hard times ahead, Jesus may regret refusing Satan’s offers of earthly status. While, I think readers of the poem are probably supposed to reflect on Christ’s suffering at the crucifixion in relation to these words; it also makes me wonder about Mark 1.29-39 in which I see certain echoes of the wilderness.

The passage comes quickly after Mark 1.12-13 where Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days being tempted by Satan, in the presence of wild animals, and attended to by angels. He leaves the wilderness to announce the Kingdom and is straight to the kind of work we find in 1.29-39, healing, exorcising, praying and travelling.

A key part of the narrative is the depiction of Jesus in motion. I wonder if this has to do with his human modelling of divine activity. That is, elsewhere in John 3.8, Jesus describes the Spirit as being like the wind that blows where it chooses. And here, by not stopping, and desiring to go to the neighbouring towns, Jesus wishes to ensure that he will not be pinned down to a single place and associated with e.g. Capernaum. This is important as there is tension throughout the Bible between the idea that the LORD dwells in the Temple and the notion of divine ubiquity. The constant movement of Jesus suggests a practical display of God-with-us, and a proclamation: this is what God does!

But, such modelling of divine activity – the work of announcing the Kingdom – has a cost upon Jesus. The crowds need him and he gives of himself. But even the disciples seem to not appreciate his need for peace when they follow him to his deserted place of prayer and inform him that “everyone is searching for you”. The relationship between Jesus and his disciples is still brand new. They do not yet understand the implications of that which they are now involved. At this point it seems that they are preoccupied in managing the schedule of the miracle worker.

It is sad that ministry – serving God and neighbour – can feel like a time of testing in the wilderness. Running around, giving of oneself with no thanks and often very little patience or grace from others; the person in ministry might well become stressed and tempted to give up, or even to take devastating action because they cannot go on anymore. I don’t think it is a willful neglect on the part of those receiving ministry; but perhaps, as with Simon and the disciples, they (and “we”, “I”) have not yet sufficiently developed the relationship with the Lord to fully understand the give and take that is necessary.

I find it interesting that it is the mother-in-law of Simon, and not the disciple himself, who, arising from her fever, serves Jesus. She seems to have her senses alert to his needs in a way that no one else does at that time. There is surely an echo here of the angels attending to Jesus in the wilderness while he is tempted by Satan (1.13). And it suggests a particular spiritual gift in seeing to the very centre of a situation and realising that someone – even a leader – needs help and support.

Acting upon such intuition takes boldness as those in authority can appear intimidating, but offering support to a spiritual leader can aid their modelling divine activity in this world and is actually one way by which we might also step into the patterns of attitude and action revealed by our Lord.

“What have you to do with us?”: Jesus at the centre of it all (Mark 1.21-28)

We often hear about the separation between “clean” and “unclean” in first century Jewish society. We are told that those deemed “unclean” – such as menstrual women, those with skin diseases – were outcasts, unwelcome. While there is some truth to this, in as much as religious Jews presumably wanted to follow the Leviticus teachings regarding holiness as much as possible; it is clear that Christian interpreters have been sometimes prone to over-state just how strictly such teaching was observed in order to make an easy us-and-them distinction between “the Jews” who are supposed to have kept people captive through Torah and Jesus who liberated them.

Looking at the Gospels with such possible overstatement in mind, we might begin to wonder for example why the woman bleeding for twelve years was present among the crowds apparently unquestioned about her level of purity. Similarly, we may consider why Jesus doesn’t mention anything about cleanness in regards to the Priest and Levite avoiding the wounded man in the Good Samaritan parable. Further, we might ask why a man with a skin disease is seemingly free to approach Jesus (Mark 1.39-45)? And in our text of Mark 1.21-28, why is it that someone with an “unclean spirit” is among the people in the synagogue?

The setting of the story is the Capernaum synagogue where Jesus is teaching on a Sabbath. It is important to consider the synagogue as, not only a place of worship, but a centre of the community. In the first century, the synagogue (meaning simply “assembly”), was a meeting place for religion, politics, and education. There is a record from the time which connects a particular synagogue with study of the commandments and serving as a guesthouse for foreign Jewish visitors.

As a community centre, it is not surprising to find the synagogue accomodating the man with the “unclean spirit”, as well as someone with a “withered hand” (Mk 3.1) and another “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” (Lk 13.10-11). Every community is made up of all sorts of people; it seems that all were welcome in the synagogue. And, as such, this is where we find Jesus too! Right at the centre of it all, where the people are gathered on the sabbath.

With this in mind, I find the question asked by the man with the “unclean spirit” interesting: “What have you to do with us?” (Mk 1.24). Surely, Jesus has to do with everything.

An “unclean spirit” is associated with captivity, decay, and death. Jesus describes the newly healed woman in Luke 13.16 as having been “bound” by Satan for eighteen years. The boy in Mark 9.14-29 has been hurled into fire and water by an “unclean spirit” which also causes him to “foam and grind his teeth and become rigid”. And in chapter 5.1-20, the “unclean spirit” known as “Legion” causes a man to live by the tombs, “howling and bruising himself with stones”.

Back in the synagogue of Mark 1, Jesus responds to the question by silencing the spirit. In doing so, it appears Jesus reveals that he is about life not death, restoration not decay, freedom not captivity. However, he is not shining the light in the darkness from far away at a safe distance because, as I said above, Jesus has to do with everything. He is intimately involved with all that takes place in this world.

Without resorting to a lengthy biblical survey, what can be said is that the divine presence is found everywhere: in both darkness and light. Think for example, about how, in expressing how there is no escape from the LORD, the psalmist says “if I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139.8).

It seems to me that there are two ways to think about this:

The first is the kind of victorious language familiar from a verse like Isaiah 45.7 where the LORD states, “I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe”. Or perhaps the triumphant description of Christ as “the firstborn of all creation… the head of the body… [having] first place in everything…” (Colossians 1.15-20).

That is, we can be reassured that Jesus has to do with everything because the divine is “above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4.6). Nothing is too much for God because everything has been created, ordered, permitted, overcome by divine power. And as such we, the Image of God, with the Spirit dwelling within, should not be overly troubled by the struggles of this life.

The second way is about Jesus who has to do with everything in the manner by which he feels the power go out of him when he heals (Mk 5.30) and consents to Judas’ betrayal (Jn 13). St Paul has this as he “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave” (Phil. 2.7). Such emptying carries him all the way to suffer death on the cross. In other words, in order to be absolutely God-with-us, Jesus has to engage in the most common human experiences of struggle and suffering.

Thus, he is the one who actively meets with suffering and death in the community over and again. But he takes it on himself also; allowing for his own body to be anointed for burial by a woman with expensive spices (Mk 14.8), and after his own torturous death upon the cross, descends to the “heart of the earth” (Mt 12.40, 1 Peter 3.18-20).

Now, these two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive. That is, of course Christ is victorious and seated in the highest place of honour. But his overcoming death and despair does not remove his presence and participation in such things. Indeed, a certain strand of New Testament teaching (e.g. Hebrews) declares that it is the suffering that provides the seat at the Father’s right hand.

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I don’t really know how we are supposed to interpret “unclean spirits” today – Satan? Mental health problems? – but I know that we definitely face captivity, decay and death in various guises, often just as a sad but predictable part of life.

Following our Lord, Christians can also have to do with everything. That is, our own personal involvement with struggle and suffering qualify us to be at the centre of our communities helping others to overcome.

An unfinished thought on what to do with biblical teaching that stresses urgency in a time of no urgency (1 Corinthians 7.29-31)

It is commonly assumed that first century religious thinkers such as St Paul believed in two Ages: the current Age which is rife with good, bad and ugly, and the Age-To-Come where everything is practically perfect in every way. In between the two comes the arrival of the Messiah who heralds in the latter Age, the first set to pass away.

The problem for Paul with the coming of Jesus as Messiah is that he is forced to acknowledge, not only a delayed start to the new age, but also a messy transition period where one Age shifts to another. This is what we call the now and not yet of the divine kingdom which is within and around, but will also not fully activate until Jesus returns in glory at some future point.

For the New Testament writers, this “future point” was felt to be imminent. This is perhaps why there is so much about keeping the faith, perseverance, and calming fears about believers dying before the Age-To-Come breaks through. The early Christians really believed Jesus was set to return any moment and make everything right.

Such an expectation brings us to 1 Corinthians 7.29-31 in which the Corinthian believers are compelled to radically rethink attitudes and action in light of the passing away of the current Age:

“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Coming in the middle of a chapter devoted to Corinthian concerns over sex, marriage and celibacy, in which Paul skates around from one possible solution to another, this passage might seem like a disclaimer: Don’t pull me down into all of this! There are bigger things going on here! And the appeal is to prepare oneself for the shifting of the Ages.

The extreme reversals in Paul’s appeal remind me of Matthew 5/Luke 6 where mourners will laugh and the hungry will be filled. And in, “let even those who have wives be as though they have had none” (7.29), there is also something of hyperbolic language used by Jesus when he says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).

The message is clear: the incoming Kingdom (which is here, but also coming soon) brings necessary change in action and attitude. The first coming of Jesus turned everything upside down; now get ready for his quick return. I get that the hyperbolic language is possibly intended to be understood in a general way rather than picking out particular issues. But nonetheless, the point of the argument is the need to radically change because “the present form of this world is passing away” (7.31).

What happens to the content of urgent appeals such as 1 Cor. 7.29-31 when the urgency has gone?

Today, people do not really subscribe to a Two Age system like that of the New Testament writers, but even if we do, the Age-To-Come is a very long time in coming. Two thousand-or-so years and counting. There seems little impetus for such radical change and absolute reversal of attitudes and actions in the absence of urgency.

This is not to dismiss the need for reflection and personal examination in the light of Christ’s coming. We are involved in an continual process of change; and I think our experiences both bad and good can shape us more than we realise towards the Kingdom life (if we are open to that change). However, if a call to even more radical change – which involves putting life-partners to one side, swallowing down mourning, and so on – is based upon the belief that time is short, I am not convinced it is very helpful when it seems clear that time is not particularly short at all.

Further, in a time of actual struggle such as everyone has experienced this past year, it feels somewhat offensive to read in the Bible that one’s Covid-related mourning should be “as though they were not mourning” and that one’s precious moments of rejoicing during another lockdown should be stolen away and treated “as though they were not rejoicing”.

Indeed, to read this Corinthians passage leads me to question the wisdom of Paul’s words which are, he admits, his opinion rather than a command of the Lord (7.25). For instance, if we are married or in long-term relationships, would refraining from “being anxious about the affairs of the world… to please [husband/wife/etc]” really bring about “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (7.32-35)? Or, instead, might committed union between individuals somehow reflect the real nature of God-with-us through the struggles of life? Especially just now when we really need to enact the divine nature of love, patience and compassion.

The kind of teaching in the Corinthians passage – at this point in time – feels irresponsible. Surely now – stuck as we are in the midst of real trials which range from the medical to mental health to economic to educational – is a time for teaching that mourning those we have lost is both important and healthy, not something to be pushed down due to a perceived more important cause; that finding moments of joy and laughter is absolutely necessary in times of stress; and that companionship is of vital importance as a reflection of the ways in which God is with us.

So, I simply do not know what to do with this Corinthians passage apart from challenge it and perhaps use it as inspiration to connect more deeply with those people around me and, by doing so, connect more closely with the Lord.

Isaiah 55, Baptism, and the word not returning to the Lord empty

I was baptised about six months after my birth. My parents had no particular religious leanings but in the UK at that time, babies were regularly “christened” as a cultural practice. My family gathered in the Anglican church in a small Kentish seaside town one day; the water was splashed and promises made. And nothing else was ever said about it…

Some eighteen years later I started on my own journey with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As I have written elsewhere, I felt the divine presence seeking me out and drawing me in to something new and unknown to which (after some time) I responded – https://buildingbiblicalbridges.home.blog/2020/05/03/luke-19-1-10-a-personal-testimony-and-reflection/

As the years have rolled by, and the Lord has been with me through many dangers, toils and snares, I have been led to consider this from Isaiah 55.10-11 in connection with my baptism:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

On that day of baptism all those years ago, I believe something was set in motion. No one – perhaps only the minister conducting the service – had any idea of what could possibly lay ahead. Indeed, my becoming a Christian as a young adult was a shock to everyone in the family. But, apparently, not a shock to the Lord whose word does not return empty, but accomplishes what is purposed.

This is not to say that every detail of my life was fixed by divine calculation when baptised; but rather, through the word, water and oil, I was somehow connected to God in such a way that is hard to articulate. And this would appear true even though the rite was entered into by a family who did not necessarily believe in the words they were saying on the day, or reflect upon it afterwards.

Now, in different people, this connection with God may not “bring forth and sprout” (55.10) for many years, or sometimes, apparently not at all in this life. Nonetheless, it seems to me that, at the moment of baptism, in some intangible spiritual sense,

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85.10)

I might put it this way:

In baptism, there is a meeting in the spiritual realms that anticipates being replicated in the physical. Perhaps the word “shall not return to [the LORD] empty” in the sense that divine purposes come to pass through promise, invitation, and opportunity which characterise the Kingdom of God.

By this I mean that, the divine kingdom is often described as now and not yet. As much as it is within and around us whenever God is active; the Kingdom of God also lays ahead, growing like the mustard seed, needing to be sought out like the treasure in the field. It is certainly possible for the Kingdom to come and for the divine will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, but because of the freedom given to humanity, there is always an element of invitation requiring a response. The promise unleashed at baptism spiritually must be responded to by the baptised individual in order for it to grow and bear fruit.

It is interesting in Isaiah 55, how the idea of active response runs through the chapter: “Come to the waters”, “Come, buy, and eat”, “Listen… incline your ear”, “Seek the LORD”, “Return to the LORD”. For all that the impetus of inviting and drawing-in might come from God, if someone is to respond, they must do something. Even Jesus actively went to the Jordan, going through the process of baptism from John (Mark 1.9).

And then, when he had come up out of the water, “a voice came from heaven, ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased'” (Mark 1.11). Now, of course Jesus was already the Beloved Son since the very beginning, but this word from the Father is surely also an invitation to something more. Again, think of the now and not yet of the divine kingdom Jesus came to model. With every positive response to the stirring of the Holy Spirit within; with every sacrificial act for the good of others; with every step towards the cross, the tomb, and ultimately, the right-hand of God; the identity of this Beloved Son shifts and flourishes. Jesus’ continual response to his heavenly Father enables his being involved in making this divine promise “accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55.11).

~~~

A few years ago, my mother sent my Certificate of Baptism to me. Looking at the date and the details of the event, I was moved. Thinking now about all that has happened in my life, personally I consider the day as momentous. But, despite that which was set in place on that day in the spiritual realms; despite my on-going response in the years following my baptism; I cannot say that God’s word has been returned fully. This is not a negative however. Rather, it is a reflection of the character and experience of the divine Kingdom which is here and there, clear and hidden, now and not yet.

A Revelation of Divine Presence on Epiphany (6th January 2021)

When we read the Bible closely, we notice patterns and connections that point to an overarching salvation story comprised of many salvation strands. Something that I noticed recently relates to Epiphany which the Church marks every 6th January (or thereabouts).

“…and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2.9)

This verse about the Magi following the star towards Bethlehem is very familiar, but the star going “ahead of them” might also prompt recollection of a much earlier passage from Exodus 13.21:

“The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.”

It seems as though the Lord is at work actively within nature, and this is not surprising as the Bible often describes a kind of Creator-Creation partnership.

(for more on this topic see: https://buildingbiblicalbridges.home.blog/2020/04/01/the-cosmic-challenge-of-palm-sunday-the-stones-will-cry-out-luke-19-40/ ).

But while the pillar of cloud/fire leads the Israelites to freedom, the star leads wise men from the east.

Is it the case that, in the Magi, God’s embrace has suddenly widened to include those previously left outside of the covenant people? And do the Magi, led by the Lord through the star to worship Jesus, represent a changing divine attitude toward the acceptance of all nations into the family of God?

While it is most certainly right to celebrate the welcoming embrace of God for increasing communities of people; a significant problem arises when Christians feel led to celebrate their own welcome and newly found freedom in Christ at the expense of those already embraced, that is, Israel, who were first guided to freedom in a pillar of cloud and fire.

In Epiphany terms, I might put it like this:

Rejoicing in the Bethlehem star should not lead Christians to reject the pillar of cloud and fire. God’s leading the wise men is an expansion not an alternative: the invitation now given to Gentiles is not in place of that offered to Israel.

For the celebration of Epiphany, I have phrased this as a revelation of divine presence. It is tempting to view the coming of something new as necessitating the rejection of what came before. So tempting in fact, that it is something of a revelation – an epiphany! – to consider that the opposite might be true.

Rather than seeing divine leading of the Israelites with cloud/fire and wise men with the star as examples of old vs new; I wonder if together they reveal the patterns of expanding salvation evident in the Scriptures. In the combined picture of cloud/fire and star, we realise not only that God has always been present in this world, but that God is always leading people forward to experience that which is bigger.

So, just as the wise men were led to meet Jesus Christ, the Israelites were led to meet the LORD at Sinai. In both cases God was with them, leading them to the divine-self. And this meeting with God reveals something bigger in the experience of God’s people, simply because God is bigger and the divine embrace is much wider than people have imagined.

The clues are there in Scripture, evident in a multitude of small sketches: creation from light to a world teeming with life – one human in a garden to a populated world – Abraham and Sarah to the Israelite people – an “exclusive” Israel shifting to expand and include Midianites (Zipporah), Canaanites (Rahab), and Moabites (Ruth) sworn enemies of Israel, Nineveh forgiven after the word of JonahSamaritans showing neighbourly mercy to captives from Judah and releasing them (2 Chronicles 28).

Again and again in the Scriptures, God is present, leading people forward to a better understanding and a bigger experience of light and life. By reading the whole Bible carefully, we also may be assisted towards better understanding and a bigger experience when we notice the signs and relate them to our own life. Who, we must ask, in light of a revelation of divine presence, is rightly to be excluded from the love of God – is there anyone?

Let us not fall into the trap of failing to read carefully but rather, be guided by the Word as a lamp to our feet that leads us towards light and life; in other words, towards God in Three Persons who has revealed and modeled a deeper love and a wider embrace since the very beginning.