This week’s OT readings feature Isaac, to whom God renews the covenant (Gen 26:4-6) and to whom Rebekah is given in marriage. We are also introduced to Jacob, the deceiver, who steals his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing, meets God at Bethel (Gen 28), flees from his brother and family and lives with his deceitful uncle, Laban, for whom he works for fourteen years in exchange for the promise of marrying his daughters.
In the New Testament readings, we have the dramatic conversion (or calling, as I argue here) of Saul (later named Paul) on the Road to Damascus. Reading the narrative this year, I was primed by Richard Bauckham’s work on the divine name to notice the significance of the Name of Jesus in Acts 9:1-22. Christians call on the Name, and Paul is to proclaim the name and suffer for the name. Paul’s life hinges on the realisation that the one God of Israel, who reveals himself as I will be who I will be (Ex 3), has shared this Name with his Son, Jesus (see also John 13:19 from this week). The two questions below concern the issue of Abraham’s works (a question that came up last week) and Jesus’s relationship to judgment in John’s gospel. A major theme comes through in the questions and the final reflection: that trust and love are both closely related to, and evidenced by, action and obedience. A full list of questions, as always, appears at the end.
As genres, science fiction and fantasy have often gained the reputation of being a bit morally black and white. In short, fantasy would offer us the choice between the realm of good and the realm of evil. Like oil and water, never the twain shall meet. In perhaps the most famous example of science fiction, George Lucas’s Star Wars, the starkness of this divide is rendered in visually unmistakeable terms—on the side of evil, Sith menacingly wield their red lightsabres, and on the good, Jedis heroically bear bright swords radiating the more positive hues of green and blue.
Recent fantasy has sought to blur the ethical lines and render stories that are more morally complex. In his immensely popular epic, Game of Thrones (or Tales of Ice, Wind and Fire), George R. R. Martin famously kills of good and noble protagonists while allowing evil tyrants to live on. Martin is somehow able to make the most hideous protagonists worthy of our sympathy.
Martin was not the first to try his hand at building a more sophisticated moral universe. If we look a bit further back, we can locate an even more realistic, and even more hopeful, depiction of good and evil. It is in the trilogy that effectively gave birth to modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that the power of evil and the human capacity for wrong—what the Christian tradition calls sin—arguably finds its most convincing depiction within the genre.
For Epiphany, I’m reading Richard Bauckham’s new-ish book, Who is God? Key Moments of Biblical Revelation. Chapter 2 offers an intriguing discussion of the divine name (YHWH or LORD) in the Burning Bush episode (Exodus 3) and then through the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Bauckham makes a number of important points on the Exodus passage as well as Jesus’s modes of reference to the divine name and, finally, the application by NT authors of a substitute for the divine name (LORD, or kyrios in the Greek) to Jesus!
About this time last year I was part of a group that read Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose in an Age of Distraction. The following passage came back to me as I was thinking about the reasons why I read the news and how I consume it.
1. Genesis 17:1-23: What is the significance of the covenant of circumcision? Does it not constitute works righteousness and if not, why not? And why circumcision as a sign of the covenant?
Since that’s not one question but three, let’s take each in turn.
Genesis 17 refers to the giving (Hebrew: ntn) or confirming of the covenant. This covenant ratification follows on from the covenant inauguration (or “cutting of the covenant”) in Genesis 15. The cutting of the covenant, with its strange ceremony with fire and divided animals stresses the chronological priority of God’s action which takes priority and pre-eminence over man’s. Genesis 17 majors on man’s response which ratifies and confirms the covenant already made by God’s divine initiative.
With a promised end to restrictions in the UK at the end of the month, I’m hoping that this post will serve as my final Covid diary. Indeed, it now seems time to call time on almost two years of life-altering, state-mandated restraints. For all its raging transmissibility, the Omicron has thankfully resulted in very low numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.
What continues to rage, however, are the fiery cultural divisions in society. There seems to be a perverse, inverse relationship between the level of threat of the virus and how mad and maddening we behave towards it and one another. Why is this? In large part, this is because the corona pandemic constitutes a moral crisis as well as a public health one. To be sure, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that the last two years has simply been about health. At root, the last two years have laid bare deep and troubling metaphysical assumptions about risk, purity, death.
We’ve seen these cultural and moral assumptions play out in two recent events: first, the revelations of PM Boris Johnson’s attendance at mass party events in May 2020 and second, the deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic from Australia. Both events raise two distinct questions which I will explore in what follows:
First, the question of legality and fairness: were the rules created applied consistently and fairly (including, in the case of the first event, by those who created them!)?
And second, and more deeply, the question of morality and reasonableness: are the rules themselves worth following?
For week 1, see here. For the lectionary I am using, see here.
Old Testament (Genesis 10-16)
1. Genesis 11:1-9: What’s the main point of the Babel story?
At face value, the central thrust of the Babel narrative is that human hubris—symbolised in progressive attempts to build towards the heavens—leads to divine judgment, specifically taking the form of scattering the peoples and confusing their languages.
Set against the literary and historical context of Genesis, though, the meaning becomes a bit clearer. There is anti-Babylonian streak to the story which I hadn’t noticed before but which makes sense in light of the near eastern parallels against which Genesis 1-11 is written. With this narrative there is no specific parallel but rather the use of motifs related to Babylonian religion—for instance, Babel literally means “gate of the god” . As Wenham writes (ECB, 37): “The ridiculing of Babylonian pretensions is even more apparent in the tower of Babel story. Far from its vaunted tower touching heaven and the name Babel (Babylon) meaning “gate of the god”, the Lord had to come down from heaven to see the skyscraper—so far short of his dwelling did it reach; and its name means ‘confusion’ or ‘folly’”. The Hebrew roots for the word “confuse” (“let us confuse”) and “folly” are almost the same.
This week I became a father (so posts will be a bit sporadic for a while!). My experience as father of witnessing labour was incredibly intense and scary and, well, a bit surreal!
A friend reminded me of this wonderful passage from CS Lewis from The Screwtape Letters on the nature of the real. What struck me is how easy it is to focus on the blood and guts and gore (what is “real”) and thus dismiss the joy and emotion that comes with the gift of a new human life (“mere sentiment”). I was thankful for the reminder!
when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”‘. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view…Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
Last week, I began reading my yearly read through the bible using this lectionary (I’ve never actually read through the entire bible in one year and this plan will, in fact, take me two). As I did so, I found I had an accumulating set of questions related to various historical, literary and theological issues raised by the text. I hope to record these questions each week and try and provide ways of approaching and answering them briefly (some of which I hope to come back to over time). Perhaps these are questions that you’ve wrestled with, in which case, please do feel free to provide your noughts via a comment.
Since, I believe, we are not only encouraged to ask questions of the scriptures but also let it ask questions of us, I also aim to provide a brief reflection on a part of the week’s reading that struck a chord or challenged me in my discipleship.
This first week features quite a few questions, most of which cluster around the Old Testament passages. A few are provided below (and a full list at the end). I haven’t had enough time to research these as I’d like owing to personal circumstances (I’ve just become a father!) so these are first stabs.