Wednesday, 27 February 2013

We Are Dust and to Dust We Shall Return

I have just returned after being in Toronto for a week. Lorna is still there with her mother who broke her leg at the hip and had it operated on but is not doing very well at present. While we were with her in hospital the frailty of human life was very evident. One of the many thoughts that came to mind was a poem ‘The Deacon’s One Horse Shay’ which I heard when I was in school. Although I had heard it only once and my memory of when exactly I heard it – I think I was in grade five of six but I wouldn’t swear to it – it stuck in my memory. You may not be familiar with it – Lorna wasn’t – so here is a synopsis of the plot. The deacon believes that things wear out because of a weakness in one of the components. This weakness – the fatal flaw - leads to strain on other part and causes it to break down. The deacon decides to deal with this by building every part of a shay (carriage) using the finest of materials for every component. He does this and his theory seems to be born out as time passes and there is no sign of aging. This goes on until the century mark when the riding along the deacon finds himself on the ground with nothing but a mound of dust around him. Looking it up on the internet I find that it was written by none other than Oliver Wendell Homes.

It made an impression on me at the time and I remember it after all these years. As I age and see what the ravages of time can do to people I wonder why God didn’t make people – his greatest creation - in the same way as the one horse shay? It seems like a more human way of return to the dust from which we came. I’m sure those slings and arrows of outrageous insult our bodies give us as we age have a positive aspect but right now it escapes me. However, this seems to be an appropriate memory for Lent and Ash Wednesday not too long passed.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Reading the Bible 15 Gen 24 Vows and Blessings

It would appear that the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah tells us much about the marriage customs on the early Israelites and probably many peoples of that time and part of the world.  What is striking to me is how much the customs around this have changed in the millennia since.  With all the change there are still echoes of the customs and in some parts of the world there are still many similarities with arranged marriages and dowries.  We get only glimpses of these practices when they make the news and of course that only happens when there are problems or disasters such as the first wife and disobedient daughters being killed by the father and brother a few years ago in Ontario.  I wonder if there are positive things about these customs in the way they are practiced today.  We look at these things through our Western eyes and are of course do not comprehend how any form of marriage other than one based on romantic love could be considered.  We also do know that romantic love doesn’t work all that well a lot of the time but we think that is a not a problem of the form but rather of how it is practiced. 
I knew this passage reasonably well and am always interested in what sticks when I read such a passage again.  No matter how often I read a passage there always seems to be something which particularly sticks on rereading it.  In this reading what stuck was the role of vow and blessing.  The passage begins by the servant assign with the job of finding a wife for Isaac (who I noticed this time is unnamed) swears an oath by God to Abraham.  He does this by placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh – a very intimate act.  Near the end of the chapter Rebekah’s family blesses her: “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possessions of the gates of their foes.”  Vows and oaths and blessings are still present in our culture today but as with many of the customs and practices they are mere echoes of what they were in the past.  This is something which we are poorer for today.  They have lost much of the luminous – the power of the divine - which they contained in ages past.  If we took vows and blessings such as those made as part of weddings or baptisms or any other aspect of life truly seriously our lives and society would be better for it.  However, to do that we would truly have to hold the sacred as a real and vital part of our lives. 

Monday, 18 February 2013

Reading the Bible 14 Gen 23 Strangers in a Strange Land

It strikes me that the writer(s) of this part of Genesis protesteth too much.  They are attempting to assert a claim on the burial land for Sarah in the land of the Hittites.  They want the reader to be clear that there is no question that Abraham obtained the land legally and paid a fair price for it beyond any doubt.  Therefore his descendants have a perfect right to the land in question which might be in dispute when the events were recorded.  For me this has reverberations for the present situation in Israel and the West Bank and the settlers encroach in lands beyond what can be legally claimed by Israel.  The settlements are like the camel’s nose in the tent and the settlements are attempting to become so entrenched that they will be no possible negotiation around removing them.  The last verse of the chapter v20 puts the seal on the situation, “The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place”. 
The situation of Abraham seems to reflect what has gone on in history.  As he states he is ‘a stranger and an alien’ residing among the Hittites and they treat him with every hospitality and consent to allow him to have land as a burial site for Sarah.  How is that hospitality repaid by Abraham and his descendants?  In a similar way the Europeans (my ancestors) came to North America and poked their noses in the tent of North America and we know what happened after that.  It was not Terra Nullius as was proclaimed by we Europeans and we have been dealing with the consequences of broken treaties and cultural assimilation to this day with the idle no more protests.  History is written by the winners and it does depend on whose ox is being gored and who land is being occupied.  So the question remains what is a Christian who is a descendent of those Europeans and who has indirectly at least benefitted by the camel’s nose of those ancestors to do?  No easy answers. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Reading the Bible 13: Gen 22 God wants me to do what!

Many things reverberate with this reading.  Sacrifice has been going on for a long time in human history.  This account of Abraham and Isaac has been considered in some circles as an account of the movement from human sacrifice and the tradition of offering (literally) the first fruits (first-born) to God.  This is reflected many times throughout biblical history – although not in the literal sense.  It became a symbolic offering.  It can be seen as the beginning of animal sacrifice as a replacement for human sacrifice.  There is also Isaac as a type of Jesus and the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus which ended the practice of animal sacrifice for Christians.   
That being said I have to wonder how Abraham felt during that three-day journey to the place appointed by God.  It must have been with a heavy heart that he made that journey.  Here was the promise – the proof positive of the validity of the covenant with God.  And now God is going to pull out the rug from under his feet and Abraham will be back to having Ishmael as his heir.  The promises of God must have turned to dust in his mouth.  On the other hand I have to wonder what the experience did to Isaac.  How would he have felt in the return journey?  What kind of an impact did the experience have on him in the rest of his life?  Perhaps this is historical relativism and such things did not have the same impact on people in the days of the Patriarchs. Perhaps the right of the father to dispose of his possessions was absolute and unassailable.  However, many of the emotions expressed by those people are very similar to what we experience today – jealousy, fear, envy.   I can’t help believing that Isaac must have wondered - at least to himself - about his close brush with death and the capriciousness of life if not both his fathers – his earthly one and his heavenly one. 

One question I take from this reading is, ‘what sacrifices does God ask of us?’  I have never been asked to make one that compares to the one God asked of Abraham.  Perhaps I have not been listening or wanting to listen that closely to God.  Then again, perhaps Abraham did not hear God clearly the first time and that is why God had to step in ad stop Abraham.  It seems to me that God’s communication with us today is a lot less clear and open to interpretation than in Abraham’s time.  Perhaps that is a good thing.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Reading the Bible 12 Gen 21: 22-34 Abimelech the Trusting

Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech concerning a well that Abraham has dug.  He offers Abimelech payment as assurance to his claim for the well.  It is interesting that Abimelech, who is the King of Philistia, and who Abraham dealt with less than honourably concerning Sarah, would agree to enter an agreement with Abraham.  He certainly wasn’t what we could call a Philistine today.  He was either very gullible or very forgiving or very kind-hearted.  The people of Philistia certainly get a bad rap in the account of history presented by the scribes later.  Those who write the history get to give their slant on the truth after all.
Another point of interest is the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech.  There is a tendency to look at covenants as something God did with the people starting with Noah giving the sign of the rainbow that God would never again send a universal flood (that may change with global warming).  However, as we see in this passage it is very much a contract between any two parties.  I remember my wonderful Old Testament prof Gordon Hamilton talking about how serious a covenant was taken in biblical times.  If you broke a covenant serious things would happen – like having your eye plucked out.  And that was probably the least serious thing that could happen.  It is a good thing that contract law isn’t enforced that way these days but it is also a reminder of the importance we should give to entering into agreements or making vows .

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Reading the Bible 11 Gen 21: 1-21 God's Sense of Holy Humour

There is much that has been said and more written about the birth of Isaac and the resulting quasi-nuclear family of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael.  For me in this reading two things stick out.  First, God fulfils his promises and second, God opens our eyes.
Through the birth of Isaac God fulfils his covenant with Abraham and with the rescue of Ishmael his promise to Hagar.  Both of these promises are fulfilled in rather unusual ways.  The promise to Abraham was delayed until Abraham was 100 years old.  We are not told how old Sarah is which you might think was more important as she was the one who conceived and gave birth.  However, it is one – the first – of many stories in the bible of God acting in the lives of people when they might have given up hope.  As we have just passed Candlemas, Simeon and Anna come to mind. 

It looked rather hopeless for God promise to Hagar.  She was thrown out into the wilderness with almost nothing after Abraham listened to God.  This seemingly rash act turned out for the best – apparently according to God’s plan - because he opened Hagar’s eyes and enabled her to see what was right in front of her – a well of water. 
In all this I wonder what God has in mind for me.  In terms of age I have more in common with Abraham than Isaac.  It is comforting as well as a bit disconcerting to believe that God has lots left for me to do in my life.  I certainly know that as my wife Lorna points out occasionally I don’t always have eyes to see what is in front of my nose.  Perhaps God will give me eyes to see what he has in mind for the next part of life.  Perhaps the best is yet to come.  Perhaps this is just God's sense of Holy Humour shining through and we can laugh with Sarah.