Abraham and Belief

A dog has to run. Everyone says that.

I am in the process of training our eight month old Golden Doodle puppy, Luke. I am hoping that he will eventually want to do Therapy Dog work with me in a year or so, but for now we are working on the basics: come, sit, down, stay. It’s hard for a dog to pay attention to his lessons if he hasn’t had a chance to run around, stretch his legs and muscles, expend some of that puppy energy. Everyone says that dogs, and especially puppies, have to run.

We’ve had a lot of snow here this week. On top of the snow we had, we got several inches Tuesday and another good helping today. There is now too much snow on the ground for Luke to get any exercise. What’s a doggy to do?

I’m a bit behind in getting a post up this week, mostly because I’ve been trying to shovel enough of the snow to make a place for walking and dog running. Today, finally, I think we have a usable path.

I have almost finished reading Genesis. It has been fascinating. I notice so much more now that I am free of the lectionary’s “suggestion” about the significance of a story, and I get to read the parts of the stories which the lectionary omits.

Reading without Genesis without the lectionary, I’ve noticed several things:
•eldest sons often falter (Cain and Esau.)
•the genealogies of J and P differ. (J doesn’t even mention Adam’s 3rd son, Seth, whereas P says that Noah was descended from him.)
•clearly, the land God is promising to Abraham already belongs to
someone! and
•how often there is a story about a woman having trouble conceiving followed by an annunciation. (Sarah, Hagar and the child-bearing contest between Leah, Rachel and Bilhah )(Gen. 29-30)

Then there is the matter of Abraham’s moral character.  In terms of our morals, Abraham was a very mixed bag. On the one hand, he was generous (vis a vis Lot in giving Lot first choice of land in which to settle), courageous (in his successful battle against the “Kings of the East” and just (declining booty from the Kings of the East for himself, he allows it to the men who fought with him.

But he could also be deceitful and callous.  Abraham tried to give his wife to another man, pretending Sarah was only his sister, two times! (Isaac later does the same thing to Rebekah.) And then there is The Trial or “The Almost Sacrifice of Isaac” in which Abraham was ready to kill his son because he heard God tell him to — a horrific passage.

Maybe “The Sacrifice of Isaac” is a story about the tragically compelling nature of auditory hallucinations. And maybe not. Abraham’s conduct with regard to Isaac was not much different from his callous behavior towards his first son, Ishmael. Abraham agreed to cast Ishmael and his mother, Hagar into the wilderness where they would most likely die. Abraham argued courageously on behalf of some imagined “righteous people” who might be living in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) but he had nothing to say when the lives of his own sons were on the line.

Why would God “reckon it to Abraham as  righteousness” ? Gen. 15.6

I looked to see where else in Genesis  “righteousness” appeared. I found 5 occurrences.

Gen. 6:9 – Noah was a righteous man.
Gen. 7:1 – God to Noah: “You alone are righteous before me.”
Gen. 15:6 – God reckons it to Abraham as righteousness (because he believed the Lord’s guarantee of an heir through whom their would be descendants to inherit the promised land),
Gen. 18:19 – Abraham would be expected to be a teacher of “righteousness and justice,” and
Gen. 18:23 et seq. – Abraham asks God about the possibility of “righteous ones” living in Sodom and Gomorrah.

(Interestingly, Enoch – who was said to have “walked with God” at Gen. 5:22 – was not described as “righteous.”)

Abraham is “reckoned righteousness” because he believed the promise that he would have another son – a promise which defied the laws of nature. His belief was not unquestioning. He had his doubts. He asks God: “Why should I believe? Give me a sign.” (Gen. 15:8)

In her book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong discusses the way in which the Christian tradition has mangled religious “belief.” She writes that “belief” did not originally mean “intellectual assent to a somewhat dubious proposition.” That was a meaning which emerged only late in the seventeenth century. (The Case for God, 87.) Orginally, to believe was not to think, but to embark on “a program for action.” To believe was to do. “You had to engage. . . imaginatively, become ritually and ethically involved…, and allow it to effect a profound change in you.” (The Case for God, 321.)

Faith and belief is about doing, not thinking. Puppies need to run. Believers need to do, to act as if, and be open to that doing and acting effect a profound change in them. Abraham did that, even though he had his personal doubts about whether an old man could have a child with his elderly wife. He acted as if God’s promises would be fulfilled. Abraham was reckoned “righteous” not because he obeyed the law (it didn’t exist), and not because he was without doubts about God, but because he acted as if.

Lectionary notes

The Abraham story is at Gen. 12 – 25. How much of it do we hear from year to year?

Year A
The Call of Abram (Gen. 12:1-9) on Lent 2A and Pr 5A
The Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18) Pr8A
[Isaac’s search for a wife (Rebekah) (Gen. 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67) Pr9A]
The Promise to Sarah, the Birth of Isaac & Expulsion of Hagar (Gen. 18:1-15, 21:1-7) Pr 6A
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Easter Vigil A

Year B
The Promise of a Child by Sarah (Gen. 17:1-6) on Lent 2B
The Sacrifice of Isaac, (Gen. 22:1-18) Easter Vigil B

Year C
The Promise of Land and Heir (Gen. 15:1-18) on Lent 2C and Pr14C
The Promise of a Child by Sarah (Gen. 18:1-10a and 18:1-15) Pr 11C
The Argument about Sodom & Gomorra (Gen. 18:20-33) Pr. 12C
The Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18) Easter Vigil C.

Assuming that The Sacrifice of Isaac will not be read at the Easter Vigil (because it is optional and it just sets our teeth on edge), the only story which is read EVERY year is the The Promise to Sarah and/or the Promise of a Child by Sarah. No wonder we see faith and belief as the “intellectual (and undoubting) assent to a somewhat dubious proposition!”

How about switching two of the Sarah stories out for an account of Abraham’s generosity to Lot, or his laudable sense of justice in making sure the men who fought with him had their share of bounty, or a second or third hearing of Abraham’s argument with God over preventing collateral damage at Sodom and Gomorrah?

Genesis and Job

The top of Mount Monadnock was obscured by clouds one morning this week. Katherine and I moved here, to this house at the base of the mountain, last July. We’ve seen clouds come and go. Sometimes we can’t see the top of the mountain. Sometimes we can’t see the mountain at all.

Job, in his suffering, could not see God anymore. Not the God of his understanding. What he wanted was not so much an explanation: he simply wanted to see God to show up again. God did.

I have just about finished my first week of reading through the Bible: Genesis 1-11 (the primeval stories … Creation, the Fall, the First Murder, the Flood, the Tower of Babel) and the book of Job. Job is suggested in the middle of Genesis because the character of Job comes out of the same primeval mist of folklore as characters and stories of Genesis 1-11. It’s been a fascinating read.

In some ways, the Noah story feels like a third Creation account.

-For Noah, there is a watery chaos brought under control so that dry land can emerge, as in Creation at Gen. 1.1 and 1.9.

-On telling the living creatures to leave the Ark, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply” as in the first Creation story at Gen. 1:22.

-Noah is a little like Cain (in that both till the soil) and a little like Abel (in that he makes a burnt offering.)

-Trouble comes when Noah drinks from the fruit of the vine, as Adam and Eve got into trouble when they ate fruit. (Gen. 3.6).

-Noah’s sons feel shame about nakedness, as did Adam and Eve. (Gen. 3.11 – “Who told you you were naked?”)

In the Tower of Babel story one wonders if God could be so insecure that he or she feels the need to sabotage human enterprise. But I really began to wonder about God’s character reading the opening chapters of Job. God is proud and boasts about Job’s devotion.  When an angel suggests that Job’s motives might be, well, mixed, God is too proud to let that go, and innocent Job begins to suffer.

I discovered two things as I read the book of Job.

(1) The book has a very well-developed sense of social sin. Look at Job 20:19-21 and 24:2-12 for example. Job’s friends suggest that Job’s sin is his wealth per se (not because wealth is bad but because it suggests either an unjust economic system, fraudulent business practices and/or a failure to consider the needs of the poor. The divine justice which is hoped for in this very ancient book (Job 5:11-16) sounds very much like the vision of the Magnificat (Luke 1:51-53.)

Job defends himself by recounting the times that he gave charity (Job 29:11-25), but it is not clear that he understands that his wealth implicates him as one who has profited from an unjust economic system. [Is it possible that as early as pre-history, “sin” has been reduced to the realm of sexual conduct?!  See Job 31: 9-11.] Job protests: “If I saw anyone without a garment, I gave them fleece from my own sheep.” (Job 31:19-20.) What comes to mind is Jesus’ parable and the condemned goats thereof who protest: “But when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked…?” (Mtt. 24:44)

(2) I have always thought about the Job story as being about enduring suffering or misfortune without asking questions and submitting to God’s will. Now I think it is more about not giving up on God when our constructions of God fail us, as inevitably they must. It’s about knowing the mountain is still there, even when it is obscured by clouds. It’s about persistence in prayer when God doesn’t seem to show up as God always has in the past. Job mostly wants God to show up.  He gets sidetracked into theorizing about whether or not he had sinned in his conversation with the three friends, but basically, Job just wants God to show up and talk to him. Perhaps the moral of the story is that in the end, God does just that.

Lectionary Notes  – Part I –  Do We Hear the Job story?

In Year A, the lectionary includes a passage from Job only once, on Holy Saturday as part of the liturgy for that day, i.e., not as part of the Easter Vigil. It is a meditation on human mortality (Job 14:1-14).  It’s unlikely that anyone will hear that reading soon.

In Year C, one passage is read on Pr 7 (near November 7.) It is familiar to many as the source of the Opening Anthem of the Burial Office. (Job 19: 23-27 “I know my Redeemer lives.”) Given that association, it is a good choice for the month of November with its focus on endings and last things.

The Job story appears most completely in Year B during October. (There are alternate readings available each of the four weeks.) These are the four readings:

(1) Pr. 22B/October 5 –  (Job 1:1, 2:1-10) Job’s wife invites him to curse God (Gospel: Jesus’ teaching on divorce.)

(2) Pr. 23B/October 12 – (Job 23: 1-9, 16-17) Job prays: “O that I knew where I might find God!” (Gospel: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”)

(3) Pr. 24B/October 19  – (Job 38: 1-7, [34-41]) God speaks out of the whirlwind. “Where were you when I created the earth?” (Gospel: “Can you drink the cup?”)

(4) Pr. 25B/October 26 – (Job 42: 1-17) Having heard/seen God, Job repents. (Gospel: Bartimaeus sees.)

Although the choices from Job are good reminders of the story, a preacher pretty much has to ignore the gospel in order to focus on Job. The readings from Job are not intended to invite the listener into the Job story, but to serve as a set-up for the gospel.

If one were going to chose readings that complimented the gospel (rather than serving as a set-up for it), one might consider pairing Job’s prayer (at Job 23 and earlier at 13:20) with a gospel passage about persistence in prayer. (Mtt. 9:18-22, the woman suffering from hemmoraghes, or  Lk. 18:1-8, parable about the unjust judge.)

Lectionary Notes – Part II – Ash Wednesday

It will be here soon enough.  The Ash Wednesday service in the BCP needs a re-write.   It delivers the same message as Job’s three friends: that we are the lowest and unworthiest of the lowest and unworthy. We are detestable sinners and our only hope of regaining God is sackcloth and ashes, apology and repentance.

I cringed inside everytime I led an Ash Wednesday service, because I know that the  people in attendance were trying very hard to be good and faithful people.  Like me, if they needed to, I am sure they could find matter for confession.   But they were not detestable in God’s sight. I resent a liturgy which requires people to speak of themselves as though they detestable.  I resent a liturgy that suggests that God doesn’t know the goodness of God’s people.

Historically, Lent has been both a time of learning and preparation for catechumens  and a time of repentance for those guilty of notorious (public and really serious) sins.  The BCP’s Ash Wednesday liturgy is perfect for notorious sinners. But that’s not most of us. Most of us, like Job, are fundamentally good people who wish to grow closer to God. I think people want the Church to help them learn how and where to grow in faith, hope and love, and they show up on Ash Wednesday to express their openness to that growth, even if it will be challenging. Job’s prayer at 23:3-15 expresses a yearning for God and an awareness that God might have a word for us that might be challenging. That’s what Ash Wednesday ought to be about: prayers for the courage to hear what God might have to say to us.