Tag: ancient Israel

Mammatus Clouds in Tulsa

Not a Fib

“The divine name that is explicitly associated with [the Abrahamic covenant] is êl šadday,” said The Oxford Study Bible. “Its sign is the circumcision” (page 154).

Doesn’t El Shaddai mean God with Breasts? According to Harriet Lutzky it does. She’s the assistant psych professor at John Jay University who linked the word Shaddai to the Hebrew word šad.

EL. "God, deity" (Northwest Semitic languages, êl).
SHADDAI. "Breasty, with breasts" (Hebrew, šadday from šad "breast").

Strange that God would give Abraham this explicitly feminine name to call her, then ask him to respond with the explicitly masculine sign of circumcision. Maybe not so strange. It’s a reasonable exchange, a sexual one: she promises he’ll have her breast to nourish him; he dedicates his penis to her.

Anyway, I find this article — “Torah and Covenant” by Richard Elliot Friedman — pretty fascinating. It explores how the three principal covenants of the Hebrew Bible are written in the standard legal form of the day.

In itself, that’s no news to me. Having grown up in church, I’ve heard, I don’t know how many preachers talk about this. Still it lands differently when the actual legal contracts of the day are named and described, set in parallel to the familiar biblical text.

As I read, the thought that I can’t shake is this

They keep talking about the agreement being forged between the deity and his recipients, and I just keep wondering, how?

I mean, when these legal agreements entered the story of human history — when they happened (which they did: at some point in time, something took place and these agreements were made) — what did that look like? Despite my effort to resist making religion handmaiden to science, I can’t help but ask, did someone just make these stories up? Or did a flaming torch actually proceed between the opened halves of the sacrificial animal?

What did Abraham see?

The Abrahamic covenant is the one I keep coming back to. It’s easier for me to imagine a flaming mountain (the Israelite covenant) or a comprehensive deluge (the Noachic) actually happening. But Abraham was one man, not a nation assembled at the foot of Sinai, not a family struggling to survive a disaster. He was an individual who went outside to talk to God with no natural chaos or social pressure to cloud the moment, and he came back with a contract.

Unless that’s just the story that got told about him. Just the same, where did that story originate? These people didn’t write novels. They weren’t ones to base the integrity of their societal structure upon known fictions. I wish I could look back in time.

But that’s empiricism in me speaking, asking if God is real, if myth is fact, if any of this is history. I sense that the question itself is off. I know I’m dissatisfied with the answer, “No, it didn’t happen, but that’s okay and it doesn’t diminish the importance of the fib.” Because even though that answer attempts to respect the story while disbelieving it at the same time, it still reduces it to a fib.

It’s awfully difficult for us this day and age to swallow the notion that it’s not a fib, that it happened in real life just as the book says. That would require believing that way back when, God interacted with humanity in a way he’s since given up.

I actually like the idea that God isn’t the same person today as she was before. That God is learning and growing. That her psyche is linked to ours, that we’re how she experiences the world. That this is, in fact, why she created existence in the first place, and that our perceptions — of sunlight, stress, subway systems, grief, pancake syrup and all the rest — are thus personally invaluable to the divine.

If, over the millennia, God has been changing, causing his relationship to humanity to evolve as well, I guess it’s possible to say he once had the habit of turning into torches. Still, it’s hard to swallow. As ideas go, it’s a bit of a chicken bone in the gullet.

Again, I think the question is mistaken, but I’m not sure why

It’s not just that I don’t like the only possible answer, right? I’m not intellectually dishonest, am I? Maybe the question is mistaken for the same reason it’s not wise to intellectualize a koan: you can do it, but it misses the point (Zen Ghosts, afterward).

I believe that the stories are real, and that you have to take them on their own terms. You have to suspend judgment and forego the question of fact altogether. I know no better way to participate respectfully with these stories or to place myself in a dialogue with them that opens the door to the great good they can bring.

It’s not fib. It’s story — and in my view, story is an inestimably sacred thing. To ask its credentials all the time is to miss the opportunity to fall in love. It’s like correcting someone’s grammar when they’re giving you directions to the post office, or interrupting someone’s confession to inform them they have a crumb on their lip.

That’s the best I can do for now.

The Oxford may be able to do me one better

“By using the mechanism of known legal forms, and then by setting these forms in the context of narrative, in which the deity and the human beings are pictured in process of making those contracts, the Torah merges story and law. The result is that law is grounded in history. … Law, theology and history all meet in the presentation of the covenants in the Torah, and that meeting is pivotal” (Oxford, pages 160-161).

Maybe that’s why the previous question misses the point. This account is a merging of disciplines: it’s history, but more than history; law, but more than law; theology, but more than that too. In being all three at once, it’s also none of them in isolation, so the standards we associate with each discipline end up being somewhat irrelevant.

Or is that just an interesting justification?

I don’t think so. I think it’s an attempt to reconcile our current epistemology with their ancient one. Something’s always lost in translation. But there is something in their way of knowing that’s worth retrieving, though it can’t be done unless we brave the murkiness of the cognitive dissonance that exists between us.

The Prophet Ezekiel from Doré's English Bible

When the Prophets Railed

I always took the prophets at their word when they denounced the worship of other gods as blasphemy, deserving of divine judgement. I believed them when they implied that monotheism was the uncontested religious identity of their people, that they and the people were moving from the same starting point. This is who we are. And you’re breaking the agreement.

Suddenly I wonder if they were actually talking about things that weren’t, after all, universally accepted.

Like some of our own people calling this a Christian nation (no matter what all those atheists say) and holding the general populous accountable to a national religious identity they never signed up for.

Maybe, when the prophets railed, the people weren’t interested. Maybe it’s not a given that they should have been.

Reservoir at Mount Tabor Park in Portland, Oregon

My Faith Must Be of This Land

I paused from my study to read back over these entries, trying to make sense of something that eludes me. It has to do with this subject of lineage and place and how they affect religion.

I think I understand how we got here. (When I say “we,” in this moment anyway, I mean European-Americans who grew up in a Christian tradition.) I think I understand how the history of ancient Israel got to be so important to us contemporary American descendants of European pagans. It’s a weird story, but sensible enough when you lay it out.

Our social history is just as convoluted. We’re not Europeans (though we each have a nation or two across the Atlantic for a heritage), and we’re not natives (though we were born here). We’re a starling among birds, a rock dove, a non-native blackberry that’s ended up becoming an icon of our region nonetheless. We’re firmly established, yet foreign. We belong and do not belong. We only fit here at all because our presence has so completely transformed the place; now, natives are the ones struggling to survive here: native animals, native plants, native peoples, native religions.

If you trace my people some hundreds of years back, to when we were native to the land in which we lived, then further, to when we practiced our own native religions there, you wouldn’t find Christians. My ancestors’ religions were once native species too, struggling to survive in the midst of foreign influence, eventually displaced and absorbed by the dominant newcomer Christianity.

Religions spread and die like flora and fauna

I suppose what happened all those centuries ago at the Jewish diaspora is that the religion of ancient Israel, facing extinction, adapted instead. In learning to survive in a new climate, it developed characteristics which gave it an edge on the competition. Like the crow — able, intelligent, dominant — its child Christianity did more than survive; it shouldered out other less competitive species and overran them.

It’s not to say that Christianity, or the crow for that matter, are bad. I grew up Christian, and I like crows. But when one species of bird or plant or religion is allowed to dominate others, the sacrifice is diversity. We lose a kind of wealth when a songbird disappears; so too we lose an unrepeatable vision of God when a religion dies. Extinction is a loss whether it strikes a language or a moss, and when it strikes, the whole world is poorer for it.

I value the specificity of place. I like the way that geography makes diversity. I love how the phonemes, songs and stories of a tribe on this side of an impassable swamp are unrecognizable from those on the other. This is what heritage means to me: this is the personality, the indelible stamp, of a culture. It’s not a new idea. Turn on a radio show about cooking or travel and it’s easy to find people celebrating, or mourning the loss of, specificity.

In my last entry I used the words “supposed to be”

I said that religion is supposed to be local. One’s heart should be rooted in one’s land. I was trying to get at the importance of specificity, but “should” is an interesting word. It implies that something is not the case; that what is, is wrong; and that the need to remedy it carries ethical weight. “Should” is an ethical word. Those are big assertions to throw out there.

It used to be easy for me to say things like that and see them as self-evident. When I was a member of a Christian community, my standard of truth was the Bible and the biblical interpretations shared among that community. Because we believed that morality and ethics were based in the character of God, and because we agreed on what God was like, it was possible to use a word like “should” with few hiccoughs.

Later, I found it necessary to seek a broader foundation when talking with those who don’t happen to care what the Bible says and who don’t share my views on the character of God, the relationship of God’s character to ethics or even the idea that God is real.

This didn’t bother me. Believing that if a thing is true, it’s true everywhere, I moved forward with confidence that there’d be other ways to argue a point. If an idea were true, it wouldn’t exist only in the doctrine. It would be evident in the world at large. So I sought to translate my values into a language that didn’t depend on biblical assertions, knowing that if that were possible, it would only confirm those assertions while giving me tools to dialogue with others in a way that mattered to us both.

The standard I settled on is health, wholeness, life. Without a credo to curb your questions, you can call into doubt just about anything, but what I found to be consistent anywhere I looked is that things want to live, they want to thrive, and for multiple things to thrive together, they need to be in balance. Whatever leads to that balance, from the largest to the smallest scale, is in line with the universals, the absolutes: the basic nature of who we are, what our cosmos is and what God seems to want.

After that follow the variables, the community-defined taboos and values which interpret our universal need for life in non-universal ways. This is culture, the way we agree to behave. On this scale, murder is frowned on not only because it upsets the balance but because the law of the land condemns it. Yet what’s called murder in one community may be justice in another, and it’s difficult to say that one community’s set of agreements is right or wrong in an absolute sense. Difficult: not impossible. We’re right to condemn genocide.

What I’m circling toward is that “should” is usually a cultural word. Start throwing it around in front of someone from a different culture, and you’ll find that some of the things you take for granted are hard to defend.

As I look back at yesterday’s entry, I’m caught on the idea that religion “should” be locally-derived. Should it? Why? What’s wrong with worshipping a savior who wore middle eastern sandals? (Especially if he really is the Son of God.) What’s wrong with the early Jews holding Zion in their hearts, teaching their children of a land far away where God spoke and their heritage was woven? What’s wrong with the place that New Jersey holds for me: the land of my childhood, the wind that still moves me from thousands of miles away?

When people leave a place they love, it remains with them

We European-Americans consider ourselves Irish or German or Greek even if we’ve never been to those places, don’t know anyone there and hold nothing in common with them. People have this ability to identify with things that are far away and long ago. I’m not about to say they shouldn’t.

I realize, it’s not that religion should be connected to place. It’s that it is connected, already. Everything is. Sure, our fruit and toys and clothes may come from around the world, but the fact that they’ve been shipped doesn’t dissolve the influence they got from where they were, or that which they get from where they are now.

The religion of ancient Israel was not unaffected by the death of its nation and the relocation of its adherents. In foreign lands it became something new, transformed by new influences — new neighbors, new cultural norms, a new place — even as its followers sought to remain as they were.

As for Christianity, it developed a flavor as unique as any culinary tradition in each new community it infused, while we children of European immigrants have become Americans, distinct in our own right, in our own way. This isn’t something to encourage or resist. It’s just something that happens. Whether we want to be or not, we’re influenced by where we live.

Given that the relationship exists, what shall we make it?

This is the more pressing point. How shall we non-natives treat this land we call home? And how shall we respond to the influences that are acting on us in turn?

Would Oregon be better off if you extracted every last non-native blackberry and sent all the pigeons home? Even if the answer were yes, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t send us non-native European-Americans back to our various origins; couldn’t send today’s Jews back to Zion. Even if it were possible, Europe and Zion aren’t big enough to welcome their respective wanderers home.

It wouldn’t be home to us now, anyway. The fourth-generation German-American would be even less at home in Germany than they are here, and the Russian Jew might not even recognize the Mount Sinai from their stories if they saw it in person. We’ve changed our environments, and they’ve changed us.

I think the work now is to build attention and concern for the places in which we do live. Not just to learn how to get around, where to find jobs and drug stores and so on, but to invite the place itself — its physical specificity — into our deeper selves. To weave ourselves and our homes spiritually together.

Places far away and events long ago may be our religious foundation, but they’re not our only religious influence, and until we develop points of reference that we can see, smell and touch in the land around us, we won’t know the richness of being in relationship to this: our most immediate ground of being. By ignoring place, even while being affecting by it — by leaving our immediate physical context out of our body of religious symbols — we allow our religious framework to remain partially truncated: forced to limit its physicality to our imagination, unable to fully inhabit the range of our experience.

Even nomads have places they return to. They aren’t rootless. They move from one root to another and back. In our country, we move at random, regularly uprooting whatever we plant, and it seems to me this has weakened us. It’s compromised our ability to form multi-generational communities. It’s made us unable to see what we receive from our home and what it needs in turn from us. It’s made us more or less indifferent to the local wind and plants and people.

As social animals, we’re inclined to treat things well when we understand our relationship to them. Rootless, practicing imported traditions, we’ve lost a sense of kinship with the life that directly surrounds us. Much of what we treat as kin in our religious traditions is made of places and people we meet only in stories.

I can’t say we should stop loving the faraway places. I can say we should start loving the immediate places just as much. I say “should” now because I believe it’s the healthiest way forward for all concerned.

What would happen if Mount Tabor was, to a Portland Jew, exactly as sacred as Mount Sinai? 

What if the sacred elements weren’t limited to things you can put in a box, the bread and the wine; what if the sacraments were also administered by the evening wind, officiated by the voices of crows?

What if, even as our minds expanded to recognize the global consequences of our local actions, our feet were rooting themselves in the specific dirt that exists here, in this region and nowhere else? What if we wove the fabric of our global traditions into our own time and place and infused them with our own local flavors?

Our time and place would be affected. So would our traditions. The lines of intercourse would be opened, and, not trying to hold too closely to an unchanging faith culture, our traditions would come alive. Living things change. In adapting, they would become more relevant, thicker, more congruent.

For this land to become a principal religious point of reference to me — not just “the land,” theoretically, but this land — that allures me.

Monday Washing in New York Circa 1900

Stories that Wear the Clothes of My People

When the “Jewish heirs of old Israel” went into exile, said the Oxford, they came “to perceive that there were other ways to understand the death of their nation.” They learned to “sing new songs to their God,” whose authority “transcended all national boundaries.” They figured out a way “to be both Jewish and citizens of diverse nations” (Oxford Study Bible, page 42).

It was a transformation and it demonstrated some serious resilience.

When Israel was dismantled and the people exiled, when they were forcibly removed from the land of their stories, they couldn’t rely on the physical roots of their faith to define them anymore. In order to survive, their faith had to become portable. In order to travel, God had to become larger than any nation: so large, in fact, that no nation could claim him solely — not even their own. In order to maintain some grasp on their God, they had to share him. They had to open doors to others, even as they fought to close doors on how they would or wouldn’t participate with those others.

It was “a situation in which the struggle for new identities, new forms of religious community, and new ways of being the people of Yahweh, could be explored.”

These were the communities of the biblical tradition, those “that produced and treasured it” (ibid., page 41). I did not produce the biblical tradition, but I come from a community that treasures it. Now, millennia later, thanks to the way that ancient Israel reinvented itself during the diaspora, people like I who had nothing to do with the production of Israel’s traditions nevertheless feel that they belong to them, because they treasure them.

I wonder if a global religion is too big

Religious homogenization may be no better than the cultural kind, where every highway off-ramp and mini-mall in America looks about the same. It’s not to say there isn’t one God, but that it may not be good for everyone in the world to approach that God in the same way. A healthy person in one place will have much in common with a healthy person anywhere else, but the ways to achieve health are diverse. There are many culinary traditions, many kinds of work, many ways to exert, connect, nourish, celebrate. There are many ways to worship.

This ancient Israelite anomaly, where they reinvented their faith in order to transplant it in so many other countries, both moves and unnerves me. They found a way to hold onto their root even after they’d been torn up, and that makes my heart beat with hope for home. But in so doing, they erected impassable walls between themselves and their new homes, their new neighbors. And though they did hold on, they couldn’t keep from evolving into something new. Bringing the old ways with them kept their tradition from dying, but it also divorced those ways from the land that defined it.

Without context, what are we? Facts are meaningless until they’re framed in a story. A rule of grammar, a foreign word — they mean nothing until you have a web of interrelated rules and words to give them context. What is Zion to me? An image, an expectation of some spiritual realm; but to those who lived there, it was concrete. They knew what it smelled like.

I’m starting to think that religions should be local

It’s fine to know about other peoples and places; it’s good to learn their languages and see their homes. But I think your heart needs to be rooted in your own land. Religion is place-specific. In the same way the universal truths that any religion can express are tied to culture, they’re also tied to place.

It’s taken me a long time to see the role that culture plays in faith, and to get it that that’s okay, that people need to adapt things into their own context, even when they’re converting. Now the importance of location strikes me too. We’re so used to underestimating the specificity of place. Our fruit, toys, cars, clothes come from around the world. Only lately have we started to embrace the richness of living, eating and buying locally.

I realize that in a way, what I’m trying to do now is like what the early Jews were attempting. I want to understand how on earth it makes sense for me to treasure the traditions of a people not my own. They wanted to understand how in God’s name their nation could die. I too seek new songs to sing to my God, songs that hold relevance to me, an American woman living around the turn of the twenty-first century, just as they sought new songs to build new relationships in a new land with the God they knew. I too am struggling for a new identity, a new form of religious community and a new way of being among God’s people. I too want to reconcile my religious and ethnic lineage with my current place and time and people.

At the same time, we live in a global world. We read Rudyard Kipling, Rumi, Lao Tzu, and we’re better for it. We grow Japanese maples in Oregon. We eat wheat, which comes from the Near East, and we raise chickens that were domesticated in China. There’s no point in resisting all that.

At the same time, what I want now is to build a faith rooted in the soil beneath my feet: one that speaks from the world directly surrounding me, that I can taste in this air and smell in these woods. One that can’t be found just anywhere, because it comes from here. I want stories that wear the clothes of my people. Not stories that make me stretch my imagination halfway around the globe to a culture I will never fully understand because it isn’t mine, and to call home a place I have never been, from which I did not come.

Ancient Assyrians

Ancient Israelite Activists

It may be that ancient Israel was non-ecumenical, actively shaping themselves in contrast to their surroundings, but I suppose that side of their tradition didn’t come of age until early Judaism, when the exiled people were forced to survive without an intact nation in an alien world.

I see them, before then, almost as activists, setting up the rules of their federation in protest against the monarchies and hierarchies nearby (Oxford Study Bible, pages 35-36), visionaries dreaming of some unknown alternative. Yet they were deeply influenced by the givens, as well.

Sluice Gate and Rocks

Said the Sluice Gate

Ancient Israel was not ecumenical. Their whole mission was to keep from mixing with their surroundings, to preserve a distinct identity in the midst of shifting political currents, lodged as they were in a geographical corridor that lay between powers, a river of trade and influence whose forces threatened to wash them away.

I am ecumenical. This fundamental difference between me and the writers of my holy book seems just a bit problematic.

As an ecumenical, I’ve invited the fast-flowing river to move through me. Like ancient Israel, I’ve tried not to drift, tried to anchor myself to my place on the bank, but unlike they I have made myself a sluice gate instead of a rock. So I’ve invited a whole different set of consequences into my life than those they once faced.

“Sometimes I wonder who I am,” said the sluice gate.

“Sometimes I feel worn around the edges,” said the rock.

As I read about the surrounding peoples against whose influence they were struggling, I realize I no longer perceive the story from their eyes only. Those stories are not the whole. I know different stories now too, ones that don’t immediately reduce Assyrians to villains nor denounce the ivory beds imported by the Phoenician princess Jezebel.

I’m not an ancient Israelite. It sounds obvious, but having grown up in the mainstream Protestant evangelical church, I can say it’s not clear in the mind, doesn’t go without saying. We identify with “God’s people” so completely, we forget they ever existed in their own right. We forget the millennia that divide us; we forget their descendants that exist today. We indulge in a total mixing of categories. Obvious as it is, it’s also novel: I’m not an ancient Israelite. I don’t agree with everything they wrote. I don’t see it all the way they did. I’m something new, something that cares about them, something that upholds the need to remember as they did; but something else.