Righteous Facepalm

This morning’s reading was Genesis 19-21. Much of this territory is very familiar to me, but today I was particularly struck by Abraham’s deception and folly. Back in Genesis 12, we read the story of Abraham telling the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister, only to have her taken into Pharaoh’s harem and barely rescued by God’s intervention, which forces Abraham to tell the truth and earns him a lecture from Pharaoh, who appears to value honesty more than God-fearing Abraham. Wow, nice one, Abraham.

But apparently Abraham hasn’t learned his lesson, because he does it AGAIN in Genesis 20. Upon entering the land ruled by Abimelek, Abraham decides it’s a great idea to return to his harebrained scheme and again insists that Sarah is his sister, not his wife. She is again taken by the king because of her great beauty (anyone else think this is weird considering frequent comments about her old age?) and the royal household is cursed with barrenness until Abimelek speaks with God in a dream and then confronts Abraham about his deception, to which Abraham lamely replies, “But I was scared… and besides, I wasn’t totally lying… she is my sister, sorta…”

Seriously, Abraham??

Not once, but twice, Abraham acts as if he has zero confidence in God’s protection and tells a ridiculous lie to save his own skin — with no regard, I might add, for his wife being made someone else’s wife! Not only that, but both times he is rebuked for his dishonesty by the very foreigners whose supposed covetousness and lack of “fear of God” he cites as reason for his deception.

Some patriarch of the faith!

We see here an example of the apparently oft-occurring biblical theme of the “righteous” being shown up by “unbelievers” and the normal order being turned upside-down. This idea crops up again and again throughout both the Old and New Testaments: Jonah, the Pharisees, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, just to name a few.

I’m gonna be honest — I don’t entirely know what this means. I mean, I feel like it’s something about not judging people or creating false hierarchies — the quote about “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” comes to mind — but what does that mean? Stopping at that quote — as if we have our answer — would be a cop-out that ignores the complexity of this idea and the importance imparted by its frequency of appearance. What I will say is that, having identified it as a pretty major theme, I will be watching for this idea to crop up again, and perhaps I will understand more the next time I encounter it.

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In Which God Gets Sarcastic, and I Know Nothing

Yesterday I finished the book of Job, and because it has been a while since I read it, the ending was quite a whirlwind experience for me! We’ve spent 37 chapters building up and building up, hearing ABOUT God, but not FROM God in regards to Job’s suffering — and then finally, in chapter 38, BOOM! God arrives — in a thunderstorm!

“Where were you [Job] when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? … Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!” (Job 38:4-7, 21 – emphasis added)

WOW. God is sarcastic!! He is clearly on a mission to put Job in his place and remind him Who’s really in charge here! And Job gets it pretty quick, because after God’s first speech all Job can say is “………….Oh. Right.”

God goes on to deliver yet another speech where he specifically addresses Job’s questions about justice — namely that Job has no right to question God’s justness. But what I love the most about God’s response here is that after he totally chews Job out, he then gently and graciously affirms Job’s perseverance and righteousness throughout this whole ordeal. (And he totally puts Job’s “friends” in their place at the same time!)

“I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. … My servant Job will pray for you and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.” (Job 42:7-8, parts – emphasis added)

Let’s break this down here. Job, while he did complain and question a lot, never went beyond questioning God’s motives. He speculated that perhaps God was unjust, he cried out at his own suffering, he protested his innocence and demanded that God allow him a chance to vindicate himself — but he never definitively said that he knew what God was doing. In other words, Job never allowed his sense of theological rightness to eclipse his devotion to God. Eliphaz & Co., however, did nothing BUT that. They were focused only on telling Job what they “knew to be true” about God. They acted like they had all the answers and refused to either empathize with Job or admit their lack of knowledge (and thus God’s supremacy).

So what does this mean for us? I think the entire book of Job can be boiled down thusly: God is God, and we are not. That’s SUPER simple, and I wouldn’t suggest telling that to someone who’s just lost a loved one and is struggling with grief as Job was, but I really think that’s the point God’s trying to make in this story. Just because God usually punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous doesn’t mean it’s okay for Eliphaz & Co. to put God in the box that he always does that. God is bigger than their box. And just because Job is a righteous man and healthily questions God doesn’t mean he couldn’t stand a reminder that he doesn’t run the world.

The point here is that none of us really knows what God is like, or what God might do, or why. We may know a part of God. We can learn some about God from reading the Bible, and from living our lives with God and experiencing what that means to us. But we cannot fathom God, and anyone who says they can is kidding themselves.

The true basis of faith, then, is uncertainty.

Real faith doesn’t mean knowing God will save you in the nick of time — real faith means not knowing if God will save you and trusting God anyway. And that’s really, really hard. Because uncertainty is a pretty shifty thing to build your whole life on. But for me, the only thing I know is that I just don’t know. And that will have to do.

Social Justice and Job’s Defense

In today’s reading (Job 29-31), Job delivers his final defense. Basically he goes through one by one and asserts his fulfillment of all the major areas of social justice that he is required to perform. Part of the reason this section is so cool is that Job’s list gives us a good picture of what a righteous person’s life should look like in the OT. Job begins with more personal sins and works his way up to the “biggies”. He also (according to my study Bible) uses the “law of retaliation” method — i.e. he calls judgment on himself if he has NOT been righteous in each area. Check it out:

  1. Deceit/Adultery — If Job has either looked lustfully after another woman or been a deceitful man, then may all his crops be uprooted and may his wife “grind another man’s grain”! (So that’s what they call it these days…)
  2. Employee fairness / Equal treatment — “If I have denied justice to my servants… when they had a grievance against me” (31:13) then may God call him to account!
  3. Justice to poor, widows, and orphans — “If I have denied the desires of the poor… if I have kept my bread to myself…” (31:16-17), if he has in any way mistreated or used his influence against widows or orphans, “then let my arm fall off from the shoulder…” (OUCH!)
  4. Idolatry (including greed) — “If I have put my trust in gold…” or worshipped the sun or moon, then God will judge me for my unfaithfulness to him.
  5. Hypocrisy — If Job has been a hypocrite in his treatment of enemies, the poor, strangers, his tenants, or his own sin, then (I love this one) may his fields grow stinkweed!

After writing out this declaration of his innocence (or rather, an invocation of punishment if he’s guilty), Job affixes his signature and rests his case. So cool! I love the list as a whole (you should totally check out Job 31 sometime if you haven’t), but there are a few specific things that I noticed in particular.

First, I find it EXTREMELY interesting that idolatry and greed/coveting are listed together! Wow! Job even says that saying to gold “You are my security” would be a sin of unfaithfulness to God! It makes me wonder if we put wayyyy too much emphasis today on financial planning and making sure we are “financially secure” at all times. This is not to say that we should all go close our savings accounts or anything — but I wonder how many of us would be willing to say, “You know, I’m not sure if this job change will be able to pay the bills, but God, YOU are my security.” I think a lot more of us struggle with “money as our security” than we are willing to admit.

The second thing that really stuck out to me was how Job discusses the justification for his treatment of his servants. In verse 15 he says, “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?”  My husband is often fond of saying, “If I matter, then everybody matters.” I think Job’s comment here is making the same statement, that both he and his servants (and all people) have equal value because of their shared creation by God.

Overall, I think Job’s “Declaration of Innocence” is really enlightening about the kind of conduct God expected/expects of his people. I also, however, find myself thinking a lot about scale. Job’s description of his duties focuses on a small, interdependent, and pretty self-contained community. These days, however, it seems there are fewer and fewer communities that are self-contained, and suddenly we find that we have access to 7 billion neighbors! (Or is it 8 billion by now?)

The point is that things have gotten a lot more complicated since Job’s time. However, I think that lots of times we use that numerical complication (or distance, language, culture, etc.) as an excuse to cop out of God’s requirements, which are NOT complicated: Be honest, treat people as if they matter as much as you, help the poor be less poor, be faithful to God, and don’t be a hypocrite. These requirements aren’t hard to understand, but we get ourselves all tied up sometimes because with 7 billion neighbors we’re not sure where to start and we just collapse into the overwhelm. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t know the solution for how to get all 7 billion people to play nice and treat each other justly. BUT we can’t allow ourselves to be so paralyzed by the enormity of the whole world’s need that we fail to even START reaching out to the people in our own spheres of influence.

So. Be a Job. Start enacting justice with the people around you right now. Yes, the ultimate goal of God’s kingdom is justice for all, and it can be hard — but don’t let confusion about how to reach the ultimate goal keep you from taking the steps you can already take.

In Which Job Gets a Little Cranky…

Today I read Job 6-9, and I am mainly struck by the stuff Job gets away with saying to/about God! Yesterday (Job 1-5) he cursed the day of his birth, but he stayed pretty respectful to God. Today, however, Job

  • wishes he could take God on in court to argue his own innocence.
  • implies that God torments people for “no reason” (9:17).
  • says that “when a land falls into the hands of the wicked, [God] blindfolds its judges” (9:24).
  • asks God why he won’t leave Job alone “long enough for me to swallow my saliva” (7:19, literally).

Wow! That’s some pretty harsh stuff! If Daniel said anything like that to me in an argument, I would be pissed! Job is cranky, and he offers up some pretty stiff questioning to God — but he never curses God, just complains and wonders about God’s motives. And all this is apparently okay because he’s still righteous in God’s eyes at the end of the story, and he’s described as having great “perseverance” elsewhere in the Bible.

SO the moral of the story for today seems to be that it’s okay to get mad at God, to complain, to question, to speculate about God’s motives… as long as you don’t curse/reject God. And that sounds pretty easy to me right now. I’m like, “Sweet, I can do all those things? And I just have to avoid that one thing? Awesome!” …BUT (a) I’m not really in tough circumstances right now, and I bet it’s a lot harder then, and (b) as evidenced by Genesis 3, we humans don’t really have a great track record of obeying the one thing we’re forbidden.

All the same, I find it comforting to know that we can really let God have it — all our cranky non-understanding — and that’s totally okay.

Thoughts on Job and Eliphaz

Today’s Bible reading was NOT from Genesis, but from Job! (This is part of the reason I love reading the Bible chronologically — it totally makes sense that the story of Job is old, but I never thought about it!)

Anyway. Today I read the first five chapters of Job, and there is some SERIOUS food for thought in here. Here are a few of my thoughts (and questions):

  • As always, I am immensely curious about the brief mentions (in 1:6 and 2:1) given to the angels and Satan (who apparently tags along to the Weekly Angelic Council Meeting?? What???). I wish there was more in the Bible about all that angelic backstory… though I’m guessing the lack of information has given rise to many, many wonderful works of fiction. =)
  • Poor Job!! I mean, I remembered that Job really got pooped on (yes, that’s a literary term…) in this story, but MAN! I had forgotten that the four messengers LITERALLY arrive back-to-back, each successive one entering while the previous finishes speaking, to tell Job that “All your oxen/donkeys/sheep/camels/servants/CHILDREN are dead, and I am the only one who escaped to tell you!” OUCH!
  • Job impresses me.Like Atticus Finch. Even after his wife in her grief sort of “tempts” him to “curse God and die”, he simply replies, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” Wow.
  • And then, there’s Eliphaz. Oh, Eliphaz. This would be Job’s “friend”, the first of the three to give him “friendly advice” about how to deal with his situation. He’s pretty much a pompous arse. He basically sits with Job for a while and then says, “Well, since bad things are ALWAYS punishment from God, you must have done something wrong to deserve this. So just confess and accept God’s correction.” Wow. This is his word-for-word quote at the end of his speech: “We have examined this, and it is true. So hear it and apply it to yourself.” UGH. He’s so arrogant and assured of his own theology that he assumes he can instantly diagnose Job’s problems, tell him what God’s doing, and then lecture him on how he should get with the program when all his children were just murdered. Ick, ick, ick. I have probably done something like this when someone I knew was dealing with grief…. but I really hope I haven’t. And/or that I never do it again!

So, the moral of today’s story, children, is that you can’t use human theology to put God in a box, and you ESPECIALLY should not do this when someone is going through grief or hard times, because it only makes them feel worse. I am very much looking forward to the rest of Job. I don’t recall exactly what lovely rationales the other two friends use that are supposed to explain Job’s suffering for him. But I’m sure they will be instructive.

What are your thoughts?

On Bible-reading and Genesis

This morning I started a project I’ve been meaning to start for quite a while. One of my bucket list items was to read the entire Bible (I did it chronologically), but THEN I got to wondering about all the historical background and stuff… and I just happened to purchase a TNIV Study Bible a year or two ago… so I decided that I want to read the whole Bible chronologically, but this time to do it in my Study Bible so that I can read all the notes. I also resolved to write down in my journal at least one insight or comment from each day’s reading (some of which I will probably post here on the blog).

Today is day one. It took a long time; the assigned reading for today was Genesis 1-3, but before I could get to that I (of course) had to read all the introductory notes about the translation, about the Bible as a whole, and about the structure of the study notes, not to mention the introduction to Genesis itself. I’m just a nerd like that. =)

But eventually, I did in fact read Genesis 1-3 (and all the notes…). Here are a few of my thoughts for today:

  • There are a crapton of really long notes on Genesis 1-3, especially Genesis 1. This made me realize (even more so than before) the significance of this part of the Bible. These three chapters — creation and the Fall — comprise probably the most important part of the Old Testament, if not the whole Bible (literarily speaking, anyway). This is the “point of conflict” without which we would have no story. So it’s kind of a big deal, hence the extensive research and background info.
  • In the introduction to Genesis, the author mentioned the fact that a list of the themes in Genesis is actually a pretty good reflection of the themes in the whole Bible. For example, Genesis is where the key relationships between God and creation, God and humans, and humans and other humans are established. I love those sorts of parallels, so I’m looking forward to watching for that as I continue reading.
  • I really like interesting background info! For example, there was a note (purely speculative) that wondered if the reason Genesis 1 avoids using the words “sun” and “moon” is because those would have referred at the time to the proper titles for the deities of the Sun and Moon. So fascinating!!
  • To continue in my literary vein, I’m really enjoying (and looking forward to continuing) reading the Bible as a single work of literature, authored by God. It really helps me to think about the arc of the story and overarching themes throughout the entire Bible, rather than just within books. I mean, can anyone come up with a more compelling storyline than the fall and redemption of the entire human race and all of creation with them? Answer — NO, you can’t, because that is the most epic storyline EVER.

In conclusion, loving my Bible plan so far. This is gonna be great. =)

What are your thoughts on Genesis 1-3? How about the Bible as a work of literature? Let me know what you think!

Response to The Writer’s Manifesto

This morning, I found the following manifesto in my inbox:

http://goinswriter.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/The-Writers-Manifesto.pdf

 

It piqued my interest, so I read it.

To summarize (though if you’re at all interested in writing, I suggest you give it a read; it’s short), the author argues that writers need to stop writing for their audiences (or in hopes of fame and accolades) and write only because they are writers and writers just write!

 

On the one hand, I found myself agreeing with him. There is definitely something to be said for being careful not to become the chameleonic panderer who writes anything if it might bring attention. On the other hand, I found myself turned off by the author’s constant distinction between “real writers” and everyone else. So I can’t be a “real writer” if I think about my audience when I write? I’m only a “real writer” if I write “for the sake of art” and nothing else?

I don’t know about you, dear writing friends, but I was very struck by the idea of the rhetorical situation during my studies in college. This basically means that whenever one sets out to communicate, one must consider all the facets of that communication’s context, like the audience, the desired message, my biases, etc. But if I do what the author of the manifesto suggests, it seems that actual communication is no longer the goal of writing anymore — only art.

But isn’t communication an integral part of art anyway? I mean, why do we have museums and art galleries? Is that so you can go look at your one piece of art that you made and congratulate yourself? NO, it’s so everyone can go see your art and receive the message you sent, thereby completing the circle. Art isn’t art without an audience, because art is all about communication. Or, as we said in my high school English class, about “removing the veil” and “illuminating the problems of the human condition”.  If there is no recipient, then the communication is lost and there is no point.

Now. Is it possible to write for yourself? Yes. I do it most days — and I have a stack of full-up journals to prove it! Is it silly to sell your artistic soul in hopes of fame and fortune? I think so — and I think the manifesto author is right when he says that often keeping your focus on the art of writing can result in accidental fame. But do I think I have to be some sort of audience-repudiating art purist in order to be a “real writer”? Absolutely not.

I write for myself AND my audience.

That’s MY writer’s manifesto.