Speaker: The Rev'd Jim Quigley
Depending on the extent your relationship with a company whose logo is, somewhat ironically, an apple with a bite out of it, this analogy may or may not work for you but reading your way to chapter twelve in the opening pages of the bible is a little like finding your current location on the globe using the Google Earth application on a smart phone.
Genesis begins with a description of how the earth was formed as it tells a story of creation and of human grasping and disobedience. It continues with stories about the resulting punishments wrought by the hand of God and eventually of God’s own change of heart when God realizes that curses and punishments won’t solve the inherent problem of his creation, namely the selfishness and pride of the only species he has given agency to, so he hangs his bow in the clouds, makes a vow to play nice and after a do-over allows humans to repopulate the earth a second time.
This brings us to chapter eleven where we find that the second go-round wasn’t working out any better than the first. The ones made in God’s image were still using and abusing, grasping for things beyond their reach and presuming to be gods themselves, telling their creator to pound sand as they built a ziggurat. In the story that follows God responds by confusing their united tongues and scattering people far and wide. Ten generations pass and that’s when you hit your location arrow and zoom in on Abram, a descendant of Noah. Abram is in Ur of the Chaldeans journeying northward with his Father along the river Euphrates. They are moving toward Canaan but stop short and settle in a really hot place called Haran. In Haran, after his father dies, Abram hears the call of Yahweh: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” And Abram went.”
As Genesis tells it Abram was seventy-five years old when God told him to leave his country and his kindred and his father’s house. But along with the invitation to leave his country and his kindred there came a pretty enticing promise. God told Abraham that if he went he’d get rewarded – he’d become the patriarch of a great nation and be blessed and that his name would be great too. As it turns out you could argue that that’s pretty much what happened. More than three billion people today – two billion of them being Christians, more than a billion being Muslim and about 15 million of them Jews – all venerate Abraham as the father of their faith. I’d say that’s pretty great. But the greatness got pretty messy. It still is.
When it comes to reading and interpreting the bible I’m a fan of reading it armed with what Paul Ricoeur called a hermeneutic of suspicion. Reading with a hermeneutic of suspicion means that we view things with a grain of salt, or, as Ricoeur puts it, that we interpret a text with “a commitment to unmask the lies and illusion of consciousness… to circumvent obvious or self-evident meanings in order to draw out less visible and less flattering truths.”
With that in mind I’ve always wondered about the motivation for Abram’s decision to obey the call he heard. Our tradition, in agreement with the Apostle Paul, sees Abram actions as heroic, crediting Abram’s decision to “go and posses” as an act of faith or belief. But it seems to me Abram’s decision to go and posses can also be seen as opportunistic, if not delusional.
Picture this. Abram, as Hebrews describes him, was “as good as dead” when he heard God’s call. His wife was barren and Haran was a really, really hot place. His kindred were busy building ziggurats and worshipping the moon when a voice from heaven told him to get up and go someplace cooler where he would be the father of a great nation and where he would be blessed and where he’d make a name for himself. Responding to such an invitation doesn’t sound so much like a heroic act faith to me. Who wouldn’t say yes to an invitation to become a great nation, to be blessed and to have a great reputation. The promise, at the least, was a proposition worth gambling on. So Abram got up and went, taking with him, as we read on, his wife and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and ‘the persons’ whom they had gathered in Haran. Those would be his slaves. This is the story of the patriarch of our faith?
The command to get up and go didn’t come with fine print but when Abram and his entourage finally arrived in the land of Canaan they discovered that it was already inhabited, oddly enough, by the Canaanites. The Old Testament doesn’t treat the Canaanites with much respect, describing them in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy as idol worshippers who engaged in child sacrifice and deviant behavior, realities which neither archaeology nor ancient Canaanite texts support and are, for the record, practices also associated with the ancient Israelites themselves. In any case, upon arriving in Canaan and seeing its inhabitants, Abram hears what he perceives to be a voice from heaven a second time: “To your seed I will give this land…” and in short order the land of promise, the land of milk and honey, would become what it remains to this day, a holy battlefield.
When asked how Christians should read the bible Thom Stark says, “Between the lines.” Stark is the author of a book published about six years ago called The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong. In the first chapter of his book Stark asserts that the bible, if anything, is an argument with itself.
Read carefully and with attention we can discover that the bible is a narrative that pulls back the curtain and reveals the faithlessness of our current condition every bit as much as it is a record of the heroic faith of our ancestors. That’s the good news.
No matter what we call it, reading the Bible with a hermeneutic of suspicion or reading between its lines, pondering the story of the conquest of Canaan and the call to greatness seems like a good discipline for Lent this year, and apropos for a country engaged in the work of making ourselves great again. Abram believed, to be sure, but the promises he believed in, and the path he would pursue in order to guarantee his well-being, his security, his prosperity and his prominence, came only by his grasping and possessing and dispossessing, the very actions that the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis tell us, over and over, result in nothing more than a return to chaos.
We began Lent last week with the Great Litany, a grand confession of our many hypocrisies and a detailed list of the ways in which we grasp our way to greatness in this world and abuse the very creation we are called to tend and to keep. We also heard the devil tempt Jesus with promises of fame and fortune, promises he denied but ones that sound, it seems to me, a lot not unlike the ones Abram heard in Haran. As we make our journey through yet another season of self-examination, of repentance and amendment of life, may we be led to wholeness and strength by the voice of the one, holy and living God.