See, Mother, I make all things New.

An Easter reflection for April 2021.

They say that you can’t choose your family. This ‘wise saying’ suggests many facets of insight, one of which is to imply that it is practical as well as possible to choose your friends. I am not sure the difference between family and friends is so clear, at least not in the Church. We might think that we have chosen to befriend certain folk who we think will be more comfortable to get along with. “Those are the ones I want to be friends with!” But as time goes by, we discover that our new friends have now become our brothers and sisters, and what’s more have started behaving in ways we don’t approve of; and saying things that we don’t much like. I introduced this piece as an Easter reflection– which is to say that when I look in the mirror, I may well notice that there are some things about me I don’t much like either.

So it might be best to start again, which is what the traditional Church calendar is good for- encouraging us to go over it again each year. ‘See if you understand it better this time.’ The Church is really born at Easter, we are told, so Easter is the genesis of the Church Age. That’s why we don’t have a ‘Creation festival’ in the calendar, looking back to Genesis 1&2. Christmas sends us the Incarnate Jesus, again and again: Immanuel, God is with us Again! While Easter is our collective Birthday. Though the circumstances are not at all like a regular party.

We need to exert effort in mind and imagination to revisit familiar places in the Church calendar. I do like a ripened cheese, but if left in the fridge for too long, it eventually loses its appeal. An old house can be a homely house, until you try to pass through a doorway and get a face full of cobwebs. My birth family stayed away from ‘Church’ through my upbringing because they found the fustiness overwhelming. I was intrigued by a brief foray to Sunday School as a young boy, and the irregular visit of the local vicar to my school, but that was it- an infrequent visitation with a very unfashionable almost-forgotten relative in need of a liberal aerosol spray of ‘Alpine Fresh’.

The good thing about elderly relatives is that they are still alive. Where there is life, there is hope! Though a very modern Protestant, I chose to work in the local Catholic community for much of my teaching career; a very deliberate choice. I watched with close interest to see how their community life was framed by the more valued aspects of their tradition, while visibly adorned with rosary and crucifix. Their extensive liturgy encapsulates so much deep reflection, distilled and honed as each sentence has emerged from generations of meditation. I happily follow the text along under my breath, pausing only on the odd occasion to skip a bit I don’t witness to.

Frankly, I am often more comfortable with this sort of theological editing than I am in the company of some of my closer friends who seem to value spontaneity rather more highly than is good for us. My crowd says that its all about life, and being real; being in the now with God in His Spirit. Which is obviously what Jesus is in favour of. He raised the dead to life and spoke the living words of God for today. He did not send his disciples to tend tombs. In fact, he forbade it. But in our enthusiasm for spontaneous life and following the Spirit, our ‘spiritual chatter’ can be like so many bubbles, an insubstantial froth that does not convey, even in human words, very much of the glory of God.

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.

Psalm 19:14; Psalm 139:4
A couple of crucifixes abandoned on the floor after the clearance of an Irish home. Christians are so called because they are about Christ. ‘Keeping the main thing the main thing’, is how some put it- meaning its all about Jesus! Various traditions testify to the efforts that our forebears have made to keep Jesus in focus, which can succeed wonderfully for a time, but then pass into dead religion.

The truth is, we have minds that very much like to wander. All over the place. So when we come to pray- shall I sit? Shall I stand? Oh, first I need to… We need an abundance of discipline, especially self-discipline, and that is what schools and services and much spiritual stuff is trying to give us: frameworks of life, disciplined tracks to be trained in so we can be in shape for the daily race. For my Catholic friends, a crucifix is just that- a gym session for the inner heart. As you know, not every gym membership is used to its best effect.

Christianity has been thoroughly absorbed into our social history and culture, particularly in the West, beyond our ability to determine the boundaries of its influence. That’s certainly the perspective I had as a child. ‘Where is God in all this now?’ I asked myself through my formative years. My testimony is that God has breathed fresh air into my understanding- into me, not only through those who first witnessed to me as a young person, but also though fellowship and networking with Christians of other flavours, some with very different habits. The illumination of the Spirit comes to us from the strangest of sources, if only we have eyes to see.

Those who discipled me had little time for the architectural trappings of Christian tradition. “The Church is the people, not the building!” we like to cry together. Focus on the wrong thing, we are warned, and what is really important becomes blurred. True enough. Yet when I meet my fellow Christian folk who are alive to the Spirit of God and commune in a community building parts of which may date back a thousand years or so, they bring a vital connection to the generations of lives that were lived in that place in the light of the gospel that is not quite so evident in my hired sports hall or school. Too much of our so-called modern culture has turned its back on everything prior to the transistor and the jet plane. So many of my charismatic friends seem to think in the same way, noting only two dates of significance in their histories, (i) the first Pentecost, and (ii) a Holy Spirit revival in nineteen sixty something.

So much of value is missed in between. Take this stained glass window (above). This piece of physical and functional art speaks life to me in its depiction of this Easter episode. Less stylised than most, and not particularly formal in its design, it nevertheless stands in the long tradition of reflection on the stations of the cross and all the events of Holy Week. We are drawn into this group, transported to the dusky moment that these burly figures are manhandling Jesus’ dead body into the family tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. They have all taken their turns, I sense; the one holding the torch aloft is leaning tiredly against the stones, while another is now kneeling, as all he can do is pray after his earlier stint at carrying the corpse. While one is straining forward with his back to us, the living face we see most clearly is earnestly focused on the tomb doorway, ensuring that the corporeal remains of Jesus are safely delivered to their resting place with proper dignity. Yet this sombre panorama is shot through with light, beyond the power of the flame above their heads. The light that transfuses this picture illuminates both Jesus’ body and his carriers with an aura of hope. The picture is framed to quietly draw our attention to the spear hole in Jesus’ torso. Incarnation, crucifixion and expectation of resurrection are fused in the glassy image. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions…by His stripes we are healed’, whispers Isaiah through the long reach of time [Is 53:5]. ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.’ Which is what that Catholic Mass used to say, until they updated it. How very modern!

We don’t do stained glass these days, as we now have movies to tell stories for us. There have been many attempts over the recent years of screen and TV history to transfer the gospel accounts to screen. It may be very stereotypical to lump them together thus: a procession of bearded figures sporting miles of nightdress fabric and every model of leather sandal known to man, while the lines of umpteen parables are rehearsed as a cure for insomnia. This description cannot apply to the 2004 ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ personally funded and directed by Mel Gibson and colleagues. We watched this again as a family one evening last week, and no one fell asleep. As I’ve said, there is value to be gleaned in listening to others, to seeing things from their perspectives, in making the effort to look past their failings and weaknesses to distil what is distinctive and significant. I agree with critics that discern a degree of exaggeration in anti-Pharisaism in the portrayal of the Jewish priests in the film. But we misunderstand the gospel account if we do not realise that everyone has it in for Jesus one way or another- even his chosen friends abandon him at the crucial moment that they might have stood in solidarity with him, and the film shows this clearly enough.

The violence is also exaggerated, I daresay, though I wouldn’t really want to have to evidence that opinion. It is a directorial decision to emphasise the physical reality of the crucifixion for modern audiences inured to unrealistic big screen violence. The claim being made is that the Spirit overcomes the flesh, which is the biblical claim, so I am content. God in Christ overcomes sin that has had its full work in humanity, in me, and so portraying his scourging and crucifixion in this manner is not inappropriate. We cannot see the spiritual price that Jesus pays for us, so the physical pains stand proxy for that in this cinematic retelling. I am content. There are a number of artistic/ directorial variations to the gospel accounts which draw us into the ‘now’ of those timeless events on the Via Delorosa, powerfully including the way Simon of Cyrene is brought closer to carry the cross alongside Jesus, rather than independently from him. Simon, and we, are brought together to share in Jesus’ sufferings.

At this watching, there is one scene that I found to be shot through with particular light, yet it too is a figment of the imagination of later saints, not at all part of the gospel accounts. We are shown Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene frustrated in their efforts to get close to Jesus on his journey from Pilate’s court to Golgotha. For Gibson, a Catholic, the relationship between Mary and Jesus is of particular significance, so it is not surprising that further emphasis is brought to this, even in addition to the particular episode close to the foot of the cross with John the disciple, which is recorded at John 19:26. Frankly, I love what Gibson does here. And it is much more than simply an affirmation of the significance of Mary as the mother of the Christ, a headline feature of Catholic dogma. Mary succeeds in getting close to her son Jesus, to reassure him, to touch him as a mother, as she touched him intimately as the one who birthed and suckled him as a baby, who schooled him and watched him grow as a boy and man. From before Augustine of Hippo, way back in the fifth-sixth centuries, Mary has been known in the ancient Church as the Theotokos, “the one who gives birth to God.” This is an alternative rendition of the Incarnation: Christ is both fully God and fully man, so must have a human mother. God’s will is to choose her, but Mary has to be a consciously willing partner to this creation of God as man in God’s world, else it is meaningless. So Mary understands and agrees with Angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit to what God intends to bring about through her physical partnership. In the Christmas account we are told that Mary treasured these things in her heart [Luke 2:19]. She knows more about what is going on, because she is an agent in it, and she anticipates what will come about. Yet the film takes this even further, drawing in the words of the apostle John in Revelation about God’s final intention to remake Creation: to bring this era of creation to climax through the other side of judgement to New Creation. As Mary cradles her fallen son’s face- the One she knows is more than her son, he looks gratefully back, returning her love in this extraordinary moment, summing up their unique relationship and speaking as God to her about the future they are making together:

“See, Mother, I make all things New.”

The Passion of the Christ, 2004 Director Mel Gibson. ICON production. See this clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpa_D4K8c1c

Then in a work-a-day manner, Jesus promptly turns ahead, shoulders the tree again and carries it forward to the mountaintop.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

  • Crucifixes on Irish cottage floor. david-knox-5Cu7ZSQUKnY-unsplash
  • Cross amongst concrete skyscrapers. louis-moncouyoux-NWS30LJ0GoA-unsplash
  • Stained glass window; unknown site. rod-long-A2k_ddBMusE-unsplash

Elijah meets God in Goldilocks’ Universe

The Biblical narratives include themes with cosmic dimensions, but don’t expect them to be told in the terminology of modern and current science. The Biblical worldview invites us to adopt a perspective that includes astrophysics and yet goes beyond even that. What else would you expect in a stance significantly informed by God’s point of view?

11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.[or a sound, a thin silence.] 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 15 And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

1 Kings 19: 11-18 ESV

The rolling news media showed us huge fires in California and even more massive conflagrations of forests- well, of everything– in Australia in very recent months; I assume you know this. Now we hear there is severe flooding in some of the same neighbourhoods where the recently vanished vegetation used to retain water in the soil, adding further destruction. Disasters on an ever-increasing scale are occurring with rising regularity, in places on the planet that are not used to being seen on the TV for these sorts of reasons. “That stuff only happens in Africa,” they said. More and more folk that have been accustomed to living in a picture postcard environment are finding their creature comforts severely curtailed.

Composite image of our Earth- the watery ‘Blue dot’ in orbit around our star, the Sun. Not to scale- OK?! Our Sun is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from Earth, but since it is so massive, that is just as well. The Sun’s volume is equal to 1.3 million Earths. Life is thriving here because we are close enough to the Sun to receive ample heat and light- not too close to get cooked, or too far away to freeze. You might see the tiny black disc of Venus passing across the top left of the Sun.

We know a lot more about our world and where it is in the big scheme of things than the writers of 1&2 Kings did. We now call that sort of knowledge ‘science’ and ‘geology’ and ‘meteorology.’ We can also make machines to take cameras into space and capture rather nice photos of what’s out there. And ‘selfies’ of our beautiful planet. We can now appreciate how our planet relies completely on a tiny fraction of the massive energy output of the sun to drive the water cycle and photosynthesis and, well, all the life we know of. The Sun is a mind-bogglingly enormous ball of gas collapsing under its own gravity and exploding by a nuclear fusion reaction all at once. That makes it nice and shiny and VERY HOT. Walk outside on any day without cloud cover and even in the UK you can feel the heat reaching your skin directly from 96 million miles away. That’s such a considerable distance it takes light eight minutes to get here.

A colourful solar system chart from The Twentieth Century Atlas of Popular Astronomy (1908), by Thomas Heath BA (1861-1940). Digitally enhanced from a chromolithographic plate.

This rather splendid poster transports us to a vantage point outside the limits of the solar system as understood in the early 1900s. Neptune was officially discovered in 1846, though Galileo had in fact seen it through his telescope in 1612. He mistakenly classified that particular dot of light as a star in his notebook. If he had kept focused on it for a few more nights, he might have reached even more radical worldview-changing conclusions than the ones that got him into trouble with Pope Urban VIII.

Light moves at 8 million metres per second, so sunlight takes 250 minutes (4.15 hours!) to reach Neptune, where the temperature only reaches -201C.

Could there be life anywhere else in our solar system? There was a great deal of public speculation about that question even before 1900, but as the scale diagram above hints at, its a really really long way from the Sun to Neptune. It took a while to realise that the intensity of sunlight reaching a planet significantly determines whether life could be sustained there. Too far from the sun means not enough heat, while too close means too much. So it turns out that there is a narrow band of tolerance for a planet to safely harbour life based on liquid water. This band is shown in blue in the diagram below.

We can see distant solar systems elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy with ever-more powerful telescopes like ‘Kepler’, though the presence of planets does not tell us whether there could be life there. For starters, we must ask, ‘Is the size and orbit of the planet, relative to the size of the star, appropriate to put in in the ‘habitable region’? – cutely described as the ‘Goldilocks zone.’

Remember Goldilocks? An early version of the fairy tale featured an ‘antisocial’ old woman who was kicked out of house and home by her family: she rocks up in the woods looking for someone else’s stuff to ‘borrow’, conveniently finding the three bears have just popped out while their breakfast porridge cools down. There were too many awkward social justice and colonial issues in that version- it quickly got changed to be more ‘child-friendly,’ with an innocent and vulnerable girl now seeking shelter in the forest, and so Providence smiles on her. She is simply clumsy, so while furniture is broken, various bowls of porridge are sampled, and bed sheets ruffled, we are amused rather than outraged. We are comforted by the idea that our own preferences can be satisfied in finding a bowl of porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold; its ‘just right’, even generously provided by a reluctantly tolerant neighbour.

Our Earth boasts a great number of ‘Goldilocks’ features, but this idea also applies on a galactic scale, as shown by the following graphic. Planets suitable for life to evolve and develop won’t be found around many of the billions of stars in the Milky Way- too close to the galactic centre means very frequent gamma ray bursts from closely packed and short lived stars. DNA could not survive intact for long enough. Yet stellar explosions are absolutely necessary to generate all the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The outer rim of a galaxy doesn’t produce enough of these elements for life, or even for rocky planets with a liquid core. A lot of heat is needed to cook the bears’ porridge, but then it must be left to cool before trying to eat it. In the same way, several rounds of stellar evolution were required to brew up the molecular kit for our construction- both of planet and people, but the hottest and most dramatic of those remains unseen in the long distant past.

A hot liquid core is vital for our Earth, as it drives tectonism to cycle life-sustaining minerals in the planetary crust, while also generating a magnetic field to shelter our atmosphere and any nascent life from cosmic radiation. Mars used to have such a liquid core, but as that planet is much smaller than our Earth, it has cooled and (probably) solidified, thus loosing its protective field and then nearly all its atmosphere. NASA rover ‘Perseverance’ has just landed there, surely finding what can, at best, only be evidence of extinct simple life forms. Yet Mars lies just beyond the ‘habitable zone’ in the diagram we saw earlier, which is not usually pointed out.

Our night sky is not as star spangled as the photo above. It might seem boring in this part of the galaxy, but that’s really a good thing. Especially in the centre of galaxies, many stars have exploded, collapsed and coalesced , forming ‘black holes’, fearsome wells of gravity which consume everything within their reach without hope of escape. There is likely a supermassive black hole at the centre of most galaxies; a not-at-all desirable neighbour.

I expect you are familiar with another curious feature of our Earth, which is its 23.5 degree axial tilt. This remains fixed though our annual orbit, so the heat from the Sun is spread far more widely and predictably over the surface, giving us the cycle of seasons, thus extending the habitable areas of the planet very considerably. In so many ways then, we find that the ‘temperature’ here on Earth is ‘just right.’ Until we significantly raised the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the Industrial Revolution to the present day.

After the astronomy lesson, its now time for big geology. I’ve hinted at some of this already, but even if this is familiar to you, please pause with me to reflect on how MINDBLOWING this is. We build things out of stones because they stay the same shape. We dig foundations for our buildings because rocks don’t move. Tiny earthquakes do happen in my neighbourhood near London- we heard that some chimney pots fell nearby in Folkestone when there was a rare and brief tremor. There have been much more serious earthquakes in far away places, including Iran and Japan in just the last few weeks. Such events are concentrated along particular lines on the Earth’s surface- and so are the 500 or so volcanoes that have been active within recorded human history. When people are living adjacent to where an earthquake strikes or volcano erupts, the consequences are often catastrophic. But at our short lived and brief human scale, we’ve been oblivious to the deeper and much larger reality. An imaginative chap called Alfred Wegener suggested in print in 1912 that the well-known fact that the shape of the continents match like a jigsaw is because they’ve were joined up and then moved apart; albeit really slowly. He got laughed at for 18 years and then he died. The mockers kept laughing for another two decades. Now we teach school children, in a very matter-of-fact manner, that the continents float around on soft rock as the liquid mantle moves around underneath them, carrying these platforms of solid rock around like boats on flood water. At maybe 8cm per year. So 180 million years ago, this is what part of the atlas looked like:

Gondwanaland from 550 to 180 million years ago. The coloured bands show where fossils of the same types of organisms have been found bridging the continental borders in ways that can’t be explained by some animals swimming across the sea. Nor, come to that, can the distribution of such fossils explained by a universal flood.

We really shouldn’t be glib about this. Our everyday experience of what rock is like does not equip us to understand what rock is actually capable of. The more science we learn, the more often I get this feeling- that reality is really stranger than fiction! The fluid mechanics of tectonic drift are not yet fully understood, but good science is like that. Any current big theory is a ‘best fit’ with a great deal of different sorts of evidence contributing to it, so we can proceed with growing confidence, despite knowing that the scientific account is not by any means complete. There is room for awe in this sort of science- the attitude that combines rational satisfaction with having discovered what is going on and how it is happening- with wonder at the extraordinary things that we have partial insight into. I mean they are extraordinary because they are different in kind to what we learn from our small-scale human experience. Rock is hard: try falling on one! But squeezed deep under the crust, and heated by radioactive decay from the liquid core: there it is transformed into a material on which lumps of continent, thousands of miles across, and hundreds deep can move. As my students say far too often, ‘That’s weird.’ I agree with them! Iceland enlarges by splitting through the middle and adding new lava between the plates moving away from each other, eastward and westward. This phenomenon also underlines the scope of deep geological time. The Atlantic is a big ocean. The breakup of Gondwanaland began a long time ago. Do the division calculation, and you find that moving 2.6 centimetres a year stretches out the Atlantic from Senegal in Africa to the Bahamas on the other side of the ocean in 180 million years. Wegener’s imaginative leap remains one of extraordinary intellectual courage, while the sceptical opposition of the orthodox continues to warrant respect. Nevertheless, the evidence continued to accumulate, and Wegener has been proved right, though long after his death. Now, in geology, as well as in astronomy, we teach that the earth does indeed move.

Inside Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii. On a small scale the lava forms and reforms shapes like the tectonic plates, moving about over the surface of the liquefied rock beneath. I would really rather like to see this up close, but that may be a dumb thing to wish for!
Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Spreading ridge which you see marked in the yellow map shown previously. In some places the crack between the two continental plates is very visible and you can walk in it in perfectly safely, just at the moment. See the cars at the Thingvellir National Park? (L) This week an eruption has broken through in an uninhabited region just south of Reykjavik (red dot above) for the first time in some 800 years. The news reports there were 40,000 modest earthquakes recorded in the last month before the eruption started.
L: Astronaut Ricky Arnold, from aboard the International Space Station, shared this image of Hurricane Florence on Sept. 10 2018, taken as the orbiting laboratory flew over the massive storm. NASA. R: This is an image composite of two different Hubble observations. The auroras were photographed during a series of Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph far-ultraviolet-light observations taking place as NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived to orbit Jupiter in 2016.

Though our scripture passage begins with a wind, I’ve come to it now, because wind, like tectonics, is also a function of the uneven distribution of heat. More of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the atmosphere in one place than another, so that bit warms and becomes less dense. That region of air rises, as nearby cooler and denser air pushes down and across, displacing the warmer air upwards- and now you’ve got wind! This very simple physics results in enormous weather. Over the oceans, certain large areas of water are warmer than others, so the area of atmosphere above them that gets heated gets bigger, and much more water evaporates and collects in the sky, and BOOM, you’ve got a hurricane. In recent years we’ve started naming these, as climate change has created more such systems, with greater regularity. The Caribbean and Florida coast are assaulted by storms of increasing severity each summer, and more remnants reach the UK with significant impacts. We heard about even more devastating tropical cyclones in the Pacific, such as typhoon ‘Yolanda/Haiyan’ that hit the Philippines in 2013. Some 6300 souls were lost there.

Which way these storms move, and so who exactly is impacted by them, is a much more complex affair. Despite the fact that our atmosphere is only about 60 miles thick, and you need an oxygen mask on Everest, which is 3 miles in altitude, like an international jet plane, the air does not all mix up randomly or equally. Its in layers, and high above the cloud layers are circulating currents snaking around the globe as it spins. UK forecasters frequently explain to us that their weather predictions also depend on the changing direction of the ‘jet stream,’ which none of us can see. Alfred Wegener was mainly a weather scientist- a meteorologist- and this was another major discovery he made significant contributions to.

If we venture out away from our Earth, there is even bigger weather to be found. Next to the picture of Hurricane Florence above is a fabulous shot of Jupiter, a planet so large that it is bigger than all the rest of the solar system put together, apart from the Sun. At Jupiter’s north pole you can see its own aurora, generated by the stupendous magnetic field of this gas giant planet, and beneath it, the Great Red Spot, a permanent anticyclone weather system that is one and a third times the diameter of planet Earth, with permanent winds of some 400km/h (270mph).

According to the poster of the solar system above, between us and Jupiter are a few asteroids and Mars, and that appears to be it. If your spacecraft blows up, no-one will hear a sound, as there is no air to transmit it. No wind.

Silence.

Space is a vacuum, pretty much, with perhaps four hydrogen molecules per cubic meter- that’s not even ‘thin.’ But following Alfred Wegener, we’ve learned to observe at different scales, and since we orbit a star, the story isn’t over yet. As hydrogen is transmuted into helium, there is a wind of sorts thrown off from the Sun, mostly up and down, fortunately. But some comes sideways towards us- a plasma of separated protons and electrons and helium nuclei (alpha particles). There aren’t many of them, but as their energy is considerable, they are a real hazard. Our moon has no protection, but Earth’s liquid core generates a handy magnetic field to deflect most of the rays/particles around us, away into the dark, inky blackness of space. At the poles the magnetic field lines come down towards the ground, and so do just some of the cosmic rays, giving us the most beautiful aurora borealis at northern latitudes. Even here, however, the high energy bombardment is largely neutralised before all of Earth’s lifeforms, including humans, are exposed to unsustainable levels of gene-disrupting and cancer-inducing rays. Below is a photo out the window of the International Space Station, also showing meteors burning up in the atmosphere. What a fantastic sight! Such beauty results from our being successfully protected from certain destruction.

As the graphic shows, the solar wind spreads out through the whole system until it bumps into the collective ‘wind’ of the rest of the galaxy, made of mostly the same things. There are yet some further mysteries in the cosmic radiation, which new measurements from 2017 are starting to quantify.

As I have described the phenomena of fire and earthquakes and winds on earth and far beyond, I think we are drawn to a marvellous conclusion. As we find ourselves suspended in motion in the universe; though surrounded by a number of significant hazards, we discover that our place in the cosmos is nevertheless remarkably convenient. Some of the planetary ‘chairs’ are not at all suitable for us to sit on- but one is! Some of the ‘porridge’ is very hot- far too hot to handle. Some is frozen solid! But one bowl is just right. It can be very windy, or more often, there’s no air at all that is suitable. But we find ourselves at home, in a sheltered place to sleep soundly. We’d better be looking after it.

Our perspectives on our place in our environment are now quite different to that presented in 1 Kings 19. I wonder if you are reconsidering your own viewpoint on the cosmos as you absorb these paragraphs. As I read 1 Kings 19:11-12, I realise that the idea of highlighting wind or fire or earthquake as signs of divine Presence stands in contrast to the worldview of science and technology that I am employed to promote as a teacher of teenagers. Maybe we are not so objective as that. If confronted with these experiences, we so-called ‘modern thinking folk’ could more readily admit to considering both our own mortality and whether Someone is attracting our attention. I am not claiming that I understand exactly how the ancient Hebrews viewed them at their time of writing, though I am speculating that mention of wind and earthquake and fire is an allusion to a pre-scientific classification of matter. Are these somewhat equivalent to earth, air and fire later proposed as basic elements or building blocks of the world by Empedocles in Greece in the 5th century BC? If so, then why is water not mentioned? Two thoughts occur to me. The first is that God has promised Noah that He will not destroy the earth by means of water, so God will not be seen to toy with this earnest assurance. The second is that just previously in 1 Kings 18, we see that God used Elijah to purposely control the water cycle, initially suspending the seasonal cycle of rain, and then very deliberately and precisely overseeing its return. So -quite extraordinarily- we see that Elijah is working in active partnership with Jehovah God directing one of the elemental forces of nature. Israel’s neighbours were not clear about God’s nature and identity. Could humans confuse ‘God’ with the source of rain? Ahab and/or Jezebel may have thought in that way. Elijah has already shown us the answer, very unambiguously.

Please see note below before referencing this in your coursework.

But what about the rest of the forces of nature? Might there be divinity somehow tied up with the material of the land, the motions of the air, or the powers of fire? These pagan or pantheistic beliefs are refuted by the scripture, but rather than give a blank ‘No,’ Elijah’s covenant God gives him and us an object lesson in each case, to ensure that we are completely clear about the reality. God wants us to understand. God is the power behind the phenomenon of wind, to be sure, but the wind is not Godself. Even the most fixed and firm part of our world, the ground under our feet, can sometimes be moved. So rather than trust in that, whether it was thought a pagan divinity or not, the phenomenon of earthquakes must rather point us to trust the God who actually makes the ground of all things. Perhaps there were those of Israel’s neighbours who might deify fire, which was part of the challenge to the prophets of Baal in the showdown with Elijah. Although Elijah’s God is “the God who answers by fire,” that does not mean that He is ‘in’ the fire.

Additionally there is a simpler answer: the artful mechanics of story telling. As in Exodus, where God brought ten plagues of judgement against the Egyptian pantheon, all the multiple deities of the Canaanites are summed up for us here in classic literary fashion: three stand for all, just like the bears in the forest. Which ever option you consider identified in this pithy rule of three– God is not there in person. The real God, the One worthy of the Name, is gloriously beyond mere matter.

As archaeologists continue to uncover and assemble historical evidence from ancient Near Eastern civilisations, a long list of Canaanite deities is emerging from the detritus of decay. Are any of them more likely targets to be held up to ridicule and judgement by Elijah’s God? I’ve picked a few significant candidates. Their ‘king of the gods’ was Ba’al Hadad, which translates as ‘master of thunder’, also god of storms, thunder, lightning and air. Dagon, god of crop fertility and grain, was supposed to be father of Ba’al Hadad. Melqart, ‘king of the city’, was specifically the god of Tyre, as well as the underworld and cycle of vegetation. Moloch and his wife Ishat were probably spoken of as god and goddess of fire by Jezebel and her priests. I suggest that these examples meet the criteria.

Whichever opposing pantheon we might think of, Elijah’s God has the same answer. They will pass. The wind will drop. The earthquake will cease. The fire will burn out. And the conceits of our civilisations will also crumble into dust, their clamouring voices stilled into silence. If, by some happenstance, their remains do last a little longer in the dust to be discovered and cleverly deciphered in our time, we will see their claims to greatness revealed in truth for what they are. Thin; barely distinguishable from nothing.

1 Kings 19 transports us to the mountain top with Elijah, who emerges from his rock hole after the spectacular displays have passed. Via the revelatory marvels of CCTV (‘Cave-circuit TeleVision’) we are invited to join with him in his encounter with the True God. That’s what prophets are for, after all- to show us God’s way.

At the mouth of the mountain cave, we are brought together and all treated equally. Whether we consider ourselves ‘modern’ materialists, who think that all meaning is ultimately reduced to the characteristics of the ingredients of a periodic table, or polytheists, whose various deities are assigned to selected natural phenomena, or pantheists who locate deity generally in nature, this text addresses us all collectively: the One True God YHWH transcends all and everything.

And yet…

and then…

Yahweh comes to us!

God is ‘in’ each of these phenomena, inasmuch as God is their actual first cause and upholding providence, but God also chooses to reveal Godself at our human scale and to protect and respect us as His esteemed creatures. I wonder if we each might we see with Elijah that God intends us to be equals-of-a-kind? This is a bold claim, I hope you appreciate, which can only be possible because of the grace of God.

Did you consider Elijah’s response in the text we began with? Once he has obediently left his cave lodgings on the mountain, to stand before the LORD, the most spectacular and fearsome phenomena occur before him. We are left to guess at the detail, but I think this much is easy. Elijah does not stay ‘standing’ for very long. After wind and earthquake and fire have passed, he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. We were not told directly, but it’s pretty obvious that he was hiding. But don’t misunderstand Elijah. This was hiding inspired by wisdom: my flesh will not stand this hurricane, or the tremors which followed or the firestorm which came afterward. Just as we find that our life on God’s created Earth is generally a place of ‘just rightness,’ so the Lord ensures that even this procession of power is within the bounds of what Elijah can bear- at least if he is back inside the cave!

What a stunning series of sights! Today you can immediately call up video footage of hurricanes in the Bahamas, sudden earthquakes caught on municipal cameras in Japan, or a firestorm in the Californian forest with the electronic device you are using to read this blog. Any one of these would be a rare and once in a lifetime experience before the recent development of film and recording technologies: you’d had to have been there. Hollywood blockbusters exaggerate these spectacular sights even further with CGI, such that most real life is made to look less impressive than their cinematic fantasies. Though Elijah wisely returns to shelter inside his cave, all the action is happening right before him, and he takes all these highly exceptional events completely in his stride. He is watching out for the Presence of the LORD in each phenomenon – and is paying close enough attention to be able to discern that his God was not there. After the third act has passed, the prophet of God comes out to the cave mouth, confident of his being before his God. I think this is extraordinary. Would I have been so confident? Would you?

The air beyond the cave mouth was filled with blinding dust and the clash and clatter of ever larger rocks picked up and thrown together by the gale; this cacophony passed into the full-on shaking and trembling of the ground surrounding him- the whole cave was moving! Then the heat of the firestorm, with its own wind and roaring: a close curtain of fire rippling like the surface of the sun, its radiation trapping Elijah in his rocky pressure cooker.

Wouldn’t we have been quaking in our boots, shaking with fear and exhaustion- emotionally and psychologically spent after enduring such a fearsome display of natural wonders? How can we tell that Elijah was not so affected? Do you know what Elijah says before this scene? Look at the earlier verses in 1 Kings 19 and see what he says to the LORD:

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 

1 Kings 19:9-10

Now see what he says afterwards. God repeats His question to Elijah:

And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.[or a sound, a thin silence.] 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 

1 Kings 19:12-14

I think that my second answer would have been different. Whatever was bothering me beforehand would have faded into insignificance. I would have completely forgotten my earlier worries and concerns. At my best, I would like to dream that I would have been overcome with gratitude for both my survival and for being treated to such a stunning display. I’d like to think I’d be overcome with awe at my God and even full of praise and thanksgiving. I would have embarrassed myself as I would not have been able to come up with adequate words to say so! If an authority figure were to repeat a question to me, I’d be wondering if my first answer was somehow inadequate. Not so for Elijah. His response is identical. Following this unparalleled display of God’s creative and providential capacity, right under his very human nose- from his grandstand view from a seat for one- Elijah the prophet of God is simply assured in his human response to his God, who is affirmed to be who Elijah knows Him to be. He knows that his life is potentially on the line, but he is resolved not to be intimidated by the threats of men and women, even of Jezebel and Ahab. Why would he be, as the very forces of nature have been released and at once constrained on his account?

Where then is God? Not in fire or quaking or wind, we have learned, but now heard against the silence. Something like whispered words invite Elijah forward from his cave where he has been taking shelter from the overwhelming energy of the elements in procession outside. The Word is Presence! A still small voice: God’s self-declaring revelation then comes in clear and simple words that can be uttered and imitated exactly by a child. Human words with meaning that can be reliably preserved for us as inky black marks on a page or screen. Elijah comes out- a little tentatively I think, with his face concealed – for he is expecting the Glory Of The Lord, and hears God’s Words that are just right. The LORD is in God’s words to Elijah.

To what effect? Is Elijah’s insistent prayerful complaint about apostate leadership to be resolved, and if so, how? YHWH God’s considered answer is to appoint better leaders, and to create of them a functional community. With teeth. Take note: the nature of the environment is no obstacle to the success of this strategy. If God sends us, expect that empty wilderness could be the route. ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.’ More surprises! The first new leader Elijah is sent to appoint is not a member of the covenant people of Israel. God’s plan begins with the others, the Gentiles. Anoint as king Hazael of a not-my-covenant land! His name, Hazael, means to see, or El/God has seen. Elijah may have expected that his current trouble with Jezebel the Canaanite queen of Ahab might result in God’s blessing being kept ‘in house’ at least for a while, but no! God’s Way Forward is WAY BIGGER than we expect. God goes on to speak of new leadership in Israel: ‘And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel.‘ Does not God’s ordering of the next part of the coming into being of God’s people in God’s world show that He is very serious about His Genesis 12 covenant promise to Abram?

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

The way the LORD instructs Elijah is so matter-of-fact. “However serious the situation looks, and you are right, Elijah, it is serious: You share my concerns, and we’ve got this.” Surely the lesson of ‘Hazael’ is that God sees all leaders in all places and times, whether in a palace, an office or even a cave. [If we jump forward to 2 Kings 8:7-15 we understand that this ‘seeing’ is the key point. Hazael is not going to act as a ‘good’ man, and the prophet of God weeps as he discerns what wickedness Hazael will eventually commit. So I think God gives Elijah a principle here in 1 Kings 19, analogous to Paul’s instruction to Timothy to pray for kings and those in authority in 1 Tim 2:2. I do not believe that God simply endorses wicked leaders. Such questions of human freedom under God are subjects for another day.]

We’re not done. Elijah is concerned that the line of prophets ends with him. ‘…and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.’  As if to say, ‘You think its all over? Not at all! Your mantle will also pass over in my order to the next generation, just as I determine.’

How will all this work? Not only does God direct Elijah to anoint and institute the next generation of kings in and beyond Israel, He shows him how these institutions will have their force and effectiveness. ‘And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.’ The leaders God gives authority to can be tremendously effective- from the smallest detail of administration to the ultimate sanction and judgement- and especially when they act in concert. While Hazael king of Syria is highlighted first, the king of Israel will back him up– another prophetic move of God’s Kingdom Come!! The kingship of Israel is itself to be backed up by the priest-kings who are the Prophets, who speak and act directly in God’s Name, not man’s. Yahweh’s full leadership plan is more than adequate to deal with all Jezebels and Ahabs and their violent doings in the community of humanity. Is God waiting for us to do Elijah’s kind of business with Him? I think so.

This chapter takes us with Elijah on a journey to contrast the ultimately inadequate views of the world that pay attention to the surfaces of things, that seek to imbue meaning in the power of elemental phenomena or our own conceptions of spirituality- even that we might reject spirituality altogether to embrace materialism- with God’s real invitation to receive the gift of God’s world for us all to come into fully functional relationship with God, with God’s creation, and with each other. The focus of this relationship is not merely in the matter of managerial stewardship of energy and materials and the flux between them all. Rather, God has a bigger vision for an ethical quality in all these relationships that enables a mode of growth and thriving beyond material limits. Elijah is an exemplar for us, though not the final word. How else could Elisha be cheeky enough to seek a double portion of his master’s spirit? (2 Kings 2:9) How else can ‘the increase of His Government and Peace be without end’? (Is 9:7)

Where is God? He is not so much ‘in’ wind, earth or fire, as disparate elements, as God is Present in the whole of His good world- in Elijah’s day already, not only in but beyond Israel, His land and chosen people. God bestowed a mantle on Elijah that was beyond earthly kingship, though it surely supported that. The nature of being God’s co-worker is that supernatural things can be brought about naturally, in partnership with the One who both creates from nothing and providentially upholds divine laws of the cycles and changes of nature. There is a sacred distance between Creator and creation: the Lord passed by… but He was not in… and thus we see transcendence and immanence in tension. By extension, God is ‘in’ Elijah by His anointing, and yet Elijah has agency to act freely as a human creature.

As we follow Elijah’s story onwards, we see that the dimensions of his influence continue to expand because God is working in covenant partnership with His creature. Might we share in this vision? Of course! That is the plain meaning of this concluding detail: ‘Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’ “I am the only one of your prophets left!” Elijah had complained, with great certainty. If we listen carefully in the thin silence we might hear two sounds. The voice of God speaking quietly with His servants, and God’s laughter. Might we despair that the power of our love for God in the world is limited compared with the powers of the elements, or the violence of monarchs and their military forces? God alerts us to His transcendent perspective: His victory is summed up in our pure kiss of worship.

Where is God to be found? My sources say that the Canaanites left no evidence of a cosmology. I am hinting that the four elements perhaps suggest something of an implicit cosmology, which the Lord rather playfully refutes. ‘No, I’m not there!’ like hide and seek. Instead, I think we are given a more significant steer. God wants to be found ‘in’ the service of His co-workers, and God desires to be ‘in’ delegated and faithful leaders who submit one to another and ultimately to God. Israel-The Church is the servant support of all nations, and all are invited to bow in sincere worship. This whole vision is prophetic of the End, a cosmology of God’s future. Structural analysis by me. (P)2021 S Thompson. Text of 1 Kings 19:11-12, 15-18 ESV

Elsewhere in this blog I am exploring what the characteristics of being a co-creator with God might be. Part of my intention is to discover the fruitfulness of dialogue between Christian theology and science. So having explored the nature of God’s created universe in the terms of the text of 1 Kings, and considered how this Earth in this Solar System in this particular galaxy at this time makes it ‘just right’ for us to be here, I want to appraise what the future might look like- the future of our cosmic environment.

Perhaps the most decisive piece of evidence that convinced geologists to repent of their mockery of Alfred Wegener is the pattern of magnetic field lines hard-baked into the under sea rocks either side of the world’s mid-ocean spreading ridges. This proof of the vast scale movement of the continents results from another phenomenon of the core, namely the irregular reversal of the whole magnetic field of the planet. This flip-flopping is what was recorded each time new molten rock emerged at the surface, preserving a record of the orientation of the field at that point in geological time. There are a lot of flipflops recorded, because the field has reversed many times over many millions of years. In 2018 a book by Alanna Mitchell drew attention to the fact that our electronic and satellite technology is known to be vulnerable to the radiation that will reach the ground at higher intensities if our field flips any time soon. Which it might well do, as the last few reversals occurred at something like 250 000 year intervals, and its been three times as long as that since we last had a major reversal. The security of our interlinked power supply networks is an engineering challenge to add to the existing vulnerabilities of our energy supplies to geopolitical stresses. Should we therefore be less confident that conditions on Earth are ‘just right’ for life after all then? No, for two reasons. The anxieties for life itself have been overstated. There are no mass extinction events correlated with field reversals. Secondly, even with a weakened field, our atmosphere will still protect living things. Additionally, we continue to be very lax in our behaviour as a species, pouring huge quantities of mutagens into our environment. We ought to be much more bothered about our self-inflicted threats to our own lives and the thriving of the biosphere as a whole.

Another not to scale graphic indicating how our magnetic field creates a protective shield against the high energy particles of the solar wind. Only a little of this aggressive radiation reaches us near the poles, though with fluctuations in the field strength, that can and does rise from time to time. Life has withstood the mutagenic effects throughout evolutionary history, though our current technology might need to be upgraded if such weakening becomes more common. See a number of live links and references at the end of this article on various aspects of this topic.

Just as the history of the Earth over deep time has further implications for the wellbeing of living things here, so does the life history of our own star, the Sun. Asteroid dating confirms that the Earth accreted from swirling dust and rock 4.54 billion years ago, about the same time as the Sun coalesced from the recycled remains of previous exploded stars. Such long periods of time are required for life to evolve. It took a while for things to get going. We humans have only been here a little while, and that is very definitively a convenient consequence of this timing. The porridge has cooled down just enough. Its all good for a long time yet. Our Sun is slowly working its way through its supply of hydrogen gas at 600 million tons a second. That’s the mass of the Earth every 70 000 years. Nothing much will change for a couple more billion years, by which point I’ll have retired and completely used up my pension. Then the sun will expand rather a lot, getting bigger and bigger as its gravity reduces, consuming Mercury and Venus and then us. Then it’ll go POP. So we’ve got plenty of time to follow Space X and launch whatever vehicles we fancy into space and get the heaven out of here. We haven’t developed much of the science and technology required to build and fly safe interstellar space colonies- we will have to take all the Goldilocks features with us. Not to worry. The Sun is our more or less friendly neighbour for a long while yet.

If we look even further afield, not just beyond our solar system but out beyond the Milky Way galaxy, we will find that our nearest galactic neighbour, Andromeda, is on a collision course with us- the whole Milky Way! At 70 miles per second. There’s a nice animation of this for you in the references below. Which means that our Sun will have consumed the Earth before the galaxies merge. I’m told that the probability of any stars actually colliding when galaxies collide is pretty low, but since we are here to do science AND theology, at some point we need to recognise that God said that He would end it all in order to bring New Creation. How and when that will happen I’m not going to speculate. As Elijah’s story makes plain, sometimes God does intervene to rectify the great ills in the world, and sometimes He does not. In any case, He charges each of us with great and serious responsibilities. I hope I have also inspired you to appreciate that there is much more of a partnership on offer than most of us have been taught or dared to dream.

A montage of galactic collisions at various stages taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. If God does not wrap up this universe beforehand, then this is what our Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will do in just under 4 billion years from now. Tickets are not yet on sale.

In brief, we find that our place in God’s cosmos is going to carry on being very comfortable for a very long time yet. Recorded history is little more than 10 000 years, and right now its looking pretty dodgy for the next 100 years. We’ve burnt too much coal and oil and gas and cut down too many trees. How much oil are we still getting through? 100 million barrels of oil a day, apparently, and we may well have no more than 10 years to arrest run away global heating. Our oceans have already become an unseemly soup of plastics and toxins that are imperilling our collective survival. Never mind a few spats over trawling rights after Brexit. When John the Baptist and Jesus were seen in Galilee, baptising fishermen, some wondered whether Elijah had returned, as Malachi prophesied (Mal 4:5-6, John 1:19, Matt 11:14, and elsewhere.) We certainly need the Elijah kind of prophetic voice in our world, doing business with God in His world, supporting kings and all those in authority in prayer and action, especially in responding to the Climate Crisis. Might you be one of the next 7000?

Now I shall be blunt- excuse me if this is currently more awkward for you. As you know very well, we humans are mortal and spiritual beings. We can and will die in the short term compared to most of what we have just rehearsed. So what do we learn?

In the final analysis, it would be a mistake to claim that our being in God’s world is completely safe. Goldilocks found a warm bowl of porridge to eat up, a convenient chair to sit on, and a comfy bed to sleep in mostly because someone else had recently cooked and dished up, and then left a range of ‘gifts’ at just the ‘right time’ for her arrival. Entirely unintentionally, says the fairy story, because the bears had simply stepped out for a brief socially isolated forest walk. Whereas God has completely intentionally gifted us with a feast of life opportunities by His Providential Design. And he comes close by, hoping that we will respond with humility and a little courage to greet Him. Our life here and now is only a short season, but God has even better things to come.

I’ve said this already, and now I will whisper it quietly again against the silence. We are enjoyed the gifts of God’s created world, finding that it has so many ‘just right’ features. But little girls and old ladies all- every one of us- must now shoulder our responsibilities to make our own homes, grow our food and heat our own porridge, creating lives which are corporately sustainable and characterised by sharing and caring. On the scale of the whole planet. Planet A. Its the only one we’ve got. Some of us have taken much more than we need, so others cannot find just enough.

Elijah learnt constancy with Yahweh, the covenant God, and at the last his confidence in God was vindicated. At the end of his life’s ministry, as we see it recorded at 2 Kings 2:3–9, Elijah does not share the general destiny of man, to be buried in a hole in the earth. Rather, he spectacularly rises through the air on a fire chariot our God sends to carry him up and beyond Elisha’s sight, who catches sight of him as he does, and carries on in the Way with YHWH. With his God, Elijah transcends all the elements- represented in these chapters by water, air, earth and fire. Such a man is this intercessor, anointer of kings and prophets: mighty prophet, Elijah, the priest-king co-creator of Yahweh.

The cosmos is full of wonders, but we need not seek the face of God in the giant winds of a gas planet or its aurora, lit up by streaming plasma. Nor in the clash of asteroids, or even in the furnace of a fusing star. Revelation comes to those who are God’s own, and God can ensure that you will hear His voice. Listen out for the still small voice.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

This is the Day that The LORD has made: We will reorientate and go gardening in it!

Six tips for starting your day as a co-creator with God.

I have a hunch the the Bible has nearly all the best advice for starting your day- yes, Today, Now, THIS DAY! Readers of this blog will know that the web is awash with advice, especially the easily packaged kind that fits a catchy format: ‘Ten tips for health social relationships.’ ‘Maximise your potential in life!’ ’17 Ways You Can Be A Better Person Than You Were Yesterday’ Seventeen?! That’s not so catchy- surely they could have put in three more to round it off to twenty. Or maybe you’re intrigued by the odd number and so want to check it out. I learned two things when I glanced over some of those sites. One is that much of the advice is the same, and presented in a rather trite way. I know- folk often complain that ‘common sense’ isn’t half as common as it ought to be, so now I’m being hard to please. The second is that the value of the advice may be somewhat compromised. The author is seeking my attention- to get me to listen to them, to click their buttons, to subscribe to their channel, and buy their app/ book/ commit to supporting their career. They may have fantastic things to pass on, but can I really trust what they are saying- can I trust them?

The Christian disciple discovers the need to be discerning. Yes folk, there’s a spiritual gift for that. (Free download at 1 Corinthians 12:10 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%2012:10&version=ESV. Check it out!!) Much of that common sense advice I read is actually really good and we’d all be smart to adopt more of it. That’s not ‘being conformed to this world’- that’s wisdom! But at the same time, ‘Broad is the way that leads to destruction…’ The thing about wisdom is that if you haven’t already got it in abundance- who has??- you’re not quite sure what it is. I don’t think it’s just me. I need help.

“Beware blind guides!”

When we get to the end of the road of life, how much of that ‘good advice’ will prove to have been really valuable? What are the long term effects of following the seventeen tips? I put it to you that behind the advice are assumptions about what we could be as human beings, and what purposes we might be here for. We need to evaluate the motives of the would-be motivator. Best of all, we need a reliable guide. That’s someone who knows the whole journey, thoroughly explored the territory, and thrives in Life– they are so much more than a survivor of their experiences. Who could that be, and where is their website?!

This week I listened to a guy called Pete who claims to have widely researched the things that high performing people do in their mornings- how they start their day1– and distilled his insights down into six simple statements. That’s what academics call a meta-analysis; a study of existing studies. One study, one claim, one researcher could be wrong, even downright deceiving, but an overview of many studies on the same thing should iron out such pitfalls. But the researcher doing the meta-analysis also needs to be checked out. I couldn’t help thinking that much of what Pete had to say sounded familiar because it’s in the Bible, and for all I know about Pete right now, perhaps that’s no accident.

First off, I note there are six things in his list, which is a format he repeats in his coaching. My very first post in this blog was a product of morning prayer where a sister made reference to the Genesis days of creation. This speaks both of our sustained efforts during the week, and also crucially recognises the vital place of Rest; the Seventh Day, when God rested- and if you don’t get that is a big hint, let me spell it out for you. God’s Work in making God’s Cosmos has a built-in space for ‘not work’. Work is good and work is a gift; and it isn’t everything. Rest is supposed to be part of the repeating pattern of our lives. Let me say it again: God didn’t say He worked for a week of seven days and then finished everything and stopped working, as Almighty omnipotent God obviously could have done. Rather, Genesis sets out a repeating pattern for us, of working and resting, which is prophetic: there is more in God’s planning than just the work of this life. God’s rest is part of every week, and that is pointing forwards to something. Even in creation, God’s cosmos is pregnant with further potential.

So what did Pete claim to have distilled from his research of proven practice? Here’s his list, and just like a preacher’s sermon, it comes in an acronym: ‘SAVERS’.

  • silence
  • affirmation
  • visualisation
  • exercise 
  • reading
  • scribing

All very reasonable, yes? My advice to us all is to check these out for their quality and reliability, and I’m suggesting that if we find evidence of application of these exercises in scripture, worked out in the context of a holistic scriptural worldview, then we can be more confident that these tips are well-motivated and compatible with eternal values. They will be worth doing. Remember, we are looking for depth, a sense of what really matters for our development; to set us up for the day so the world becomes different in a good way because we were in it. There’s nothing at all controversial in this list, I think we can agree. Make no mistake. Common wisdom can still be priceless wisdom. I’ve called myself a ‘common or garden theologian’- see my second post where I explain how our ‘common’ should be very much esteemed.

Silence. This may seem to be hard, or less of a challenge right now, depending on your family and living arrangements. We are at different stages of life. But more significant than changing external challenges is our internal dialogue. We can allow other voices into our heads -unhelpfully so. Indeed, some find that they wake up with a crowd of thoughts clamouring for attention, an ever-present flock of noisy seagulls. Just because the business of the new day is important, just because we want to care about stuff that needs fixing, just because… No! Stop! Not now, not just yet.

“Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side…” began Katharina von Schlegel in her hymn inspired by the words of Psalm 46;

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

Psalm 46: 10

The I AM is our first realisation. ‘In-beginning-God’ is a slightly better way to read Genesis 1:1a and this is to be our first breath of consciousness each day. There is a big pause at that colon of punctuation in Ps46. God also sees the big sheet of paper of a potential ‘to do’ list’: even God puts that on hold! ‘I will do this and that- the ungodly and all their rubbish, the earth and all that I will decide to do there,’ God says, ‘but it’ll all wait.’ Be still. Be. Still. What the online coaches don’t get quite so right is the fellowship that we are invited into in this waiting and stillness. This is not to be an empty stillness- we are not alone in the non-cosmos before creation. We are in God’s cosmos with God, Who is close by, and He tells us not to be empty in silence but full of knowledge of our covenant God.

Still in mind, still in body, still in thoughts, in all our meditation, in our internal dialogue. At the glorious moment of revelation, “My Lord and my God!” cried the believing disciple.

…but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:31 ESV

We are seated with Christ, we are told in Ephesians, in high heavenly places. Isaiah is seeing something of that, I think. Have you seen film of the view that condors and eagles enjoy as they soar the thermals above their mountainous habitats? All sounds of the hustle and bustle down on the ground are forgotten: just the sound of the wind moving by as the bird senses swirling currents, adjusting its feathers to glide without its own effort where the atmosphere flows. Indeed, the more accurately the bird follows the current, the less sound there will be. Sustained in silence. All at once: sitting still; soaring in the heavens.

Affirmation. Once we find our centring in our relationship with God, each of us individually, we are then well-placed to open our mouths and start to speak. What will we speak about? Our needs and wants? Better is possible. Our personal aims and priorities? There’s a time coming for that. The trouble with modern houses is that the foundations are only substantial enough to support the initial design. If you then want to extend your property, you’re stuck, because the foundations are limiting. What does Gen 1:1 tell us about God’s intentions? He created ‘heavens-and-earth’: that’s the complete and total vision from the outset. All of life will be possible; the potential for as-yet-unrealised life in spectacular diversity, even things that are not specifically mentioned in the creation chapters. Advanced planning permissions built in! One of the attractive points that wiser mentors like Pete make here is that there is no value in affirming lies about yourself just because you want them to be true. “I am rich OR I am famous OR I’ve won the TV competition!” Taking up the cross of Christ is death to such fancies. And that is what the words of Deuteronomy say to us: God has affirmed his options before His people, and we do well to align ourselves with Him, to affirm His will. Then we can find a place for affirmation of our ambitions in the fertile soil of His larger purpose.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:19,20

‘Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness,’ says Jesus, ‘and all these things will be given to you as well.’ There is sword as well as Spirit in all these words, and though it is necessary to allow God to surgically remove certain hinderances from my life, once I have allowed God’s pruning through repentance, I find that ‘the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.’ (Psalm 16:6a)

“My God, you have given me Life! I choose You, and I choose Your Life.  Thank you for establishing Your Kingdom; I seek Your Kingdom today, and through faith in Jesus receive Your righteousness. I revel in Your boundaries, that set in Your cosmos an expanse of freedom in which to create today with You.”  Such prayerful affirmation is therefore grounded on the true foundation of Godself and God’s revealed intentions. We are encouraged to exercise ambitious responsibility for our own lives and for the impact that our lives can have on the communities in which we live and work; even for the whole world.

Visualisation. Following the silence, when we prioritise who we are, and even more importantly, ‘whose‘ we are, we can daily affirm the big vision we are living and working towards. Aim for the stars! Some people can make achieving big things look easy. That may well also be a lie, since their lives are far from ours and so we don’t really know them. We just don’t see the hard work. But the bar for success is going up all the time, so if we want to achieve greatness in life in some way or another, we all have to up our game. Elite performers in sport and the Arts talk about nurturing a mindset in which they visualise what they are going to do before they attempt it, and they actively rehearse this as they commence their next attempt. This is in addition to all of the actual gym work and training and rehearsal and sweat that everyone does just to get onto the stage, onto the track, into the race as a competitor. Those are absolutely necessary and there are no substitutes for all that. Who knows what percentage difference that visualisation makes to the winning performance? But the biblical testimony corroborates the claim- this is a sound principle.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.  Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.13I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:10-13

I’ll guarantee that there are people reading this who are very familiar with verse 13, but were not expecting me to give the preceding lines as well. As I say, its a great principle, though the way the Spirit of God sometimes invites us to apply it will be pretty demanding. I’m not sure how many of the life-coach manuals will include Jesus’ pep talk on taking up one’s cross daily and following after Him. A friend recently told me that his grandmother had an addition to our Lord’s instruction, once rebuking him thus: “Carry your cross, don’t drag it.” That is the visualisation of a seasoned disciple!

What the motivational manual is missing is partnership, and I don’t mean human teamwork here. I’ll come back to that. Rather, I mean the teamwork that God invites you into with Godself. If this is a surprise to you, you may be new here: please explore the rest of my blog, and hang around while I keep reflecting on Abram and Sarai and Joseph and all the rest. God could do it all without us. OR God could leave us to it. Neither are His selected method. He invites us into a partnership of co-creation, just because He wants to. How this works varies in Genesis and with Elijah and Ruth and Eve and Adam… and with you and me. But this is what the word of prophecy is about. And words of knowledge and discerning of spirits. Joseph’s story starts with two dreams. It doesn’t say where they came from, but by the end of the very long Genesis account, God has been found out! Right here I’m simply going to say that how all these things work is complex and creative. There is no simple recipe in any of these means, as in, “God says that x is going to happen, so now sit by and watch it happen.” That wouldn’t be a co-creative partnership of agents – even vastly unequal agents as we are- that would be a computer program. No, all these means of visualisation are inclusive of our agency. And the prayer our Lord taught us is the most spectacular example of this. ‘Pray in this manner: “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done!” ‘ If we don’t visualise and so pray, then it can’t happen- because God has ordained it in this manner.

Exercise. Now I’m not going to mess you about here. I can spin a yarn, as my readers will know, but I’m not going to do that now- teasing out some obscure passage to justify a point. Instead, I’ll say this: There is lots of good advice that isn’t in the Bible, and that doesn’t stop it being wisdom or valuable or world changing in a “very good” way. Wisdom that is compatible with ‘spiritual’ wisdom is still spiritual. As one brother puts it, ‘Everything is spiritual,’ even for the Christian. Including science and sport and working out. Far too many of us now lead highly sedentary lives that are bad for our bodies. My gut does not believe there will be jam tomorrow, so extra jam today becomes fat by tomorrow- unless I work it off with some extra miles. Scripture takes it for granted that we will use our God-given bodies for work. ‘If a man doesn’t work, he shall not eat,’ says Paul, in one of his rare lines that does not require theological explanation. We can now write the manual on why gluttony is not fitting for a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (which is how Paul refers to the physical body of a Christian person in 1 Corinthians 6:19). Our growingly technologically-transformed lifestyles, lately doubled-down with uninterrupted working from home online, require us to take responsibility for what goes into our mouths, the daily exercise we attend to, and our overall attention to the health of our bodies, which benefit from the ever-more progressively advanced medical expertise known in human history. ‘To him who has been given much, much will be required.’ Pete recommends a seven minute, full body workout for all the office desk jockeys out there, as a non-negotiable part of his six part daily preparation for high performance. This is no ‘quack’ prescription! Indeed, I suggest that this truth demands as much repentance and ‘turning around the other way’ in our lives as any of our other common failings.

Reading. Oh wow. What a key ingredient this is! Our researcher-coach Pete puts it powerfully when he observes that we are only ever one book away from competence in any area of life we seek to excel at, both in business and our personal lives. Yet so many of us don’t commit even ten minutes a day to benefit from such insights. I have to testify that no other activity has had as much impact on my progress and personal development as reading, starting as a young person. Through reading we can come into deep and profound connection with experts who we will never meet, gaining priceless insights from their detailed reflections. You may think this obvious, but for too many Christians, there is an opportunity being missed here. The denominational divisions in the body of Christ are common knowledge, and while the choices that led to schism may lie generations in the past, we each stand to gain much by finding out what others think- what their distinctives are, which convictions they are committed to- what their stories are. Too many people of faith would be embarrassed to admit that, in truth, they follow the teaching of cults that forbid their members from reading anything other than the recommended writings of their core teachers and leaders. In our more sober moments- perhaps in some public context- we happily concede that we fully expect all Christian people to be united in God’s will in heaven in the hereafter. But this does not translate into an active engagement with folk who think and live out their faith differently today. Once again I emphasise that I have been encouraged to grow in more radical and impacting ways through my engagement with sources well beyond the typical limits of the reading list of my local circle and denomination. As a would-be theologian, that has included engaging with a wide range of saints and authors across the ages- and what a delight that has been! I now see how tragic our present state of small-mindedness is. Our personal discipleship is severely inhibited, and, inevitably, so is our influence in society as witnesses to New Creation Life in Jesus Christ.

[I must acknowledge that since YOU are reading this now, it is likely that I am now ‘preaching to the choir’ somewhat. Nevertheless, let’s reflect on how wide our (virtual) bookshelf is right now. Is this blog amongst the further places you’ve been from ‘home’? If it is, let me encourage you onwards to more distant lands and the friends that you can make there.]

The Word of God is described by Paul as having the same effect on our minds as taking a bath: washing of water by the word (Eph 5:26). It has become customary to apply this metaphor rather literally in this regard- all you need is the Bible. No need to consult commentaries, reference books or the opinions of theologians. Just read the Biblical scripture by itself and trust that God will teach us directly, illuminating and revealing truth to us personally and completely by God’s Spirit. I am happy to testify that this is, sometimes, even often; wonderfully! – my own experience. But as the poverty of attitude and narrow wisdom of this practice dawned on me some years ago, I can only urge my readers here to entertain this hypothesis- other experienced commentators from across the ages of the Church could offer a small dose of soap to your bathing water. Then the efficacy of our learning can be increased. I don’t want to say that these writers add to God’s revelation, but they certainly help me to appreciate what God has put in plain sight, but that may nevertheless remained concealed from my view, perhaps due to secrets of ancient grammar and context. There is a double-think practiced in many local churches: it is accepted that the preacher should consult a reference book, but the congregation is subtly discouraged from doing so.

Our engagement with the Bible needs to be much more multifaceted as a general rule. I was amazed to hear from a senior Catholic sister that she had only been permitted to read the Bible, and in English, rather than to hear it read in Mass in Latin, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This certainly opened my eyes to the freedoms that Protestants have enjoyed in regard to personal scripture reading. But I wonder if her envy was somewhat misplaced, as our knowledge of the scripture, and our study of the deeper truths that we need wise assistance to understand, have generally been given so little attention.

Again, we Christians are too suspicious of our brethren. I quoted a brother a couple of paragraphs ago, but did not name him. I was afraid that you might judge what he said because of what else you might have heard about him. The list of ‘fallen’ leaders is growing rapidly at the moment, not to mention those who have fallen out of favour because of the allegiances they have developed during their lives, and so trespassing across our theological red lines. Yesterday’s fêted spiritual guide has become today’s pariah- ‘pariah’ was the name for a certain low caste Indian- a so-called ‘untouchable’. Jesus kept company with unconverted sinners, and notwithstanding our divine calling to holiness, Jesus continues to keep company with converted sinners. Some of what I say is deficient. Will you be wise enough to extend grace to me, and listen to what you hear God saying through me, despite my rank faults?

In brief, a similar point could further be made about our engagement with subjects beyond the traditional borders of Christian thinking. How can we bring a convincing apologetics and witness to aspects of modern life, such as in science and medicine, if we do not engage with writing and thought in these disciplines? A sermon should not be preached from the Daily Mail, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take notice of what is being said in newspapers, bring our Bibles alongside, and seek to apply the mind of Christ in us to what we find in society and culture.

Scribing is a pretentious word for ‘writing’ that completes the acronym SAVERS– Pete’s sixth recommendation for a would-be high performer starting their day. He’s not just talking about writing in general. Specifically, this is about a strategy for growing my effectiveness today. Chances are, since you are reading this, you know how to be busy- you are busy. You know what a ‘to do’ list is, and some idea about aims and objectives. But these are abstracted, impersonal things. Pete claims, though I’ve not seen his sources, that research shows that five minutes spent on structured reflective statements like these make a significant difference:

Three things I’m grateful for today.

And then the three most important things to do to make today a great day. What shall I attempt that will make the most difference?

There you go. Try it now. Then get a notebook, a journal, an app if you must, and keep doing it.

Do you see how this structure translates the abstracted and impersonal into the very personal. This isn’t Pete’s tip for high achievement; its a tip for high achievers. It’s you and me that will, or won’t, make the difference in our work today. The attitude of gratitude picks up the threads of all that is there already, what’s in my past, what has been given to me, and orients me forwards. Gratitude is the powerful antidote we need to combat complaining, fault-finding and one-upmanship.

Opening the psalms, we find:

15 I will tell people how good you are.
    I will tell about all the times you saved me—
    too many times to count.
16 I will tell about your greatness, my Lord God.
    I will talk only about you and your goodness.
17 God, you have taught me since I was a young boy.
    And to this day I have told people about the wonderful things you do.

Psalm 71: 15-15 Easy to read version.

There’s at least three concrete reasons for gratitude right there.

And perhaps three goals as well.

Is it me, or does the gratitude segue seamlessly into significant determination for action? We’ll all just have to try it and find out. I think Pete is right- I’m calling it. Focus on why my life is already amazing, rather than complaining, and test out the hypothesis that what we focus on becomes our reality.

I really appreciate how Pete concluded his workshop. We are desperate for quick results, he said, but listen. In looking back on a long journey of growth through adversity, no-one regrets a part of it, because, in hindsight, they are richer because of every lesson learnt. Sure- avoid downright stupidity if possible. But be at peace with the process; live and then work with urgency but not anxiety. I think St Paul would concur:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-6 ESV

IN SUMMARY

Beginning the next day in meditative silence and stillness with God.

In addition to our personal prayerful grounding in God, affirm aloud with God who we find we are made to become in partnership in God’s Kingdom, declaring how our mission is a contribution to showing the Glory of God in this world.

Developing spiritual ‘dreams and visions’ inspired and blessed in God into visualisations of our service and daily work.

If significant exercise is not a part of your day at some other time, or perhaps even if it is, build in an early concentrated session to wake up and tune up your whole physiology.

A wider commitment to reading – our Bibles certainly- and so much more in addition, opens us to the parallel lives of saints and sinners from whom we can learn and benefit so much. In particular, we should repent of the false mindset that it is somehow spiritual to detach our working minds from our believing hearts. If you are a parent, ensure you model this with your children!

Aside from whatever else you write, make a point of scribing each day about what provokes you to gratitude- we so need to practise this!- and focus our ‘to do’ lists onto just (three) clincher outcomes. Three things to attempt that will have us shouting ‘Very good!’ at the end of the day.

I’ve tried to guide us through this process of assessing the worthiness of the common sense Pete drew out from his research. He has many more podcasts and tutorials, which I have not listened to. I can see this six point lesson is not meant to be comprehensive. But I’m going to say it here in my reflection. There’s something missing, and I promised it to you near the beginning. As a Christian, I am responsible, by myself, before God, for many things, and I can succeed in my today without anyone else being involved. Its just me and God, so I can’t blame anyone for my failures. But this ‘truth’ only applies up to a point. I can draw my salary on it, most of the time. I am a school teacher, most of the time, so ‘up to a point’ arrives pretty quickly in my working day! So I want to say here that teamworking needs to be a key part of our mindset as we tackle Pete’s prep track each day. How am I grateful for my co-workers, my students…? Am I ready to affirm them as I affirm myself? Can we visualise our success together?

And in the Church, this is multiplied a hundred times over. We have a idol in the midst- the idol of the individual ‘saint’. Yes, we Protestant folk who apparently were so zealous for God that we cheered as statues and icons were erased from church buildings have replaced the smashed up marble and whitewashed walls with … ourselves! ‘Its all about me,’ we whisper beneath our breath, hoping not to be caught out.

Paul taught us a different lesson about what happened when Jesus left his disciples to continue the work of announcing the biggest project in the history of the cosmos, the Kingdom of God:

11 And [Jesus] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[c] and teachers,[d]12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, …

Ephesians 4:11-13 ESV The paragraph is very long, from v8 to 16. See the full sense there!

This is teamwork taken to a whole new level. Even if I am reading these tips with regard to my personal business venture, I am challenged to take account of this mindset. If what I am doing- my missioning- is truly compatible with the priorities of the Kingdom of God, then I am challenged to embrace this perspective. On their side, we need to show church leaders that there are ministers of Christ ‘out there’ in the marketplace, and all are to be brought together into functional unity.

Thanks Pete for your valuable analysis and practical encouragements. I have benefitted from your ‘reorientation’ and can now go back out into God’s garden, at peace in the knowledge of His constant partnership with me. I understand that my ‘gardening’ will be even more effective when I draw others closer to me- I admit I can’t really succeed by myself!- and share my skills and gifts with them as we work in the world alongside one another.

1 The Six Morning Habits of High Performers Pete Mockaitis on LinkedIn.

There are no pictures in this post. Visualisation is your job!

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

Suddenly, I notice I am being followed.

Genesis 3: 22-24

Reading Genesis is hard for many reasons. We are often blind to the assumptions we’ve been schooled in. It’s so easy to read any familiar passage of scripture, automatically returning to yesterday’s manna, chewing over the same aspect of the truth that spoke powerfully to us in an earlier Day. Sure, there is room for varieties of interpretation, which is healthy. However, we should be alert to the possibility that our teachers have led us into entrenched and rather one-dimensional interpretations. I wonder if this is one of those important cases.

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 3: 22-24 ESV

Who wants to be an outsider? Any volunteers for being locked out? I don’t see any hands. Some of us are rather happy in our own company, while others crave pretty much constant connection. We can move up and down that scale as we please- at least we thought we could, until the pandemic. We find we can’t go out – we certainly shouldn’t meet with people. We ought to stay in. After a year of this, even the hardest of hard-nosed loners realise its not quite so healthy to be cut off from society, even if you can read more books and write a blog. Mental health is moving up our scale of social priorities, and it will be there for a good while. Though even in the digital realm, I am not really alone. It’s great to ‘meet’ fellow bloggers here and find that some of you even like to ‘follow’ me for a while. Thanks!

But our present circumstances are not at all those described in our scripture passage, which is highly unlikely to be selected as the text for a spiritually-comforting wall poster. Meditate on this for five minutes, and if you’ve kept it up for that long, you’re at the edge of weeping, if not actually crying.

This closure sounds very permanent. “The Way is Shut!”1 To attempt to re-enter God’s Garden that Way is a hopeless quest. Though such a mission is not possible, the implication- if we could attempt it- is of total refusal, if not immediate death, which is what was warned the first time in God’s garden 2(Gen 2:17), though God’s mercy was unexpectedly extended.

Which is why we need not weep for long. Because God’s surprising unexpected mercy continues! The cherubim and the flaming sword are not chasing us down. They are guarding the Way. Now this is crucial. Do you notice that the text does not say, ‘Destroy the way…’ or ‘Remove the tree…’ Why the emphasis on ‘guard’? This is a clear sign of ultimate hope, as Revelation confirms: the Tree of Life endures and it will be found in the New Jerusalem. J.R.R. Tolkein had it absolutely right in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ when he has the king of the Dead say [spoiler alert!] to the future king Aragorn that the way is ‘kept.’ My own house and garden are full of things that I am keeping in hope for use on a far-off day that, frankly, I cannot see! It seems that God’s garden is just the same. The different is, His foresight is better than mine.

Well and good. But that’s in the distant future- the certain future that God is keeping for us on the ‘other side.’ At this point in Genesis, the outlook seems rather bleak, because there is a great deal of the book of Genesis and the whole of the rest of the Old Testament to go before much ‘Way’ and ‘Life’ is in evidence.

While presently our lives do go on, our so-called ‘global’ society is bearing the open wounds of division at all sorts of levels. You can see the signs even when nobody is about. In the provincial neighbourhood of Kent in the UK where I live, 30 miles or so from London, there is growing evidence of the desire to barricade oneself inside; to keep various ‘undesirables’ out. More streets and neighbourhoods have become ‘gated communities’, with artisan produced metal gates guarding closed driveways only accessed by an electronic key code. The better-off and well-to-do have opaque fences, high walls and CCTV, with terse signage that makes it abundantly clear that one is not welcome.

OK, so I’ve not seen alligators in drainage ditches yet, but it’s only a matter of time, what with climate change and all that.

Ever-steeper stone zig-zag walls, known in Japanese as “yokoya gakari,” topped by prominent guard towers, “yagura,” commanding a view of the inaccessible moat around Osaka Castle. Whatever beauties are concealed within are very much ‘off limits.’ You won’t be breaking in here without the cooperation and welcome of the occupants.

I love castles. They are quite simply beautiful piles of stones, veritable gardens of architecture that once enclosed a complete functioning community. Created from reorganised rocks, occupying prominent geographic positions, they were built to withstand weather, time and assaults of all kinds. Now generally abandoned, though intermittently maintained by benign historians, they offer the imaginative an enticing doorway into the distant past. I’ve parted with more than a few pounds to get past the gatekeepers of English Heritage with my growing family to roam amongst many ruins, exploring long-abandoned dungeons; then clambering tight spiral staircases to lofty rooftops and battlements. Our kids would chase around with abandon, hiding from each other for a few moments before peeking out from some orifice, wanting to be found again. The laughter of many children would echo back and forth between imposing walls as they frolicked with little caution and completely without fear.

From such historical distance, it is rather easy to nurture two conceits. The first is that when loitering within the curtain walls of a tumble-down medieval castle I am meaningfully close to the royal folk- the actual kings and queens of England and Scotland and Wales- who most certainly used to frequent such places. The second is that the likes of me and my crowd could actually have seen the inside of such places at all when they were really alive. To be close to them and to have the same perspective on things as their inhabitants- to be somewhat equal. Both conceptions are bogus. Whatever and whoever was considered to have been of value back in those days would most likely not have included me. I suppose I might have seen the castle walls from a distance- from the outside! The message sent by this huge pile of dressed stone was very clear. Keep out! Stay away! Any hopes I might have nurtured for admittance could -at best- only have been realised as an unequal: as a very temporary, merely tolerated servant.

So I will now turn to much more recent example in history to further consider the predicament we find in Genesis 3: 24. As the political temperature rose alarmingly in Europe in 1938, the news was full of dread and earnest talk- talk about avoiding both international squabbling and the dreaded fighting it would otherwise lead to. There had been the Great War just a couple of decades previous, killing 20 millions and wounding a similar number. Mr Chamberlain returned to Britain from the Munich conference in September, triumphantly waving a white piece of paper, to much popular acclaim both in Britain and across Europe. Time would prove whether the words written on that paper were worth the trouble taken to secure them. Was the promise to be trusted? Would it be believed? Most prayed both would be so, but tragedy, not triumph, followed. The military build up by Germany was followed by a merciless campaign of conquest across Poland, then the Low Countries, and on, just as rapidly, into France. The massed tank charge was coupled with dive bombing from the skies: ‘Blitzkrieg’ entered the vocabulary of the English and the world.

So while Belgium had been overrun, France surrendered before the invading tanks were able reach Paris in anger, and the British Expeditionary Force completely abandoned its armour and sailed away across the Channel on an improbable fleet of ‘Little Ships.’ This escape was only possible because the German tanks paused outside Dunkirk. Military historians cannot fully explain this aversion of final disaster for the BEF. Some say that, coupled with the courage of the ‘Little Ship’ captains, a national call to prayer was in fact the last effective weapon that brought a third of a million British and French back to the English coast unharmed. Heaven only knows.

A surviving pillbox on the River Medway at Leigh, Tonbridge. There are many of these defensive structures all along the River to Maidstone where I live, and down to join the line of similar structures installed in their thousands during 1940 around the coastline.

Now there was a standoff between the opposing forces, separated by the best defence that Britain has ever boasted of: the English Channel, or La Manche, as our French friends call it. Even the Nazis were begrudgingly awed by this barrier, or the theoretical threat it might allow, so they chopped down every tree near the north French coast to form concrete shuttering for constructing their Atlantic Wall to keep us out. The Nazis kept detailed paperwork through the war, maintaining the German habit. I read that just the French section of the 6200km wall then cost 3.7 billion Reichsmarks. In the air, the Battle of Britain raged, and, as well as Hurricanes and ‘The Few,’ PM Winston Churchill sent the English language into battle against Herr Hitler and the ‘Nazi menace.’ If that wasn’t amusing enough as a military strategy, British plans for D-Day also included divisions of inflatable rubber tanks and aeroplanes that were deployed in Kent to fool German reconnaissance into thinking the main invasion would be in Calais, not Normandy. Again, Britain prayed, and the combination of courage and subterfuge paid off.

Perhaps I digress. My principle point is about the imposing line of concrete gun emplacements and defensive structures built from 1942 all along the coast of France to discourage any attack by sea on Nazi-controlled France, in which, by 1944, a prodigious quantity of static weapons and energetic soldiers were installed. Behind all this were divisions of highly mobile Panzer tanks, able to deploy quickly to defend weak points at will. I am asking you to forget that you know what finally happened- for a long time the cause seemed hopeless. It was hopeless. Britain was alone, and her defences could not be expected to withstand the gathering storm of an apparently inevitable Nazi invasion- just as soon as the RAF had been cleared from the skies by the Luftwaffe. The fight was not at all equal. Even if the Nazis did not invade, the odds against a successful breaching of the Atlantic Wall were overwhelming.

This calculation was only changed when the Americans fully joined the war after Pearl Harbour. Then it was the Nazi’s turn to be afraid. It might take a long time, but with resolve, there could now be countering of Hitler’s aggression. Repeated massed bombing raids were carried out, day and night, against the German war machine.

Over 1100 of the thousands of slave labourers forced to build this 35,000 square metre U boat factory between 1943 and 1945 are known to have died from exhaustion, starvation, illness and random killings. Bunker ‘Valentin’ at Bremen-Farge on the River Weser has now been converted to a memorial to all those enslaved and those whose lives were lost.

The Great War has become known as the war of trenches, the first tanks, and most horrifically of all, the machine gun. The leaps in technology applied to warfare which multiplied in World War Two are legion, though surely one of the most significant was the production of concrete, deployed effectively since Roman times, but now on an utterly prodigious scale. Concrete is a composite material – its effectiveness structurally and in resisting explosive impact results from the ground of cement, sand and stones on the one hand, and the rods of steel into which the wet slurry is poured before it chemically reacts and sets permanently, enclosing the framework. You can see some of the steel reinforcing bar is now exposed in the photograph above, where a just a little of the concrete has cracked away due to weathering. The steel confers tensile strength, while the concrete resists compression. What was so effective in the Atlantic Wall defences is seen here in the bomb-proof metres-thick walls of this vast U boat factory. You see one of the few openings in the walls, though now lacking its doors and active defences. In recent years it was wondered whether this Nazi-designed monstrosity could be finally demolished and removed from landscape, but this plan was finally abandoned. Even in peacetime, the technical challenge and costs are simply prohibitive. This realisation emphasises the conclusion I have been leading you toward: if you aren’t supposed to be there, if you are not welcome, you won’t be getting in. The building itself- I hope it is not disrespectful to ask you to focus on that, though we are very conscious of the ghastly historical context- remains a model of impregnability. If I had seen the Atlantic Wall in the 1940s, I would most likely have died there. If I had seen the walls of the Bremen bunker, most likely I would have died- either inside or out. Passing unopposed was not a likely option. Without a very significant change in the odds, all ways are shut.

I wonder if it is the kindness of God that spares us much description of just how much has been lost by the first couple in Genesis chapter three. They had been as much insiders as it is possible to imagine. The most vociferous critics of Judeo-Christian spirituality are not shy to accuse us of laughable wishful thinking in suggesting that after an incomprehensible pause in heaven, where God has apparently been keeping company with Godself, that for no explicable reason God decides to create everything, and put little us in the middle of this cosmos- apparently just because God decides to be more friendly. How naively anthropomorphic- how conceited?! Well, such is the mysterious logic of Divine Love. God doesn’t need to, but God chooses to. I suppose it would be foolish- worse; embarrassingly narcissistic, if it wasn’t true. The truth is revealed in Genesis: God decided to make a cosmos and creatures and a particular creature, made in God’s tselem and demut; in God’s ‘image and likeness‘, which, in some bordering-on-the-heretical manner means ‘equal‘.

We find we are in God’s garden. With our King; like our King!

Fresco and enlarged view of The Expulsion (of ancestors) from Eden (Cacciata dei progenitori dall’Eden)  by the Italian Early Renaissance artist Masaccio, around 1425, on a pillar in the the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Masaccio was a forerunner to the teacher of Michaelangelo.

Where was the ‘Garden of Eden’? What happened to it? Could it be searched for, perhaps as archaeologists might track down the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’? These are not trivial questions, and they are not put to the text in a disrespectful manner, but they do nevertheless misread what Genesis is offering to us- what it reveals. One of my main aims in this blog is to explore what the Genesis ‘worldview’ really consists of, and I propose that this is found in the focus of the whole book on the relationships between God, God’s creation and God’s human creatures. More significantly that Eden as an identified place is what happened there; what it represents; what therefore is being said when the first couple are sent out. Eden is where God placed and related with God’s own companions- they are royal companions, in the royal circle, though not exactly equal with God. Not mini-gods or minor deities or any of that sort of thing. If you study Classics you will know why I say that. ‘Eden’ is the realm of intimate relationship between God and God’s humanity. The Garden is an inside space, analogous to the court of heaven, though distinct, where God allows, invites, enjoys, revels in fellowship unity with God’s chosen and elect. ‘Special,’ which is another redeemable word. The Genesis picture of the ‘Royal Eden Garden’ is a means to an end, making the nature of this first relationship understandable in human terms. It deftly paints a core part of the Genesis worldview.

And so it is this relationship, in so many of its beautiful facets, that is being severed in God’s words in chapter three. But God is restrained in His anger, in judgement and in decree. God is much pained by the impasse which we must face under God’s sovereign justice. There has been Sin, and there must be Penalty, yet somehow God finds mercy for our parents. ‘Dying you shall die‘ somehow becomes transformed into exile. It is still unutterably painful for the human couple, who do not speak. They have to do as they are told. God speaks and decrees; God acts, just as in chapter one, and so Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of fellowship, for if they ate of the second tree there would be, God reveals- only God can know this, and what a wonder that it is revealed to us- a final cosmic disaster would follow if they were allowed to do so. I am still musing on how much freedom was conferred on humankind in Genesis, but here the text is clear. You will not be allowed to take of the Life fruit, though it seemed, theoretically, to have once been possible.

In chapter one, God’s spoken Word of Creation was quite enough, but for emphasis, now there is a multi-layered seal placed over the Divine decree. Cherubim are stationed at the exit- that’s plural, you realise, just in case one is not sufficient. Whatever cherubim are, I doubt that any expedition to argue with them is likely to succeed. As if that’s not enough however, God also sets up a flaming sword. Now the text doesn’t say the sword was held by the cherubim- we rather get the impression that it was not held by any agent. God’s word, God’s will, God’s decree, His army, His weapons: all add up to an utterly impregnable mystery. This is what is wonderful about the revelation of the Genesis text. It says things that cannot be easily said in representational pictures, though in the 1400s in Florence, not so many people could read, or were even allowed to read, so pictures were encouraged to assist the telling of biblical narrative. When Masaccio and other friends decorated all the internal surfaces of their local church buildings with frescoes, we got one burly hovering cherub in a big red dress trying to look elegant while pointing a very long cold sword in the general direction of the fleeing couple, waving vaguely towards the east with its other arm. My research tells me that Masacchio’s skilful handling of pigment and plaster was significantly inspirational to the generations of artists that followed, not least a certain Michelangelo. Unfortunately the text itself is not handled so luminously. The couple are portrayed naked, which is not at all what Genesis tells us. There we read that God is the first to kill and thereby institute animal sacrifices by clothing them in skins before sending them away. This detail also passed by the embarrassed Florentine rulers, who later had the image of the nude pair festooned with trailing ivy, to spare their own blushes. 3 That amateurish addition was eventually removed from the fresco in recent restoration and cleaning, so now we see Masacchio’s work as it was expressed some six hundred years ago.

What is this scene about? A singular painting such as this is unlikely to speak in the same multidimensional manner as the text which it relates to. The artist is obliged to foreground certain aspects and leave others aside. I think Masacchio has it absolutely right; we are not paying much attention to the flying cherub on door keeping duty in the background. We are gripped by the faces of the tragic pair: one; Adam, still truly naked before his God, his face down and again hidden behind his layered hands- just as he had been hiding in the garden when the Lord came calling his name. The other, Eve, is openly wracked by grief, loss, her shame and the acute present pain of loss of relationship- of all relationships. They walk together, slowly, yet apart, as the Word of banishment broadcasts from the doorway behind them, to them and to us. God’s voice, the Word of the Lord, is what sends them away. They are insensible to the heavenly warrior watching from above.

What effect does this meditation have on us? If we are also pained, we should remember that pain can be a gift in this sense. A wounded soldier knows that what hurts is still alive. It might, eventually, even heal.

Perhaps I have also convinced you that even the banishment itself is not devoid of hope. Some relationships break down when strong words are spoken, and their force is long remembered and dwelt upon in our hearts. We ask ourselves, ‘Do they still mean it? Would they say that now, knowing the impact it’s had?’ In this case, our Covenant Creator God leaves us in no doubt, confirming His words with cherubim on permanent active duty,. Furthermore, the Providential mercy of God is spectacularly demonstrated in the constant turning of a flaming sword. If any hand could be said to wield it, it can only be the Lord’s own Hand. He still means it.

‘Keep out!’

The truth should be clear to us all. The penalty was, and is, entirely deserved, and a great deal more lenient than first warned. God’s holiness is not negotiable. And this episode is timeless and applicable to us all. We are all sent away, and yet this is not motivated by base selfishness in God. There are several clear hints that God is setting up barriers for the protection of God’s original intention. The spiritual exile we are all in is an exile of hope. Unlike some of the folk who barricade themselves behind unfriendly walls and surveillance systems, the Lord bears us no ill will.

As the couple walk off into the future, the implications for future generations begin to dawn on Adam and Eve. Those of us who are parents will certainly have travelled this journey, as we realise that the mistakes we make can have profound impacts on our own children. My big mistakes have big consequences, and those consequences can fall particularly hard on those I love the most. We can find forgiveness, though important things may well not go back to the way they were.

In Genesis chapter four, we meet the children of the next generation, and are accelerated to one crucial moment in their relationships. Cain is at the point of considering his fundamental attitude toward both his brother Abel and his God. His parents lost their fellowship relationship with God- we don’t know what they said about this to their two sons. Having been exiled by the Lord from His royal realm, we might imagine that Cain would find himself left very alone in his moral decision making. But this is not at all the case! Having gone to such lengths to garrison the Garden against the return of God’s human creatures, the Lord Himself has sprung a great surprise on us all. How can I put this? God has, well, jumped over the wall! We are not yet welcome back, but that doesn’t mean that God is any less interested in us. At least at this significant moment, Cain finds that the Lord is just as close to him as the Lord was with his parents, speaking clearly and directly into his own ears.

There is a sound on the path close behind me.

And suddenly, I notice I am being followed!

The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.

Rowan Williams
Here’s that motivational wall poster I said you’d never find. You’re welcome!

(c) Stephen Thompson 2021

  • 1 Gen 2:17 Young’s literal translation ‘and of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou dost not eat of it, for in the day of thine eating of it — dying thou dost die.’
  • 2 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/114361-the-way-is-shut-it-was-made-by-those-who J R R Tolkein. The Return of the King.
  • Pictures 1-4:
  • 124507320_0061cf1f98_h gaylon keeling CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • 910272_54d4b667 Evelyn Simak CC BY-SA 2.0
  • watch-water-branch-dew-record-fence-492765-pxhere.com
  • alligators-resting-1420383625WfN publicdomainpictures
  • Okaska castle moat. water-river-canal-construction-reflection-landmark-621704-pxhere.com
  • Leigh pill box, near Tonbridge. Pillbox by the River Medway 3091643_a8d04d2e CA BY SA 2
  • Black & white war images:
  • docsteach.org images primary md_16578076_26246
  • pill-box-1910070_960_720 pixabay
  • Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-719-0240-05,_Pas_de_Calais,_Atlantikwall,_Panzersperren wikimedia commons
  • Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-263-1580-13,_Frankreich Atlantikwall Wette wikimedia commons CC-BY-SA 3.0
  • Bunker Valentin. architecture-house-building-old-wall-arch-506196-pxhere.com
  • Masaccio,_The_Expulsion wikimedia
  • 3 For example, see here: https://rlv.zcache.com.au/expulsion_from_paradise_by_masaccio_best_quality_postcard-r7b5f397abb374fc7ad1afa16301463e5_vgbaq_8byvr_540.jpg
  • Masaccio_-The_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden_detail-_ wikimedia
  • Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy, c.1426–27. photograph Steven Zucker. flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • light-night-dark-recreation-sparkler-darkness-932518-pxhere.com
  • Wall image modified from: scott-webb-yekGLpc3vro-unsplash AND R3270e845b6ba1b395964bf7965bfd236 bing CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • Couple walking into mist: sebastian-pichler-6kJGjk3eANA-unsplash
  • Modified from: light-night-dark-recreation-sparkler-darkness-932518-pxhere.com

Ezekiel’s job description: Prophet as Co-Creator.

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die… says Ecclesiastes 3:1. This is a theological embrace of the circle of life and all the other cycles of nature. God created the lights in the sky to be signs on the Earth (Genesis 1:14), which is to say, that the seasons are not just changes that occur- ‘stuff happens,’ as it were. Rather, that there is a general purposiveness to the way God has made everything be. There is always mystery, make no mistake, and Ecclesiastes 3:11 emphasises this2. Ecclesiastes offers a small theological candle in the mist and murk of our present experience that does not pierce to the ultimate boundaries, to be sure, but it does offer light. I am not about to repeat the so common and so mistaken claim that God has a purpose in every tragedy and pain of our lives.

In Ezekiel chapter 37, The LORD takes His man Ezekiel on a ‘nature ramble’, in a spiritual vision;

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit [Ruach]1 of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath[ruach] to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath [ruach] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Many folk are familiar with these lines and the dramatic imagery they evoke. An old children’s song may well come to mind. The trouble with familiarity is that we stop seeing things that are under our noses. There is so much in the scripture, and the Spirit of God likes to draw our attention to certain obvious things that we’ve stopped seeing. Or perhaps we are stubborn and actively refuse to see what is there in plain sight. It’s not hard to imagine why we might be blinkered in our reading of this passage- it’s about death. I wonder if you hesitate as you take in the images in this blogpost. It can be unsettling to stumble across an animal carcass in a field when out for a hike; perhaps less so if the bones have been stripped of flesh and are no longer rich with the symptoms of decay. In the UK we don’t share the habit in some countries for piling up human remains in catacombs and suchlike- we’re fastidious about burial or cremation. We very much like death to be out of sight.

But not for Ezekiel! God plonks His prophet man down in the middle of an open air ossuary, and then leads him around to take in the full sight from all angles. Make no mistake- this is emphatically not at all Jewish. Whatever else we learn about the cultural habits of the people of God in the book of Genesis, we cannot miss that a very great deal of attention is given to proper burial. We’d spend quite some time making a list of the references to what happened when each key character dies, Abraham’s wife Sarah being one of the most notable cases. So this picture of human remains, long devoid of life and strewn around, exposed to scavenging animals and all the elements is shocking. There is no hiding from the fact that these remains of what were once people’s bodies are now all alike about to complete their final return to dust.

Which is what Ecclesiastes told us. A time to die- it comes to us all. When it does, there are many proper and appropriate things that we can do to mark the life that has past; in our pain, to reflect, to treasure our collective memories and to grieve.

Which of these things are going through Ezekiel’s mind? Whatever it is he is thinking, God interrupts. ‘Son of man…’ So that’s God telling Ezekiel he is a creature once given birth to, who will soon go the way of all flesh- to join the remains he beholds. But that’s not at all how this continues:

‘Son of man, can these [dry] bones live?’

What an extraordinary question. The very Creator of the cosmos is asking this created creature if the created cycle of life- the whole providential Order on which we have been reflecting can be changed. Is the sign facing the wrong way? No. Is providence the whole story? No! God’s creation is not limited to what God has done. New stuff can happen, apparently.

Ezekiel is unsure of his ground. With considerable justification- God is asking him to adjudicate on whether the laws of biology, physics and the cosmos can be made more flexible. Who knows what the consequences might be?! So he bats it back to God. “I dunno!” Sorry if my translation is a bit loose.

And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 

Which is a very proper response. But what I am saying is that God is not playing rhetorical games with His man here. He is setting out the prophet’s job description. In Genesis, God says it, and stuff happens. Exactly so. Then God passes the buck on. God brings the animals to Adam. ‘Now you speak, and what you say, that’s what it is. Off you go!’

God is making space for Ezekiel to speak. ‘I made it like this,’ says God. ‘Now my son,’ because that’s who Ezekiel really is, if you trace the lineage back through all the dead bones on the field of history before him, back to Adam and to God who formed him from red clay with his own fingers- ‘Now my son, can this be changed from how I originally made it?’ Wise man that he is, Ezekiel defers judgement back to God, but the point has been made. God invites us into negotiation with Godself!

‘Stand back now lad and watch what I do next!’

Nope, that’s not what happens.

You do it!

‘Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’

Now God has a Divine plan and purpose in mind, so Ezekiel is not being given freedom to say and declare whatever he likes. Nothing in this passage gives that impression, and I am not suggesting such a thing. But at the same time, I am claiming that there is a meaningful partnership being set out- a type of job description for the prophetic life.

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling,[c] and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath [ruach], Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath [ruach] came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Just like the Genesis account, there is more to the recreation of human life as the creatures of God than we might anticipate. God spoke and it was so, says Genesis 1. Until we get to God’s human creatures. Its more complex than that- more mysterious, more intimate. Ezekiel does as God instructs, just as Adam did. But its not enough. Rattling, but no relationship. Life, but no liturgy. It’s rather comical.

Image of Death (Imago Mortis), from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Finished in 1493 in Latin by Hartmann Schedel. It is one of the best-documented early printed books and one of the first to successfully integrate illustrations and text. (Wikipedia)

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Genesis 2:7

What God did then, God now instructs Ezekiel to do. ‘Command My winds!’ Or better, ‘Command my Ruach!’ ‘Speak My Life into My creatures, into My world!’

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

This episode is not some passing moment, a mere temporary suspension of the general order of things. Yahweh now completes this encounter by showing that what is begun here prophetically is a journey through which God’s created People will be taken through in the rest of time and beyond. This land in which this resurrection happens, where the mighty army is seen to march as one, this ‘land of Israel’ that is after death: this is all like but not the same as the physical land in which Ezekiel lived. Nor should we be looking simply to the human circumstances of where we are right now, be that locked down or let out or whenever in the future you may be reading this. Just as for Ezekiel the Old Testament prophet, for us in the Age of the Church in Christ, the order of God is ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ all at once. The job description of God’s prophetic people is to hear the Voice of our Creator, the Creator of all, and to be responsive to hear and repeat what God says to us. To be brought in all humility to accept that God is inviting us to do what God once did to us now through us, even with us. To see that there is pain and groaning in the world that can be healed if we partner with the Almighty as He invites us. To be the cocreators of balm for the the anguish of all who cry out that their bones are dried and their hope is gone. It is reported at this time that the global death toll due to COVID 19 is now around 2 500 000 persons. Borders are closed, global travel is greatly curtailed and we are still in the early stages of vaccination of populations in the so-called ‘developed’ world. The economies of life, locally, nationally and internationally are under great stress, if not shut down. If we have been alert- watching and listening as a multitude of stories have been told around us and including us- we have seen the whole of humanity spread out before us just as Ezekiel did in the vision God took him into. This type of ‘seeing’ is the doorway to the co-creation that is modelled for us in this vision, and so in this present can come God’s Word not simply of life, but Life with Hope.

To be filled with the Spirit of God is not to be animate as the animals yet without agency, merely following the trends and patterns of the seasons. God has put up a New Sign, and now God commands us not only to breathe but to speak with God’s Breath. As I write this and join with others who pray and prophesy, we begin to see much that God would have us bring God’s New Creation life to. Can we see and hear beyond our familiar habits, to be able to go with God on a prophetic ramble?

(c) Stephen Thompson 2021

  • 1 Text of Ez 37 showing the occurrences of ‘ruach’ https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekiel+37&version=OJB#en-ESV-21403
  • 2  He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Eccl 3:11ESV)
  • 3 wood-produce-mushroom-death-skull-bone-437942-pxhere.com
  • 4 bones-remains-wood-bone-hen-of-the-wood-1565453-pxhere.com
  • 5 leaf-flower-old-paris-france-wildlife-863614-pxhere.com
  • 6 text-history-miniature-1461523-pxhere.com Image of Death (Imago Mortis), from the Nuremberg Chronicle. This brightly coloured leaf from The Nuremberg Chronicle shows five cheerful skeletons and decaying cadavers dancing, playing music, and emerging from a grave. One tosses its bluish entrails about like a dress train, while others rattle dry bones. Fingerprints appear on the right side of this evidently well-thumbed page. A user also bracketed the text below that begins, “Nothing is better than death,” underscoring the importance of the memento mori (Remember you must die) message offered by the work. The Nuremberg Chronicle was also available uncoloured, in black and white; an example is displayed in its entirety nearby.
  • 7 julien-flutto-ifJiAtVRthI-unsplash

Beginning with Ruth the Moabitess

January 1st 2021

“The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”

Genesis 3:20 ESV In a footnote we are told that Eve sounds like the Hebrew for life-giver and resembles the word for living.

Is our direction in life determined by a significant choice or particular pivotal events? One of my leaders once observed, giving credit to a certain author, that a destiny is actually forged through daily choices- repeated, persistent, consistent day-after-day choices with determination. Another brother taught me to say, ‘Its not what happens but how you respond!’

Its not so much the first choice that we make that is the crucial one, although we must determine to set off in a particular direction. Rather, its in the follow-up steps that we find the real tests. This is the trade off between the radical new and the traditional old. On New Year’s Day we toy with the radically New, but any such new will not come about unless it is absorbed into our habits- which are then, by definition, old! “I did this yesterday, and I’m going to keep doing it tomorrow. And the Day after that.” This is the lesson of both pregnancy and nurturing. It only takes one Day and one Act to conceive a child, but then that unformed Thing must be constantly nourished through continuous dynamic interconnection. If this relationship breaks down from either side, then what was potential will be stillborn. Such is the fate of so many resolutions for change, missions aborted at any time before the ideal has become independently real. It takes more than a vision and passion to bring a new life into full becoming. I try to communicate something of this to my young students in classroom lessons on reproduction, as so much lies beyond the bare objective facts of biology. There’s being a parent, and then there’s becoming a Parent. Not the same thing at all! When God seeks to co-create family with us, this is not in the same order of instinctive collecting together as we find in a shoal of fish, a brood of chicks or a herd of goats. Both are indeed the results of the blessing expressed in ‘Go forth and multiply and fill the earth!’ Though the divine blessings pronounced on animals and people sound so similar, God’s humans are not mere brutes, however blessed our neighbour creatures are in God’s economy. There is an enduring quality of love that is required to bring a child once born to full Life, and so also our dreams and visions require a sustaining diet beyond the basic categories of sufficient energy and ‘five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.’

Ruth 1 ESV

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them.

For Elimelech and his wife Naomi, the signposts at the fork in the road seemed clear enough. In order to survive, they chose to leave the land of promise fulfilled on a temporary basis- for a sojourn, our text says. They fully intend to return, once the famine passes. This is a constructive response to an acute challenge of circumstances. It was a choice made by the family of Abraham several times in Genesis, fleeing from famine to various destinations. This narrator makes no comment about the moral status of Moab as a suitable stop over for God’s covenant people. Its where there is food, and so its a suitable place to form a family. Two families, in fact: each of the sons marries a girl from the local population, and everything seems to be going along just fine.

What are the circumstances of the death of Elimelech, and then of his two sons? We are not told. We are simply alerted to the simple fact that Naomi was ‘in the field,’ and left to surmise that she was scratching around for grains or whatever else there could be to eat. News has reached Naomi that there is now fruitfulness in the land of Judah again, which is the result of the particular blessing of God, we are told. The question as to why a famine happened in the first place is not addressed. Our attention is drawn to Naomi’s decision. Now its time to return to my homeland. And her thinking is not a chain of reasoning reduced to simplistic survival. In her conversation with her daughters-in-law, as the narration makes plain, the collective concerns of ancestry, land, community and the Transcendent are all in consideration- explicitly and actively so in Naomi’s mind and words. She is not acting as an animal but as an imager of YHWH. To Orpah and Ruth she says that their bonds to their own mothers can still be real; the ‘house’ they came from continues to have significance. They have a ‘people’ of which they can still be part, though it is quietly acknowledged that the gods of that community are not the same as Naomi’s covenant God. Naomi continues to address these young [childless?] widows as her ‘daughters-in-law’ despite the fact that their menfolk are no more. Orpah is still Ruth’s sister-in-law, says Naomi, though they have no remaining blood ties. By such threads the life bonds of these women are all interlinked and intertwined, and not thoughtlessly broken. Everything is connected, which is what the tripartite model of the biblical worldview really demonstrates. And this is not all: in Naomi’s thinking as an imager of God, even death does not lie beyond the proper boundaries of godly thinking. Though she states that her two sons are dead, Naomi refers (v8) to the love each wife showed to her passed sons and in the same breath as their continuing love for her. This is the mindset that Ruth embraces in v17: ‘I will die in the same place as you; I will be buried in the ground in the same place as you, and I will only part from you under the eyes of your God through human death.’ In these profound words the scripture holds death within this present worldview and yet bracketed, with a question mark. Just as Genesis closes with a hint at a question: why tell us that Joseph was buried in a box1 in Egypt in its very last sentence? In God’s economy, however mysterious it may seem, we are invited to embrace the hope than endings may not be so final after all.

In all these things we see that Naomi, her own heart heavy and still with great empathy with others, reasons with and cajoles her two widowed daughters-in-law to return to their home land and find new husbands, to restart their lives and perhaps enjoy better fortunes. Difficult questions could be asked of God. ‘Why did you allow these things to happen to us?!’ But what is thought is left unspoken or implicit. God is hidden in mystery behind these happenings. Naomi cannot see sense in them. Neither would we. Such is our collective life. Yet as Naomi opens possible futures before them, only one of the women chooses to turn back. While Naomi has firmly resolved on her own path, she sees alternative options for Orpah and Ruth. Twice she remonstrates with them: how much persuading did Orpah endure before she changed her mind? Make no mistake, this tale is not the simple trope of two contrasted individuals, one faithful and one unfaithful. I sense in this testimony a deep friendship and understanding between these three women; Orpah was fully committed to accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem to start a new life. I think it would be wrong to assert that Orpah gives up when she finally heeds her mother-in-law’s advice: Naomi has offered her a vision of new possibilities, along with a mindset to equip her to grasp it positively. This is life, and she says ‘Yes’ to it.

If Orpah’s decision is a positive one, on which she can build on hope for the rest of her days, how much more so is Ruth’s resolution (v14). Ruth clings to Naomi, and therefore to all that Naomi embodies in her life and faith. Naomi represented YHWH in Moab, whether she realised it or not, and now Ruth maintains her commitment to this woman who has opened her eyes to a quality of life that she will not give up. We see the unexpected consequences of this in the following chapters. Ruth cannot know that her sticking at it in her relationship with Naomi and her home community will lead to a part in the ancestry of the kings David and Solomon, and then Jesus the Christ. Nor will she know that we can appreciate her example in the life of discipleship that will lead Simon Peter to say to his Lord, ‘To whom shall we go?’ when he was asked if he wanted to leave. (Luke 6:68) Sticking with God’s people implies sticking with God, and having a part in shaping the eternal future before which various circumstances vanish as the morning mist.

This is a man’s world
This is a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing
Nothing without a woman or a girl

It’s Man’s Man’s World by James Brown and the Famous Flames.

So what might be said about the current big social issues discussion about gender and equality in regard to this chapter? I have discovered that a high temperature debate can be generated around particular bible passages that may be thought to lend themselves to a topical feminist treatment. Is this a fruitful text over which to proclaim, “Down with the patriarchy!”?

I think I have learned that it is a grave error to try to impose modern cultural categories onto the biblical texts. If you are following my other writings in this blog, you will detect that I got burned doing just that with questions of science and the doctrine of Creation. One of my reasons for writing this blog is to explore in public what better reading and thinking strategies might be, to save others from falling into the same holes. I hope I now have at least one good eye to qualify as a guide.

So first of all- its not a man’s man’s world; this world is God’s God’s World. That’s the biblical worldview, which Genesis for starters and the whole scripture makes plain, though we may not have been listening carefully enough. God determined to make the World as Godself willed it and spoke it into being. Once made, Genesis tells us, God then determined to gift it over to God’s human creatures, to God’s ‘adamah God’s personally and intimately formed humanity, male and female as one. That is what the ‘adamah is- collective, not the singular personal man ‘Adam’ who emerges gradually throughout the opening verses. No one owns the world, because it already has a Sovereign Owner and God is keeping the gift-deeds. If we choose to argue, then we must argue with the Creator2 who made it and keeps it. It is true that we do argue, but that does not make such a view a biblical one. Its merely a hijacking.

It is further evident, following Genesis 3, that the nature of the relationship between men and women is spoilt by human sinfulness. God is spoken of in mysterious ways as reshaping this relationship as a result, and/or redescribing it, but it is unclear where the boundary lines are between formation and description. What are we to make of ‘rule over’ in this context- is that description or decree? Whatever the answer we give, it is plain that God, on God’s own account, does treat men and women far more equally than has often been the case in human society, (which all too often has meant the people in church, and their leaders.) I have discussed examples of this in my blog, and there is more to come. Let’s round off this point by recalling that Paul commends husbands to imitate Christ’s example in serving their wives in love. This is what the imaging YHWH, ruling-as-God-rules thing should look like, and this is just one of the social paradigm-shifting keys that the book of Ephesians opens to us all.

The critique of James Brown’s lyric must not be allowed to stand as a straw man argument against a well rounded biblical worldview. We must work harder for a holistic appraisal of the multifaceted relationships between the genders, within and beyond the biblical accounts. Just because such-and-such a thing is in the bible does not mean God approves of it. That should be a truism, but sadly its not. Surely there are some challenging examples that could be mentioned, but Jesus’ relationships with women throughout the gospels are attested in sufficient detail to show us what sorts of changes God expects God’s people to make in their behaviours and attitudes.

As for my specific thesis, it is abundantly clear in Ruth 1 that God’s intention is to be co-creator with women as well as men, and at times to work with and through women completely independently of menfolk, in any and every nation or community of people. Such co-working stands into eternity and is not subject to revision.

But everything is connected and there cannot be any success in the attempt to draw out reductionist principles, pitching one gender against another, or dividing society into groups. This would be a misuse of the useful ideology of science and its methods. Naomi’s discourses in this passage demonstrate the great power there is- the emergent fruitfulness- in considering all factors in concert with each other. And on that basis each individual can make a decision with integrity that enhances their self esteem and as a result of which the whole community can be enriched. Our society becomes bigger as it expresses fruitfulness beyond the sum of its individual parts.

The interconnected nature of my tripartite modelling leads me to these conclusions. Naomi knows that she has freedom to choose, and meaningfully so, but not all things are available for her to choose between. You can’t argue with the past. Our husbands are all dead. “God knows why…” Second, you can’t argue with time and age- tweak them a little maybe, but only a little. ‘Even if I gave birth today, would you wait for my sons to grow up to be your new husbands?!’ Such a possibility is no longer culturally appropriate, but Naomi’s point is also- its too long to wait!

My next point, by extension, is about biology. Naomi is very clear and straightforward (v12-13). We accept that the peoples of that time had no detailed scientific understanding of the means of conception, regarding microscopic gametes and the changes in menopause, but Naomi’s account would not cause embarrassment in my classroom today. The fact is that the human race goes on because we have children, and its women who carry and give birth to them. Not men. Is it prosaic to point out that this is a useful principle to draw out of this passage? This chapter is not an account of a scientific experiment- that’s a category mistake! But there is something analogous to that going on, if we will. Here is a scenario where all the menfolk have been removed. Let’s see what happens when you do that. Does everything fall apart? No. Do the women loose their agency; their powers of reason, their ability to choose, their will to resolve in what ways they will rule themselves and their shared futures? Absolutely not. But only within limits, including limits of biology and time. Is it worth labelling these as ‘existential realities’? With our very newly found capacities in reproductive medicine, we can tweak these realities a little more, but only so far. Gender is still a meaningful category, and we must not expect science to be the arbiter of our options. We humans will do better when we decide together, and Naomi’s example leads the way in making an holistic judgement, whereas science is simply one discipline among many that are vital to our considerations.

If we keep reading, we find what happens after Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem. We are given a fascinating cultural study as Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions regarding how she might find a husband in this society that is significantly different to the one she has left behind. We discover how Boaz and the other characters explore and exercise their own agency. It might be felt that much of the focus moves to the men, onto Boaz and the kinsman redeemer, the male-dominated meeting of elders at the town gate, and so on. Or we might wonder that Ruth’s significance fades as she is absorbed into the male lineage to David and the Son of David. But these are choices of our reading and analysis. The whole comes together as more than the sum of its parts.

So finally, we should be left in no doubt that Naomi and Ruth can both grow into the vision of God for human beings which is first set out in Genesis. It is not the singular male man ‘Adam’ who is first made, but the ‘adamah. From this wonderful and mysterious beginning the humans are formed equally and severally into the imagers-of-God, which is true for women as it is for men. At the same time, Adam was right, of course. In the final act of naming in the Genesis creation account, he named ‘Eve’, confessing his realisation that his wife (alone) would become the mother- the very creative source- of all the living. As a gendered species, our roles are not equal. And because this is God’s Book about God’s peoples, we should watch out for the ways in which the eventual outcomes are more than could be humanly expected. That is because the One in whose image all the various people are made is also present, and even given the constraints and circumstances we have considered, the boundary lines turn out to have fallen in much more pleasant places than we anticipate. But the question of boundaries is one we should consider as a community, as families, as Church, not merely as individuals. As we start this next decade, we can now reflect together on how we might go forward, together, to consider the options we can exercise within the constraints we do have before us, and like Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, resolve with determination in which ways we will go, and Whom we will cling to.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

  • 1 Watch out for a future post on Joseph’s coffin!
  • 2 I will park the matter of English pronouns here for another day. Referring to God as He is an artefact of translation into the English language, so you will note that I opt for ‘Godself’ rather than ‘Himself’ to avoid this pitfall. The effects of the historical use of male pronouns for God is deeply embedded in our culture, and it will take much to rectify the fallout from this, some of which may well be a justifiable target for feminist critique.
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Genesis 2:5-9 Theological terraforming and the Genesis worldview.

Artist’s Illustration of Dragon entering the Martian atmosphere before landing (2015). Original from Official SpaceX photos. Millions of years ago Mars had a magnetic field and an atmosphere, but both are long since gone, so it is not presently inhabitable.

Genesis 2:5-9 (ESV) When no bush of the field[a] was yet in the land[b] and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist[c] was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

At Tate Modern, we are treated to a panoply of modern and new art on a spectacular scale, where installations on a massive scale are set in the turbine hall of a now hushed power station on the banks on the Thames in the UK capital. Above this industrial space are stories of galleries housing the imaginative and creative products of modern and post-modern artists of the twentieth century and into the present day. Another of my favourite haunts is just down the road from Tate Modern, where the Clore Gallery houses multitudes of sketches and watercolours by one of Britain’s most radical artists, J M Turner, who created paintings of water and light at the rate of two a day for the whole of his working life. In this Genesis passage we are invited into a personal viewing of God’s creative studios at the start of time as we might think of it.

Artist Ai Weiwei’s installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds painted by hand over two years by 1600 artisans, on the floor of the main turbine hall at Tate Modern in 2010-11. Right: Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake of Zug @The Met.

In Genesis 1, we are told ‘it was like this, and this, and God did that’ in a positive and assertive sense. In Genesis 2, the curtains and canvas are pulled back and we get to see something of what is going on, behind the dashboard as it were. There is a shifting of images and imagery; our imagination is engaged and mobilised, and pictures are created which then flux into something else before our eyes. ‘Can you see what it is yet?’ And as more brush strokes are added, the overall view is transformed, and then transformed again: what was bare ground is then filled and populated, and a story of progression and progress is constructed. First there is bare soil, without bushes, yet now we know these are coming. There aren’t yet any small plants in the field- hang on, what is a field anyway? So there will be fields, and that implies people who will work the land, and so these small plants may be crops, or they could be weeds. In working the field, the small plants can be distinguished and tended appropriately, and destined for food or fuel for fire.

The description continues: this care of the ground is administered in two ways, by the Lord God and by the humans working the land. Right here is co-creation! God and mankind are mentioned as creative tending agents in the same breath and at the first opportunity in this second movement of the creation concerto, right at the start of scripture. God’s tending will be by means of the supply of water- which has ‘not yet’ arrived, while the working man has ‘not yet’ been placed in the fields. So these are two complementary aspects to the Lord God’s creation plan, and in saying ‘YHWH Elohim’, we are introduced to God as the God of covenant with human beings and the human community in history, not merely a generic God ‘El’ of the heathen nations who conceive of a god but know not of Whom they speculate. In Genesis chapter one we are indeed affirmed in this hypothesis: there is indeed a God Who created, but we can only know the One who was called ‘El’ by men if the real God chooses to reveal their Reality. And so YHWH does!

The north polar residual ice cap of the Planum Boreum region. It is not in debate that Mars has harboured an atmosphere in the past, and that liquid water has shaped its surface very considerably. Whether any kind of life also been part of Mars’s story is the subject of energetic conjecture. The fact that water ice still exists in quantity at both poles is a great encouragement to our dreams to set up industry and habitation on the Red Planet in the near future.

There was ‘not yet’ rain, but rather a mist rising from the ground. Just as in chapter one, where the heathen imagination is upset by decoupling the existence of light from its natural sources so as to break misconceptions of pagan deities- God can make light without there being a sun or stars or a reflective moon, so don’t make gods of them! So also here. We know that water is vital for life in this universe, and one might be tempted to make a god of it, or the rain or sea. So the text breaks this link: God will be the explicit first cause of necessary rain, and in the meantime, the familiar sequence of the water cycle is reversed, with a watery mist being provided instead of rain. The same theological claim is being underlined, rather than describing meteorological realities. Our appreciation of God’s sovereign agency is being heightened. We are not being given an encyclopedia entry on the Water Cycle! Look at what we are told about this mist that God has provided: it waters the ‘whole face of the ground.’ Here is a profound turn of phrase that describes the intimate quality of relationship between YHWH and YHWH’s physical world. Just as mother taught us to wash our faces (and behind our ears) each day, so the mist does its daily spa work all over God’s world. The same point was made in chapter one:

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.’ Gen 1:2

Newspapers were quick to publicise a portion of a photograph from Viking Orbiter in 1976 that appeared to show a human face in the topography of Mars when lit from a certain angle. The higher resolution image was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with its HiRISE camera in 2007.

“Then.” This conjunction now pivots out attention from the environment to the major affirmative statement of this paragraph: the creation of humankind. The setting was and is important, and yet, by being couched in negative terms, our attention is directed forwards. The ground was described metaphorically as having a face which God has tended with gentle moisture: now God takes this dust of the ground and forms an animate being with a face that is really sensitive and responsive. Having taken the red dust that has already been esteemed by such intimate wetting- with water that would rouse any dry seeds in the ground from dormancy to germination, God then breathes into this personally fashioned form by God’s own intimate moist breath to impart life directly, and so ‘it’ becomes a living ‘he’, just as Martin Buber would say. The suspense generated by delaying the realisation of bushes and plants of the field is brought to a climax in the creation of God’s own human creature. The three fold sentence describes in poetic form the wonder of this most beautiful act of our first conception: ‘God formed… God breathed… and the man became…’ The scripture is shameless in its use of anthropomorphic language describing G-d’s creation of His human being, who is elsewhere described as being made in the very image and likeness of God. The whole form of this paragraph directs us to the joint realisation of climax and unity: a pinnacle of creative impartation, and yet all aspects are in necessary connection with one another. God and God’s creation (considered inanimately and animately) and also God’s human creatures are all brought together in a theologically organic nexus. The three fold picture of God’s creation, the tripartite theological worldview, has sprung to life before us in jewel-like simplicity and wonderment under God’s intimate direction and planning. Such a mode of creativity is also imparted to us- to imagine the ends while also considering the means, and scoping out the ultimate end points as well as considering what we might do next.

“Artist’s concept depicts the top of the 2020 rover’s mast.”

To what purpose? As the English has it, ‘And…!’ God’s human creatures are not abandoned in their new environment, left alone to work out how to manipulate soil and seeds, water and weather, and form all the necessary requirements for a sustainable life, knowing nothing, without understanding and in grave danger of declining in our self-centred obsessions. The worldview picture of Genesis 2 is not yet complete. God’s way of giving His creatures a ‘guided tour’ in this wonderful new world is put in this literary form: God takes on the nature of a human king, who subdues his environment to raise sustainability and beauty to the ultimate heights of a royal garden. This is where God places His human creature, and just as a gardener would be schooled in the culture of his community and given a personal appreciation of the likes and mores of his Master, so the man of dust is brought into a fully-fledged relationship with his king that makes him far more than a common creature. The encounter between divine and human is not a fleeting moment, after which the human experience sinks back merely to equality with the other biological organisms on the planet, though we are still intimately joined with them in organic continuity. Though in the very briefest of detail, we are given to understand that there is scope for an ongoing relationship with God as equals in nature in some vital respects. As Jesus himself would later quote to the Jews, ‘Have I not said that you are gods?’ [John 10:34, referencing Psalm 82] This is not to be overstated, as God is the only One capable of making a universe or matter with the capacity to form life, but now we realise that our capacity to transform what is in our little corner of God’s cosmos has expanded by orders of magnitude over the last few decades. We can now begin to dream of and embark on very great projects, including the exploration of our neighbouring moon and planets and, say, even the terraforming of Mars. What opportunities and dangers lie before us!

Fisheye Stereo from Edge of ‘Santa Maria’ Crater, Sol 2459


“NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity gained this stereo view during the 2,459th Martian day, or sol of the rover’s work on Mars (Dec. 24, 2010) from the edge of a football-field-size crater informally named “Santa Maria.” The scene appears three-dimensional when viewed through red-blue glasses with the red lens on the left. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel Much information about the nature of Mars and its environments can be gleaned by means of the sensor arrays on interplanetary rovers.”

Being placed as God’s gardener in a specific place and time, ‘in the East, in Eden’ is no trivial calling. It is not to be understood as a quaint or overly romantic conception of human life, pottering around on ‘garden leave,’ insensible to the challenges of our lives in corporately challenging times and circumstances. Rather, the invocation of garden subtly points to important truths. God’s world is placed under our authority and control, which is to say, our delicate stewardship, which must consider whether this plant is to be made a crop or a weed, and whether this bush will live here or there or not at all. How will we shape and form this world? Later, we find that God leaves his human creatures to their work. There is a trust in their agency and motivations to design, in the expectation that there will later be a frank conversation between all ‘in the cool of the day.’ This stewardship is one of equals between humans. No person is to be more influential than any other. God is the only king- we humans are therefore equal subjects and citizens and equally charged with the responsibility to tend this ‘garden’ which is both functional, as fields are, and also beautiful, enjoyed alike by king and the creative gardener who forms and maintains it. Who has more fun, and enjoys the reward- the king who decrees where the hedges and borders will be, or the gardeners who actually do the work? If you are a gardener you may well say that the worker finds more reward than the ‘boss’ who is only an occasional visitor. No matter, for it says that God is the first maker of the garden, and then He passes it over to his son and daughter. There is more than enough fun and recompense to go around. Having said all that, we cannot and must not forget that God is still the ultimate authority, and we shall surely give an account.

The information gathered by various Mars rovers will be used to select the most likely sites for developing human colonies on Mars, and to begin the process of developing a sustainable ecosystem linking water, light and plants so that there can be continuous human habitation independently of supply from Earth.

God has not finished forming His world or the details of the interrelations of its parts. This passage makes much use of the literary rule of three, and as the bush and plant of the field were features of the ground by which both man and garden were formed, a third greater type of plant is now mentioned, offering another subtle climax. In God’s royal garden are trees, and these are described in dual terms: beautiful and functional; pleasant to look at and also good for food. This is use with dignity, consumption with restraint, exploitation of qualities of usefulness yet with a balancing consideration of sustainability at all levels. This balance is inclusive of ecological realities, and yet there is more being said. Two particular trees are mentioned at the conclusion of this section that do not fit with biological categories or modern scientific conceptions. First mentioned is a tree of life at the centre of this garden, so the life quality is not inherent only in water and light and nutrients- the Genesis account is pointing to a further quality of life beyond these scientific categories, that are only to do with our short sojourn on Earth as biological creatures. There is a further aspect to life which is thus mysteriously announced. And again, another tree which will be a focus of the next passage, with supra-natural qualities. The Genesis worldview is assuredly NOT merely a precursor to the modern humanistic intellectual and sometime empirically derived view of the universe. The claims made for entities and the relationships between them are of a different mode to that of the evolutionary scientist or environmentally concerned ecologist, though the concepts of process and balance are found in our passage. But that is not what Genesis 2 is telling us. Rather, or at least, we can now perhaps see that the claims of Genesis are more than telling us that there is a God who is responsible for once making humans and the world in which we find ourselves. This life we are living is real and very special, and intimately conjoined with the functions of the physical universe in a multitude of fascinating and delicate ways, and yet God’s creation is designed to point to a quality of life which reaches beyond our physical existence for a few short decades, and a quality of wisdom which is grounded in simple knowledge but then goes beyond what we might find out for ourselves. And we have found out a lot, even about the nature of space and time and energy and matter, and so on. What hope can there really be for us? Is this life not simply marvellous, but then a tragic teasing, as we will leave it again so soon after our arrival? Does it really matter if we save or destroy this planet, our first home, or somehow manage to facilitate an existence for some of our descendants elsewhere in this solar system or in our galaxy beyond? The scientist cannot give an affirmative answer, because that is not what science is good for. In the worldview of Genesis, the two trees find their place as signposts of a more certain kind; theological signposts to hope beyond this present reality of soil and bushes- of the life of field and garden- though there will be tragedy in the next episode.

A highly artistic impression of Mars during terraforming! This is an ambition the scope of which is far beyond current capabilities, but we already know that today’s science fiction could be tomorrow’s science fact.
Unmanned rovers which have so far explored the Martian surface and sent data back to Earth. “Front is the flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner, which landed on Mars in 1997 as part of the Mars Pathfinder Project. On the left is a Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover that is a working sibling to Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004. On the right is a Mars Science Laboratory test rover the size of that project’s Mars rover, Curiosity, which was slated for landing on Mars in August 2012. Engineers Matt Robinson, left, and Wesley Kuykendall” at the JPL Mars yard Photo Jan 17 2012.

In all this we are thus enlightened in the tripartite biblical theological view of the means and ends of our creation by God, as part of God’s joined up creation, which is still in process, and in which we human beings have esteemed agency as co-creators with YHWH who we can know even more fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

Stephen Thompson © 2020

  • Artist Illustration of Dragon to Mars (2015). Original from Official SpaceX Photos. CCO. image-from-rawpixel-id-2229675-jpeg
  • Artist Ai Weiwei’s installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds painted by hand over two years by 1600 artisans, on the floor of the main turbine hall at Tate Modern in 2010-11. gizmodo CCO Right: Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake of Zug @The Met.
  • The north polar residual ice cap of the Planum Boreum region. NASA and raw pixel.
  • Artist’s concept depicts the top of the 2020 rover’s mast. Original from NASA. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
  • Fisheye Stereo from Edge of ‘Santa Maria’ Crater, Sol 2459 Original from NASA. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
  • The information gathered by various Mars rovers will be used to select the most likely sites for developing human colonies on Mars, and to begin the process of developing a sustainable ecosystem linking water, light and plants so that there can be continuous human habitation independently of supply from Earth. 135855main_marsconcept-1.jpg CCO
  • MaxPixel.net-Colonization-Space-Mars-Terraforming-Exploration-5268447
  • https://mars.nasa.gov/resources/three-generations-of-rovers-with-standing-engineers/ CCO

Genesis ‘51’: Joseph manages the Covid 19 response.

God has covenanted with us through generations, starting with the special call of Abram’s family.

God worked through Joseph’s parents: Jacob, Rachel and Leah; as He has worked with Jacob and Esau; and with Isaac and Rebekah before them; as first of all with Abram and Sarai…

God’s sovereign working oversaw Joseph’s childhood, and Joseph has become a pattern to show us that God’s eternal purpose is as it always has been- to bring healing in and through our family relationships, to make us nation builders: kingdom builders. 

Now the Lord [had] said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Gen 12: 1-3 ESV

Joseph, the favoured son of Jacob and Rachel, is marked out for blessing in his family both by extraordinary dreams and his father’s bias. As will later be repeated with Moses and then with Jesus, incarnation of God’s call and purpose with His human creatures is inescapably admixed with the realities of life in this world- God’s world and our human world, marred by the systemic rooted sinfulness at all levels: in self, in family and in society.

God’s vision and plan is bigger than we generally anticipate.  There appeared to be terminal breakdown in Joseph’s generation: his brothers narrowly avoided killing him. Instead, they sold him into slavery on a happenstance- so he was sent to oblivion in a distant and foreign land far from their cares, remembered only by his father Jacob in his grief.

A camp of the Baharvand Lurs in the mountains of southwestern Iran photographed by Frank Hole in 1973 before the Iranian revolution.

Yet the prophetic life can be meaningful and empowered in the uninterrupted and uninhibited grace of YHWH!

We find that Joseph is still very much in God’s view; very much not forgotten as a person; very much not forgotten as the focus and embodiment of God’s dream-plan for nation formation and blessing of all the families of the earth.

We may ask, ‘What does ‘not forgotten as a person’ look like under God?’  It might include- this is probably going to be unwelcome news- being an obedient slave, yet not simply a slave who works to avoid punishment, but ‘as to the Lord’, exactly as Paul later put it in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus:

Bondservants,[a] obey your earthly masters[b] with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master[c] and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

Ephesians 6:5-9 (ESV)

Mulatto ex-slave in her house near Greensboro, Alabama 1941 (above) These cotton hoers work from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. for $1.00 near Clarksdale, Mississippi, June-July 1937. (left)

Joseph’s service continued faithfully when Potiphar was away on his business, because Joseph was living before the eye of YHWH. When the eye of his mistress fell on him, Joseph ran before the judgement of his Lord, and so his life was preserved even by his master on earth.  Joseph was thrown back into the dungeon, his life again spared even though accused of sexual sin in his master’s household.  The nature of human life before God is not merely in the business of survival- of crops and water, of herds and land, like the animals, but there is transcendence in the life of the heart, of dreams and motives, of ethos and the ways we live with each other, internally with ourselves. It matters how we think, and how we will choose to relate with one another, and there is freedom and agency in all this wonderful life we have been gifted with.  All the perils of Joseph’s life have, so far, been the products of the minds and culture of his community.

Joseph resisted the temptation to become cynical about the value of maintaining good character, and once again his faithfulness resulted in recognition and promotion to responsibility, even in the Egyptian jail.

Now Joseph discovers that not only is his personal morality a constant before God, wherever he finds himself geographically, but now he finds that God wants to speak through him into the minds, lives and destiny of those who do not yet know they can be the covenant people of the One God YHWH.  Though the word of God in Joseph’s mouth, listened to because of the quality of his life, and proved by the immediate results for the baker and cupbearer, yet God’s timing is still ‘not yet’ for Joseph.  Another two years must pass before Joseph discovers what God has been ‘working all things together for good’ for.

Much of the soil in the forest is a reservoir of untapped potential, a world of uncertain possibilities.  In addition to the accumulated water and mineral nutrients, there is a bank of dormant seeds, each concealed at various depths in the ground, apparently inactive, in a state of limbo between life and death. But one day- perhaps there has been a storm- a great tree falls and the soil is disturbed. Certain seeds are churned up to the surface after untold years, and light floods down to activate them.

The door of the jail is wrenched open, and the jailer brings word to Joseph. “Get washed and shaved! Pharaoh wants to see YOU.  That hapless cupbearer finally remembered what was hidden in his memory, and now your insight is called for!”

God has revealed possible futures to this ruler of men in this mighty land where Abram was once taught a lesson, both in morality and in the greater truth that YHWH God is in fact God of All (see Genesis 12:18). In an encounter that will resonate with Joseph, deeply probing and testing his heart attitude, Pharaoh has had two dreams, and his own ‘wise men’ and counsellors are judged inadequate for this crucial task of national leadership.  At this point, nothing has happened. Its all just been in Pharaoh’s head. God is God of gods and Lord of all! He is closer to us than breathing and He is certainly able to speak inside your head.  Pharaoh is now awake and perceives that the situation is one of life and death, on a scale much greater than his earlier concerns.  He gives up on appealing to his gods- they are not even mentioned. He gives up relying on his own insights- he is desperate, and his forgetful cupbearer now remembers that there is a man who has been tested and could just perhaps be of service. Joseph is Pharaoh’s last resort for searching out wisdom. A foreign slave in my jail, consigned to an inevitable death while an important raped woman awaits delayed justice. As Desmond Tutu describes, God’s justice wins. Oppressors must fail. Now Joseph stands before the ruler of the most advanced civilisation in the world.

‘Now is still the time of plenty. But life and death faces us all, as your baker and cupbearer discovered for themselves. You were once their judge, but now a greater than you is speaking to you, and this time of plenty will come to an end.  Then death will come for you all, but the true God, my God, YHWH God of my fathers and also God represented here in me is offering you a temporary rescue. We must all die to this life in the end, but it need not be now. You have seven years to prepare.’

Nothing has happened. Egypt has designed and self-created its own fruitfulness. God has gracefully and extraordinarily given a warning, but why should anything else change? Pharaoh does not make this mistake. He perceives that he has encountered the true God through God’s human servant, but does not make this response a religious one, but rather responds to its incarnational form and looks to the man that God has honed; the humble, obedient servant who is prepared to serve as a slave.  So he can promote Joseph if he wishes, and yet remain as a divine king himself, as was the habit of pharaohs. No matter- the ultimate reckoning will surely come.

There may be abundance now…

Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. 28It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the landb of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”

37This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants.  38And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?”c 39Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. 40You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command.d Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” 41And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” 42Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. 43And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!”e Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” 45And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.

46 Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. 

Gen 41: 26- 46

And by the way, note the parallels with this episode in the book of Daniel.

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. 6Then the king’s colour changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. 7The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declaredb to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” 8Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. 9Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his colour changed, and his lords were perplexed.

10The queen,c because of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall, and the queen declared, “O king, live forever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your colour change. 11There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods.d In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, 12because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.”

13Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king answered and said to Daniel, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah. 14I have heard of you that the spirit of the godse is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you. 15Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not show the interpretation of the matter. 16But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.”

17Then Daniel answered and said before the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation. 

Daniel 5:5- 17 ESV

So Joseph’s long season of management of the land of Egypt began in the time when normality and blessing continued unabated. The world God created is indeed God’s ‘good’ earth, and even under regular human husbandry there can be really good times in it. Yet as human beings under God we can see beyond this, because God made it that way. God built transcendence into God’s wonderful and ‘very good’ creation. God ceased from one activity- creating- and rested. God ‘took a break’ from this regular kind of action and did something that does not quite make sense from a here-and-now-thinking point of view. God made a holy day, and says to his covenant people that they should join him in this, as beings in his likeness should do the same sorts of things, in other words, be transcendent to the cosmos as we find it, because who and what we are is intended, by creation design, to go beyond what we see and touch.

Joseph has an insight into investing in the future. Perhaps not quite ‘store up for yourselves treasures in heaven that will not spoil’, but something prophetic of this. God has spoken to a foreign ruler and nation about a limited aspect of the future, and this must whet one’s appetite to consider what will lie beyond our mortality.  Exactly what the generation of the Egyptians at the time of Joseph made of that question we are not given insight into. Contemporary scholars known to me, such as Prof Colin Humphreys and others, are divided as to how realistic the Genesis 36-50 accounts are regarding Egyptian history, but the realist possibility is bolstered for Humphreys (personal communication) by the remains of very considerable grain stores from a plausibly appropriate period of history.

This is one of the sites where evidence can be found for the existence of granaries of very significant size, though not shown in this photograph. It is possible that the tomb under this stepped pyramid could itself have been a deep granary, which was then repurposed. There are also very considerable remains of arched brick roofed granaries similar to the Tunisian design pictured above at the temple complex of Luxor at Thebes. Some suggest direct correlation between these remains and the work of Joseph, for example, at josephandisraelinegypt.wordpress.com See my references for links to posts which find this possibility very persuasive. What I take from all the available evidence is that the ancient Egyptians had clearly learned a very considerable technology of storage for their harvest which was designed on an industrial- not merely a domestic- scale.

The Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser was built during the Third Dynasty (2800 BC) in what is now Saqqara.  Photograph by Dennis Jarvis, used with permission.
Pharaoh appoints Joseph as ‘Prime Minister’ of his nation, recognising the spirit of God in his life. He puts the entire nation’s food supply, prosperity and survival under Joseph’s management simply on the strength of his own persuaded convictions.

Joseph has been embraced as Manager-in-Chief of the nation by the Pharaoh and his servants. He is adopted into the Egyptian nation with a new name and family, inculcated into the priestly community by marriage and his family is recognised.  What a prophetic picture this is if the people of God serving their community as the outworking of their faithful devotion to God. Truly Joseph is ‘married to the land’!  He travels by personal private jet (!) to the far reaches of the Egyptian lands, in order to exercise watchful and directive management over the collection and storage of food and the building projects this must entail.  We can only speculate on the ramifications of the implementation of this visionary project.  The accomplishment of such a programme of public works must rival or even equal that of any of the other Wonders of the Ancient world; it is certainly equal in scale to what is thought the likely duration of construction of even the greatest of the pyramids of Egypt. And this was no vanity project, sustained out of the excess of production and spare time. This was motivated by the understanding that the very survival of the population as a whole was at stake. It was so successful at scale that when the neighbouring peoples came calling in the time of world famine, Pharaoh sent his desperate visitors to Joseph- there was enough and to spare!  So it was not simply the construction project that was placed in Joseph’s responsibility- it was the entire civil programme of management of the transportation, storage, cycling and release of food supplies, during the years of plenty and into the extended period of famine following. Joseph was deeply inculcated into the structure and function of Egyptian society at all levels, just as had been the case in principle in Potiphar’s household. Except this time, the mechanisms of society were at his direction, so there would be respectful compliance under Pharaoh’s delegated authority, shown by the transfer of ring, chain and chariot. 

A design of grain storage found across north Africa, as well as in Egypt from the second millennium BC.

But this situation did not continue, after the visits, testing and reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, as Genesis 47 describes:

Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. 14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15 And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16 And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. 18 And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”

20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them[a] from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land.

23 Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. 24 And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.” 25 And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” 26 So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; the land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s.

Gen 47:13-26 ESV

Not only has Joseph been affirmed in his diagnosis for the Egyptian economy when he first interprets the double dream given by God, but now Joseph is given further authority over the whole country.  There are many subtleties in this passage, which must be carefully respected. However, I observe that the state of the nation is still in peril. The predicted famine has indeed occurred, as expected after the extended period of plenty, where much food was stored. The way the economy was made to work is indicated but perhaps not described in full. It is clear that the Egyptians have to buy the grain they need to eat from the store; Joseph directs that grain is sold back to the people from the national store, not only for food but also for sowing, as perhaps limited irrigation from the Nile made possible.  Joseph has told his brothers that two years of the famine have passed (Gen 45:6), and so perhaps we can surmise that in the following years, these were the arrangements:

Year 3   Selling grain for money*, which was collected in totality for Pharaoh

Year 4   Selling grain for all the livestock

Year 5   Selling grain for the people’s family land

Year 6  Selling grain for their service as ‘servants’

Statue of two men and a boy that served as a domestic icon. ca. 1353–1336 B.C. New Kingdom, Amarna Period. MET Museum.

Year 7  Finally, Joseph gives out grain allowances, as Pharaoh now owns everything.

This model of a granary was discovered in a hidden chamber at the side of the passage leading into the rock cut tomb of the royal chief steward Meketre, who began his career under King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II of Dynasty 11 and continued to serve successive kings into the early years of Dynasty 12. MET MUSEUM.

Thus the seven years of famine are completed.

Only the land of the priests and their supply is not taken into the ownership of Pharaoh, and perhaps this is a foreshadowing of the special rules that will later apply to the Levites in the Mosaic law to follow in the Torah account.

But in sum, we see that all human life is brought under the close ownership and control of the national ruler, which, it seems to me, is a figure for God, even though Pharaoh is a foreigner to the covenant God has made with Abraham. At the same time, in the way that the account shows the Egyptians speaking with Joseph, it is he who is being addressed almost as a divine figure, who sees all and has the life of all in his hands. Which is, of course, the way Pharaoh said it would be.  The principle of being a blessing to the nations has been put into effect even through the servant ministry of one man as a faithful manager of God’s House, in this case, demonstrated to our surprise in the ‘secular’, ‘foreign’, ‘alien’ context of another land, ruler and nation. Yet the true covenant God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is revealed there, and the story-journey of building the nation of God which will bless the whole world in all history will be continued.

Overworked, under-rested? Working and resting in the Kingdom of God.

In our present state of global upheaval and shutdown- an astonishing change to the usual way of things- social distancing, only some of us going to ‘essential’ work, travel suspension, reorganisation for business survival, layoffs and furlough and only partly adequate financial benefits; the vulnerable in self-isolation, queues at two meter spacing outside the supermarket, various signs of undiagnosed illness and a growing number of clear cases of Covid 19, some of which have led to  deaths in our own local circles, with the collective dread of more to come, I wonder what we can learn from the Joseph account in Genesis 36-50?

Well, I think it is plain that there are no easy answers in the Bible.   As believers we do now have peace with God, but there is so much more to that ‘peace’ than we may perceive in the common usage of the word.

Jesus says, (Jn 16:33) ‘I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’

We recall;

Isaiah 48:22 There is no peace, said the LORD, to the wicked.  {but…}

Isaiah 26:3 You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

Phil 4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

If we are expecting to open our bibles and find a simplistic workshop in mindfulness and personal coping strategies, however, I think we will be sorely disappointed!

Let’s rehearse then the key points in Joseph’s life story, and this time, reflect on what sort of experience that was for him.

How wonderful would it be to awaken with the certain conviction that you have had a dream promising great spiritual significance? Well its just fine, right up to the point that, unable to hide your excitement in youthful enthusiasm, your brothers slap you down over the breakfast table, and your parents sit in silence. Then you have a second confirmatory dream, and the response is just the same as the first time, except that your father no longer holds his tongue and rebukes you as well.

How awkward are the following months and years, as your own suspect maturity is hardly enhanced by your own fathers favouritism in the face of your own brothers. Do I really want to wear this fancy coat? How nervous are we readers as we journey with Joseph on his ‘take care and report back’ mission, dispatched by his father to look out for his dear elder siblings.

So they throw the dreamer into the dry well- we don’t know if he is injured in body as well as mind by this, and he is left to call up for mercy from his brothers, who leave him in the night while they argue about his fate. It seems he is aware of their threats and pangs of conscience, but there is no sign of anyone bowing down to him any time soon.

Relieved of this father’s gift and sold for a prophetic bag of coins to nomadic traders, Joseph is forcibly removed from both his family and also the land of divine promise. Tied in line and led who knows where by harsh strangers who see only a commodity, or at best an object of pity. We are given no clue as to Joseph’s internal state of mind outside of his later actions; how quickly does he manage to regain his poise, and what is the part that prayer plays in his recovery? We could maintain that young Joseph was the model of piety and spiritual devotion, looking back from the heights of his later elevation, but such an attitude demeans both us and him. We should know that life is not like that.

What prayers do you pray in a slave market? What expectations do you have when the captain of Pharaoh’s guard commands your purchase? Perhaps you draw some small comfort from the status of your new master. But the way the Genesis puts it is, ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’ It is not Joseph’s character that is credited with the maintenance of his integrity- though he had that- but rather the weight of anointing on his simple and uncomplicated service. Yet it has an uncommon impact on Potiphar, and Joseph is promoted to an unexpectedly creative level of service in the household. Things are beginning to look less miserable as Joseph is completely trusted in his master’s absence.

The is nothing more attractive than innocent virtue, and now Joseph is tested by the wayward Mrs Potiphar. Joseph’s principled moral lecture falls on lustful ears, and he is presumably captured running from an impossible situation. Where is God’s blessing now? As is so often the case for the weak who are caught in the legal processes directed by the powerful and influential in society, Joseph is consigned to jail and left to wonder what his master believes, and whether his God will rescue him this time. Is it easier to live or die in these circumstances? It can have been no picnic in jail in Egypt, under such suspicion. What would be the content of your morning devotions? This time, surely, Joseph’s dreams must die along with the dreamer. How can there be escape from this predicament?

Through service, it would seem. Joseph discovers that being busy being useful has the effect of taking one’s mind off the desperateness of the situation. Take one day at a time. And he discovers that God’s favour does follow him into the jail cells.

Once again Joseph is tested by the dreams of the cupbearer and baker. What hope and dread must be stirred in his own heart and mind as he pronounces doom over one and salvation to the other; and in the cupbearer he puts his own tiny hopes: ‘Remember me!’

But after the removal of these two prisoners- who knows if Joseph hears news of their fortunes at the time- all Joseph hears is silence. Nothing. Abandonment. Not even cellmates with dreams of their own destiny to interpret. And what would be the point anyway? What on earth is my God doing? Is it worth calling Him ‘my God’ any more? How many of us would pass this test for two whole years- and after all that he has been through? How long does my integrity stand the test of isolation and invisibility- an hour, a day, half a week- a week or perhaps two. Months or even years? Truly?

Pharaoh wants to see me- to ask MY advice? At least by this time we would imagine that Joseph is past caring.  Is he confident in the gift of His real Master’s anointing? Is he certain that his life really is as safe and blessed as it required because God truly knows his conscience and tested integrity? What is the worst that can happen to me now? Joseph has walked through the valley of shadow so many times now- he’s got a season ticket with no option of a refund.

So Joseph speaks directly to the Pharaoh who has summoned him with respect, and yet as an equal, for Joseph is a man who knows that his life hangs in the balance of God’s scales, a much more serious prospect than the chief guard’s revengeful sword or even Pharaoh’s disdain for a dirty foreign upstart slave.

Only at this point does Joseph finally receive vindication before God and men- his true stature is at last recognised. And with the ring and chain of gold comes the most pressing responsibility. God has revealed what is going to happen in the fullness of time, but is going to do absolutely nothing about it. The great famine is certainly going to come, and will stay, on and on, mercilessly. Only the human designed and implemented plan will now stand guard between life and death for however many thousands or millions of people. There is no explicit blessing by God of this phase of the story, which declines into desperation as Egypt is brought through the full test. Yet Joseph sustains his efforts; who can say how much of a burden this was? The emotional charge in the relationships with the people toward the conclusion suggest this was no walk in the park. God has placed His very own reputation on the line in entrusting Joseph with this task of management. Who is to know how long the patience and confidence of the Egyptians will last?

I add that in July 2020 it is now becoming more plain to all that just as for Joseph, having a plan- even a good plan- for dealing with the initial phase of our pandemic, the longer term consequences are progressively more and more serious. It is not simply single aspects of our society and economy that are challenged, but the whole complex of interrelated elements. Will we be able to maintain a mindset that thinks holistically and at the global scale, or will we fall back into petty self interest and national independence? Joseph nurtured the dreams of God that set a standard for us.

Only at the very end do we hear the simple judgement – not from Pharaoh’s lips, who is sidelined at this conclusion- but from the people, who quietly pronounce their collective gratitude: ‘You have saved our lives.’

We are not to worry about tomorrow- what we will eat or wear. Our daily bread is a proper concern. Yet God uses Joseph to provide peaceful navigation into a good future for the most prosperous nation to which others came in their collective distress.

So let us consider in the test we face, where the health of millions is now at stake, what manner of integrity and faithfulness, what quality of attitude and prayer will actually be required of us. By all means let us open our Bibles for inspiration and example, and expect that God wants to anoint and empower the collective actions of His people in the interest of all, whether our neighbours understand the language of our faith or not. But let’s not be glib about the profound challenge we will face in spirit in every respect if we expect to truly speak God’s word into being on His behalf. If we lean steadfastly into God, He may bestow onto us the same blessing that Joseph enjoyed:

The LORD lift up his countenance on you, and give you peace.

Numbers 6:26

Stephen Thompson 3rd April and 29th July 2020 ©

The spirit and power of Elijah in 2020

What can any one person do in the face of such a global challenge? What use can the faithful Christian hope to be, beyond the simple duties of looking out for one’s immediate neighbours?  It is certainly true that exercising individual responsibility is a serious duty and can set a significant example in behaviour for the local community.  Submission to the authorities for the health and well-being of all ought to go without much saying. However, the life of Elijah should teach us that God in fact intends us to have a much more profound impact in God’s world than we might imagine.   

Dedication to the Jung family, in memory of Lucy Jung.

13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.b 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

James 5:13-18 ESV

God’s world is the good earth on which we have been blessed with God’s gift of life.  Throughout human history there has been a measure of suffering, and none of us are isolated from pain. And there is also joy in life, in our time under the sun that bathes us all.  All of this can and indeed should be the cause and ground of prayer and praise, if we are listening to God’s Word and Spirit.  God created the world in freedom, and that world presently has illness in it.  This is how it is at the moment, though the New Day is coming when there will be ‘a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling placea of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,b and God himself will be with them as their God.c 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”’  In the meantime, we are called and charged to wait and listen with Jesus.  When news of Lazarus’ illness came to Jesus from Martha and Mary, Jesus did not go up to Bethany immediately. (John 11:4)  Just as for Elijah, the circumstances of nature and the features of the cycles of life were not the ultimate things which dictated Jesus’ words and actions. In prayer and in fellowship with Father God we too can discover that sickness and health, life and death, even the circumstances of nature can all be brought to the feet of Jesus.  There will be seasons and weather, new life and passing on, pain and illness; the gifts of healing and resurrection are also available in the here and now of God. The natural powers and cycles are the creation of God, and yet are subject to God’s sovereign decree that though we are creatures with a common nature, the simple prayer of those brought into the righteousness of Christ can hear Christ and bring God’s overruling will of love and eternal soundness into our now.  The oil of joy is a sign that God’s healing power will have its victory over the sickness of each and every individual – if we will come to Jesus in faith with them. 

Elijah Predicts a Drought

1Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbea in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2And the word of the LORD came to him: 3“Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5So he went and did according to the word of the LORD. He went and lived by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan. 6And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. 7And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

1 Kings 17: 1-7

The ultimate order of God’s world is revealed to us in these lines. The Word of God will certainly come to leaders, even to unjust oppressors, and God will preserve his servants’ lives as He wills. We His servants can readily be sent into isolation, far from houses and storehouses, and the natural order of things can be reordered at God’s command. We are comfortable with the theological truth that God feeds the ‘birds of the air’, but at the time of national crisis when Israel was oppressed by the wicked couple Ahab and Jezebel, and the land was filled with the ongoing consequences of their godless leadership, God sends his son Elijah into a wilderness where he drinks from a stream and birds’ behaviour is reordered to bring a full diet to the man of God- two meals a day!  Eventually, the regular order of things emerges again in God’s providence, and Elijah’s journey with the Lord His God moves on to the next chapter. For while Elijah is preserved in personal safety, the peoples at large are in great and growing suffering, and the calling of God is on us for them.  In God’s will there is His perfect timing for us, and God is also looking to and fro in His earth to bring His best timing to all things.

The Widow of Zarephath

8Then the word of the LORD came to him, 9“Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” 11And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12And she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”

1 Kings 17: 8- 12
Single and Two-handled Jars; Marl clay, Egypt. Second Intermediate period. ca 1550-1458 BC

There are consequences in this life for the decisions made by nations and their leaders, and some consequences spill over into the communities beyond our own. And then again some things just happen in God’s world.  Elijah is now called to the foreigner in Zarephath: “Arise, Go!” God shows Elijah that he in fact has new neighbours. Elijah is a man like us, with a nature like ours. It’s a new day, and in every new day we are hungry and thirsty.  ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’  The prayer teaches us to say ‘our’ because we all need supplies and food, and if we consciously put our hands out together, we will see that our neighbour receives a fair share, as well as us. How much do we need? A daily portion- just enough. In this way the riches of our world are neither hoarded nor consumed in excess.  Though the widow in plainly suffering in lack, Elijah can be bold enough to ask for a little water and a morsel of bread.  Another day Jesus will ask a foreign woman for a drink from a well, because she has the bucket to draw up water. The widow discovers that Elijah is a man of God, but not a God she knows. “The ‘Lord your God lives’, you claim, but that life is no longer for me”, she points out. In saying this, she accuses God of unjust treatment!  She can only confess death over herself and her son. How will the prophet of God respond to her and to her immediate challenge to ‘his’ God? What truth will he walk in; what Word will he prophesy?  Will God send His ravens now?  The widow is now beyond fear, she is resigning to death as she looks the ‘truth’ of her circumstances in the face. 

13And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’” 15And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.

1 Kings 17: 13-16
A young woman making chapattis from flour and oil over a three stone fire.

Through the newly creative Word of the faithful righteous-walking child of God, the existing order of God’s world is brought under the sovereign feet of the Lord of All- Who is not ‘merely’ the God of Israel, but the God of the whole world and all the peoples in it, including even this widow in Zarephath, who thinks that the God of Elijah does not know her name.  We are never told what her name is, but it is not always necessary to know the name of our needy neighbour. Just as in the days of Genesis, God uses his little and singular servant to learn faithfully, responsibly and humbly how to bring God’s provision in the midst of the most challenging circumstances. Joseph was called from prison to become the second in the land and the master of grain stores to feed an entire nation though a great famine- and the neighbours of Egypt came to be fed also- even Joseph’s brothers. Elijah too enjoys God’s supernatural supply in the kitchen of the despairing widow- and her whole household is also fed ‘for many days.’ What a wonderful conclusion this is. The surviving community is preserved and surely Elijah sees that God is glorified though his faithful partnership with His God, Whom he has learned to walk with through great trials. But just when all seems well, the page turns and the next chapter of Elijah’s journey begins.

Elijah Raises the Widow’s Son

17After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” 19And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. 20And he cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s lifeb come into him again.” 22And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” 24And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”

1 Kings 17: 17-24

Elijah hears the accusation of the woman, who it seems now credits him with things that we would suppose only God can do- bring remembrance of sin to her conscience and cause death merely by his physical presence.  What is the reason for the death of the boy? Presumably not a lack of food. Some mystery illness then, it would seem, that affects some family members, but not others.  And now the widow’s last hope is finally gone, and she only has grief to look forward to. Yet just as in John 11, the words of scripture are subtle.  ‘There was no breath left in him,’ we are told.  This dear widow thinks this end is death – she pronounces it to the prophet of God. But what will he say? And what will he do- with his extraordinary powers?  Elijah’s response is practised: ‘And’ means ‘immediately’- He seeks the permission of the mistress of the house: ‘Give me your son,’ which is to say, not, ‘Give me the body.’  She agrees to pass over her son to the man of God, and in what would seem to most people to be the time after death, Elijah carries the boy to the upper room where he does persistent and consistent and faithful prayer business with his God.  Elijah is not coy with his covenant God- he accuses God directly for this personal calamity and death.  Yet Elijah does not settle for the situation as it appears. He asks God his Question, and as Yahweh God once came to Abraham to seek the counsel of his friend regarding the judgement of Sodom with questions, so Elijah entreats his God even for an overruling of the regular order of things- under God’s greater sovereign will.  What is possible in the New Creation will of God, in partnership with his praying servant? What will we learn to be bold enough to seek God for?  For Elijah’s God listened to Abraham and also to Elijah: know that our God and Lord Jesus Christ also wishes to listen to us, as James 5:16 emphasises. 

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.b 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”

So what seems to be the end for the widow’s hope turns out not to be the end after all, and we are gifted with the realisation that there is an order in God’s world that is beyond the laws of weather, natural life or disease, and that is the demonstrated powerful effectiveness of the Word of the Living God in the mouths of His partners and praying servants.

Stephen Thompson 22 March 2020 (c) 2020

The LORD, Sarah and Abraham: A study in Encounter.

Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LordA23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his placeB.

Genesis 18:16-33

Footnotes:

A Genesis 18:22 NIV Masoretic Text; an ancient Hebrew scribal tradition but the Lord remained standing before Abraham.

B NIV Abraham returned home.

A surprise is served to Abraham by the Lord’s visit to his family in Genesis 18.  One might think- and most do- that the Lord, in the theophany of the Three Visitors, has come to see Abraham personally. But this is not really the case. In contrast to Genesis 12, Sarah has become the focus of the Lord’s attention, rather than her husband. Even while the couple are minding the niceties of respectful social graces and habits, serving bread, or cakes, and freshly cooked beef, the Lord has come to ascertain, to assure and then to decree that their longed-for child of promise will in actual reality soon be conceived and delivered- by ‘this time next year’! Abraham was in the doorway to his tent when the Lord appeared, and he had hastened forth to honour his guests. But Sarah did not emerge; apparently she never does. What does this tell us about her mindset?  No matter. The LORD can see, and not just through the fabric walls of their tent. He hears even silent laughter, and there is no obstacle to God’s Word conceiving and bringing to fruition exactly what He intends in His people at the right time.

As the three ‘men’ set out from Abraham’s camp, we see another shift in focus. They are looking down, towards Sodom. Our gaze is engaged along with theirs. What might they be seeing as they look down from their elevated position?  And see that we are told that Abraham is accompanying his Three Visitors as they go off on their way from his camping place. The man is walking with his God in the cool of the day. This is the way towards Sodom, we are told, and the man of God is joining His Lord in His journey. We are expected to anticipate what will follow for Sodom. And then-God pauses!  God’s intervention in the intimate moment of reproduction in this singular aged couple, after a long period of barrenness, is now immediately followed by a long-delayed but now soon-to-arrive corporate judgement. Yet again- just as the Lord did not simply ‘zap’ Sarah’s womb from on high in some disrespectful- violent– intervention, so again we perceive that God is not simply going to act in His world unilaterally. Is it not His ‘God-given’ right to do so? Well of course it is. If anyone has the right to mete out judgement, it is God!  But this is not what happens.  It is quite extraordinary. As Abraham is walking along, our focus is concentrated yet further- the three figures become One.  And we, the listener-readers are addressed directly, drawn in further to a secret question in God’s being. Perhaps we discover that we too have set out on this journey with Abraham and his Visitors.  The Lord speaks to us, in our hearing, and apparently less directly to Abraham. ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I AM about to do?’ The one thing you could guarantee about God’s thoughts is that they are concealed, private, secret to God; known only to Him. Not any more.  In this prophetic encounter, we see not only that the Lord God desires to partner with his son Abraham, but He also desires to partner with us- and this co-creation is even in judgement! In asking this question, we see God’s freedom to choose- not only to consider judgement but freedom to engage in a partnership with Abraham in a more intimate and relational way; to choose to open this freedom to us, to all of us. God’s thoughts and even God’s plans are secret- but they need not stay that way.  As the Three Visitors look down and towards Sodom, we are already seated with Him in heavenly places. This is training for reigning on the job. Not only is God ‘going down’ to see in detail, in intimacy, as He did in response to collective hubris at Babel, but we too are beckoned to accompany Him.  God says that Abraham, His son of promised and continuing blessing, is to command and do righteousness and justice. That is, Abraham is not merely to obey God’s righteous decrees, in the mode of the line by line law of Moses, but to command. To do. This is the language of grand agency, the language of Genesis 2:15; ‘to till and to watch over it’. This is how Abraham becomes father, our type and pattern.

How then does Abraham engage with God in this circumstance of impending judgement?  He does not wait for the Lord to arrive at the city; he does not listen patiently until God formulates his conclusion for judgement. No! Abraham anticipates God’s next move. He takes the initiative and finds that he is given the most generous and open hearing. And here the dynamic of the relationship between God and His creature is displayed in extraordinary detail and frankness.

“So the men turned from there.” Earlier we were told that Abraham’s divine visitor had ‘set out’ purposefully, His Eye looking ahead of Him. In the pause that followed, we are given an image of God falling into a reverie, in which the Three stand around, circling with one another, pacing back and forth as they mull over the possibilities for the future, considering, deliberating. Their journey is not continuing; the future is not set. God’s future is not determined.  Creation is not complete! Though the outcry against injustice, against Peace, has risen to the Lord’s ears, yet God is not content with the report from afar. He is open to the possibility that there may be more complexity than is visible from far away: I AM going to find out.  In this dialogue, God’s omniscience is not invoked or allowed to give the final word. What could the obstacle be? What does God allow to prevent his determination of the right course of action? Abraham!

Abraham still stood before the LORD!  Truly, in God’s world, mercy triumphs over judgement, [James 2:13] and this truth is also in Abraham. He stands in God’s Way by standing in God’s way. What nonsense is this? Does Abraham think- do we think- that he can stand opposed to God, somehow preventing Him from going on his journey? Yes, he does. [In his generation, Jacob will take this a step further, turning it into a full-on wrestle!] Is God incapable of moving around the will and presence of this created creature? He does not want to! As an alternative scribal tradition [the Masoretic text] preserves it, the LORD remained standing before Abraham.  We would not dare to make this up. God wants us to get in His way.

Have we been cheeky enough yet? How assertive can one be with God? “Then Abraham drew near…” The phrase is somehow incomplete, as though to say, ‘Then Abraham drew near to God,’ would be just too arrogant. So instead, we have ‘…Abraham drew near…’ which retains a slight reticence, an observation of due deference even while exercising respectful assertiveness.

And said

‘Will You indeed…?’  Abraham confronts his God in word, not merely in thought. He questions God’s will, God’s character, and God’s intent- His rationality, reason and morality.  ‘Sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’ Abraham questions God’s values. Are not the righteous worth more than the wicked? So the calculation is not one of arithmetic, is it? ‘Suppose there are…’ says Abraham, engaging God in direct ethical reasoning, and in no abstract theoretical sense. Abraham knows, as we do, that the LORD is in deadly earnest.

For what did it matter?  All of this?  Earlier that day, Abraham had been interrupted at the flap of his tent. He was OK.  Just looking down at the ground, whiling away the time. Nothing much was happening really. Sarah was inside, doing whatever. Decades before they had left their families in a distant land and come here, looking for a new life. There had been grand ideas of a call from God, but what did that matter now? Their lives had gone by, and they had prospered well enough. They had endured various thrills and spills in the journey. Made a few mistakes, but things had worked out. Turns out we couldn’t have our own kid, but hey ho, the Egyptian maidservant came in useful. Sarah was very pragmatic about it all really.  Is it really a problem that I’m Ishmael’s Dad, but Hagar is his Mum? He still counts. It’ll be ok. Once, it seemed that God really meant it about us having our own child. All that stuff about counting stars and sand, and having new names. Very romantic. Perhaps it was just too much wine.  We’re ok really.  Real life is much more complicated than dreams and visions, and we’ve had to get real. I’m not sure that I should have brought Lot with us, but he made his choice. Its tricky in the city. The neighbours are a bit rough, but he’s managing. His kids are going to get married soon. He will manage.

Abraham’s eye is caught by a distant movement.  There are three figures on the horizon, moving closer. The Visitors came walking out of the sun, certainly and surely across the desert. Abraham starts up and hurries toward them.  He is aware of his heart pounding in his chest.  This is real.

You have indeed walked a long road, and you should know that I accept you with all your faults and failings. I did not call you because you were perfect. I am not surprised by you. Now I have come to make good what I have promised. This time next year there will be new life. New life that seems to you to be even more impossible than ever before. New life is starting now! There’s going to be another baby- the right baby this time. No disappointments, no more barrenness. And no lies, no deception. I am giving you a Hope and a Future. This is not a wall poster, but the real thing. I AM your God and I AM making a great people from you two. That’s how it’s going to be, ‘Father of a Multitude!’

Now Abraham is shaken from his depressed thinking, and the scales have fallen from his eyes. He can see starlight and sunshine again, and can see the difference between the bright sky and the shade under the trees.  Let me see You on Your Way!  My Lord, where are you going now? Down to the plain, to the cities where Lot is, well, surviving. No, that’s right, all is not well there. It is a very wicked neighbourhood, and something should really be done about it.  When I was a younger man we had to rescue Lot from kidnappers. My guys chased them down and there was a grizzly fight, but we beat them off and brought Lot back home safely enough. Thanks for Your help with that!  I can’t do that sort of thing now though. You have to let people get on with their lives. I am more patient with people now, you know?

There’s no more time for that? What do you mean LORD? Time’s up?! You are going down there to sort it all out.  Oh, I see…  Well, no; hang on a minute LORD! What about all that hope and future stuff?  Are you sure this is… right?  Should this be the real End for them all?

So Abraham is roused in his faith, and I note something else that is extraordinary here. Abraham finds a way to argue with God- a remarkable transformation in attitude. But he does not mention Lot by name. He does not indulge in special pleading for his particular relative. That would be nepotism, and he knows God too well to imagine He would fall for that trickery. No names then. So he tries a different tack. Abraham puts himself in harms way, for the greater good.  He puts himself in the way, between the LORD God and the object of His impending judgement.  The bearer of God’s promise of blessing is a hair’s breadth from being dust and ashes, just like the two cities, and he knows it.  What is he doing? Perhaps Abraham is using his unexceptionality as his bargaining tool.  You have chosen to bless me though I am nothing special, he says, so I am pleading for them, whose special quality is… that they are not special.  If I am nothing special, and yet I can be the object of Your patience and blessing-made-good, what about them? Not the wicked ones, obviously, but the innocent, the righteous? Dear God, please do not cut short all these lives, though many most certainly deserve it. You have come to confirm your blessing on me as the soon-to-be-real Father of a Multitude, and the means of blessing all nations. Well, I am not prepared to wait. You say you will bring judgement now; I ask that I can be the means of blessing now. Spare them all for even one!

And so in this Encounter between the LORD God and Abraham, we see that the first father of Israel does ultimate business with God on behalf of all peoples, both in his lifetime and in lifetimes to come. He sets a pattern, as intercessor and priest, pleading for those he knows, for his own family, and for his wider community, and those who are strangers to him. Abraham shows us that every human creature of God is a star in the firmament of God’s creation, and each of us can follow in the footsteps of Father Abraham, pleading in action and in prayer on behalf of all our neighbours. This may all seem to be simply words, but words are the Way of our LORD, the God who flung stars into space by the power of His Word, and breathes life into us by His rhema Word. 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,

and those who love it will eat its fruits.   [Prov 18:21]

————————————————————–

The experience of dwelling in this scripture episode is teaching me that we must reorder our priorities in deciding what we know: our epistemological principles. This matters in a ministry that is predicated on research, on engagement with relevant data and the extraction of valuable insights drawn from a plethora of information.

We do know from Genesis 11 who the family is that God has dealings with in Genesis 12, both on Abram’s side, and also Sarai’s, but we know nothing about Abram or Sarai other than a little of their cultural provenance. No features of Abram’s character are brought to our attention. Speculations are made by commentators and theologians about the cultural setting of the places in which Abram’s character was formed, but we are left without any particular impression of his quality as a man- he is unremarkable.  Yet the LORD YHWH calls him.  Thus commences the life journey of the man who our Jewish friends call Father Abraham, honoured by St Paul in his letter to the Romans many centuries later. 

So in this chapter, Genesis 18, we find ourselves many decades forward into the years of physical decline in this couple, after many episodes of journeying and mis-steps. Though the recipients of Yahweh’s Promise- not only being blessed but also to be blessing to many, to the nations, to the whole world- they remain reproductively barren.  Apparently, the fulfilment of The Promise is not to be through Ishmael. Fundamentally, it seems clear that God’s Word remains… just words. Humanly speaking, we should know that the time for fruitfulness from this couple has passed by.

Now pay attention. God’s words have been spoken, and they will not return to Him void- meaning undone in chaos. On this day, the Three Visitors come to their place, their present home, in the promised land.  There is greeting, and welcome; the offer of hospitality- some awkwardness in the rushing around, in the hasty words between husband and wife, and the fellowship meal is prepared. Still Sarah remains inside the tent. Does she know Who has come? Does Abraham know who it is he calls LORD? We do not know exactly when the truth dawns on them, but we know, as we are told at the beginning, ‘The LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre’. The LORD has come looking for his children in His garden. And he has come to ask questions. This time it is not, ‘Where are you?’ but, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’  The LORD knows where she is hiding, but he wants to hear it from her husband, who awaits watchfully under the tree by their dwelling. In response, the LORD announces that the blessing will finally come about, in flesh and blood terms. Sarah can hear, and now Sarah knows she is being examined. And the intimate information is now made public- not at the time, but to us, in history. In a very delicate and respectful way we are told that Sarah is past menopause and she no longer expects ‘pleasure’. What can this mean? You would need to be married to know how to interpret this little ‘tweet’ of information. There are at least two possibilities.

But now this much is sure.  The LORD knows those who are His. He knows all their circumstances- the state of their hearts and bodies, and he knows their faith. Most of all, God is with them, and later, He will return (21:1) and His Word will be made good in the birth of their son Isaac, and then their laughter will be full. But that is for another day.

Now the Visitors rise to leave, and make for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whatever surprises Abraham has still to process from this encounter, he now knows this: His Lord treasures his fellowship. The appearance of his Visitors was sudden; unannounced. But they do not disappear as mysteriously as they had appeared.  In their moving on, we are told that Abraham is going with his Visitors, to ‘set them on their way’.  In this intimacy, the Lord God now muses aloud. We are told in detail: much information has come to the Lord’s attention about the state of life in the communities of the two cities in the plain. As we would expect from any urban development, an abundance of data has poured forth, as an ‘outcry’ to the Lord. This is repeated; there is much crying out. But why exactly? What sense to make of this information? Reports of sin and its consequences are complex and tangled- there are intertwined webs and knots of effect and cause. Who is responsible? What judgements are appropriate? Surely there could not be just one simple solution- could there?

As I have already described, we see the most marvellous thing in Genesis 18:22-33. In this extended encounter- reported and recorded in a remarkably long dialogue by biblical standards- we are made privy to an unprecedented development in the partnership of Yahweh God and his called servant son.  Though I am but ‘dust and ashes,’ says Abraham- well, he soon will be, if this doesn’t go well!  A few moments ago he was a wrinkled old man and the humbled husband of a barren wife. Abraham has now become something else. This is what faith in encounter is supposed to do to us, isn’t it?  ‘Can these dry bones live? You alone know, Lord.’ This man of God now stands toe to toe with the LORD of All- he ‘draws near,’ we are told in 18:23. We should be embarrassed to catalogue what he does next.  A few moments ago, Abraham was nervously answering God’s questions. Now he is asking the questions- challenging God to His face. He is questioning God’s perspective. Have you done your sums right? Have you counted properly? Are you sure- Abraham remonstrates with God- that you haven’t MISSED ANYONE? Abraham questions God’s moral judgement. Have you correctly identified which ones are bad and which ones are good? He argues about principle; yes, he lectures God on morals and ethics. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” He reaches out to pull at the LORD’s heartstrings.  “Far be that from You!”

And then he bargains with God. I am an English person, so when I go shopping, I look for the prices on the shelf, and scout up and down the aisle, inspecting the range of produce and sizing up their relative value. Six packs and ‘Buy two, get one free’ offers. How do they compare? But my wife Shon is Hong Kong Chinese, so for her, the urge to barter is not very well concealed. Bartering requires a certain arrogance- to confront the stallholder and to make yourself their equal. ‘We can decide on the price together. It’s not just up to you’, says my wife. It’s not very English. This is exactly what Abraham does. ‘What is the price of your justice, God? No, sorry, that’s too high. Sell it to me for less.’ Down and down he goes; 50, 45, 40, 30; still lower! 20, 10; and each time, the LORD agrees. You’ve got to wonder why Abraham stops there.  I used to think-this was me trying to be clever- that since the difference between 50 and 45 is 5, that Abraham has already proved that God would agree to just 5. What I couldn’t make sense of is why he doesn’t get God down to one. Perhaps that would be just pushing his luck too far. After all, as much of Christian social media continues to tell me, sodomy is really an extra-serious sin, and the presence of five, or fewer, righteous people probably are not enough to offset the wrath of God against this wickedness. But if you read onto Genesis 19:27-29, it is specifically recorded that God remembered Abraham, and that as a result of their agreement Lot alone is numbered as the one rescued from the annihilation of the cities by fire and brimstone. And note that this one was prepared to hand over his own two virgin daughters to the Sodomites who had been hammering at the door to his house. So much for Lot’s righteousness being counted on God’s balance sheet.  In this arithmetic, Lot’s disobedient wife is discounted, as are the two daughters who later seduce their own father out of an understandable desire to preserve their bloodline.

‘How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’ [Romans 11:33b-34 ESV]

The scripture does not allow us the hubris of even looking on while the man of God knocks God and His justice down to just one.  And then God does it anyway, because He wants to go down to one.  Now we know what Abraham could not dare to know.  God is not willing that any should perish. [2 Peter 3:9]

The LORD has His satisfaction. His son of promise has become a father who speaks up for the many; even those not part of his own community.  Abraham has no more questions, but that is not what we are told. The scripture says that God had finished speaking to Abraham. The whole conversation was in the LORD’s will, and presented to us as such.  Only now is God on His Way, while Abraham retires to his place, to await the morning when he will go out to see what the LORD will create with His Word which they agreed together.

What do we now know? I discover that what we know is less about God’s judgement- there must be judgement, in the end. God will not be mocked.  And with judgement there will be unexpected and spectacular mercy! But more that that: we know that Abraham and Sarah are known to God.  What they are is known to Him, and so is the fruit of His promise in and through them.  Now, from our present high vantage point, looking back through the lens of the Life and Word of Jesus Christ, back from the perspective of Paul, whose life and words were formed and transformed by being blessed in Abraham, we can begin to grasp- to really know– who and what Abraham and Sarah were. Such knowledge comes to use from beyond human sensitivity, beyond our powers of finding out. This knowledge is the collective knowing of the crowd of witnesses though all of God’s journey with His people through history. [Hebrews 12:1] It is the knowledge of those who overcome ‘by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’ [Revelation 12:11 ESV] This testimony is won by those who are prepared to face the fact that they are dust and ashes even while they live; those who will draw near; who will undertake to speak with the LORD, Who stands before us. What else is life for? I know that this is what is remarkable.

Stephen Thompson 28 April 2020 © 2020

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