Under the heading, “Everyday Justice: Life-Changing Advocacy,” Matt Jolley at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity writes, 1
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful for ever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The LORD reigns for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD.
I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. Surely the righteous will praise your name, and the upright will live in your presence.
With reference to these scripture passages, Matt writes:
‘Early on in the pandemic, Madonna infamously referred to COVID-19 as a ‘great equaliser’.
The fact that she said it from a bath full of rose petals was just one reason to call her statement into question. Such ‘equalisers’ don’t really exist. Dig a little deeper and you’ll almost always find that the rich, powerful, and privileged will have an easier time of it.
Black and South Asian people have been hit hardest by Coronavirus, white-collar workers have continued working from home whilst other sectors have been decimated, and rich nations are experiencing a vaccine-fuelled recovery whilst the global majority continue to struggle.
The Bible is no stranger to such inequality. Righteousness is fundamentally relational, but because of sin these relationships are damaged – we turn away from God and in on ourselves, leading to greed and oppression. Fallen people then form broken structures, leading to institutional injustice.
Imagine a 400-metre race where some competitors had a massive head start. It wouldn’t be fair for the whole field to start at the same time. In the same way, where inequality exists it’s insufficient simply to treat everyone the same and assume it’ll all work out. We need to address inequality and the systems that cause it.
And we have a God who cares especially for the poor. Psalms such as the ones cited above show what John Stott calls ‘a God who desires justice and asks us, as his people… to champion the cause of the poor and the powerless’.
But who are the powerless? Scripture consistently refers to the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner. Equivalents today might include the child in social care, the homeless man, the asylum seeker, the trauma survivor, the lonely elderly woman. God’s priority is to ‘secure justice’ for those on the margins, and we’re called to join this work.
So, practically, how do we use our everyday lives to undo inequality? One way is through advocacy, partnering with God to restore social structures and empower the disadvantaged. Not ignoring or abandoning our privilege, but stewarding it lovingly on behalf of others.
This might look like listening and learning to find out where inequality exists on our frontlines. It might involve our jobs, working for justice as well as for profit. It might mean signing petitions, or ‘upholding the cause’ of the voiceless in everyday conversations with friends, families, or neighbours. As we advocate for the marginalised, may our lives reflect God’s priorities.
Matt Jolley Editor, Word for the Week
How might you advocate for ‘the poor and powerless’ on your frontlines this week? Join the conversation in the comments below.
In reflecting on injustice and unrighteousness in life, Matt invokes the metaphor of a race, in which some ‘competitors’ in fact have a structural and therefore unfair advantage. It’s a reasonable metaphor, and Madonna’s ‘thoughts from the bath’ fittingly illustrate it. Perhaps we can move on by recalling this:
An exhausted Jonny Brownlee is helped over the finish line by his brother Alistair who gives up the chance to win the race in a dramatic end to the World Triathlon Series in Cozumel, Mexico, on Sunday.
Alistair switched his self-identity from ‘competitor’ to ‘sacrificial and loving brother’ because he recognised two things: (i) that Jonny is his brother, whose self-dignity allows him to ‘run his own race’ with independence, but also (ii) that Jonny was suffering such that his health was in question. Alistair changed his ‘rules of life’ to promote brotherhood above winning, not to leave the race but so that they finished the race together. So ‘advocating for the poor and powerless’ on our ‘frontlines’ requires us to evaluate our identification of our fellow humans as sibling life travellers, and also to evaluate the (Matt switches metaphors here) race/ warfare we are engaged in. Apostle Paul himself used the race metaphor in 1 Cor 9 in a particular way:
In Paul’s usage, this ‘race’ is only applicable to me. The other ‘competitors’ are not my brethren or ‘not yet believers.’ You have your own race to run, in Paul’s 1 Cor 9 deployment of the metaphor. [Paul mixes metaphors as well- first running, then boxing!] But traditionally we’ve read this poorly. We should bring other modes of thought to this picture; collective and community-oriented thinking. I have to admit that my efforts to ‘run’ well depend on supporting and partnering with others. We also get to determine what the race/war actually is; the ‘rules’ or ‘terms of engagement’. A socially just life and socially just mission are such that ‘the winner’ is corporate, not individual, where we have corporately agreed on worthy goals and just means of engagement, and where the dignity of individual endeavour is balanced with community solidarity. As I look at 1 Cor 9 now, I see the collective ‘Church at Work’ crossing the finishing line as a body, the Body of Christ, and so we receive that winners wreath together. So the Head, Christ, gets the glory, as its His graces that enable this miracle of internal transformation and corporate unity.
Image: Sum_of_Marc on Flickr. The Brownlee Brothers. The Men’s Triathlon at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The Olympic Triathlon took place at Hyde Park on Tuesday 7th August. 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
If Genesis is indeed the opening statement of the inspired Word of God, then it seems God doesn’t have a very high view of women. If the portrayal of women in Genesis is really not much different to that of contemporary Ancient Near Eastern texts with which it shares its textual origins, then, it is claimed, we ought to rule it out as having anything constructive to say about the identity and roles of women in society today. If this ‘book of beginnings’ is the foundational basis of God’s dealings with God’s creatures and God’s chosen people, then it is plain to many readers and commentators that God Himself- yes, very much Himself- is a patently biased Creator, who has favourites in regard to gender, not to mention race. Some favourites become such apparently at random, while others are favoured purely because they are fortunate to have the characteristics of one type of biological identity rather than another. Both categories smack of injustice, and in sum, God is exposed as being as misogynistic and patriarchal as the flawed and therefore ‘sinful’ men that He all at once choses and blesses with His favours, whether the characters who dominate the text, or those whose privilege enabled them to be the authors and redactors of it.
Such are the pejorative assertions that Genesis is a culturally flawed and irrevocably compromised basis for gender-inclusive spirituality and should be rejected as a sound basis for the formation of humans as females, bearing only the toxic fruit of patriarchal oppression. God, if He is to be named and respected at all, is thus best understood to be more the God of man than as the God of woman, or as God of humanity, if you insist. And that makes Him a lesser god. Or, quite likely, a god made by men, in their image and likeness.
This brief article seeks to rebut this kind of popular historical judgement in an academic tone. I will present reflections on some key observations about most of the principal female characters in Genesis in order to show that Genesis does indeed offer resources to perceive the ‘good’ creation of women by the Creator. It is doubtless true that there was significant energy in the cultural biases of ancient societies that could properly be described as both patriarchal and misogynistic, and this is reflected in complex ways in the biblical texts, and specifically within Genesis. Humankind is depicted as falling short of God’s righteous expectations from near the outset, while the symptoms of the complex of broken relationships includes a fundamental breakdown between the genders. But crucially, does that mean that the relationship between God and women is really any different to that between God and men? Are women second class citizens of earth and heaven? Historically, this has been the implied claim, and for their part, theologians have often dodged this point, and since they have more often than not been men, that rather adds to the general sense of suspicion.
In the first place, the criticism takes root in a faulty hermeneutic, which naively &/or deliberately fails to admit that just because the biblical texts originate in part in the history of flawed humanity, considered as a whole, that a priori disqualifies a theologically conscious reading that allows the Spirit of God to breathe divine life into what could be reduced to base clay, but in fact, in the grace of God, speaks life. It is a faith step to read the Scripture as the Word of God, and this is indeed the path I invite you to take with me.
The following examples are featured in the chronological order in which they appear in the Genesis text. Let’s watch to see if there might be layers of messaging in that sequencing as well.
In creation, God separates and divides. In one of several climaxes in Gen 1-2, God makes the woman the focus of the first bringing back together. Beyond God’s judgements of ‘good’ and ‘very good,’ when God brings the woman to the man who is awakened from his reproductive operation, Adam speaks ecstatically on his own and God’s behalf. The woman is not the missing piece of Adam (existing in God’s creation only to complete him, as man); rather, she the one in whom God’s whole creation, in which God is incarnate, is brought to its completion in relationality. This is the third climax of creation, the first being the creation of ‘adamah in God’s image and likeness on the sixth day [where ‘adamah is not to be misconstrued as merely male Adam, but as ‘male and female’ together] while the second climax is the ‘now but not yet’ seventh holy day on which God rested, pointing into the eternity hereafter of Creation. So in terms of the sequencing of the Genesis narrative, the third climax is the ultimate one, and we should infer what God is thus announcing regarding the significance of the woman, Eve, in that regard.
Following the complex differentiation of Eve from Adam in the opening two chapters, the subsequent chapters 4-11 generally make the male character in each generation stand for all family members, mentioning few others than the inheriting son in whom the blood line continues. This need not be read as bias, as sexism, as weak or strong endorsement of patriarchy over matriarchy. Just as with interpretation of the fossil record, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The biblical alternative to the Sumerian King Lists in the early genealogies makes a theological point of egalitarianism that need not also be read as endorsing the primacy of male over female. Noah’s wife is not named, but then again, up to the time that the Ark is grounded on Ararat, Noah does not speak. We must be careful not to fall into eisegesis in our analysis of what the text does and also does not devote words to communicating with us.
As I explain elsewhere in this blog1, and at length, though Sarai is not separately or individually called in Genesis 12- only her husband is- we see her bloodline is noted in the Gen 11 genealogy (Gen 11:29-31). Later on, however, God comes to call Sarah specifically as an individual, as an agent, as the Mother of Promise, in Genesis 18. (This follows God’s renaming of both Abram as Abraham and Sarai as Sarah in Genesis 17.) As a sign of humanity and creaturely breathing, both Abram and Sarai are heard laughing by the LORD, which shared sign of personhood is within the generous bounds of the imaging of the divinity. Sarai’s laughter is heard in the divine court even from the secret place of her tent (Gen 18:12-15).
We might characterise Hagar as a lower-class woman, a servant (as is Rebekah’s nurse in a later chapter) who we might not expect to gain God’s attention in the account constrained by patriarchal priorities. She is a foreigner, the female Egyptian servant of another woman; merely an employee- who is not even introduced as a spiritual refugee or ‘convert’. Hagar is an ‘extra’ in a period of history where God is forming His nation, as distinct from all the other unchosen nations. The patriarchal focus is very much elsewhere, it might be proposed. Yet God sees her, Hagar, as a person who is respected and valued, spoken to and spoken with, valued by God even when she is not valued by her community, such that though she is abandoned as a flawed woman by her mistress and master, God oversees this breakdown and rescues both Hagar and her beloved child. The various types of divine and angelic encounter that are visited on the patriarchs are lavished on Hagar, and in her hours of greatest need. Not only are her womanly tears seen and reported, her heart’s prayer is also heard, and so she comes to name the Divinity, ‘The God Who sees me’, though she is given no part in the bloodline of the children of Promise. Nevertheless, God gives her child Ishmael a destiny, and we see the origin of a religious tradition in this- for better or for worse- in the long run; God does not exercise the simplistic favouritism that the critics allege. Not only does Hagar qualify the interchange with Sarah as a ‘pass’ for the Bechdel-Wallace test2, she also features as a significant female character who is NOT in the bloodline of the Israelites-in-formation, whose son Ishmael is now known as the progenitor of extant Arab nations and also of Islam as a rival religion to Judaism and Christianity. God’s promise of a destiny for Ishmael is not only made to Abraham, who intercedes for his first son, but also to Hagar directly (Gen 21:18). God is immediately making good on His promise (Gen 12) that all nations will be blessed through Abram, and does so ‘personally’ for Hagar whom He has determined to take sole responsibility for (Gen 21:12).
Sarah the Matriarch
We might be suspicious of the omission of Sarah from the Akedah (Gen 22) which is then followed by her immediate death, but this is also a lowest denominator reading. Again, we must focus our attention first on what the text does tell us. It is Sarah, not Abraham, that is given the lions’ share of attention in burial in the extended account of the whole of Gen 23. The burial ground that Sarah is the first to occupy is later populated by the key patriarchs, first Abraham, Isaac (Gen 35:29), and later with Jacob being brought specially by Joseph all the way from Egypt to the same resting place (49:29). As if to say, the many patriarchs may seem to be prioritised in this life, perhaps so; but God promises a recalibration in what follows, not so much in the grave, but rather beyond it! Thus, you will note, listening carefully what I am saying: Sarah has not become important in this chapter because she is dead, silent, and is reduced to a blank shroud on which the agendas of others (aka men) can be written over her identity without objection. That is the hermeneutic of suspicion. No! Just as in the closing verse of the book of Genesis, what the Genesis Author whispers here is that Sarah’s life story is not over. She will live again, and Sarah will speak for herself.
Further to my comments about the gradual and specific inclusion of Sarah in God’s purposes for the married couple sent from Babylonia (Abram AND Sarai), in Genesis 24 the woman Rebekah is specifically chosen and called by God, just as was Abram; she is negotiated over by adults, mostly men, though her mother is also twice mentioned and honoured with gifts. Yet Rebekah is given the final say about her choice about whether to leave and when to leave her family. On arrival at Isaac’s tent, she asks the first question and then determines her own greeting for her husband-to-be. We are then told that Isaac ‘loved’ her, elevating her as a person in his estimation, not merely characterising her as a source of biological heirs. Commentators do generally note other features of Rebekah’s story that qualify her as an agent, so I will not repeat them here.
Leah is not allowed to be overlooked as a woman who can be a wife, mother and part of the lineage and ancestry of heaven- a hope and a future, as Jeremiah puts it- just because the young Jacob doesn’t think she is as desirable as her sister, whom he really wants to marry. Leah’s children which result from her inclusion in God’s purposes, as well as those of her preferred sister Rachel, make up the emergent twelve tribes, indeed, form their majority. The resolution of the question of polygamy- the supposed right of a man to multiple wives / concubines- is not seen in Genesis, and remains a debatable matter right up to the NT letters.
Rachel (Gen 31: 33-35) is portrayed as a woman who exercises her agency against the control of her father. The Genesis account even notes her appeal to menstruation as part of her creative and crafty manipulation of her father and her agency in her future in community. The wives of Jacob are not to be categorised with the animals that were the original bargaining chips between son-in-law and father-in-law, (Jacob and Laban), though the biological realities of their nature as women and (potential) mothers are not denied. We are enfleshed persons, and scripture always admits to the childbearing potential of women, even though they are often/ usually barren in the early scriptural narratives. In this regard, we might say that God insists that when we see the matriarchs in scripture, we look up, to the One who bestows the gift of children, to repeat with Eve, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (Gen 4:1) When a man takes a wife, he does not take home an automatic baby making machine. This is a theological lesson, not a biological one.
Dinah (the last child and only daughter of Leah) is the first subject of Genesis 34. The account says very little about Dinah in terms of her agency, though that is how the account begins:
Gen 34 Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land.2 When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her. 3 His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. 4 And Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as my wife.”
All we are told about Dinah, on her own account, is that she went out of the household and set out on relational business of her own choosing, in expectation of safety. She wasn’t seeking the company of boys or men, but that was what befell her. Most if not all women will today recognise this reality. A woman going out into the world so often means going out into a world in which male agency is oppressive toward female agency, in ever so subtle ways, or worse. There is confrontation and imposition, in terms which resonate with Eve’s three fold encounter at the tree in Gen 2, and which recall the lust of the sons of God in Gen 6:2. But God does not intervene for Dinah as He did in Gen 6:3. Shechem has his wicked way with Dinah, and the rest of the chapter is a complex interplay of relationship and community politics which does business with Dinah’s sexuality and future, all in terms completely disconnected from her agency, entirely dictated by various men without any reference to her or indeed to any other women. We hear no more about her agency. After the bloodbath which follows the squabbling and scheming of all the brothers and fathers, we read just once more of Dinah:
26 They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword and took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left.
Dinah is, we might think, treated rather as an object, though perhaps this is little different to the way in which Abram rescues Lot and his household from the warring kings in Gen 14:14. This really is the low point in the whole Genesis account, where female identity, agency, and especially where female sexuality are all in flux, in debate, and in acute peril. This is not simply as a reflection of the peril to the bloodline of the patriarchs, as the theologians so often characterise it. That is to repeat the error, conceding ground to critical feminists without justification. For sure, there is not resolution in this episode. But what might we hear God saying to us all here? Rather like the account of Judges, we are given a God’s eye view of the dimensions and ramifications of sin, that so often starts in the male gaze, in male desire, in the violence that is done in the name of community and justified on the grounds of male power and right to ownership. In the clash of cultures, even the religious symbolism of circumcision features in the chaos. Yet as we survey the whole tragic vista of Genesis 34, we might see a #MeToo episode, where God exercises Divine right to call out what has happened to Dinah in terms that highlights the roles and responsibilities of all the abusers, who may well all be male. God sees Dinah, and all the women of the community, and what is done to them. In this text God seeks to ensure that we see them too.
This insight is developed in Gen 38, where Tamar is subjected to a different kind of abuse in her community, where it is implied that Judah considers that she is in some way connected with the death of his sons (cf Ruth 1), despite the fact that we are told quite bluntly that it was in fact God who judged them. Judah, however, is blind in the fog of his own imagination, sending her away back to her original family as a hopeless widow, refusing to give his third son as her husband, according to prevailing cultural traditions. Her life has been spent on men’s priorities, but there is no gratitude. Her future is denied by Judah’s refusal to continue in covenant commitment. Tamar takes the initiative and exercises agency with Judah, who falls into her trap: she negotiates, and decisively concludes the sexual agreement on her terms, in contrast to the assault on Dinah. The conclusion to Dinah’s abuse was determined by men, but Tamar is vindicated by the invisible work of God in Judah’s conscience and also later in God’s blessing of her twin sons, thus included in the Israelite descent.
Tamar and ‘Mrs Potiphar’
In the Judah and Joseph cycle of the account of the sons of Jacob/Israel, we should reflect that Tamar and ‘Mrs Potiphar’ are given respect as human agents before and under God, whether within or beyond the boundaries of ‘God’s chosen people’, and that the agency they exercise is admitted by the accounts to reach across the division of right and wrong even in regard of their sexual behaviour. God and the community of God’s people are seen to come to treat Tamar as a respectable and respected woman, despite our knowledge of the full range of behaviours she exercises, as does Judah. And Mrs Potiphar is offered dignity by the same standards by the Hebrew slave Joseph, so we see her choices are those of an ethically informed and agentially competent person, not merely a creature driven by biological instinct. [Judah belatedly came to the same realisation.] In the Genesis cycle, these two characters are portrayed in terms that pass the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colours. ‘Mrs P’, as I refer to her, is not named in the text: she is ‘his master’s wife’ (39:7), and I hold that is a deliberate feature of the narrative and indicative of her character, rather than an oversight. Both women are noticed, heard, understood, and though not necessarily [completely] believed, are connected with the whole of their respective communities. In the context, they cannot speak directly to each other, but a lifeway dialogue is implied between them.
Joseph, like Abram and Sarai, is given an Egyptian woman to give him a family life. In this case, the Egyptian, the daughter of the priest of On is personally named, Asenath (Genesis 41:45), and the children they bring up together are later adopted into Israel at patriarch Jacob’s instruction. This Egyptian woman, initially the gift of Pharaoh to Joseph, is therefore adopted into the bloodline of Israel, emphasising God’s inclusive attitude displayed in His relationship with Hagar. We can surmise from Joseph’s behaviour in Potiphar’s household how well he will treat his own wife.
[My thesis is that Joseph is, in a very significant way, a fulfilment of what God intended Adam to be at the beginning. You might inquire as to what Asenath’s place in this interpretation might be. Notwithstanding what I have said above, I do not see her as a direct foil to Eve. Rather, Joseph, as one representative character in Genesis, stands as one individual who represents what any one of us can be as co-creators in God’s image in God’s world. This is an abstracted view, not constrained by the biological and relational realities of Joseph as a family man at the conclusion of the account of the family of Jacob/Israel, the third great patriarch.]
Surveying these characters, we can see that the Genesis text gives ample insight into the ramifications of human sinfulness in the whole of human society, the symptoms of which are as clear in the people-of-God-in-formation as they are anywhere else. Many of the most obvious symptoms of the sinfulness of individuals and communities are evident in the relationships between men and women, especially in the unequal exercise of power between them. Some of that inequality is evident in the form of the texts that have come to us as ‘The Book of Genesis’, (eg men get more column inches than women) but that does not mean that we should identify such features as being the last or even first word of God with regard to God’s intent. Some of God’s Word is God telling us about ourselves; truth-telling, rather than truth-forming. And if we will allow the truth to be spoken in love, if we will but hear the Truth being spoken in love to us even today, from the far distant past, in what may seem a foreign language, then we might diffuse many of the modern misunderstandings and correct some blatantly anachronistic readings. Genesis is not, we might say, setting out to address our modern concerns of gender identity and relationships in culturally current terms. I do nevertheless claim that the numerous examples above provide ample resources for addressing our modern concerns, if we will but read them carefully, attending to the part they play in the headline agenda of salvation history of which the whole Bible speaks. Genesis does not present the last word on any subject, by very definition. We may discern the planting of many different seeds in God’s redemption plan, and some show more development than others by the close of the Genesis account. I suggest that God’s word and indeed Godself have been too often misjudged and stereotyped in regard to the image and dignity of women in Genesis, as girls, as women, whose sexuality and sexual behaviour is acknowledged in the same terms as men, as wives, though not as accessories to men, as (would-be) mothers, and finally accorded dignity in death. And I highlight the examples of Sarah, Rebekah and Hagar who must be recognised as the equals of Abraham or any of the male characters in terms of their complete engagement as spiritual agents with the Divinity, YHWH the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have briefly shown for these three women the text shows that God co-creates a reciprocal relationship with them as individuals whose feminine nature is acknowledged- implicitly and explicitly in their dealings with God and community. Their feminine nature is accepted and celebrated as a diversifying aspect of their complete humanity. So a more careful re-reading will enable us all to escape the effects of myriad historical misrepresentations and blatant lies and even enable us to recreate ways of living together as a whole and healthy community which can celebrate who and what we are, jointly co-created and co-creating in the image and likeness of God. Such co-creation will benefit from responsible theological reflection and leadership. In closing, I suggest that Genesis exhibits in plain view the basis of a ‘first wave’ feminism that did not await a recent post-Christian invention, though this truth may have been suppressed.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say…?”
ref 2 ‘The Bechdel test, also known as the Bechdel–Wallace test, is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.’ Wikipedia Please note I am not endorsing the Bechdel-Wallace test as an authoritative basis for judging the portrayal of women in Genesis, but simply noting it as a point of topical discussion. See https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2016/aug/20/why-the-bechdel-test-doesnt-always-work for a thoughtful commentary in current Arts and Entertainment.
The first anniversary of George Floyd’s passing is on Tuesday 25th May. In this chapter length article, I reflect on the lessons we might draw from the Genesis account of Cain, Abel and Lamech and the tragic events in Minneapolis a year ago. The biblical account also makes passing comment about the progress of civilisation and leaves some clues about law and order in society, which I consider in regard to current developments in space exploration and the US presidency.
Genesis 4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted?[b] And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to[c] you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother.[d] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.[e]14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod,[f] east of Eden.
17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech. 19 And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.
23 Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”
25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed[g] for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” 26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.
Genesis 4 ESV. Genesis 4:1 Cain sounds like the Hebew for gotten ESV Gen 4:2 Lit. Breath or Nothing NKJV Gen 4:16 Nod means wandering
What exactly is the nature of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? There are many enduring mysteries in the Bible, most especially in the opening chapters of Genesis, and this is one of the juiciest. There are plenty of things we do know, because we are rather good at finding things out, but a whole bunch more that we still do not, and that is very good for our humility. There are certain important things that we can only know if God tells us about them. What is exciting about Genesis is that God does tell us, which is what theologians mean by revelation. We don’t need to study stories about feral children for long to know that we rely on our parents and community to bring us into the world. Our communities are as much a womb as our mothers were. And Genesis speaks to us on God’s behalf, to provide an environment to nurture the eternal in us.
As Adam and Eve discovered, we know that God was very serious when he told our first parents not to do something. The wonderful thing about having parents is that they can teach us things- what to do, and especially what not to do. Learn from our mistakes. We can’t make you behave- in fact we have to admit that we can’t control you at all! When you are older, we might eventually stop telling you what to do, but at least we can keep reminding you about what not to do. You want to be your own man, your own woman? Well and good, for you are indeed formed in God’s own image and likeness, and sent out into God’s good world to be a very fruitful seed and to multiply life and good works – forty, sixty, one hundred-fold. But also know this. Death was a fact of life before we came along, and the inescapable lesson of Cain was that having freedom means that you can also sow death.
Might this all suggest that the quality of knowledge of this very particular tree in God’s garden is not so much in the fruit of the tree itself but in God’s words to His children about it? The kind of knowledge that our elders offer to us as the fruit of lived experience- the ever-sharp taste of memory, of life lived in freedom which goes somewhat according to the way they intended, yet not quite. And that ‘not quite’ is painful and has unintended consequences in the lives of the community. Sinful consequences. Looking back, it is often easier to be clear about what we wish we had not done- because we find we are challenged to take responsibility for what we started: what we set in train, as an inescapable chain of cause and effect that began with us. With me.
If only Cain had listened to his parents.
What might Adam and Eve had to say to Cain and Abel, their first children? That must have been an awkward conversation. ‘Listen lads- we stuffed up. We’re out of Eden now- we can’t help that. But there is value in going on with life. God is still with us. That has to be a reliable foundation for hope. And whatever you do, take His word seriously.’
Look at these two boys. Chapter 4 introduces us the results of Adam ‘knowing’ Eve: Cain, whose name many of the versions tell us in a footnote sounds like the Hebrew for ‘gotten,’ so the American English is quite informative in this regard. Cain is at once the possession of his mother- a name evoking the universal image of a mother cradling her child- and a gift, a specific and personal gift of God. Which is also what we commonly hold on to before the little mite has done anything good or bad. Commentary on ‘Abel’ is less common, and we may be brought up short to find the alternative renditions as ‘breath’ or ‘nothing,’ in the NKJV. Remember that God breathed into Adam, creating his life from clay, and this breath will return to God at death, leaving only dust. So together, the boys are ‘sons of their father’, and ‘sons of their Father.’
Genesis 4 verses 2 and 3 transport us to a world within the worlds of the text. Cain discovers that he is different. Different to his brother Abel. There are different ways to make one’s journey on in life, even while being in community, in the same family. Cain discovers what we all know; that life is unfair. We don’t always get what we hope for, even what we think we deserve for our honest hard work. The text puts it like this. The two brothers bring an offering of their best work to God’s altar. I expect they put fire to the portions, and they turned to ash and smoke. How did Cain know that his offering was not accepted by the Lord? Did the smoke go sideways instead of rising upwards? Or was the fire somehow prematurely snuffed out? I don’t know, but Cain knew that his offering was not regarded. As he looked across, he saw that his brother’s offering was accepted. In that instant, wild and unruly thoughts formed in his mind.
In the previous chapter, it took the whisperings of the serpent to set off the internal dialogue in Eve’s mind, which ends with her ‘seeing’ what was good and pleasing and desirable. But there is no whisperer to blame this time. Cain sees what he chooses to see, and he comes to know what he decides is the case. In Genesis 3, the couple wait until judgement comes to them. In Genesis 4, Cain takes charge of judging the situation for himself. “It’s not fair.”
In the garden, the couple are left to discover the consequences of their collective choice, until God comes to search for them in the cool of the day. For Cain, there is unexpected grace. Well, that’s what grace is. Unexpected! Though the humans have been banished from the garden, God’s voice comes immediately to Cain more clearly than the conviction of his own conscience. God speaks to Cain in straightforward terms, just as parents should, making complicated things simpler, giving life wisdom with urgency and clarity. Just as in Genesis 3, Cain discovers that there is something outside of himself that is opposed to wisdom, and is opposed to him. But this is not what is important, so much as who ought to be in charge. Our feelings and emotional responses may seem inevitable, but God leaves Cain without excuse. Sin may well be crouching at your doorway with ill intent- what mysteries are yet hinted at here? But the choice is yours. God tells Cain that he can rule over his decision. Being out of Eden is not the issue. My parents’ failures are not the issue. The reality of unfairness in life is not the issue. Freedom still applies. Your emotions may be running ahead of you, but the decision is still to be made, and you are the ruler of that decision. You must- God speaks in the imperative! – must rule over it. Or as the American Standard and Amplified versions translate it, ‘you must master it.’ Now this is wisdom, informed by God’s direct revelation. We may not understand the forces arrayed against us, from without and within, but at this juncture God still assures Cain of the potential to be ruler and master of his own decision. What tragedy follows. Cain has the roads of right and wrong illuminated before him, and the offer of the Divine Companion to assist him, but he turns from God’s inviting hand and shuts down the dialogue. He becomes a tyrant: taking mastery of his own mind and becoming ruler of his own actions. He makes himself the judge of God’s personal words of warning and wisdom. His father had been given charge of the field – to till and watch there. Cain goes to the field to create murder. ‘So you want a blood sacrifice do you? My grain offering isn’t good enough? Well that can be arranged.’ Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. His response to inequality is to blot out the other- even his own brother. This is no solution. The God who put ‘adamah in charge of His garden knows what is in His soil. Spilt blood can be seen from the farthest distance, even from the heavens above.
The scripture does not tell us how Cain did the murderous deed. The disadvantage of creating pictures to tell the biblical stories to the illiterate is that the artist has to imagine certain details that are hidden, and perhaps diverts attention away from what is revealed. In an ivory tablet from Salerno cathedral, made around 1084AD, Cain is depicted pinning Abel’s body down with his foot, with both hands around his brother’s neck, strangling him. As his oxygen supply is cut off, we see Abel looking back to the event that apparently led to his demise at the hands of his brother. Even making an acceptable offering to God seems not to have been sufficient to protect him from ultimate harm. Life really is not fair.
The scriptures have provided us with great gifts of divine revelation. Warnings about the nature of knowing good and evil that are inseparable from the profound truth of knowing God personally and literally, and divine affirmation of the reality of personal freedom, moral choice and responsibility. Now then, about responsibility. There is no time for Cain to hide in the bushes. ‘Adam, where are you?’ becomes, ‘Cain, where is your brother?’ As I may have said more than once myself, denial of knowledge can be attempted as a strategy to avoid responsibility. ‘I don’t know!’ says Cain to God. Then he gives away more than he intends. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ As if the suggestion that the divine dominion mandate was only to ‘work and keep’ (ESV) the ground of the garden, but not his brother also. ‘I only have to keep charge of the ground that produces grain- that’s what my father said you told us to do. Nothing about watching out for people. Each person looks after themselves- its none of my business what he does or where he goes.’
Methinks he protests too much.2
We would not tell the rest of the story this way. God does indeed pronounce a curse on Cain, but it is Cain himself who first says to God that ‘from your face I shall be hidden.’ Cain pronounces judgement on himself: here still is the sufficiently vertical plumb line of conscience. It is Cain who ‘went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.’ And once again, the gift of the life of God in human beings continues in grace, for Cain ‘knew his wife’ and a new community is formed. Cain’s own mother Eve speaks out what he would not admit or take responsibility for, naming her third son Seth, ‘appointed,’ after Abel, ‘for Cain killed him.’ It is the mournful cry of all mothers, lamenting the destruction wrought in the world by one woman’s son on another, while holding onto their dream of a better future that, somehow, perhaps, God has planned.
History has repeated itself again and again. We are told that no one listens to that either.
I was born in August 1968, four months after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. While I was kicking about in nappies, the space race was in full swing. As Apollo 8 returned from the first circumnavigation of the moon, bearing a photograph of the luminous blue dot of Earth hanging alone in the blackness of space, the US media commentator Walter Cronkite reflected, ‘A year of trouble and turbulence, anger and assassination, is now coming to an end in incandescent triumph.’ Just another year later in July of 1969, Apollo 11’s ‘Eagle’ lander touched down, then relaunched and successfully returned the first two men to walk in the dust of the moon, leaving two sets of footprints, the American flag, and several kilos of space junk. The memorial plaque they delivered reads, ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’
It was impossible to know whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might be exposed to some virus or bring some infection back to Earth from the moon, so while President Nixon was very keen to be seen as close to the returning adventurers, he was obliged to greet and congratulate them from outside the mobile quarantine facility the three astronauts were transported in after being plucked out of the sea. As it turned out, there was no cause for alarm, so that part of the routine was cut for Apollo 12, which flew the round trip without a hitch in November of the same year.
While the race to the moon, announced by J F Kennedy at the start of the decade, on 25th May 1961, began as a crude political race between rivals – the Communist Soviets versus the underdog Americans- the Apollo programme had morphed into a full blown scientific, technological and commercial endeavour. The next mission was Apollo number 13 of 20, but, for the media, the novelty was wearing off, and regular shows were filling television screens around the world, until shortly after Commander Fred Haise called back to Houston from about half way to the moon to say that ‘we’ve had a problem.’ An electrical component manufactured two years earlier had malfunctioned when stirring the main oxygen fuel tank, though fortunately, by a quirk of design, there was nothing else nearby to ignite, so the three crew survived the explosion. Back on Earth in their training camp, NASA astronaut Ken Mattingly did not have German measles, and he helped his former crewmates work up the rescue procedure that would get their crippled spaceship back to earth. Restarting the flight computer after shutting it down to conserve battery power was a particular challenge. Although not landing on the moon shortened the overall mission time, there was insufficient oxygen to sustain the three crew in the command module. They adapted the ‘scrubbers’ which remove carbon dioxide from the cabin to avoid all being suffocated before getting home, which required several metres of duct tape, plastic bags and even the cover of their flight manual.
Of course, I was not old enough to know any of this at the time. As a 12 year old boy, I compiled a paper project on the space programmes of the USA, USSR and even the UK, but my sources of information did not include any film footage. My maiden Aunt Betty shared her collection of Time LIFE magazines from the era of the moon landings, which printed the enthralling photographs from the lunar missions, while also reporting on the multiple tragic fatalities in the Kennedy family in the USA at the same time. I was aware of the violence and protests against apartheid in South Africa as I got older, but I remained largely ignorant of the systemic inter-racial tensions in the USA that culminated in the cowardly shooting of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King until many years later- really past the date I left school, I think, and only then did I come to appreciate the significance of King’s leadership in the struggle for racial equality. I certainly understood that the legacy of segregation of blacks from whites was the reason that the US space programme placed white men in the glamorous seats inside the rockets and control rooms. My understanding has become deeper over the years as black life stories and perspectives have been listened to and broadcast- indeed, in as much as I have made the effort to find out what their perspectives are.
It is rather easy to reduce the key messages in Genesis 4 to simplistic statements about jealousy and fratricide. ‘What a bad boy that Cain was! Its no wonder no mother gives that name any more.’ We must not misunderstand what the text is telling us about ourselves. The wrong question to ask is, ‘Am I Cain or am I Abel?’ We are all Cain, and God is certainly speaking to all of us, if we will listen. It is also true that we are all Abel- or at least could be. But just as a key lesson of Genesis 3 is that we are Adam and Eve, and that God comes chasing after us despite breaking our vertical relationship, so the paramount lesson of Genesis 4 is that we are Cain and we have broken relationship with our brothers and sisters. Yet our horizontal relations are not to be considered independently of God. Genesis 4 says this in several ways, and here are just two. Both brothers are making offerings to God. Secondly, the chapter is concluded with the statement, ‘At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.’ (4:26 ESV) Some say that Genesis 4 is a lament over the ghastly decline of the state of humanity, but this diagnosis must be countered by hope, which God sustains and even Eve gives voice to, the mother of both murdered son and murdering son.
We have a choice about what we will say; what we will confess, what we will speak into being. Our parenting is tested by the failures of our children. Our identity as children is tested by our responses to our own failures, and especially those of our own parents, for they are not perfect either. Did I need to say that? Yes, I do, for silence can so easily give place for condemnation. Through our next words we set out boundaries for the future; through our words we affirm the space in which we will reorient ourselves, horizontally and vertically and in time. And if we will speak words that engender conversation, and give names to what hope can lie ahead in God’s grace, through repentance and forgiveness, then we can be co-creators of community. Through our words we can master ourselves and empower one another to corporate mastery.
This opportunity was grasped by President Kennedy the very day after the assassination of Dr King, when he kept his appointment at the Cleveland City Club on April 5th 1968.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
6 President John F Kennedy at the Cleveland City Club on April 5th 1968.
Not only does Genesis 4 weave a strand of hope into the accounts of Cain and Lamech and the destruction they bring to community and all of God’s creation project, it also subtly outlines the landscape for the development of civilisations. The children of Cain and Lamech are those who go on to build cities or to dwell in tents. Verses 21 and 22 tell us about the invention and development of musical instruments- the technology of the arts, while others develop ‘instruments’ of bronze and iron. The cultural language of Genesis and the Old Testament as a whole is that of the Late Bronze Age, and we now understand much more about the spectacular flowering of civilisation in and beyond the ancient Near East in the millennia before Christ. The production of bronze was no parochial matter- the tin for this alloy was sourced along trade routes from what is now Afghanistan, while copper was mined in Crete in quantity and traded via ships across the Mediterranean to meet the tin in smelting and forging. If musical instruments were made, then so were weapons and tools of all kinds. These little verses, as so often in the biblical texts, are subtle signposts with momentous implications.
[7Top left] Sons of Zeus, Apollo with his lyre and Dionysus with his pipe, engaged in a ‘Battle of the Bands.’ Yet in Gen 4:22, the Jubal is the father of those who play both lyre and pipe. [Right] So-called ‘Standard of Ur’ at the British Museum. This reconstruction of the ‘Standard of Ur’ shows the occupations and technologies of war on one face (TOP THREE ROWS notably including several of its crushed and trampled victims), and those of peace on the other, include a musician with a stringed instrument. (LOWER THREE ROWS) (By contrast, Gen 4:21-22 does not distinguish the uses of the items made of bronze and iron.) One hypothesis is that this so-called ‘Standard’ was instead the decorated sounding box of a musical instrument. [Lower left] Enlargement of musician with lyre.
If it is possible to fashion a bronze tube into a musical pipe or a trumpet, then it’s an inevitable sequence of steps to intricate tools and weapons, and then to guns and projectiles. And once the chemistry of forging can develop into the chemistry of portable fuels, then the fuel can be put inside the metal tube and BOOM- we’ve got rockets! Well, there were a few failed ‘booms’ and blasts before the rockets went anywhere, but the progress from air ships to aeroplanes to supersonic flight to earth orbiting rockets was accomplished in just over half a century. But this narrative of science and technology is a different one to that of Genesis 4, which takes it as read that fire is a key development in human technology, but does not draw attention to it. The two brothers each make a burnt offering; that assumes knowledge of fire. Cain’s descendants advance from bronze to iron technology; that implies the profound control of fire in combination with materials with sufficient insight that will lead, by routes of enquiry of varying fruitfulness, to our technological present which includes a new age of space travel driven by private enterprise as well as national governments. Yet Genesis is silent regarding political and governmental institutions, which lie entirely in the realm of human freedom. Not all human institutions are equally likely to facilitate and protect such freedom, however. Perhaps Lamech recognises this, so he tries to multiply the protection that God gave to his forefather Cain through his own invocation of extrajudicial vengeance.
The Genesis text elegantly sews together the various aspects of developing civilisation, even in so few words. Both arts and sciences are interwoven with the allusions to geographical variety of community and the continuing accounts of individual life histories. Music is mentioned before technology- or are these categories really separate in the view of the biblical authors? Whatever the answer to that question, archaeology certainly evidences that both are evident in all human cultures, and there is a creative synergy between them.
Whatever the long-term benefits of the extended Apollo programme might have been, once the USA had beaten the Russians to the moon, who then gave up their own ambitions to carry out a manned landing, the astronomical cost to the American taxpayer became the focus of attention. In particular, this was becoming a social justice question as well as an economic one. As we read, JFK was highly sympathetic to the protests led by MLK and community leaders around the US, and some say this was why Kennedy was assassinated. His successors at the White House were less biddable, but there are other means of marshalling political pressure. Lyric writers create ways of saying things in public that it is hard to get into newspapers. By the late 60s, the upcoming jazz and soul poet Gil Scott-Heron was writing street poetry which boldly critiqued environmental, military and capitalist issues. He also took on structural racism. Here are the lyrics he wrote in 1969 for his debut album ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,’ which complained that swathes of the black community had little to celebrate in this decade of technological conquest that sent white American test pilots to the moon, but without tangible benefit for blacks in the US as a whole.
A rat done bit my sister Nell. (with Whitey on the moon) Her face and arms began to swell. (and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill. (but Whitey’s on the moon) Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still. (while Whitey’s on the moon)
The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night. (’cause Whitey’s on the moon) No hot water, no toilets, no lights. (but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s uppi’ me? (’cause Whitey’s on the moon?) I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week. (with Whitey on the moon) Taxes takin’ my whole damn check, Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck, The price of food is goin’ up, An’ as if all that shit wasn’t enough
A rat done bit my sister Nell. (with Whitey on the moon) Her face an’ arm began to swell. (but Whitey’s on the moon)
Was all that money I made las’ year (for Whitey on the moon?) How come there ain’t no money here? (Hm! Whitey’s on the moon) Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill (of Whitey on the moon) I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills, Airmail special (to Whitey on the moon)
As is well documented, the Apollo programme did not exert special control over the narratives told by their crew. The live broadcasts from space, and the earth-bound interviews before and after their spectacular trips, permitted agency to the astronauts to select and package their own scripts. The Apollo 8 crew chose to open a Bible to select the reading from Genesis 1, while no one dreamt of telling Neil Armstrong what to say when he stepped out onto the lunar surface. However, the American education system became far more prescriptive. The wall of separation between church and state, followed more recently by the prohibition of prayer in schools meant that the study of literature remained as the major plinth on which moral standards and ethical analysis of community life could be appraised. Onto this podium was thrust Harper Lee, and her singular lifetime contribution, ‘To kill a mockingbird’ which has been held in the inky and dirt-stained hands of generations of American school children. It also reached the canon of my secondary school reading experience.
In her fictionalised and foundational tale of the American community in formation, Harper Lee sets up a meeting, as it were, in a field outside of Eden, of two children with The Parent. If momentarily concerned that Atticus, the lawyer and father figure, speaks in a stereotypical dominating and privileged male voice, then we should be reassured that it is Miss Lee who puts all the words into his mouth. You may recall that Atticus is with his children Jem and Scout, discussing the recent conviction of Tom Robinson, the black man scapegoated as the attacker of a white woman. Jem is appalled at the injustice that he has witnessed, despite his father’s best efforts to reason that Tom is innocent. Their conversation unfolds- edgy, shocking and honest as their intimate familiarity enables each to respond with agency and insight as the two children discover the realities of injustice in the world made and being made by their forebears and elders. Let’s join them and listen in.
Jem says to his father
‘Then go up to Montgomery and change the law.’
‘You’d be surprised how hard that’d be. I won’t live to see the law changed, and if your live to see it you’ll be an old man.’
This was not good enough for Jem. ‘No sir, they oughta do away with juries. He wasn’t guilty in the first place and they said he was.’
‘If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,’ said Atticus. ‘So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’ jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads- they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.’
‘Doesn’t make it right,’ said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. ‘You just can’t convict a man on evidence like that- you can’t.’
‘You couldn’t, but they could and did. The older you grow the more of it you’ll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a court-room, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it- whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’
Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves- it’s all adding up, and one of these days were going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.’
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. 10
In the scripture, God opens the pages of our collective history and shows us who we have been; what we have done, both as individuals and as society through history- at least, the books are opened just enough for us to see the horror. Back on November 22nd 1963, Abraham Zapruder was filming the President’s motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and so happened to capture the moment that John Kennedy was shot, though not the face of the shooter. Now we have social media to make many more of us joint witnesses with God when human blood is spilt. Anywhere in the world that the camera goes, there we too can be, alongside the one filming, alongside the person being filmed. Following the completed trial of Derek Chauvin, we now know that we stand on the sidewalk with 17 year old Darnella Frazier as she filmed and published full and true testimony of the gross injustice done to George Floyd in the name of the Police Department. We have now heard from their superiors that Chauvin and his colleagues were not following their proper training in their persistent actions, or in their persistent inaction. As Harper Lee put it, ‘something in our world made these men lose their heads,’ and our horror is complete as a child films murder in Minneapolis.
If we were indifferent beforehand, now we are shaken to the core. God’s response is more grace, coupled with justice, though not yet of the final or ultimate kind, so change is possible- perhaps even forgiveness and redemption. The way forward is not clear, but God clearly heard the voice of Abel’s spilt blood in the field, and repeats it back to us. I can stand up with Tony Clark and say George’s name. I can give my breath to the truth, that black lives matter because they are the lives of my sisters and brothers. To whom am I speaking? I’m not sure, though I know that all heaven is listening, and that counts for something. As we all speak the truth in love together, we can yet see to it that every man, including every black man, gets a square deal in court and in every field and city. If I stand with my black brother and sister, perhaps they will come to believe that the way of violent protest and conflagration is not the way to peace and community reconciliation. What sort of fire would God’s Spirit have us light?
For a few days prior to the tragic events in Minneapolis, the story of the resumption of manned rocket launches from US soil since the Shuttle was retired had been gathering pace. Following an abort three days earlier, the first crewed launch of Elon Musk’s manned Falcon 9 rocket took place on May 30th, with a ‘Dragon’ capsule carrying two men to the International Space station to join the Russians already in residence there. Until Space X developed this private launch technology, NASA had been paying handsomely for a lift on the Russian’s fourth generation Soyuz MS rocket to get to the ISS. About $80 million a seat, I hear.
There is a visceral elementality to rockets, and especially the launching of this pillar of flame ever upwards into the darkening blue sky. I can imagine that I know what this is like inside the capsule, lying back helplessly as the engines beneath roar into life powered by the chemical reaction 518 500kg of purified kerosene and liquid oxygen. I expect I would be holding my breath, though that would be utterly futile if the controlled combustion tipped over into an explosion. Of course, I don’t know really, but I can reflect on the science and something of its meaning for us all. We do share an ambition to rise from the ground, to go upwards, and to do so requires that we take a little bit of Earth with us- a capsule, a little bit of Home. In every living cell of my body, enzymes and mitochondria are processing the fuel I have eaten, mostly glucose, combining it in a long series of elegantly regulated biochemical reactions with the oxygen gas that I have inhaled, to release energy in an almost invisible and barely detectable manner. Lift your palms and hold them just a centimetre or two (an inch!) away from your face, and you will detect the heat which spills out of our bodies. Such is a sign that the provisions I bought from the convenience store is now fuelling my life, and this continues all the time I keep breathing. What a fragile adventure this life is, which we all share in common. We biologists talk about ‘burning up food’ when explaining respiration to our students, but this is a metaphorical fire. Control is everything, and our metabolism gives us a wonderful mastery of the ways our bodies grow, move and develop. What is more, we fit into the ecosystems of the planet that takes the invisible carbon dioxide molecules we then exhale, recycling this photosynthetically to regenerate new food materials and oxygen once more. So there is the potential for us to tread lightly as we live, leaving the world more or less as we found it.
The rocket privateers have not quite reached the same levels of sustainability just yet, but it has been a wonder to see how this generation of rockets can now reliably launch, sending their payloads into orbit, while the boosters with their engines land again safely to be reconditioned and reused. The black and white rocket that pushed Hurley and Behnken up into the sky from the same launchpad that sent twelve men to the moon a generation before is powered by nine state of the art Merlin engines. At ignition, a high-pressure stream of RP1 low sulphur rocket fuel is pressurised and mixed into a spray with chilly liquid oxygen before the expanding jet of plasma flame thrusts the whole kit and kaboodle into the blue yonder, barely avoiding shaking everything above it to bits as it punches a hole in the atmosphere, reaching ten times the speed of sound.16 The first stage burnt up its fuel in 158 seconds- there is a pause for a breath in the cockpit at the first stage separates and flies (!) back to the ground. Eight seconds later, the second stage bursts into life and continues its climb beyond the atmosphere for another seven minutes. There is no oxygen here- the fire is only possible because both fuel and oxidiser have been brought along in the huge tanks within the flimsy skin of the rocket.
The exact time taken to reach orbit varies very slightly, though the basic fact remains- either you get to space in around 8.5 minutes, or you don’t get there at all. There is a narrow range of values to stick in the equations to escape the Earth’s gravity and reach orbit- too slow and you run out of fuel. Whatever the size of payload, you must get to 17500 mph, ‘escape velocity’ its called, and so there is only a little variation that can be tolerated. All the key factors must be coordinated and optimised to make this perilous journey possible. Minor deviations must be corrected quickly, and that means teamwork as well as precision engineering.
You may be anticipating the contrast that I am going to draw. We are still utterly shocked and appalled and in grief, and the passing of a year has not yet facilitated the transformations that we continue to hope for. So I choose to add my voice in telling the story of my brother George and in some of my own words, as well as I can. I intend to speak the truth, even in love, as I have hope that doing so may supply my contribution to help us to take mastery of our collective future.
Officer Chauvin and his three colleagues were called to the Cup Foods convenience store on the 25th of May last year, apparently over a question of a fake banknote being used to purchase cigarettes. The decisions they then made were out of all proportion to this complaint. In circumstances complicated by the all too frequently repeated claims of ‘failure to cooperate’ and ‘resisting arrest’, the officers together pushed George Floyd down onto the ground in the street, his face pushed down into the tar under their combined body weight. Having restrained him completely and applying handcuffs, Derek Chauvin continued to kneel on George’s back and neck, while the others looked on without comment. According to corroborated medical testimony after the event, this unauthorised means of restraint not only had the effect of preventing movement, but it also pressurised Floyd’s chest cavity with such force that one lung remained permanently deflated. What air supply he had left was progressively reduced as the pressure was maintained- initially he could be heard protesting ‘I can’t breathe’ but as his oxygen store was exhausted, even the body camera/microphone of the officers could not pick up what George tried to say. With teamwork and responsible implementation of standard police training, we are told, the alarm signs could have been acted on, and ultimate disaster averted. But we now understand what the community in America has come to dread. Chauvin and his colleagues had lost their heads. The smoke went sideways, or something, and Chauvin could now only see what he had decided to see, and now all four officers were no longer servants of community law and order, but became self-appointed tyrants; judge, jury and executioners. Sin desired to have them all, and now we see Derek crouching on George’s neck for ever and a day. At the time this was reported, we were told this was 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In court it was established from the police bodycam record that in fact Chauvin deprived Floyd of oxygen over nine minutes and 29 seconds.
According to the NASA press kit17 for CRS6 which sent the Dragon capsule to orbit on the way to the ISS, the combined flight time for the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket was expected to be nine minutes and thirty seven seconds from launch to Earth orbit. Subtracting the eight seconds for first stage separation gives a total burn time of nine minutes and twenty nine seconds.
9 min 29s. The time it takes a two-stage rocket to actively launch two men into orbit beyond the boundaries of our common God-given home.
9 min 29s. The time it took for one man to deliberately squeeze out the breath of life bestowed by God from his brother.
It is true that there have been many black astronauts in the space shuttle programme, and on 15th November 2020, Victor Glover and a Japanese astronaut were part of the first manned Space X crew to go to the ISS from American soil. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the diversity of our communities is fully reflected in such activities, and in society more generally. I can’t help thinking that if Gil Scott-Heron were still alive, he would say that precious little has changed since he penned ‘Whitey on the Moon’ in 1968. You will excuse me if I suggest the following supplementary verses to his lyrics, giving voice to some of the other symptoms of racial oppression in the US that have been reported here in Britain.
‘2020 Whitey’s on Space Station’
My name is George-now I can’t breathe (but Whitey’s on Space Station) I’m goin’ now, don’t lay a wreath (while Whitey’s on Space Station)
NYPD’s wearin’ army kit (while Whitey’s in his suit) He’s tazin’ me, I’m gettin’ hit! (but Whitey’s looking cute)
The virus come- I lost Mcjob (but Whitey’s on the Station) I call for help, now I’m ‘in a mob’ (Whitey’s payin’ no attention)
They’re shootin’ me- I just went runnin’ (while Whitey’s on the Station) Should I have seen that coming? If my brother’s on the Station?
I wonder why she’s uppi’ me White lady in the park I’m speaking up for wildlife here ‘cos this earth is Noah’s Ark
Is it my place to speak for others, for people and communities who are different to me, whose experiences are different to mine, whose pain is not my pain? Have I any business in seeking to tell others’ stories with my words? I think that Genesis 4 makes it plain that God does call us to exactly this. Cain is called to account for his relationship with his brother and with God all at once and in the same breath. God initiates this conversation, as we have already seen. God says that we are made as one race, and yet we are different. That is what we see in the sons of Eve and the sons of Lamech. If we try to dodge the question, God comes back to us to challenge us to find out how to ‘keep’ not only the land and sea but also our brothers and sisters. If Cain refuses to speak on his brother’s behalf, then God speaks as He certainly hears the blood speak from the ground. And then God partners with others who speak up for justice so that the community can go forward- which is what Eve does. Should I speak? Yes, though my voice is not privileged above another’s voice. I can use my voice to echo and reinforce the call for justice and peace as others cry out- and in our partnership wrongs can be put right and all will be ennobled and enriched.
The language of division and the urge to violence are intoxicating and corrosive. Cain banishes himself from God’s Presence into the east: fast forward five generations and Lamech is lamenting the consequences of murder. The threat of multiplied vengeance is the only prescription he can imagine. The use of rap by Gil Scott-Heron as a poetry of socio-political protest has been developed by Hip Hop musicians in recent decades, and some of these artists are now crossing into the wider political arena, especially as part of #BLM. They have discovered that at this critical time, they can speak with authority to those who respect them, yet feel ignored by the oppressive system. In speaking, they can facilitate agency, and build bridges to others with whom there has not been common cause, but now reciprocate the desire and determination to do so.
As violence began to rise in Minneapolis and Atlanta after George Floyd was killed, Michael ‘Killer Mike’ Render joined Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta-native rapper T.I. in a press conference on May 29th addressing the protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. He wore a T shirt which read ‘Kill your masters’ clarifying that he meant at the voting booth, standing before the cameras to say,
…I don’t want to be here. But, I’m responsible to be here because it wasn’t just Doctor King and people dressed nicely who marched and protested to progress this city and so many other cities. It was people like my grandmother, people like my aunts and uncles, who are members of the SCLC and NAACP.
So, I’m duty bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs.
I’m mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I’m tired of seeing black men die. He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw. And, we watch it like murder porn over and over again. That’s why children are burning [businesses] to the ground. They don’t know what else to do.
It is the responsibility of us to make this better right now. We don’t want to see one officer charged. We want to see four officers prosecuted and sentenced. We don’t want to see Targets burning. We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground.
As I sit here in Georgia, home of Stephens, Georgia, former vice president of the Confederacy … White man said that fundamental law stated that whites were naturally the superior race, and the Confederacy was built on a Cornerstone. It’s called a Cornerstone Speech. Look it up. The Cornerstone Speech, that blacks would be always be subordinate … That officer believed that speech because he killed that man like an animal.
This city’s cut different. In this city, you can find over 50 restaurants owned by black women. I didn’t say minority, and I didn’t say women of color. So, after you burn down your own home, what do you have left but char and ash?
I’m glad they only destroyed some brick and mortar, and they didn’t rip a father from a son. They didn’t rip a son from a mother like the policeman did. When a man yells for his mother in duress and pain and she’s dead, he is essentially yelling, “Please, God. Don’t let it happen to me.” We watched that.
I don’t have any good advice. What I can tell you is that if you sit in your homes tonight instead of burning your home to the ground, you will have time to properly plot, plan, strategize, and organize and mobilize in an effective way.
Two of the most effective ways is first taking your butt to the computer and making sure you fill out your Census so that people know who you are and where you are. The next thing is making sure you exercise your political bully power and going to local elections and beating up the politicians that you don’t like. I want you to go home. I want you to talk to ten of your friends. I want you guys to come up with real solutions. I would like for the Atlanta city police department to bring back the community review board, one that Alice Johnson was formerly under, under Chief Turner. We need a review board here because we need to get ahead of it before an officer does some stupid shit. We need to get ahead of it.
We don’t need a dumb-ass president repeating what segregation has said. “If you start looting, we start shooting.” But, the problem is, some officers black, and some people going to shoot back. And, that’s not good for our community, either.
I love and respect you all. I hope that we find a way out of it because I don’t have the answers, but I do know we must plot. We must plan. We must strategize, organize, and mobilize.
A year on, especially through the continuing challenges of the global pandemic, it is becoming possible to forget how entrenched the challenges are for my American friends, and how these challenges are not much addressed by the verdict of one court or the sentencing of one ex-policeman. Nor is it at all mended by the change of presidency. As some repeat, Trump is and was a symptom, not the cause. Many millions voted for Trump, and even voted for him the last time: 74,222,958 million, to be exact, which is more than have ever voted for any other presidential candidate, save Joe Biden. However the malaise that is signified by Donald Trump is to be mended, it is not simply by the removal of a statue from a plinth, or even a figure from an Oval Office desk.
Author and journalist Ta Nehisi Coates, son of a former Black Panther, writing in The Atlantic back in October 2017 put his finger on something of what it is about whiteness that endures in the shadows of culture in America, and more widely, no doubt:
It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
I do not claim to know what was in President Trump’s mind when he gave instructions for the road across from Lafayette Square to be cleared from protestors, or to have discernment of what his motives were when being photographed while solemnly holding a Revised Standard Version of the Bible aloft. One politician who accompanied Trump from the White House said afterwards that he actually didn’t know where they were all going, and imagined they were going to the site of a toilet building that had been damaged in the earlier unrest, during which fire had also been set to St John’s Episcopal church. Media crew were still able to film the scene as heavily uniformed police in gas masks moved out across ‘H’ street NW, the colonnade and steeple of St John’s rising like a multistage rocket behind them, beckoning our gaze upward to the ever-watching heaven. As the smoke from flash grenades and the last of the tear gas dispersed, Trump picked out his position in front of the church notice board. He awkwardly held the thick bible this way and that, finally judging that a vertical position over his right shoulder gave the most presidential impression. The television camera zoomed in and a female reporter called out a question to the President, ‘Is that your Bible?’ As I watched, it seemed to me that Donald Trump suddenly found himself in the witness stand which he had so strenuously avoided during the bungled impeachment hearings; then, to his own surprise, he replied to the question, promptly and with unexpected reverence, ‘It is a Bible.’ Rarely has this POTUS spoken with such regard to both syntax and clarity of meaning. It is said that a picture speaks more than a thousand words. At this moment, the words trumped the pictures, as he quietly confessed, “I am not the keeper of this Bible.”
I’ve heard a report22 that some Christian supporters of Mr Trump expressed their approval when they saw the live media footage, exclaiming excitedly, ‘He’s doing a Jericho walk!’ Surely it should take more than a journey across ‘H’ street NW to qualify as a ‘Jericho walk’? In Joshua 6:2, Israel is led by Joshua in obedience to God’s specific instruction that they should put themselves in harm’s way, walking around the foreign city in silence, with fully robed priests and the ark of the covenant, in full view and exposed to the insults-or worse- of the residents of the fortress city. The Israelites certainly did not have the benefit of salvoes of tear gas to quell muttered mockery from the fortified walls of the city. If there is such a thing as a ‘Jericho Walk’, it is not a dance in which one imitates moves from a ‘Tik Tok’ video. It was only by the obedient shout of faith that their breath was released and their voices ultimately raised on the seventh day. They would win the day by nothing other than their obedience to the word of the God who knows them. In Acts 19:14, seven sons of Sceva attempt to exercise deliverance power by invoking the names of Saint Paul and Jesus of Nazareth, like a magic incantation, but discover all too late that they have no spiritual authority of their own. The demonic personalities send them packing in a riot of violence, because, in the final reckoning, heaven does not know them. Neither are their names given in the text- only that their father was ‘Sceva’. Once, being in the family of the Jewish High priest was some qualification for victory at Jericho, but no longer; nor is holding up a Bible in order to admire its cover. Being known by Jesus, whom Paul preached- that is how the walls of our hearts have come down, and how our motives might be conformed more closely to those of Jesus of Nazareth- the real Jesus who shows what love really looks and acts like. None of us were or are beyond the reach of such love- even Rahab the prostitute was known by name and spared from the rout of Jericho. Love that, above all, embraces those who seem in some way or another different from us- and yet, in the final judgement, are really the same. If we will accept it, God’s love will regard and accept us all and lift us up. Such is God’s love that is prepared to speak my name. Yes, Jesus loves me, for my Bible tells me so.
Now I give breath to what I know: George is my brother, and yes, I am my brother’s keeper.
The words and symbols of Genesis have resonated in cultures across the world since they were inscribed in scripture: wherever they are told, reminding us, telling us, confronting us with everlasting truths that are being retold in this latest chapter of today’s news of humanly created tragedies.
On June 17th 2020, Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, addressed24 the “Urgent debate on systemic racism and police brutality in the United States,” requested by the Africa Group of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations by recorded video message. Like this photograph taken from low earth orbit; as another photograph taken on the return trip of Apollo 8 from the moon, he addresses us all who have heard and seen these things.
“You watched my brother die. That could have been me,” Philonise said. “I am my brother’s keeper. You in the United Nations are your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in America, and you have the power to help us get justice for my brother George Floyd. I am asking you to help him. I am asking you to help me. I am asking you to help us – Black people in America.”
As we have persevered through this year since the death of George Floyd, and the few short weeks since Derek Chauvin’s conviction for George’s murder, I see how Philonise Floyd has absorbed the account of Cain and Abel and made it for us another story of Two Brothers, in which the surviving brother gives the lesson. Such was John F. Kennedy’s request in 1968: Philonise indeed stands as a father and as a man among other men. This son and brother can now become a father to us all, if we are willing to interpret his plea that way.
I am not asking for myself. I am asking for my brother.
(c) Stephen Thompson 2021
Cain and Abel, ivory panel from the cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1084. 10 x 22 cm. Louvre, Department of Decorative Arts, Richelieu, first floor, room 2, case 13 OA 4052 Jastro. Public domain.
Officer Chauvez kneeling on George Floyd BING Free to share and use tesnimnews 1 6 20
george-floyd-onyx-truth BING Free to share and use 1 6 20 Tony L. Clark holds a photo of George Floyd outside the Cup Food convenience store, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died Monday in police custody near the convenience store. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)https://www.onyxtruth.com/2020/05/31/george-floyd-talked-about-black-on-black-crime/
https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/SpaceX_NASA_CRS-6_PressKit-2.pdf page 6 Nine minutes and 29 seconds: This is the length of time prosecutors said Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. It was often repeated in court and has become a symbolic number for activists, a rallying cry that is chanted at protests. An initial complaint against former officer Chauvin by the Hennepin County Attorney’s office counted eight minutes and 46 seconds. But during the trial, prosecutors pointed to police body camera footage to argue the actual time Floyd spent under Chauvin’s knee was significantly longer.
‘Happy Earth Day 2021!’ Is that an appropriate thing to say? I suppose there is some good news we can point to. Mr Joe Biden is now in the White House as US President, rather than that other bloke, and the first speaker at Biden’s two day summit of global leaders on the Climate Emergency is our very own Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who says that this is a very important meeting. Its not about ‘bunny hugging’, or any other trivial fun one might have at a child’s party. Its now time for leaders to lead and generally behave as grown-ups should. If we don’t add globally collective ‘decisive’ action to just talking about the problem, each future ‘Earth Day’ will essentially be a count down to climate oblivion, as average global temperature continues to rise beyond any hope of rescue.
The list of things we should be doing differently should be as memorable as the things the five little pigs do when parents count children’s toes. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home. This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none. And this little piggy went ‘Wee, wee, weeeeeeee!’ all the way home.” And then we tickle them and they squeal like piglets and maybe we stop when they tell us to.
There are many ways of counting how many things we need to stop doing badly, and start doing differently to avert climate catastrophe. We’ve done pretty well in the UK at reducing one of the key drivers of climate change by decarbonising our energy production. In May 2019 our National Grid managed to generate electricity for the entire country without using any coal for a week. In 2020 we managed a clear run of 55 days until the wind speed fell temporarily in August – the huge Drax station was turned on again until the wind picked up once more.1 Significant restructuring of the whole energy production system will be required to cut carbon emissions ever more drastically and very permanently, including a move to local energy production and temporary energy storage.
So that’s number one. Here’s some more that you can count off with me on your fingers.
Number two: We need to change our transport choices, reducing individual use of high carbon journeys in our petrol and diesel burning cars in favour of clean electric and public transport solutions.
Number three: Our homes and most other buildings are not heat efficient. We need a massive retrofitting programme to insulate our dwellings, curb heat wastage and switch to energy efficient versions of everything. This can work with locally facilitated collective programmes of insulation and energy sharing.
Number four: In common with the other organisms on our planet, we must eat. But the way we do agriculture has got to change, as the intensive and over-technical system we have arrived at in the cause of economic efficiency is costing us the earth. Literally. Science has given us many wonderful things, including fertiliser and pesticides and aeroplanes, with which we import green beans and roses from Kenya. Now Kenyans don’t have enough water to grow their own food – I know this, because I’ve been, and yes, I did fly there, and home again. The wooden market stalls in the villages display modest quantities of ground maize flour, green kales, rosy red tomatoes and a few tiny sun-dried fish they call Omena. The only place there is beef is in the city shops.
And number five? That will be the right sorts of jobs. Obviously there have to be jobs and an economy- all very necessary, but what sort of economy, and so what sorts of jobs? As we know through the pandemic, when some people can’t go to work anymore, that is devastating for everyone, sooner or later. So we have to recreate our economies and create new ways of doing business and employing people. That would be a ‘Green Deal’ that includes everyone. We need grown up solutions for this entire network of big grown-up problems and challenges.
We will only be able to invent and implement such radical shifts in behaviour by reaching for radical paradigms– different modes of thinking about how to live in this world of which we are part. We are both very small– one individual can make very little difference to most things in the world, as a rule- and yet we are also very big. 2The collective impact of our singular species- the human race- on Planet Earth over the last century and a half, and especially the last half century, has been massive. Is it possible that something as very old and traditional as the Bible could offer us thinking tools for such a paradigm shift? Might the Bible speak from a worldview that effectively encompasses the scale of humans as individuals and as a group, including the full range of our interactions with one another and our planetary habitat? I think it does. This is a big claim: I am not at all the first to make it. Nor do I consider it straightforward to establish, because we must avoid all manner of anachronisms, deliberate stereotypes and innocent misconceptions if this claim is to be made good. We need to consider what the Bible is for, the voice and registers in which it speaks, and the purposes for which it is composed – thus a grasp of all these factors will enable us to read it in a manner pertinent and relevant to our current agenda.
To briefly sketch out an exposition of this thesis, I am going to touch on three scriptural sources that I suggest offer insights from which we can triangulate an outline map of the world view of the Bible. Please write back to me to let me know how accurate or persuasive you think this is.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
Genesis 1:26-31 ESV
Even a six verse extract of Genesis chapter one can be misread if we aren’t familiar with the context, so read the whole thing if you need to. Now please, we’re not reading a science textbook. That’s really not a criticism of Genesis! But we must avoid the category error. Science is not the sole and supreme mode of knowledge. Indeed, a hundred years and more ago, Theology was described as the ‘Queen of the Sciences,’ which is to say, the second-best way possible to know about what is worth knowing. The best way of all, of course, would be a personal audience with God, but that could be problematic too, as I need things explaining in words I understand. What Genesis 1 does say to us is what God’s relationship is with God’s creation, and who and what we are within it. What it does address is some misconceptions that were around at the time of composition, and its these that get corrected. But the agenda of science didn’t exist then, so it shouldn’t be considered to be in the frame of view. I will mention some scientific concepts in passing, but if you think there’s a clash, don’t be alarmed, because that’s an artefact of one modern reading frame.
God gets rather a lot done on Day 6. Humans are created on the same day as most of the rest of what biologists now call the Animal Kingdom, emphasising that we are very similar, and yet different, as we do have our own special mention. First the animals are blessed, and then so are we. At the conclusion of all God’s making, the green plants are gifted to the animals and the people for food. Similar and connected in the same (ecological) network. A ‘Theology of the Commons’, we might say.
Why ‘similar and different’ all at once? Perhaps because it was common amongst the cultures of the ancient Near East to have a blatant ‘class’ system: kings and important people, who had delusions of deity, on the one hand, and the majority riff raff on the other. And then perhaps slaves as well- third class! Another idea popularised in their myths was that humans were a by product of the origins of everything important, i.e. the gods and their favourites and all the important stuff they got up to, fighting mostly, but once that was over, they needed someone to take care of the menial chores. So that’s where people came in. ‘You’re lucky to be here, as you get to look after us and do as you’re told! And keep your voices down, while you are about it.’ Adding insult to injury, the important royalty type folk actually considered themselves more or less as gods and goddesses, very obviously lording it over everyone else. Being associated with deities as a special favour is a convenient way of keeping everyone else in their place- places very much over there.
Genesis chapter one redraws this oppressive worldview, revealing most wonderfully what the True God really thinks about us and everything else, positioning us at a viewpoint which we can all enjoy because it is an expression of the grace of God. This cosmological vista is a description of principles, opening our vision to significant things which we could never see or measure with our own senses, however technologically enhanced they may have become in our day.
We’re not just lucky to be here, a random product of a cosmos that didn’t mean to make us. Rather, we are the deliberate free creation of the Loving God who is supremely capable of actually making what He sets out to make, fully accurate in every realised intention- its good; and then approved ofin full through explicit blessing.
Obviously we are part of creation, contiguous with everything else, and sharing in the common material being of the animate and inanimate. But matter is not grubby dirty dirt. God made it through a dignified creative process, and works it ‘hands on’ into us as a particular sign of intimate creativity. All the organisms are the product of the same respectful process of creation: there are no afterthoughts or left-overs. (If there is any reference to fighting at all, its been quietly dealt with in Gen 1:2) As an antidote to anyone’s overinflated ego, everything is blessed- everything is good, and everything together is very good. We’re all in it together!
In one sense, we share the principle of life with the other living things, though here the scripture overrules our modern category. ‘The breath of life’ is sustained in animals and people by the gift of food supplied by the plants God has made. This really is a gift- God specifically says so. Its not just taken– taken for granted, as we might say. Even this relationship is spelt out. So in Genesis, the life of plants is not of the same order as that of animals or people, and this realisation is perhaps acknowledged by this gifting. We are all close and made of exactly the same stuff as inanimate matter- a principle not fully appreciated by science for a long time- and yet there is difference decreed by God, within a framework of gift and blessing, not random or arbitrary favouritism, or the result of exploitation or oppression, or dictatorial whimsy.
But God is not done. The ancients were kind of right- there is a special bunch, but not at all in the way they were tempted to think. God comes straight out with it: You humans are all like me- like ‘us‘. Its hard to pin down what God is like, obviously. English versions keep saying ‘He’ about God, which is inadequate. The Hebrew has this ‘Like us’ construction, awkwardly translated into English, giving this sense that the ONE God of Israel is complicated, or ineffable, as theologians say (Dictionary: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.) But whatever God is like, God says we are too. Yet we are not gods. Whatever this paradox is saying that is useful, we quickly see sense in the explanation God gives: ‘You go and do what I would do. The land, animals and fish, birds and plants, and earth and everything I have made- YOU go and be in charge of it.’
Now we crash into one of those big stereotypes- what exactly does ruling and subduing and all that dominion stuff mean? Well, its not as bad as has been made out by many. It does not mean that we can trawl the ocean bottom for fish until the stocks are depleted and the reefs destroyed. It doesn’t mean turning the fields to monoculture maintained by pesticides which drives birds from their habitats. It doesn’t mean digging up the coal and drilling for oil to drive a billion internal combustion engines until a billion years of sequestered carbon has been returned to the atmosphere in just a century, or to manufacture untold quantities of plastic which once discarded after one use collects in oceanic gyres, before crumbling into microscopic pieces and being absorbed by whatever life remains in the poisoned oceans on this lonely blue planet. Isn’t it obvious? Shouldn’t it be obvious? How could we not think that all that went before in the Genesis passage which was a corrective to the oppressive myths of Israel’s neighbours three or more thousand years ago shouldn’t also stand as a corrective to the selfishness and exploitation that has exploded as a cultural cancer in the collective human mind over recent decades? Whatever the inspiration for the accumulated and presently increasing oppression of the planet and all life on earth may have been, it did not come from a faithful reading of the first chapter of Genesis, whatever biased critics may claim. Recall the care, dignity and respect with which God’s actions of creation are described. Recall that God charges the humans, collectively: ‘Do what I would do.’ Are these the sorts of actions that God would have acted if God had carried on working after the creation week, instead of leaving it all to us? Of course not.
About half way through the library of books we call ‘Bible’- that’s what it means- we get to another stand out creative episode. Isaiah was one of many prophets who spoke God’s words in God’s stead- sometimes quoting the Almighty, sometimes adapting or recreating YHWH’s meaning, and sometimes speaking with delegated authority. This is part of the shared work of dominion in God’s image, doing what God would do, and on His sanctioned behalf. God’s good creation project has been assailed from within by rebellion, but God has not given up on it, or given up on His esteemed and selected partners. In words that we humans can just about understand, God is still revealing that He is creating solutions to the problems we have made- most pointedly, the problem of us.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Isaiah 55: 10-13
Just as in Genesis 1, God is speaking, and God’s word is irresistibly effective. I want to draw your attention to one detail in this reprise and development of the opening Genesis scenes. The effects of sin on creation in Genesis chapter 3 verses 17 and 18, mysteriously described in terms of the land bearing thorns and thistles, are now to be reversed. At God’s sovereign Word, ‘instead’ of thorn and brier there will grow the cypress and myrtle. Nothing at all remarkable about that, we might think. Sounds like the entirely regular language of landscape gardening. But I think there is more going on in the language of Isaiah than is generally recognised. In verse 12, we read, ‘The mountains… shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ This is not poetry in the mode of G Manley Hopkins or T S Eliot, who were unashamedly inspired by the expression of Hebrew scripture, without a doubt. But this is not the same thing at all as what we now call poetry, where simile and metaphor are deployed with a knowing wink to our modern appreciation for what the make up of the world is ‘really’ like. If we enquire of the modern poet as to the cause and precise sounds made by ‘clapping trees,’ we are cautioned with an appeal to poetic licence. 3 I think this is a mistake. The ancients would have recognised our current descriptions of poetic language- with variations. I am sure that is true. But I think God is revealing something deeper that is veiled behind such poetry. In a seamless robe, this text melds what we know to be the regular cycle of water, as rain and snow and so on, the seasonal flux of seedtime and harvest, and also with the extra–ordinary interjections to all that we think of as ‘normality’ that are brought about by the Rhema Word of Yahweh God. The consequences of the judgements of God in Genesis 3 would continue were it not for the prophetic word brought by Isaiah: the wild-thistles-to-majestic-cypress imagery is more than mere gardening. While in verse 12 it becomes clear that both human language and the full spectrum of our natural experience do not stretch far enough to adequately convey the depths of the divine underpinnings of what we habitually categorise as Nature. Singing hills? Clapping trees? This imagery is hinting heavily at mode of responsiveness of the creation to its Creator beyond its conventional qualities. When the relationship between God’s humans and the God who imaged them is mended, the rest of the non-human creation will have something to sing about, says Isaiah.
If this is too colourful for you, remember the words of Jesus in red in the New Testament.
Balaam would not disagree. Nor would his donkey.
Am I guilty of unwarranted exaggeration? Well, let’s see what St Paul has to say.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:22 ESV
These remarks in the Letter to the Romans have withstood the increasing assault of modern rationalism, now for over two millennia. Whatever Paul is up to in this passage, this text is neither poetry, nor prophecy. More like cold-blooded theological journalism. Its up to us as individuals to decide how to respond to the challenges that Paul and the other apostles put to us in their letters in the name of the God and Father of the one they call the Lord Jesus Christ. But I think it is inevitable that we have to conclude that Paul was very serious in his use of terminology when he wrote this paragraph. He insists that we understand the priority of God, and the way that Jesus Christ has been elevated to the highest position of esteem and glory in and over God’s created cosmos. At the start of the book, Paul makes clear that all created things are utterly subservient to the true Creator God, revealed according to the Jewish scriptures, and in the person of Jesus, who Paul met on the road to Damascus in most spectacular fashion. In Acts 17:22ff we hear Paul gently but firmly correcting the Athenian Gentiles, reasoning that neither created things nor objects made by men could rival the Divine Person of YHWH God, incarnate as the Messiah Jesus.
So while the scriptures taken as a whole are really only clear and insistent on a limited number of key claims, mostly about the revelation of God in human history, undertaken at God’s own sovereign initiative, inviting us to respond to His mercy and grace in Jesus Christ to come back to full relationship with God, there are enough clues and hints that there is more to the characteristics of the created environment of which we are also part than is understood in the worldview of our modern world, shaped in large part by science and technology. These ‘hints and clues’ are not just peripheral details that we can allow to fade into the background of our understanding: they are vital ingredients in a worldview fundamentally contrasting with the one we are now familiar with.
Please let me emphasise: I am not speaking here about what lessons we can learn from creation itself about God- about spiritual matters, questions of transcendence, about how and why the world is this way, issues beyond the strict boundaries of the sciences. Our study here is about the internal worldview of the Bible, and what that has to say about creation. To illustrate that difference, let’s see what Alister McGrath has to say in his introductory text on Christian theology:
Christian orthodoxy holds that we cannot claim much about the importance of nature, or the ‘created order’ for telling us about who God is– we can only really know God through God’s self-revelation in Jesus and in Scripture. There is no significant role for so-called ‘Natural Theology.’ But McGrath is happy to say that we can hear Creation speaking to us, functioning as a clear signpost, with a distinct message that makes sense in human terms about God. Yet there are further ‘intimations’ as I have outlined, not functioning as a direct witness, but nevertheless holding that the Creation itself has surprising agency in the biblical worldview.
What then might Christians have to say about our relationship with this Earth which is our only physical home in God’s cosmos? How do we calibrate our response to the climate emergency in the light of biblical revelation?
On one hand, I think we ought to be cautious. The escalating ecological catastrophe is now progressing at a great remove from the events and testimony of the Bible, including the New Testament, in which Paul, James, Peter and also Jesus speak in the text with the expectation of the impending resolution of human history. For the lives of those around at the time, that was accurate enough. But the ‘groaning’ of creation was to do with the burden of human sin, which need not be thought of as having increased or decreased in significance in God’s sight in the centuries that have elapsed since then.
How is it that climate change has now reached the scale of a planet threatening emergency? Simply for this reason: human beings went forth and multiplied, now exponentially so over the last couple of centuries, and especially in my lifetime. There are now more people on the planet than the total of the number of people who have ever lived in human history prior to my birth. This population growth results from our technological facility that allowed us to exploit the resources we use to collectively feed, cloth, house and generally keep ourselves comfortable. For too many, these comforts are not measured in sufficiency- not in what we could reasonably claim to need, but in our wants, which prove insatiable, resulting in the vast overindulgence of the few at the expense of the many, and now very much at the expense of the planet itself.
Are these sins greater than the offenses committed in earlier eras? This is a nonsense question: the matter of our broken relationship with God, our broken relationships with each other, and with the world God put in our collective care is one of kind, not of degree. ‘We were dead (spiritually speaking)’, says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. You can’t be any more dead than dead. So I do not consider the ‘groaning’ that Paul refers to in Romans 8 to be any worse now than it was when he wrote these words.
And yet- on the other hand…
It must surely be that the stench of our collective actions in this generation is very great in God’s nostrils, and we ought to be highly exercised about that. God went down to Sodom, says Genesis 18:21, to check out whether the ‘outcry’ about what was going on was accurate. God must surely be nearby to us in this most dire and grave of situations.
And is it at this time that we find that the magnitude of the trouble we have caused to God’s Earth is now beyond our scope and responsibility to address, even less to mend? Will the scale of the apocalypse that we have brought on ourselves and this good world that God made and gifted into our care now make a mockery of the hopes once placed in us, hopes now dashed and exposed in their naiveté? I do not think so. What we now face, individually and collectively, is a challenge of cosmic proportions. It will take a response on a scale that many would admit requires divine intervention. It is the claim of the scriptures from Genesis, Isaiah, Romans and throughout the Bible that the people of God in formation, the very Body of Christ, are in fact the imagers of God at God’s will and behest; we are indeed viceregents of the Divine and God’s representatives on earth, and since the giving of the Holy Spirit to the redeemed People of God, God is now Present with us even as we find ourselves here at this moment- when we can pray,
Your kingdom come! Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Never has the earth needed this prayer, and its hasty answer. If we are prepared to agree together to be content simply with daily bread, then we can expect this prayer to be answered in the grace of God. Its answer will be found in the transformation of the ways in which we live collectively on this planet we have been gifted, as outlined in the five points I described at the start. I daresay that prayer will be vital to achieving these transformations.
Maggie Shipstead says something similar in her interview with Helen Brown on her forthcoming novel about travel, ‘Great Circle’:
As we end our call, I push Shipstead for a line that will make sense of her brilliant book. But she doesn’t want to play. “It’s a book about questions more than answers,” she says. “People want to know what I’m trying to say. But it’s a story I made up while thinking about freedom and scale. A human life is incredibly tiny and incredibly huge depending on what you set it against. I don’t think about readers when I’m writing, because that is paralysing.” She pauses. “But maybe I’d like them to think about what they’d have to sacrifice to be free.” Accessed at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/maggie-shipstead-interview-great-circle-b1840137.html on 3 May 2021 The ‘paralysis’ Shipstead speaks of may well apply to authors of fiction- but for theologians, the daunting responsibility of speaking to others must be faced head on.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 beequals-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:
9 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?
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 Jezebelsand 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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Ye olde periodic table’ is A JOKE! Go read about Dmitri Mendeleev who was the Russian chemical genius who actually ‘invented’ the ‘Periodic Table of the Elements’ if you don’t know/ remember your science lessons. His ‘periodic law’ enabled the PREDICTION of the existence of the ninety-odd elements that the universe is actually made from. (Apologies if the unreferenced image is your work- I cannot find an attribution to this VERY MODERN creation.) [Why ‘ninety-odd’? See Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. “List of Naturally Occurring Elements.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/how-many-elements-found-in-nature-606635. So its 94/98 elements at the moment, and 118 in total, including the ones we’ve made in nuclear reactors to date.]
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’.
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.”
‘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.
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:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-6 ESV
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. Have an uplifting alarm clock sound 2. Don’t pick up the phone—until late 3. Get a little workout in 4. Eat something good! 5. Take a second to breathe. 6. If you have pets, play with them! 7. Download a quote/affirmation of the day app 8. Ask yourself how you can make the most out of the day 9. Read a good book or article 10. Focus more on things that make you happy 11. Show off those pearly whites and smile!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.’
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. 2 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. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath[ruach] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.
7 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. 8 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. 9 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.
7 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.
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?
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.
“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
1 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. 2 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. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.