What Would YOU Do For Lentil Soup?
January 12, 2012 4 Comments
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the 22nd chapter of Genesis, which I covered yesterday. At the time, I compared Abraham’s nearly homicidal obedience to God to the Nuremberg defense used by so many Nazis when they were tried for their heinous crimes during the Holocaust: “I was only following orders.” I didn’t even realize, when I originally drew that analogy, how supremely ironic it was. The Nazis are (quite rightly) despised for their violence against the Jews (and other so-called undesirables), and their craven claims of mere obedience only disgust us more. We expect healthy human adults to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions, and not follow unethical orders, even if they come from their superiors. But the same Jews who died at the hands of unthinkingly obedient Nazis would probably have celebrated and admired the courage and moral fiber of Abraham, who – as far as I can tell – did exactly the same thing. Obviously you can claim that blindly obeying God is completely different from blindly obeying one of your fellow humans, but I ask: how, exactly? What did God do to prove to Abraham that he was better worth obeying than anybody else? And why should Abraham have continued to trust and obey him after he made an order that was completely indistinguishable from the orders made by the Nazi prison guards’ superiors – that is, an order to kill? One of the really tricky things about distinguishing God’s orders from everybody else’s is that it is so peskily tricky to figure out exactly what God’s orders are. This should be obvious from the fact that so many people claim to be following God’s orders and yet do such radically different things. Andrea Yates was following God when she murdered her children. The 9/11 terrorists and their airplanes followed God straight through the windows of the World Trade Center. Most religious people who see others of the same faith do horrible things in the name of their God are quick to dismiss those people as confused and misled. God wouldn’t really tell them to do that, so they can’t really be following God. But how can we know that those people weren’t really following God, but the people who do nicer things in God’s name – feed the hungry, care for the sick – really are? The only way I can see to do it is by using some kind of external moral standard – exactly the kind of moral standard we expected the Nazis to use to know that Hitler’s orders weren’t orders worth following; exactly the kind of moral standard that Abraham should have used to know that a God who tells people to murder their children isn’t a God worth worshiping; exactly the kind of moral standard that tells me that a book like Genesis is a terrible guide to human ethics.
Another thought I had in my reflections on Genesis 22 was more literary in nature. I’m not sure whether I’m completely off-base here, or whether this is a really obvious and widely accepted parallel, or something else – like I said, I haven’t been reading any Biblical exegesis or anything because I want to see what the Bible says for myself first without being told what I’m supposed to think it says. Anyway, I was remembering how Isaac had to carry the firewood himself on his way to be burned as an offering to God, and then I was like OMG it’s Jesus foreshadowing. I haven’t gotten to this part in Matthew yet, but I know enough about the story of the Gospels to know that Jesus had to carry his own cross to the site of his crucifixion. Then a bunch of other parallels hit me. Isaac was all, “Dad, you said we’re making an offering, but where’s the lamb?” and Abraham was all, “God will provide the lamb.” But really Abraham knew that Isaac would be the lamb – like how Jesus is always called the lamb of God. Except in Abraham’s case, God really did end up providing a lamb (or, rather, a ram) to be sacrificed in place of Isaac; and then two thousand years later, God provided another lamb, Jesus, to be sacrificed in place of humanity, and bear the weight of their sins in their place (substitutionary atonement). And Isaac was Abraham’s son, and Jesus was God’s son, and so on. It’s almost like the story of Jesus is a delayed ending to the story of Abraham and Isaac. You think it’s over when God give Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead, but really there’s a plot twist: instead of taking Abraham’s son, God provides his own son for the sacrifice. Maybe he needed to know first that there was a human who’d be willing to make the same sacrifice for him before he would make that sacrifice for humanity.
I know Christians are really into drawing connections between the Old and New Testaments and pointing to prophecies that Jesus fulfills and all that, so this is probably exactly the kind of thing they love. The many fulfillments of prophecy and the parallels between the Old and New Testaments are some of the reasons Christians have given me for why I should believe in Christianity. But before you get all excited and think I’ve been won over, think about this: the writers of the New Testament had the answer key in front of them. If two people went into two locked rooms at the same time and simultaneously produced a book of prophecies and a book of prophecy fulfillments without talking to each other about it, I’d be impressed. But it’s way less impressive when the story of prophecies fulfilled is written years after the book of all the prophecies, such that the writers could obviously tailor the story to fit the specifications of the prophecies. Heck, you wouldn’t even need to do it that well because neuroscience is working in your favor: humans are really really good at seeing patterns – even where there are none (think of clouds that look like animals, ambient noise that sounds like words, inanimate objects that look like faces, etc.) – and they’re also really really good at retrofitting data to fit a predetermined pattern (think of conspiracy theories, confirmation bias, etc.). I don’t even know if the Isaac/Jesus parallel I described above was intentional by the New Testament writers or not; it could just as easily be a complete coincidence that I perceived as a pattern because that’s how my brain works.
Okay, enough philosophizing. Time for more reading!
OT: Genesis 24-25
Get comfy – this is a long one.
Abraham’s getting old when he calls his oldest servant over and says, “Put your hand under my thigh” (Genesis 24:2). WHOA THERE. He asks the servant to promise that he’ll go back to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s extended family instead of letting him marry one of the more conveniently located Canaanite women. The servant is like “Shouldn’t I just take Isaac back there?” And Abraham is like “NO God gave me THIS land for my descendants!” So the servant puts his hand under Abraham’s thigh and promises to do it. I’m guessing the thigh thing is some kind of ancient tradition for swearing – like how in Shakespearean plays people are constantly swearing on their swords and such. It’s still awkward.
So the servant takes some camels and “all of his master’s best provisions” (Genesis 24:10) and goes to Abraham’s hometown. (I bet you can imagine how pissed Abraham is when he realizes all his good salami is gone. That’s right, he can eat salami now, because we haven’t gotten to the part about kosher dietary restrictions yet, so people can till go hog wild with pork consumption. Or it could be beef salami. Whichever.) The servant creepily goes to the town’s well to watch all the women draw water for the evening. He asks God to signal which woman Isaac should marry by having her offer water to him and his camels when he asks her (demonstrating again that God can make people say/do things if he wants, free will be damned). Just then, Rebekah, Abraham’s brother’s granddaughter, comes to the well to fill up a water jar. The servant sees that she’s hot, so he asks her for water, and she gives some to him and his camels. The servant gives her a ring and some bracelets, and asks who her family is and if he and his party can spend the night with them. She answers and invites him home, and the servant is so excited to learn that God has led him straight to Abraham’s family’s house that he Tebows right then and there in gratitude.
Rebekah runs home and tells her family what’s up, so her brother Laban runs to the well, where the servant (whose name we still don’t know, probably because he’s a servant) is still awkwardly loitering, and tells him to come inside. He feeds the camels and gives the servant & his men water to wash their feet, because Bible people are really into washing their feet, probably because they are walking around in sand all the time. Laban gives food to the servant, but the servant is like “NO I CAN’T EAT I NEED TO TALK TO YOU FIRST” and Laban’s like “Jeeze, okay, what’s up?” And the servant tells Laban the whole story of why he’s there and what happened at the well (during which story it’s revealed that the ring he gave Rebekah was, in fact, a nose ring, so I can only hope that her nose was already pierced and he didn’t just jam it in there), and asks Laban whether or not he is “loyal and faithful” to Abraham (Genesis 24:49). Laban and his father answer, “This is all the LORD’s doing. We have nothing to say about it. Here is Rebekah, right in front of you. Take her and go. She will be the wife of your master’s son, just as the LORD said” (Genesis 24:50-51). Rebekah gets no say in the matter, naturally. The servant is so excited that he Tebows again and gives Rebekah more jewelry and some clothes and gives gifts to her family too.
In the morning, the servant is raring to go, but Laban and his mother say they’d like to keep Rebekah around just ten more days before she leaves. But the servant is like “NO WE NEED TO GO NOW!” So the family actually calls Rebekah in to ask her opinion, for once. She didn’t get to decide whether to marry the total stranger that she’s only heard about from a random dude who was staring at her at a well, but she gets to decide whether to do it immediately or wait a few days. When they ask her, she says, “I will go” (Genesis 24:57), which is probably Bible-talk for “ugh let’s just get this over with already.” So Rebekah’s family blesses her and prays that she’ll have lots of badass warrior babies, and then Rebekah and her servants leave with Abraham’s servants.
Isaac’s out checking on his farmland when he sees some camels approaching. He and Rebekah have a romantic staring moment. She dismounts and asks the servant who that man is, and the servant says it’s his master, “so she took her headscarf and covered herself” (Genesis 24:65), for some reason. The servant tells Isaac about his trip, and Isaac brings Rebekah into Sarah’s old tent, marries her, and loves her. “So Isaac found comfort after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67), which is nice.
Abraham marries another woman, Keturah, and they have a ton of kids. Abraham gives all his possessions to Isaac, except some gifts for the sons of his “secondary wives” (Genesis 25:6), whom he sends off to the East away from his most favoritest son, Isaac. Who are these secondary wives, plural?!
Abraham dies at age 175, and his sons Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the same cave where he buried Sarah. I bet Keturah loved that. Also, since when is Ishmael back from his desert exile?
Ishmael has twelve sons who all become tribal leaders, and he dies at age 137.
Rebekah can’t have kids, so Isaac prays to God, who is “moved by his prayer” (Genesis 25:21), and Rebekah gets pregnant. Then we get this great verse:
But the boys pushed against each other inside of her, and she said, “If this is what it’s like, why did it happen to me?” (Genesis 25:22)
EXACTLY. Pregnancy is some freaky shit. So she asks God what’s up with all the kicking, and God replies: ”Two nations are in your womb; two different peoples will emerge from your body. One people will be stronger than the other; the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). And then I lose all respect for Rebekah with the next verse: “When she reached the end of her pregnancy, she discovered that she had twins” (Genesis 25:24). Um, duh. What exactly did you think “two different peoples will emerge from your body” meant? But she doesn’t just have twins; she has freaky nightmare babies. Esau is born first, and is “red all over, clothed with hair”; then Jacob pops out, “gripping Esau’s heel” (Genesis 25:245-25). Gross.
Esau grows up to be a hunter, but Jacob is a quiet homebody. Isaac loves Esau more “because he enjoy[s] eating game” (Genesis 25:28), but Rebekah loves Jacob more. One day, Jacob’s making stew, and Esau comes home starving and demands some stew. Jacob seems to be just waiting for an opportunity like this, because he immediately responds, “Sell me your birthright today” (Genesis 25:31). The whole idea of birthright is already pretty stupid, but it’s especially stupid considering they are freaking twins were born literally seconds apart. But Esau answers, “Since I’m going to die anyway, what good is my birthright to me?” (Genesis 25:32), and sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and some bread. “He ate, drank, got up, and left, showing just how little he thought of his birthright” (Genesis 25:34). It’s like a Klondike Bar commercial, but for lentil soup. And…that’s the end of that weird chapter.
At least Rebekah gets to decide when to marry a stranger, even if she had no say in whether to do so.
Also, lentil soup sounds AMAZING right now.
So far the story of Jacob and Esau and the birthright and all is just weird.
NT: Matthew 9
Oh thank god, we’re back to the good part. (Sorry, Jewish ancestors I’m disgracing.)
Jesus gets back on a boat and crosses the lake again. Keep in mind that all he did on the other side of the lake was exorcise two possessed men. When he gets home, people bring him a paralyzed guy. Jesus tells him not to worry because his sins are forgiven. The “legal experts” we keep hearing about say, “This man is insulting God” (Matthew 9:3). I’m not sure if what upsets them is that Jesus presumes to know who’s forgiven for their sins, or because he’s not healing the guy. Jesus chides them: “Why do you fill your minds with evil things? Which is easier – to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk?’ But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins…Get up, take your cot, and go home” (Matthew 9:4-6). The paralyzed guy becomes magically unparalyzed and goes home, and the crowd gets scared and praises God.
Jesus keeps walking around and sees a tax collector named Matthew – not sure whether it’s the same Matthew who’s writing the book – and tells him to follow him, which Matthew does. Matthew follows Jesus straight to Matthew’s own house, in fact, where Jesus has invited himself over for dinner, along with a bunch of other tax collectors and sinners. Awkward. The Pharisees ask the disciples why their teacher is eating with a bunch of sinners, and Jesus hears and explains that “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). I don’t know what the thing about mercy and sacrifice means. But I’m getting coffee next week with the friend I went to hear preach on Sunday, so I’ll ask him then.
John’s disciples (John the Baptist’s? Since when does he have disciples? Or is this John the fisherman from chapter 4?) ask Jesus why they and the Pharisees always fast but Jesus’s disciples never do. Jesus responds that “the wedding guests can’t mourn while the groom is still with them” (Matthew 9:15), but that soon the groom will leave, and then they’ll fast. Since when do people mourn at weddings? I get that Jesus is the groom and he’s saying that soon he’ll be gone and people will fast then, but I’m still not sure why he picked that metaphor exactly. He goes on to say a bunch of enigmatic things about new cloth and old wineskins that probably made sense two thousand years ago but definitely don’t now.
Jesus is sounding less and less like a wise spiritual leader and more and more like a crazy yelling homeless guy as we go on, actually.
A ruler comes to Jesus and asks him to revive his dead daughter by touching her hand. On his way there, Jesus is approached by a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years (I will never complain about PMS again) and thinks she’ll be healed if she can just touch his clothes. So she touches his clothes, and he tells her that her faith has healed her, and sure enough, she’s healed. Jesus gets to the ruler’s house and tells the mourners to cheer up because the girl is just asleep, not dead. They laugh at him, so he sends them away, then goes in and touches the girl’s hand, and she comes back to life, and the news spreads throughout the region.
Resurrection metaphor death is just a sleep and then Jesus saves you and you wake up in heaven blah blah.
Two blind men come to Jesus and ask him to show them mercy. He asks if they really think he can heal them, and they say yes, so he heals them. He warns them not to tell anyone about it, but they tell everyone anyway.
People bring Jesus a mute possessed man, so Jesus throws out the demon and then the man is able to speak. Everyone’s impressed, but the Pharisees say, “He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons” (Matthew 9:34) – meaning they think he’s actually the devil?
Jesus keeps traveling and teaching and healing people and sharing the good news. He has compassion for the crowds of helpless troubled people because they seem to him “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). He tells his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38). I’m guessing the harvest relates to all the souls of the people who will be saved and brought into heaven…but I don’t know who the workers are supposed to be. Why does Jesus have to talk in metaphors all the time?!
I love that Jesus wants to spend time with the lowest of the low, the people on the margins of society, which totally scandalizes all the hypocritical self-righteous uppity people who step all over them. I remember hearing a quote once from one of the gospels where Jesus told the uppity jerks (probably the Pharisees) that the tax collectors and the prostitutes would enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of them. I like that.
I wish Jesus would be more straightforward and less Yoda-like with his metaphors. What spiritual lesson am I supposed to learn from not putting new wine in old wineskins?!