Genesis 22 – A Response to the UMC General Conference

Keep the faith.

 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lordcalled out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.

I love the concentric story telling of the Bible, like a water drop rippling outwards in a pond, providing us a visual focus for meditation. I love how stories foreshadow other stories and narrative and theological themes emerge and merge.  This is a great – maybe even the best – example of this.  Obedience and willing surrender to God have already been established as tenets of good Faith, and that is what this story is all about.  It also foreshadows Christ: Isaac, Abraham’s only son (by Sarah at least), carries the wood for his own funeral pyre up the mountain to be sacrificed, much like Jesus, God’s only son, carries his own cross up the hill to be sacrificed. And once again we see if we trust in God, His mercy and goodness prevail.

I do want to point out the timing of this test Abraham underwent.  He is well over 100 years old now.  In my post on chapter 17 I discussed how perhaps there was a reason God waited until Abraham was 99 to establish the covenant of circumcision: basically, he was mellowed out enough to accept it.  Since then, God has literally appeared to Abraham and basically had a dinner party with him, Abraham has watched the wrath of God wipe two cities from the face of the Earth, seen his 90 year old wife miraculously give birth to Isaac, and God spoke to him once more regarding Hagar and Ishmael.  I’m not trying to make light of God’s request of Abraham, I’m sure he had at least some trepidation, but I also want to point out that Abraham, by this point, must have been as secure in his faith as humanly possible.  I say this to encourage everyone who may feel weak right now, and like they could never be as faithful as Abraham is.  Don’t worry, God isn’t asking you to be. Of course He wants you to be faithful and good and dedicated to Him, but He also isn’t asking us all to go around sacrificing our kids, right?  Working on trust is a good enough place to start.  When we’re ready, he’ll lead us to higher callings.

Which brings me to the UMC General Conference vote last week.  First, let me summarize: the United Methodist Church (like many denominations) is actively wrestling with issues pertaining to sexuality.  The General Conference that happened last week was convened to vote upon plans addressing these concerns.  Delegates representing UMC congregations from all over the world, in a surprise move, voted to stick with the Traditional Plan, which reinforced it’s commitment AGAINST ordaining LGBTQ clergy and NOT performing same-sex marriages.  (Most, including me, thought they would go with the One Church Plan, which allowed for individual congregations to make up their mind over whether they would accept a gay minister or perform same-sex marriage.) Most of the news reports made it sound like half the congregations that make up the UMC will no longer be in the UMC by the time this is published.  In truth, there’s still a lot of road ahead: First, the judicial body of the UMC has to review the decision to make sure none of it violates the church’s constitution, and then, for those churches that may still want to leave, decisions have to be made about assets, as the UMC as a whole, instead of individual congregations, own the physical churches/grounds/etc.  So long story short, nothing is settled yet, but it was still a blow to progressives and the LGBTQ community.

Dear friends, it is tempted to be discouraged by this. But it simply means we have more work to do.  Please, do not lose faith.  I understand if you want to leave the United Methodist Church, but I hope you don’t turn your back on Jesus.  There are lots of moderate and progressive UMC congregations that disagree with this decision.  There are also lots of open and affirming churches of other denominations, too.  If you are searching for one, I suggest trying out an Episcopal, Lutheran or United Church of Christ to see if those feel more like home.  Personally, I will still be attending my UMC church.  I think work needs to be done from within, and, I’ll be honest, even with this issue still in limbo it is the best fit for me and my family in our community.

But again, please do not lose faith.  What Christianity, and the world, needs now is more examples of faithful allies, not less.  If we can provide a loving and united voice in favor of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters (and non-binary siblings!), I believe we will win.  We will make the world a better place, where people’s humanity isn’t question, where people’s love for one another isn’t questioned, and where more people feel welcomed in the church.  And isn’t sharing the good news of Jesus one of Christianity’s major goals?  That everyone can come to know Christ and also God’s infinite love for us?  Like Abraham, God will work through us when we are fully ready, we just need to keep practicing our faith.

***

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent.  I’ll be opening Lent by contemplating Psalm 38, and then spend the rest of Lent upon the first 18 chapters of Job, if I counted correctly.

Genesis 05-Cain, Seth, Lamech, and Enoch

An allegory of good and evil offspring.

This is the written account of Adam’s family line.

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.

When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father[b] of Enosh.After he became the father of Enosh, Seth lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Seth lived a total of 912 years, and then he died.

When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the father of Kenan.10 After he became the father of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and had other sons and daughters. 11 Altogether, Enosh lived a total of 905 years, and then he died.

12 When Kenan had lived 70 years, he became the father of Mahalalel.13 After he became the father of Mahalalel, Kenan lived 840 years and had other sons and daughters. 14 Altogether, Kenan lived a total of 910 years, and then he died.

15 When Mahalalel had lived 65 years, he became the father of Jared.16 After he became the father of Jared, Mahalalel lived 830 years and had other sons and daughters. 17 Altogether, Mahalalel lived a total of 895 years, and then he died.

18 When Jared had lived 162 years, he became the father of Enoch.19 After he became the father of Enoch, Jared lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. 20 Altogether, Jared lived a total of 962 years, and then he died.

21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah.22 After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. 24 Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

25 When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he became the father of Lamech. 26 After he became the father of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and had other sons and daughters. 27 Altogether, Methuselah lived a total of 969 years, and then he died.

28 When Lamech had lived 182 years, he had a son. 29 He named him Noah and said, “He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.” 30 After Noah was born, Lamech lived 595 years and had other sons and daughters.31 Altogether, Lamech lived a total of 777 years, and then he died.

32 After Noah was 500 years old, he became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Adam and Eve and Noah were Bible stories I learned early on, but Lamech and Enoch I didn’t know about until later, and I’m kind of surprised.  Perhaps it’s just that there isn’t a lot of story, mostly names. Maybe it used to be more well known. It seems like the kind of allegorical contrast between righteous and wicked that would have been popular in the earlier centuries of a country founded on Protestant ideals.

Thanks to my NIV study notes, I know that Lamech is the seventh generation removed (seven being the number of “completeness”) from Adam through his fallen son, Cain.  In chapter 4, we see how “evil” he is -in his greed and lust he marries not one but two women, then he kills a man and haughtily declares his immunity.  Even though he is also the father of the arts (remember, his sons introduced music, animal husbandry, and metal smithing) he’s made out to be a pretty unlikeable dude.

Seth was granted to Adam and Eve to replace the slain Abel, and stands in contrast to his fallen brother Cain.  Verse 5:1 reminds us “When God created man, He made them in the likeness of God.” Then, in verse 5:3, we are told Adam “had a son in his own likeness, in his own image, and he named him Seth.” This repetition reinforces Seth’s own godliness, again, as a foible to wicked Cain.  And from this “good” son, a line of good men is brought forth. The seventh son removed from Adam, Enoch, was so good he “walked with God 300 years” (5:27) before being taken away by God.  The generally accepted interpretation of this is that Enoch did not have to suffer death, but was taken into Heaven alive.The more famous Noah, Enoch’s grandson, almost seems like icing on the genealogical cake at this point-it’s hard to top walking with God.

So, the seventh son of wicked Cain: wicked. The seventh son of righteous Seth: righteous. Wicked begets wicked, righteous begets righteous.  It just sounds like an 18th century saying to me. So, what can we learn from this story today? I don’t think anyone is cursed to repeat the same mistakes of their parents.  That’s not to discount trauma and just the general influence of upbringing, whether it’s good or bad or somewhere in between.  But we all have the chance, every day, to sow the seeds of righteousness.  Sometimes it’s large and noticeable, like the men who died protecting two women, one wearing a hijab, from a hateful attack in Portland two years ago.  Other times it can be as small as holding the elevator door open for the person who is still twenty paces behind you.  I guess what I’m saying is, we aren’t doomed by bad genetics and we don’t all have to be heroes.  What we do need to do is start paying it forward.  Start with an act of kindness today, and let’s see what it will inspire down the road-tomorrow, in a generation, and seven generations from now.

Genesis 04 – Women in the Bible

Adah and Zillah – warnings to be reviled, or mothers of the arts to be celebrated?

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear.14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

17 Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.

19 Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. 22 Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.

23 Lamech said to his wives,

“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
    wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for injuring me.
24 If Cain is avenged seven times,
    then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

25 Adam made love to his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” 26 Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh.

At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.

Chapters 4 and 5 can be seen as contrasting allegories of wicked and righteous living, so I’ll discuss them more next blog post, together.  What I find most interesting today is we have, after Eve, the next three women of the Bible mentioned.  The Bible is filled with male figures and written from a male perspective, so whenever a woman is mentioned, my interest is piqued.  What made her unique enough for the writers to take notice? In a time when women were often viewed as property, gaining name recognition in sacred text is a big deal, so let me share what I’ve found out about them. Poor Naamah is just a name, and I can’t find much on her, so I’ll focus on Adah and Zillah.

I promise this is related, so bear with me: One of my favorite podcasts is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, where two Harvard divinity graduates use reading practices from different religions and apply it to each chapter of the books, along with a themed reading.  They’re not making Harry Potter sacred, but using it as a starting point for conversations about life’s challenges and truths.  It’s really great, even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan.  But I mention it because this podcast introduced me to Havruta, a Jewish practice of studying the Torah that is based in partnership and conversation.  To paraphrase, the truth is found more so in the discussion than in seeking an actual “answer.”  I loved that idea, and after reading several opinions on Adah and Zillah, I think that the truth of these women may be somewhere in the conversation, rather than any hard-and-fast answer.

First, we’ll start with their names.  Adah basically means adornment and Zillah basically means the tinkling of bells.  OT names often imply some sort of characteristic truth about the person.  If we’re to believe that (which, whether this is a historically factual story or just an allegory, we can either way), then these women were beautiful.

Adah and Zillah seemed to focus upon their beauty by adorning themselves.  Is this a good or bad thing, or just a thing?  It depends who you ask.  Some see it as the first story of female vanity – Adah and Zillah made themselves appealing so Lamech would be tempted into polygamy, where he then used their beauty against them to incur rival-wife jealousies.  Or, perhaps they were so beautiful that he just couldn’t help his attraction to both of them, and they both had genuine love for him.  Others see Adah and Zillah as a mirroring of the dual-female role in other mythologies, and indeed elsewhere in the Bible (such as Sarah and Hagar or Naomi and Ruth).  And there must have been something inspiring about them, beyond their looks: they are the mothers of the closest thing Christianity has to muses. Their sons, the ones they taught and raised, are responsible for music, animal husbandry, and metal-smithing.

So what is the “real” meaning of Adah and Zillah’s story? Are they warnings to be reviled, or are they they mothers of art to be celebrated?  They were human, just like you and me, and a little bit of both.  They loved the wrong man – tell me you haven’t heard that story a million times over.  Maybe they were a little vain – I certainly am.  But, they were good mothers who encouraged their boys to create things the world had never seen before, things that benefited all of mankind.

I think the moral of the story is this:  It is easy to pass people over.  These women are barely more than names, here.  It is also easy to reduce and compartmentalize people.  We need to remember that every person has a complete and complex soul, and there is good and bad in everyone.  It’s hard. It’s downright exhausting, to be honest. And, just like I mentioned last post, we’re going to fail in our compassion. I fail every day. But (trying to) remember that everyone deserves compassion when you come across someone who is mean, or different than you, or even just driving too slow, will help us make the world a better place, one interaction at a time.