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Friday, January 29, 2016

Genesis 12, Exodus, Old Age

The preferred approach to Scripture for most people I know is "history as gossip." The idea of history as gossip is not my own, I read it in an article in college almost forty years ago. However, the concept is difficult to grasp. Gossip is interesting details about other people's lives. Some people are addicted to it. We like to get the inside scoop. It is apparently widespread and the practitioners include some of the sweetest people you know. Gossip is not always vicious. It is just based on curiosity and, like trivia, is not something which matters to our personal lives. Gossip is "the inside scoop" but it is not wisdom, it does not address the heart, and so it is not life-changing.

Reading the Bible in English means we are already locked out of much that the Hebrew text intends to convey. Reading it today means that we are at a distance of time and culture. God speaks to us through the word, but sometimes His speech is not heard because we have the wrong set of assumptions. We do not hear what He is saying, we hear what we decide to hear.

In class we looked at Genesis 12:1
YHWH said to Abram "Go, from your land, and from your birth place and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."

The ancient Jews who wrote this text (which had a long life in oral tradition prior) were probably in the courts of the King. It is such a setting where the materials for extensive writing was available. The audience of these words (or very soon there after) were those in exile following the fall of Jerusalem. we can surmise this because the book of Kings ends with the Exile! So if we think of that group, what would the stories of Abram (and God's promises to Abram) sound like?

They were people who had seen the destruction of the Temple and lost their land. They were bereft, so how would the words sound in their ears. I suggest one possibility. In exile, they were a people who taken to another place ("from your land"). They were far removed  from home ("from your birthplace") and the Temple ("from your Father's house"). The lost promise land was felt by them as the greatest tragedy ever. Americans move around. Not a single one of the 25 people in my class was born in this city. We are used to moving. Most of us cannot understand how "place" and "identity" are so strongly connected in the ancient mind and heart. Yet, how would they see and feel when they ponder this word to Abram, can it open new venues for understanding their experience? What was God's Word to people in exile who saw their own experience echoed in these words of promise? What did "a land that I will show you" mean to them then?

Another thing to keep in mind is the interpenetration of the Biblical narratives. Abraham is the father of Israel, therefore, like other patriarchs, his life is informative of the nation's life. The Hebrew slaves had been in Egypt for some time. It was the place of their birth, their fathers and their homes. They also were called by God (through Moses) to leave and go to an unknown place. However, they murmur and do not trust God. They perish. Abraham trusts God and obeys. Therein lies the difference. We see obedience is the better option. The ancient Jew has a model of obedience to contrast with the nation's covenant infidelity and the resultant exile. God's word speak of His promise fulfilled for those who keep in His ways. It opens a door of hope for the exiled Jew, that if Israel returns to the Lord (as Jeremiah and other prophets proclaimed) then God will bless His people. That then is the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, latter Isaiah and others.

The contemporary readers, aware of the original audience's experience, can then begin to integrate the text as a current day message to the church and to the individual. What then does God say to "me" in Abraham's story? Many in my church are at a point in life of loss. They have buried many family and friends. Robust bodies and sharp minds are losing strength, stamina and function. The person "I was" is more a distant memory and the person "I am" seems to be a foreigner, or an unwelcome prison of sorts. It is easy to see old age as exile. Cut off from family and homeland. Cut off. Cut off emotionally. Can the "bad news" of this existential "exile" be seen with a different lense? I think the words still ring true.

"Leave behind your young self, your power and energy and place. Leave behind your identity. Leave it behind and go to a place where I will show you." That place--God's Kingdom--is the promise. It is the eternal promised land. The place where abundance and blessing will be the daily fare. The place where God has promised to take us. But, like Abraham, we may find the journey long and arduous, filled with missteps and threats. Like Israel, we may find our infidelities and sins, our bad choices, cut us off from the Promise Maker and Promise Keeper. However, like Abraham and repentant Israel we can trust. We can say, "I believe in the unseen land, because I know God's word is true and God is faithful." We can hear this word, whatever our circumstance, as an ancient word and a word to our hearts. Not gossip, but Gospel!


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