Days 15-22 editorial comment

Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue notes:

I can only answer the question what am I to do?, if I can answer the prior question, of what story or stories do I find myself a part?

Day 19 has brought us to end of reading Genesis. We have encountered some rip-roaring yarns that put a lie to the assertion that the Bible is a book of cozy family values. The Genesis stories provoke a range of emotional responses in us from delight through incredulity, to horror and disgust. It’s important that we note the personal impact as we engage with these mythological stories. Remember that myth is an expansive story that transcends the dimensions of time and space. A myth is a once-upon-a-time story and is, in this case, the product of later editors recording in written form much earlier oral memories. I call them editors because they edit and arrange the stories to convey a contemporary message.

  1. The complex recital of genealogies has the purpose of creating continuity for later readers and the authority for later political and national aspirations.
  2. The descriptions of which sons’ fared well and which were rejected by God carries the message for later readers that explains how the Israelites are the descendants of those Genesis figures favored by God.
  3. We read into this a justification for the confiscation of other people’s lands. We also find a treasure trove of anthropological material concerning the tensions between farming and herding societies in the Bronze Age.
  4. Stories and events are given a theological meaning as we find over and over again God favors shepherds over farmers, a favoritism that resulted in the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The message for a later time is that God favored the herding nomadic Hebrew tribes over the agricultural Canaanite farmers on the plain.
  5. In the stories of the Joseph cycle, we catch the echoes of famine induced migrations. We have hints about the arrival of new groups of economic migrants and refugees and how existing peoples struggled with their assimilation. We read how Joseph during the years of famine not only saves his own tribal group but engineers the gradual loss by the Egyptians of their individual land ownership to the overall control of Pharaoh. We can see a familiar process of feudalisation taking place, whereby small farmers are reduced to servitude and serfdom on large landed estates – representing the triumph of the elite 1% of the day at the expense of the 99%.

Genesis ends with the death of Jacob and the flourishing of Joseph. Exodus begins with the death of Joseph and the social upheaval in Egypt that resulted in the enslavement of the Hebrews, who over time had grown from a privileged ethnic clan to a national group that threatened the stability of Egyptian political society. With Exodus, we move from myth to epic stories. Epic is a story written across historical time, growing and changing, developing within the events of historical time. With the Moses cycle, we are now introduced to a series of events out of which the Hebrew Epic is born. Here the Israelites begin to identify as a nation who enter into a turbulent relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Hebrew Epic begins with a God who hears the cries of his enslaved people and comes to their aid as a liberator. So starts the great central motif of the Judao-Christian Epic – God is one who hears the cries of the oppressed and frees them from captivity. Everything after this is history, as they say.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, in particular, is set against the backdrop of the Jewish Law. Matthew is the most Jewish of the Evangelists, writing for a Jewish Christian community still smarting from their expulsion from the synagogues as a newly emerging Rabbinical Judaism seeks to establish its boundaries. His anger with the Pharisees and Rabbis makes us uncomfortable as we read him following centuries of antisemitism in the Church and within living memory of the Holocaust. So it is important to understand that Matthew’s anger is a reflection of internal family conflict, as synagogue and church face one another from opposite sides of the street.

Reading Matthew these last three weeks has felt to me like running a breathless race, as he moves without letup from one difficult teaching to the next. I say difficult teaching because Jesus is opening up the inner meaning of the external regulations of the Law. External regulations are easy to fulfill in the sense you know when you have met the standard and when you fall short. Jesus’ teaching is more challenging because he is rooting behavior in the inner disposition of the heart. We can fulfill the external requirement, but where is our heart? Is it in alignment with the deeper spirit of Gods desire for us?

We have now read 19 Psalms. Have you begun to notice that many follow a three-fold structure? In part I, the psalmist will open with a line of praise before making his complaint to God. In part II he launches into an unabashed condemnation of his enemies. In part III he moves into a new tone of praise. For despite all his difficulties, God is there with him and for him.

In the Psalms, we find the mirror for every human condition and experience. No emotion of ours is alien to God. We need not hold back with our voice of complaint. After the catharsis of letting rip, we calm down enough to begin to experience the balm of God’s love for us.