Friday, September 18, 2009

Towards a theology of violence, IV (Genesis 12-50)

The Patriarchs, Gen 12-50

Beginning in Genesis 12:1-3, God calls Abram graciously and without precedent. This is the new beginning of God's redemptive plan. I want to especially highlight two factors that should guide our reading. Firstly, Abram is called 'as is'. God doesn't do any reconstructive work on Abram before his call. In line with this, the Pentateuch is at times oddly silent about what we might consider moral failures. It has little overt criticism for polygamy, for instance. This helps us understand the situation of violence in the Pentateuch, especially Genesis, which largely takes it as a 'given'. It's a part of the ANE setting that passes largely without comment.

Secondly, Gen 12:3, “and him who dishonours you I will curse”, God takes sides. He shows favour to and through Abram, and brings curse against those who dishonour Abram and his descendants. This seems to be the start of a long line of thought that God fights for his people, one that will come into greater prominence down the track.

In Genesis 14 Abram takes a band of trained fighters out to rescue Lot. The account of the war of the kings is fairly matter-of-fact. What is of note is Gen 14:17-24, where Abram disavows his portion of plunder, and Gen 14:23 makes it plain why: Abram is concerned to defend the glory of God in provision of his success. The relevance of this emerges further down the biblical track also.

Gen 15:16 is vital for understanding the conquest narratives. Essentially, the conquest of the book of Joshua is predicated on the full measure of the sin of the Amorites. So, hold that thought.

The incident of Sodom and Gomorrah is very much cast as the judgement of God upon sin and wickedness. Though to the modern mind God's judgement of anybody is offensive, I feel no particular need to defend God at this point. Destruction as Judgement is certainly in line with the argument so far developed, and shouldn't surprise us. Abram's question in Gen 18:25 should ring clearly though, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”. The answer to this rhetorical question is a resounding “Yes!”.

Genesis 22, the Aqedah, is both a difficult, yet densely theological, passage. I only wish to make a few points in passing though. 1. Abraham demonstrates his absolute faith in obedience, even beyond what we find morally reprehensible (it is unclear whether Abraham would find child sacrifice morally 'improper', though his tender affection for the child of the promise is undoubted); 2. Genesis 22 must be read Christocentrically. Gen 22:8, 12 are key in this instance. God provides the lamb for sacrifice, not withholding his only Son, Jesus. 3. Isaac is of an age, and is a willing party to this event. In this he is the type of Christ, who voluntarily lays down his life.

I make these points in passing because I believe it is a robust doctrine of atonement that helps us integrate OT and NT teaching on violence, and emerge with a distinctly Christian ethic.

Genesis 32 contains an interesting series of events. Confronted with the news in Gen 32:6 that Esau comes with 400 men, likely a sign of intended conflict, Jacob divides his forces, and prays in Gen 32:9-12 essentially calling on God's promise (Gen 32:12) as the basis for deliverance. He then seeks to appease Esau, before the very odd encounter at night (Gen 32:22-32) in which he wrestles with God. Jacob has been wrestling with God all his life, but only now in this intimate encounter where God meets him “face to face” (Gen 32:30), in weakness, is his life transformed, and God strives with him rather than he against God.

Lastly, the blessing of Jacob on his sons in Genesis 49 gives a wisdom-like disapproval to violence, as in Gen 49:5-7, which recollects Gen 34. Simeon and Levi are cursed for wilful, indulgent, deceitful, and vengeful violence. This is in marked contrast to Judah, who is prophesied power over his enemies (Gen 49:8), without attaching to him a savage and violent nature.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Towards a theology of violence, III (Genesis 5-9)

In this post I want to take a look at Genesis 5-9. I realise we are not proceeding at a rapid pace through the Scriptures, but don't worry, things will pick up a little. It's important to spend this time in Genesis to get a grasp of some foundational passages. For my own part, I'd really like to skip ahead and talk about how the New Testament interacts with all this, but we'll get there.

Genesis 6 commences the account of the Flood. In Gen 6:5 we are told that God looks upon the wickedness of humanity, and in Gen 6:6 (the difficult verse) expresses regret at his having created humanity. Gen 6:9-10 then seems to recommence the account, with Gen 6:9 and Noah's line. Gen 6:11, 13 explicitly links the corruption of the earth with violence. Against the emerging narrative threads of Genesis 1-6, Cain's lineage through Enoch and to Lamech has become a self-exaltant violent race of men. Noah alone is marked out against the wickedness and violence of the rest of humanity.

The Flood then, comes as an act of definitive judgement upon humanity and their violence. God's violence (in bringing death) is here very much a response to human violence, which is being condemned.

Come forward then to Gen 9:4-7. Post-Flood, God deals with Noah and establishes a covenant agreement that will shape human life in the new world. Dogmatically speaking, God has delivered Noah and his family, but nothing has changed in their nature or their circumstance, to prevent the world continuing as it had been. The permission of carnivorous diet is conditioned by the remembrance that life is God's gift (Gen 9:4), which leads into a consideration of the value of human life. The principle is this: a human life is worth a human life. The application means that violence is restrained by judicial execution. Whether Gen 9:6 is read as a legislative enactment, or a divine regulative principle, God is going to answer the taking of human life with the taking of another human life. This both emphasises the extreme value of human life (Gen 9:6, “for God made man in his own image”), and limits the cycle of violent retribution (it is a life for a life, not Lamech's seventy-seven (Gen 4:24); it is not life, for life, for life. The death of one ends the chain of retribution.

I certainly take Gen 9:6 as granting a principal of capital punishment to duly constituted authorities. The rest of the Pentateuch will work that out in Israelite practice. Interesting things happen in the NT. Let me suggest three points on this by way of aside:
1.Christians do well to recognise legitimate state authority (Rom 13), and submit to capital punishment.
2.The mercy of the cross should move Christians to political action to remove capital punishments. That means that capital punishment is permitted to civil authorities, but not required of them.
3.Insofar as the people of God are the new covenant community, the ultimate penalty for Christian communities is excommunication, the symbolic act of 'spiritual death', which is all the power permitted us, and yet far more dire than the killing of the body.

It should be becoming apparent how judgement is my primary category for understanding violence so far. Of God, it is thus a righteous judgement. Of humanity, it is a derivative judgement which, throughout the Old Testament, is measured against God's character and precepts; where it deviates from the same, human violence is liable to be judged itself, as the outworking of humanity's sinful inclination to arrogate the determination of right and wrong to ourselves.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Chrysostom on why there is inequality in the world

Let us not then despise one another, so that we do not over-look ourselves. “For no one ever hated his one flesh”, he says, “but nourishes and fosters it.” On this account God has given one house to us, this world, has distributed all things equally, has kindled one sun for all, stretched out one roof, the heaven, has set up one table, the earth. He gave also another table greater that this one by far, but that also is one (my fellow-initiates know the meaning); one manner of being-begotten he has graced to all, the spiritual; one homeland to all, that in the heavens; from the same cup we all drink.

He did not gift something greater and more honourable to the rich man, and something cheaper and lesser to the poor man, but called all equally; he gave fleshly things with-equal-regard, and spiritual things likewise. Therefore whence the great disparity of life? From the greed and boastfulness of the rich. But let not these things be any longer [so], brothers, nor with things universal and more necessary bringing us together let us be divided by things earthly and cheap, by wealth I mean, and poverty, and bodily relations, and hostility and friendship. For all these are shadows, and cheaper than a shadow, to those having the bond of love from above. Let us therefore guard this in unbroken manner, and none of those evil spirits will be able to enter in, even those dividing such unity; which [unity] may we all obtain, by the grace and benevolence of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom and with whom to the Father be Glory, together with the Holy Spirit, now and always, and for eternity. Amen.

- Chrysostom, In Iohannem, XV (own translation)

Help my Greek (1)

So, let's take a sentence like this:

Οὐκ εὔδηλον ὅτι οὐδὲν ἕτερον ἢ ἵνα μὴ ὑπολάβωμεν δι' αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ' ἢ τὸ γνήσιον τοῦ Μονογενοῦς, καὶ τὸ συναΐδιον τῷ Πατρί;

Now, I well understand the meaning, but I'm not really sure why ἢ keeps popping up all over the place.

Chrysostom on why Literalism is bad

The words and expressions that lie in the Scriptures, God does not wish us to hear superficially, but with much comprehension. For this reason the blessed David in many places prefaces his Psalms with “for comprehension”, and said, “Open my eyes, and I will perceive the marvels from thy Law.” And after him, also his son [Solomon], subjoining, shows that “it is necessary to seek Wisdom as if silver; to traffic her rather than gold.” And the Lord exhorting the Jews to "search the Scriptures", all the more leads us to the investigation. For he would not have spoken thus, if it were indeed possible to grasp them at once and from the first reading. For that which lies in the midst, and at hand, no one would ever search out, but rather that which is enigmatic, and is found with much investigation. On this account also he says they are “hidden treasure” , arousing us to the investigation. These things are said to us, so that neither superficially, nor as it ‘happens’, we might attend to the phrases of the Scriptures, but with much precision. For if someone should listen without inquiry to the things spoken in them, and should receive all things as so spoken according to the letter, many unfitting things they will conjecture concerning God. Indeed even that he is a human-being, and is composed from bronze, and quick-tempered, and fierce, and many opinions worse than these he will lay hold of concerning him. But if he should fully learn the understanding that lies in the depth, he will be released from all this unfittingness. For even the reading now laying before us says that God has a bosom, which is a thing proper to bodies. But none has so gone mad, so that he conjectures the bodiless to be a body. Therefore, so that we might worthily take the whole [passage] with spiritual conception, let us examine the passage from the top.

- Chrysostom, In Iohannem, XV (own translation)