You might remember your nerdy English teacher rambling on about similes, how they are a comparison between two unlike things, using the word “like” or “as.” In the same breath, said nerdy English teacher, probably spoke about metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things not using the word “like” or “as.”
Even though English was a favorite of mine, and even though I’ve always been a poetic guy, it was lost on me: why was it so important that we have a different term for comparisons when they don’t have the word “like” or “as.” I was unclear on how those little words might make much of a difference.
Maybe I’m slow. It’s only as an adult I’ve come to see the huge difference between “Mary had a little lamb, and it’s fleece was white as snow.” (A simile) and “Mary had a little lamb. It’s fleece was snow.” (A metaphor.)
The latter sentence invites us into a field to play with the meaning of words. It flirts with us a little bit. Perhaps it’s not a metaphor at all, but some sort of snow-lamb-creature. Even if we decide not to take the words literally, we are left with some mystery, some room for interpretation. In preceisely what ways was the fleece snow-like?
Jesus spoke in metaphor.
He does not use the words “like” or “as” when he compared himself to light, truth, bread, water, ways (as in a path; see last post for more on this) or ladders (see next post)
Though he sometimes enhances his meanings– usually at the request at his bumbling (like me!) disciples, Jesus’ words begin in mystery, they begin with this space for us to move around in and explore what it is he means.
When Jesus said he is the way, I take him to mean that he is the path toward God the father. Further, I take him to mean that their is something holy not only in Him as our destination, but also in the process of seeking Him. We, like Israel, wrestle with God himself and are blessed for this wrestling, even when it leaves us hurt…
Jesus’ metaphors (not similes!) themselves are an invitation to be with him, the path, as we figure out just what they all mean.
I think we’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing injustices when they occur between individuals. Some injustices are built into the fabric of the way we operate, though. And I think we have this tendency to ignore what the bible has to say about these. We’ve become a culture so obsessed by individualism we want to deny the fact that an entire society can sin.
The current political climate is feeding into this.
And I was contemplating a story from the bible, I got this insight into what God thinks of our injustices built into the system.
Judah is one of the people who the 12 tribes of Israel were named after. He seems to have been the “brains” of the operation in the whole selling Joseph into slavery affair. Later, he has sons. One marries a women named Tamar. Then the son died.
A systemic injustice within their society was that a widow would not have many options, freedom, or possibilities. It had become traditional for the husbands family to care for the widow, often by remarrying her to younger siblings. Judah promises to do just this. He tells Tamar that he will have her marry his younger son, once the son is old enough. But he doesn’t actually follow through on this plan.
Time passes. Tamar masquerades as a temple prostitute and sleeps with her ex father in law. The fact that Judah doesn’t recognize her suggests one of several things. None of them are pretty.
It could suggest that so much time has passed since Judah made the promise that he forgot what she looked like. It could mean that having to fend for herself took such a toll on her that she didn’t look anything like she used to. It could mean that Judah didn’t give temple prostitutes a second glance, didn’t think of them as real human beings worthy of looking closely.
Or maybe he was just a dummy.
Whatever the reason, Judah didn’t recognize her. And she talks Judah into leaving the symbols of his office, power, and prestige with her as an I.O.U. The agreed payment was a goat, and Judah didn’t seem to have a goat in his wallet. (Seems to me that a goat in the room while the transaction was done might have been a little creepy, anyway.)
Tamar reappears, months later. Pregnant, and baring Judah’s sceptre. It’s only then that all the pieces fall into places and Judah realizes what he’s done.
The thing about systemic injustice is that we can rationalize that we don’t have a meaningful part in it. Judah’s failure to honor his word with Tamar, to do the honorable thing and protect his daughter-in-law, this might have felt like a small thing.
But this failure could easily have lead her to no alternatives except becoming a temple prostitute. If Tamar had never found Judah, and he found out about what Tamar had become, he might rationalize, “Well, it’s not really my fault. It’s not like I’m one of her customers.”
The bible does not tell us if Judah bought the services of any other temple prostitutes. But he does seem quite non-challant about the whole thing. I’d suggest it’s likely that temple prostitutes were a part of his life.
It’s easy for us to avoid connecting the dots, sometimes. We can think, “Well, I’m not responsible for the fact that those women are prostitutes, because I’m just their customer. I didn’t force them into the situation that lead them to become prostitutes in the first place. In fact, I’m helping them. If I didn’t hire them they’d starve.”
And then we look at the situations we did create. We look at the Tamars in our own lives. And we say, “O.K. so I made some decisions that lead her down that path. But I’m not supporting her decisions on a day-to-day basis.”
Further when we’re removed from the people who suffer these injustices, we can dehumanize the victims, we can rationalize that things aren’t that bad, that maybe they deserve it.
Judah’s circumstances confronted him with the brute fact that he was both the initiator of this injustice and the enabler of it on a day-to-day basis. It brought it close to home, and forced him to recognize that he’d once known and cared for the victim.
We can always blame the other perpetrator of injustice. But the truth is that both are to blame. We can always try to dehumanize the victim. But the truth is that they are a child of God.
The hard part of all this, I think, comes in wrestling with it in our own lives. Owning that having either role in systemic injustice is wrong is tough and uncomfortable. But I think it’s what we are called to do.
I know that the book in the bible that everybody complains about is Leviticus, but I think maybe that book is easier than Ezekiel. (At least Leviticus has all those nasty skin-disease description to keep the images popping through my head.)
Quite suddenly, Leviticus shifts gears.
The whole first thirty-something chapters are really variations on a theme. There will be several pages describing how horrific things are going to get for Israel. And then a couple sentences describing how groovy everything will be for Isreal after all the suckiness.
Things change when a man/angel seems to be taking Ezekiel on a guided tour of the temple. I’ll have to do some homework on this. (If you’ve got some information, please leave me a comment.) My assumption is that this is for the new temple, Babylon having destroyed the original.
The thing that jumps out is how precise the description is. There are quite exact measurements for just about everything you can think of: Doorway sizes, wall widths, etc.
Honestly, this isn’t a whole lot more compelling than the prior chapters. (The bible isn’t here for my entertainment and I’m not saying it should be. I’m just being real about how intersting I found it.)
I did get interested at chapter 43. God shows up. God has been talking to the prophet through the whole book. But he’s suddenly there, in all his glory, in a new way.
And in chapter 43, God says that Ezekiel should share these plans, down to the smallest detail, with the people of Israel. He emphasizes that this is the place where people meet up with him.
I had this ah-ha moment, as I read this.
The first thing I realized was that if God were a God who kept his distance, then our sin would be less of a big deal. If God kept his distance, then we would have more of an excuse for not knowing what to do. Furthermore, if God kept his distance, our sin would impact Him less.
The second thing I realized is that we tend to locate God in the improvised, creative, and spontaneous. And while God is certainly in these places, God is also in geometry, math, and architecture. God is in the details as well as the big picture. He is the long-term plan as well as the moment. I’m not denying that it’s an act of worship within each moment to dedicate ourselves to him. I’m saying that dedicating ourselves to every tiny little details, in advance, is important too.
Suppose you were reading a book. Early on, a character happens across a muder scene. This character– who is perhaps a detective– states that the ground itself is crying out.
About halfway through that book, some other hero– perhaps that rare ethical politician– has been speaking to people to people about their lousy decisions. Part way through his speech to the people, the politician speaks to the land itself. He tells the land it has been mistreated. He paints a word picture of how amazing it will be for the land when people start acting right.
Then, near the end of the book, somebody else is talking about how messed up everything is. This character says that it runs deeper than just people wanting healing. Suppose this guy went so far as to say the universe itself is crying out to be restored.
I think many people would begin a rant that would go something like this, “Those evil leftist neopagans are pushing foreward their pro-environment agenda, trying to turn everyone to their new age philosophy which suggests that the earth itself is divine.”
Maybe you saw through my little mental exercise and recognized that the book described above is the bible. When Cain slays Abel, God describes how the Earth is crying out with his blood. Three quarters of the way through Ezekial, the prophet switches gears. He is no longer rebuking the people of Isreal. He appears to be talking to the land itself. And in the New Testament, Paul tells us that creation itself is groaning in anticipation of Christ’s return. (These, by the way, are not isolated examples.)
I am not suggesting that we ought to go out and actively worship the trees themselves. I am not denying that people smuggle their metaphysics into what they say and do and think. (Sometimes on purpose.)
I am saying that God is an environmentalist and the issue of where nature ends and God begins is a complicated one.
One of the things that I think gets lost, in our attemps at piety, is that the bible can actually be pretty funny. Consider the following:
When Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, the tribe of Benjamin was chosen. 21 Then he brought forward the tribe of Benjamin, clan by clan, and Matri’s clan was chosen. Finally Saul son of Kish was chosen. But when they looked for him, he was not to be found. 22 So they inquired further of the LORD, “Has the man come here yet?”
And the LORD said, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the baggage.”
23 They ran and brought him out, and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others. 24 Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the man the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.”
Then the people shouted, “Long live the king!”
This guy is going to be king of God’s chosen people… And he can’t even get it together for his first public appearance. He’s hiding in the suitcases!
And Samuel, God’s spokesperson, the best leadership quality he can summon up about Saul is that he’s… big?
I can only imagine how this would go down in our day and age: Ooops. Sorry everybody. Your new president is hanging out in the bathrooms because he’s too nervous to take the stage… Wait a minute, here he comes. And what a fine president he’ll be. Check out his qualifications: he’s nearly seven feet tall!
This all fits into a broader and serious context. That context is that Israelis wanted a human king which God new was a dumb idea. But within this very serious context, I think that this passage is pretty funny stuff.
After Israel was founded, they went through this period described in Judges. During this time, Israel goes through this whole cycle about 6 times: they mess up, they are taken over, they cry out to God, a judge is called by God to lead them into peace, they do good for a while, but eventually they mess up and the whole thing starts again.
I find it quite ridiculous, that they go through this so many times. Until I look at my own life. And realize I’ve gone through this much more than six times.
I discovered today that I never really paid attention to how long Israel spent opressed in comparison to how long they enjoyed peace and good leadership. I always assumed it must have been little tiny durations of joy punctuating these long periods of despair.
But that’s not right.
With one exception, the period of peace and prosperity were always longer than the periods of darkness. Early on, the difference was much more pronounced; eight years of being opressed followed by 80 years of self-rule. There are a few periods that we don’t get a number expressed in years for. Interestingly, several times the number 40 pops up, which has quite a lot of biblical significance. On the whole, 111 years are described as ones which God is not protecting the Is Israelites; for 316 years he does.
This cycle stops during the last couple chapters in the bible. This is where the refrain begins, “In those days, Israel had no king. And the people did as they wished.” For my money, some of the most horrible, heart-breaking occurences in the whole bible occur in these chapters. (I posted some responses to Pastor Marty’s sermon series on these chapters. Both my responses and his sermons had the title “The Worst Story Ever Told)
If the back-and-forth cycle of Israel is relevant to my life, certainly these observations are, too: God will not operate on a tit-for-tat basis but will always “err” on the side of genorousity, kindness, and love. As I continue to need direction in a certain direction, though, this excess of love will slowly decrease, eventually ending in a time of quite significant darkness.
This is all somewhere between scary and comforting.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on the end of Genesis. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I spent several posts wondering about the transformation of Israel (the person, not the nation.)
I had this idea that maybe Joseph was the end of a dysfunctional legacy of parents showing favortism. There was this generations-long pattern of people seeking their own selfish interest even at the expense of family, more specifically, there was this pattern of younger siblings attempting to cheat older siblings out inheritances. I thought maybe Joseph was the first biblical figure to get past that. He certainly had his act together better than his dad and brothers!
But near the death of Joseph’s dad, Joseph presents his sons to him. And Joseph engages in the same manipulation that’s gone on before, criss-crossing his dad’s hands in a blessing so that the youngest recieves the blessing intended for the oldest and vice-versa.
The more things change…
As I’ve tried to come to terms with what this is all about, I’ve been pondering some things. We have the privilige of looking at the “Old Testament” through a lense that the ancients did not posess.
One of the most powerful aspects of Jesus’ teachings is sometimes called “The Third Way.” Over and over again, Jesus is confronted with a multiple choice test. The world presents us with two options. Upon close inspection, these options are usually equally lousy. Jesus solution, over and over again, is to give a solution that’s bigger than the question itself, that’s not limited to the narrow vision implied by the choices. Jesus is asked “Which should we choose, A or B” And Jesus says “Choose C.”
Here’s how this connects up:
The world says that the eldest should recieve everything. There are others who say that the youngest should get everything. Or they say we should buck tradition for the sake of bucking tradition. Or that it should be merit-based, and the offspring who somehow is “the best” (Whatever that means) deserves to recieve everything.
And the one who gets everything should be able to hoard his inheritance,or to spend it selfishly.
Through Jesus, we Christians are in fact the younger offspring. And there is this strain of Christian thought that says “We are entitled to steal the inheritance which by traiditon would go to the oldest sibling: The Jews. And once this inheritance is stolen, we are entitled to squander and hoard this inheritance in any way we wish.”
Jesus, I think, would reject the whole notion. I think he would say that the traditionalists are wrong: and those who fight for the rights of the youngest sibling are wrong.
Jesus, I think, would say that like everything else, none of us truly owns our inheritance. We prove whether or not we are legitimate care takers by what we do with it. It does not matter if we are the older or younger siblings. If we hoard it or squander it, we were not worthy caretakers.
The question of who inherits what ends up having no practical value if we’re obliged to share it as soon as we recieve it. Joseph ended up moving in the right direction. He offered forgiveness and safety to his family. But he didn’t have Jesus available in the same way that we do. He was as lost without Him as all of us are.