This blog is currently providing a daily commentary on Genesis and the Gospel of Mark. The series began on 1st January 2015 and can be accessed from my archives.
Now Sarai, Avram’s wife had not borne him any children;
she had an Egyptian maid, her name was Hagar.
Sarai said to Avram:
Now look, YHWH has obstructed me from bearing;
pray come into my maid.
Perhaps I ma be built-up-with sons through her!
Sarai, Avram’s wife took Hagar, the Egyptian woman, her maid,
at the end of ten years of Avram’s being settled in the land of Canaan
and gave her to her husband Avram as a wife for him.
He came in to Hagar and she became pregnant.
But when she saw that she was pregnant, he mistress became of light worth in her eyes.
Sara said to Avram:
The wrong done me is upon you!
I myself gave my maid into your bosom
but now that she sees that she is pregnant, have become of light worth in her eyes.
May YHWH see-justice-done between you and me!
Avram said to Sarah:
Look, your maid is in your hand, deal with her as seems good in your eyes.
Sarai afflicted her, so that she had to flee from her.
This is a very cunningly – told story. Of course the narrator does not share the shock of a modern reader at the condition of slavery by which a woman may be owned and given by a childless woman to her husband, to conceive in her name; nor the author’s view of the curse of childlessness. But although such arrangements were customary enough in the author’s culture, he knew that because they involved human beings with feelings, they were likely to cause trouble. The author is also tempting his audience to think that this might be te solution to the problem of God’s promise of descendants to an old and childless man.
The story of Avram as a whole makes great play with the vocabulary of eyes and seeing. Here the trouble begins when Hagar “sees” that she is pregnant and her mistress becomes of light worth in”her eyes”. Seeing is a matter of noticing, understanding and estimating. Hagar notices that she is pregnant and understands that the childlessness is her mistress’s fault; and therefore estimates her as a woman of little value. Sarai demands that YHWH should notice what has happened, understand that it is unjust, and do something to raise her in the estimation of her husband and her slave. At this point Avram doesn’t wait on YHWH’s response but surrenders the pregnant slave girl to his wife’s notice, understanding and cruel estimation: “deal with her as seems good in your eyes”.
The author is alerting the reader to human perceptions of other human beings and how these determine their feelings and actions; and also to the fact that YHWH God also sees – sometimes what human beings do not, or do not want to, see – and acts.
14 And having called again the crowd, he said to them, Hear me, all of you, and understand:
15 There is nothing from outside a man entering into him which can defile him; but the things which go out from him, those it is which defile the man.
16 If any one have ears to hear, let him hear.
17 And when he went indoors from the crowd, his disciples asked him concerning the saying.
18 And he says to them, Are you also so unintelligent? Do you not perceive that all that is from outside entering into a man cannot defile him,
19 because it does not enter into his heart but into his belly, and goes out into the drain, (he was declaring all foods clean).
20 And he said, That which goes forth out of the man, that defiles the man.
21 For from within, out of the heart of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
22 thefts, covetousness, wickednesses, deceit, licentiousness, a wicked eye, injurious language, pride and folly;
23 all these wicked things go forth from within and defile the man.
Because most modern societies have no concept of ritual cleanliness and therefore no list of foods which are unclean, it’s easy for the modern reader to think that Jesus is simply stating the obvious. Since Jesus would have been brought up to obey the Jewish rules about food and lived amongst people who observed them as signs of their identity, we can see that it would have been a profound matter for Jesus to have declared all foods clean in principle. It’s not clear that this is necessarily what he intended. Mark, or one of Mark’s editors thought that he did, and noted it at the side of the manuscript, “he was declaring etc”; but Jesus words are more a matter of saying, “You view some foods as unclean but what is really unclean is human evil.” In other words, he was not wanting an argument about clean and unclean customs, but simply urging people to see that there were more important sorts of defilement.
Again we note in Mark’s Jesus an impatience with “religion” with its concern for the sacred, the clean, and the proper. For him these become barriers between a person and God’s goodness. His wisdom sees that the human heart is the determiner of a person’s goodness or evil; it can respond to God’s goodness with its own goodness or it can refuse God’s goodness and defile itself with evil behaviour.
As Christianity has become a religion, with many religious trappings, believers should ask if Jesus’ words apply to their own practice of faith. Does their Christianity consist in rituals – church attendance, sacraments, prayer-formulas, bible blogging even – or in cleaning the dirt out of their hearts and actions? Just the last four items in Jesus’ list are enough to make me take stock. Readers may have their own favourites.