This blog currently gives a daily meditation on Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, using very literal translations. The series started on 1st January and can be accessed by date from my archives. The news headline reminds me of the world in which I live.
GENESIS 16 from verse 6
Sarai afflicted Hagar so that she had to flee from her.
But YHWH’s messenger found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur.
Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?
I am fleeing Sarai my mistress.
YHWH’s messenger said to here:
Return to your mistress and be afflicted under her hand!
And YHWH’s messenger said to her:
I wil make your seed many, yes, many, it wil be too many to count!
And YHWH’s messenger said to her:
Look, you are pregnant,
you will bear a son;
call his name Yishmael/ God hearkens,
for God has hearkened to your being afflicted.
He shall be a wild- ass of a man,
his hand aganst all, hand of all aganst him,
yet in the presence of all his brothers shall he dwell.
Now she called the name of YHWH, the one who was speaking with her,
You God of Seeing!
For she said:
have I survived able to see
after his seeing me?
Therefore the well was called: Well of the Living-One-Who-Sees-Me;
Look, it is between Kadesh and Bered.
Hagar bore Avram a son
and Avram called the name of the son whom Hagar bore, YIshmael.
Avram was eighty and six yars old when Hagar bore Yishmael to him.
The story of Genesis focuses on Avram and his “seed”, who will be part of YHWH’s plan to bless all nations, but the storyteller does not picture YHWH as exclusive in his interest. God knows that desire for an heir has pushed Sarai and Avram into this compromise, and sympathises with the slave girl. God’s messenger “finds her by a spring of water in the wilderness” an image of life in a barren place. She is told to submit to her mistress to protect the precious life of her unborn child who will be the father of a great nation. This is a blessing on “her seed”, a challenging phrase because according to the conventional knowledge of the time, the seed is from the male. This makes her an equal of Avram, whose seed has been blessed. The child will be called “God hearkens”, not because God has listened to Avram’s desire for an heir but because he has listened to Hagar’s affliction. The promise about the nature of the child means that his life will not be peaceful, but he will nevertheless hold up his head amongst his kin.
The storyteller’s audience would have thought at this point that Ishmael would be the promised heir of Avram, the sign of God’s blessing.
YHWH has “hearkened” to Hagar; now she celebrates the fact that he has “seen her” that is, noticed, understood and estimated her as a valuable person. Sheis startled that she is still alive and able to see after this encounter. The name of the well is a beautiful description of God, who like Hagar is now associated with life in a barren place, “the Living-One-Who-Sees-Me.”
As the story proceeds the storyteller is gradually defining the character of YHWH God. Before Avram, God has been physically present in his universe, trying to force his human creatures to do his will. After Noah God has realised he cannot control humanity by force. He has to try another way. Only gradually does the audience realise that God is going to do this by persuasion, starting with one family. This involves a limitation on God’s use of power and on his mighty presence in the universe. He must withdraw a little. Now he communicates by being “seen” and “heard” by Avram and his family; while he also “sees” and “hears” them. His “seen” presence is often indirect, described as the “messenger of YHWH” YHWH is closely involved in the life of his chosen ones, while also maintaining a respectful distance, so that they have space for their own desires and decisions.
This is a very delicate and profound piece of theology, which has sadly been trodden under the tackity boots of Christian theologians over the centuries, especially in the reformed tradition, who have been deaf to the nuances of narrative. Obsessed with sin, judgment, covenant and grace, they have missed the story of real human beings and of the God who becomes human in relationship with them. Hagar’s God is a damn sight more appealing than John Calvin’s.
And he rose up and went away from there into the borders of Tyre and Sidon; and having entered into a house he would not have any one know it, but he could not be hid.
25 But immediately a woman, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of him, came and fell at his feet
26 (the woman was a Greek, Syrophenician by race), and asked him that he would cast the demon out of her daughter.
27 But Jesus said to her, Allow the children to be first filled; for it is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.
28 But she answered and says to him, Yea, Lord; for even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.
29 And he said to her, Because of this word, go your way, the demon is gone out of your daughter.
30 And having gone away to her house she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.
Mark has been showing Jesus as the authoritative teacher who interprets God’s Law in a new way. Now he shows him as a man still learning. The mother who asks help for her daughter is a gentile. Already Mark has told the story of Jesus’ healing a demon-possessed man in the mainly gentile are of the Decapolis. This time the issue is more explicit and is raised by Jesus himself. He has been found by this needy person because he is the “one who cannot be hid”: his capacity to transmit God;s goodness marks him out. But Jesus believed that his ministry was to his own people, and he tells the woman so in blunt, not so say, coarse terms, using an insulting and dismissive word for non-Jews: dog.
No amount of subtle scholarly explanation can persuade the ordinary reader that this is other than a gross insult. It is as if he said “nigger” or “poof”. It is an expression of Jewish prejudice. We should certainly not accept the often-advanced theory that Jesus was using this word “to test the woman’s faith.” Would he test a black woman’s faith by calling her a nigger? It’s helpful for all who opposed to prejudice to see that Jesus could be prejudiced and could use the language of prejudice.
And that he could be rebuked, and learn from the rebuke.
The needy woman keeps her head and instead of turning away or screaming at him out of anger she uses her mother wit to mime the role that prejudice has written for her. “OK,” she says, perhaps going on all fours, “We’re just dogs,Give us some crumbs.” She trusts his reputation for compassion and appeals to his better self.
Jesus is overcome by her answer; he knows that God’s goodness is intended for Gentiles as well. Perhaps he remembers that in the latter days the Gentiles will seek Israel’s God. In any case he offers the woman the help she has asked for.
But surely Jesus was perfect, without sin? Maybe so, but even the Son of God has to learn. Jesus did not have a “Son of God” implant in his brain, or an extra bit of DNA that provided moral perfection. Just as he had to learn to walk and talk like all children, so he had to learn how to be a child of God. This story wonderfully shows a gentile woman teaching the Son of God how to do his job. Now that’s really destructive of racial prejudice!
If we are asked to see Jesus Christ in our needy neighbour, so we are also encouraged to see him in our prejudiced neighbour. We should never write off such a person as useless. If we oppose his prejudice with all our wit and determination, as the woman did with Jesus, we may find that he is willing to learn. Even more we must see Christ in our prejudiced selves, opening us up to the targets of our prejudice, and helping us change.