This blog continues a meditation on the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, which began on 1st January 2015. Previous blogs can be found in my archives.The headline helps to keep my thought real.
DRESDEN REMEMBERS 70 YEARS ON
GENESIS 19 from verse 30
lot went up from Tzo’ar and settled in the hill country, his two daughters with him,
for he was afraid to settle in Tzo’ar.
So he settled in a cave, he and his two daughters.
The firstborn said to the younger:
our father is old and there is no man in the land to come in to us as befits the way of all the earth!
Come let us have our father drink wine and lie with him
so that we may keep seed alive by our father.
So they had their father drink wine that night,
and the firstborn went in and lay with her father –
but he knew nothing of her lying down or rising up.
It was on the morrow that the firstborn said to the younger:
Here, yesternight I lay with father.
Let us have him drink wine tonight as well,
then you go in a lie with him,
so that we may keep seed alive by our father.
They had their father drink wine that night as well.
Then the younger arose and lay with him,
but he knew nothing of her lying down or her rising up.
And Lot’s two daughters became pregnant by their father.
The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moav / By Father;
he is the tribal-father of Mo’av today.
The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben Ammi / Son of Kinspeople;
he is the tribal-father of the children of Ammon today.
This narrative is highly structured with many repetitions and a kind of ballad atmosphere: The firstborn…. the younger; yesternight I lay with father: he knew nothing of her lying down or rising up. It recounts a taboo act of incest with the same blunt factuality with which Scots ballads recount murder or supernatural happenings, and for the same reason – to horrify the audience.
The reasoning of the daughters is doubtless sincere enough, but clearly mistaken. It’s only the cities of the plain which have been destroyed; the rest of the world, with its men, remains. So the plan is somewhat hasty, to say the least. It certainly gives their father no honour: “our father is old..” Moreover the audience which has heard the whole story must wonder if this sexual carelessness with regard to their father is not in some way connected with his sexual carelessness towards them in offering them up for rape by a gang of men. In spite of the saving connection with Avraham the author depicts Lot as a dodgy character whose carelessness in matters of morality is shared by his family. Doubtless the author also found it convenient to make two of Israel’s neighbours-and enemies the descendants of this incest.
The godless haste with which Lot’s daughters act in respect of their “seed” is contrasted with the patience of Avraham and Sara awaiting their promised son.
(But before the author allows the audience the story of Yitzahk’s birth, he spends chapter 20 -which I have not printed- telling a repeat version (see chapter 12) of Avraham calling his wife his sister and allowing her to be taken into a king’s harem. This is a very unlikely story at this point- we remember how old Sara is – so that the reason for Avraham’s stratagem given in chapter 12 – that Sarah is so beautiful he will be killed so that she may be carried off- scacely applies in this case. We might think that it is intended to show that even Avraham is guilty of not protecting Sara enough, if it were not for the very positive depiction of Avraham in the story as God’s prophet. So what’s going on? I think the storyteller is deliberately contrasting the social convention that women are sexual property with God’s view of Sara, that she is the cherished mother-to-be of his people, through whom all peoples will be blessed. She is precious to God, not a commodity, although her husband has twice used her as such. The reader of chapter 20 may think that Avraham gets off lightly in this matter. Perhaps too, chapter 20 is a kind of comic parallel to Lot’s daughters’ use of their father as a breeding machine.)
And when he came to the disciples he saw a great crowd around them, and scribes disputing against them.
15 And immediately all the crowd seeing him were amazed, and running to him, saluted him.
16 And he asked them, What do you argue with them about?
17 And one out of the crowd answered him, Teacher, I brought to you my son, who has a dumb spirit;
18 and wherever it seizes him it tears him, and he foams and gnashes his teeth, and he is withering away. And I spoke to your disciples, that they might cast him out, and they could not.
19 But he answering them says, O unbelieving generation! how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? bring him to me.
20 And they brought him to him. And seeing him the spirit immediately tore him; and falling upon the earth he rolled foaming.
21 And he asked his father, How long a time is it that it has been like this with him? And he said, From childhood;
22 and often it has cast him both into fire and into waters that it might destroy him: but if you could do anything, be moved with pity on us, and help us.
23 And Jesus said to him, If you could!: all things are possible to him that believes.
24 And immediately the father of the young child crying out said with tears, I believe, help my unbelief.
25 But Jesus, seeing that the crowd was running up together, rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to him, You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and enter no more into him.
26 And having cried out and torn him much, it came out; and he became as if dead, so that most said, He is dead.
27 But Jesus, having taken hold of him by the hand, lifted him up, and he arose.
28 And when he was entered into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could we not cast him out?
In Raphael’s great painting of the Transfiguration the light that shines from the transfigured Jesus spills down on to the epileptic boy. That’s a good interpretation of the sequence of events designed by Mark. The Beloved Son of God has the task of bringing God’s goodness to the world as it is, where spirits of evil can distort the lives of children. The power of such spirits is at least partly derived from the social fear of illness and lack of faith in God’s command to heal the sick. Mark’s Jesus does not behave as if he only can heal; in fact he requires faith in God’s goodness, so that his healings are always cooperative actions.
In this case, the boy’s father, out of the turmoil of his hope and despair, cries unforgettably, ” I believe; help my unbelief!”
Mark recreates the atmosphere of an exorcism, the superstitious crowd, the anguished father, the boy foaming at the mouth, and the assumption that he is dead. Jesus-and we assume, the father- remain calm. Lifted by Jesus, the boy “arises.” Again Mark wants us to see the movement of his story: the Beloved comes down into the world of pain, to lift human beings up into Life.
There is such a strong emphasis on belief in this story that an honest commentator has to pay attention to it. Are Mark and Jesus saying that if we only had faith, all illnesses could be cured- with the implication that if an illness is not cured it’s because the victim has insufficient faith? Certainly not. But Mark is saying:
1. Anything that distorts and diminishes human life is contrary to God’s will.
2. Such things are caused by the powers of chaos and evil.
3. God’s goodness is available to human beings to tackle illness. Using it requires trust.
4. God’s goodness is not magic; it engages human capacities for healing.
I agree with all of these except 2. I do not think that illness is caused by evil powers, although the societal reaction to some illnesses, leprosy and AIDS for example, has created very harmful psycho-social forces. Historically, Christianity has been helpful in insisting that healing is a godly vocation. It has helped create the ground in which scientific medicine could grow. There are of course many things which distort and diminish human life apart from illness, and these also should be opposed in the name of God.
A secular society cannot view healing as a holy calling, but believers can and should do so, resisting its reduction to a service which can be sold and purchased.