This blog is following the book of Genesis and the Gospel,of Mark in tandem using literal translations of both. Successive blogs from January 1st can be accessed from my archives. The headlines are chosen as reminders of the world in which we live.
Esav said in his heart:
Let the days of mourning for my father draw near
and then I will kil Yaakov my brother.
Rivka was told of the words of Esav her elder son.
She sent and caled for Yaaov her younger son,
and said to him:
Here, Esav your brother is consoling himself about you, with the thought of killing you.
So now, my son, listen to my voice:
Arise and flee to Lavan my brother in Haran,
and stay with him some days, until your brother’s fury has turned away,
until his anger turns away from you and he forgets what you did to him.
Then I will send and have you taken from there –
for should I be bereaved of both of you in a single day?
So Rivka said to Titzhak:
I loathe my life because of these Hittite women;
If Yaakov should take a wife from the Hittite women, like these, from the women of the land,
why should I have life?
So Yitzhak called for Yaakov,
he blessed him and commanded him, saying to him:
You are not to take a wife from the women of Canaan;
arise, go to the country of Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother’s father,
and take a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.
May God Shaddai bless you
may he make you bear fruit and make you many,
so that you become a host of peoples.
And may he give you the belssing of Avraham,
to you and your seed with you,
for you to inherit the land of your sojournings,
which God gave to Avaham.
So Yitzhak sent Yaakov off;
and he went to the country of Aram, to Lavan son of Betuel the Aramean,
the brother of Rivka, the mother of Yaakov and Esav.
In this bit of the story Rivka gets her place as a mover and shaker of events. She sees the danger from Esav and tells Yaakov to flee, but then she exaggerates her dislike of local women so that Yitzhak will send Yaakov off with his blessing. Yaakov’s journey is curious in that he reverses the direction of Avraham’s journey and “goes back” – something Yitzhak was forbidden to do – but that is only so that he may return, with a wife from the family of Avraham, to resume the blessing in the land of promise. For the married people who inherit the blessing it is essential that one or both of them should have, like Avraham, journeyed in faith. The narrator brings Rivka to life in the rhythm of her speech, “If Yaakov should take a wife from the Hittite women – like these, from the women of the land / why should I have life?” The Jewish mama is alive and well in the book of Genesis.
Those of the audience who know to watch ut for the invisible hand of YHWH will see in the treachery of Yaakov, the scheming of Rivka, the weakness of Yitzhak and the anger of Esav, an emergent pattern in which successive generations learn painful lessons about the requirements of YHWH’s blessing, a pattern that is only dimly apprehended by the participants.
If we ask what precisely the blessing is, this blessing that will be shared with all peoples, we can say that it is first of all “fruitfulness” of life, that people should bear and rear children, that their flocks and crops should grow and provide food, and that they should “inherit the land” – the very phrase the Jesus of Nazareth used in his beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” That seems also to be the understanding of the Genesis author, who does not envisage conquest but rather a peaceful settlement in the midst of the other people of the land. Beyond these measurable things, the blessing is the partnership with YHWH itself and the lessons that are learned in pursuing his/her goodness.The author of the Letter to Hebrews in the Christian testament, describes this partnership as “faith / trust” and defines it as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” God is “not ashamed” to be the God of such people, “because he has prepared a city for them.”
28 And one of the scribes who had come up, and had heard them reasoning together, perceiving that he had answered them well, demanded of him, Which is the first commandment of all?
29 And Jesus answered him, The first commandment of all is, Hear, Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord;
30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your understanding, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment.
31 And a second like it is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is not another commandment greater than these.
32 And the scribe said to him, Right, teacher; you have spoken according to the truth. For he is one, and there is none other besides him;
33 and to love him with all the heart, and with all the intelligence, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, is more than all the burnt-offerings and sacrifices.
34 And Jesus, seeing that he had answered intelligently, said to him, You are not far from the kingdom of God. And no one dared question him any more.
This passage reveals the Jewish Jesus and is one of my favourites. Jesus says nothing that had not been said by the prophets and law-givers of Israel. God is one, that is, not a pantheon of different deities with their own areas of speciality, nor a God of Goodness struggling with a God of Evil, nor a God of This Holy Place rather than That Holy Place, nor a God of the Mighty Empire opposed to the small Gods of the conquered races: God is One, the One Source of life and goodness and therefore also the unifying spirit who establishes an ordered cosmos as described in the first chapter of Genesis, in which all creatures have an honoured place. Something of this God can be imagined by human beings but not all; for that all- inclusive oneness cannot be fully comprehended by creatures of time and space. But he/she can be loved with all the faculties of human being.
In my discussion of Genesis above I used the word “faith” as a description of the relationship which receives God’s blessing, but the Mosaic tradition quoted by Jesus says that faith leads to experience of God which leads to love; a love which desires God’s way and God’s partnership more than all else. We could call it a passion for God.
My own diagnosis of the weakness of my own Church today is that this passion is largely absent. Sure, I know people who are passionate about the right kinds of prayers or hymns; some who are passionate about particular matters of Christian morality; others who would call themselves passionate but are merely hysterical about salvation; others again who are militant about progressive Christian causes; but few who are passionate about God. Those who are come from may different theologies and communities of faith, but easily recognise and listen to one another because of their shared passion for the One God.
The second commandment quoted by Jesus is that of love of neighbour. It’s a shrewd Jewish God who gives this form of the commandment which, it has been noted, exists in some form in other ancient traditions outside Israel. We are commanded to love our neighbour “as ourselves”, which reminds us of the endless resourcefulness of self-love, the understanding, forgiveness, and bloody-minded ruthlessness, which ought to characterise also our love for our neighbour. We should also remember Jesus answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” in the story of the Samaritan, in which he says, “Your neighbour is the one who helps you when you are in trouble.”
Many non-believers are happy enough with the second commandment but can make nothing of the first. Why is love of God the first?
Because we don’t know the true shape of the love we should show to our neighbour if we do not love the One who is the source of life.
I do not think that all non-believers lack this love. I think they just give it another name. The goodness that I love in God informs the love I should have for my neighbour. So, for example, if people of homosexual orientation have been created, not by some other, but by the One God, the source of all life, whom I love, then my love for my homosexual neighbour should be informed by acceptance of his/her humanity and concern that she/he should enjoy the same civil rights as myself. (I am aware that there are disagreements about how homosexual orientation is created; I simply accept the scientific consensus that it is innate and therefore in my terms, God-given.)
Of course for me and all Christian believers, the life and death of Jesus are a fundamental model of how these commandments are to be obeyed.