Saturday, June 29, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: 1 Samuel 3-4 and Augustine's Confessions 13

1 Samuel 3 – During Samuel’s childhood, the “word of the Lord was rare [and] visions were not widespread” (3:1). Samuel was lying down in the temple when he heard someone call him, “Samuel! Samuel!” (3:4) Samuel answers “Here I am!” and thinking the voice was Eli’s, he runs to see what Eli wants of him.  But Eli has not called.  Again, he hears the call and again he runs to Eli, and learns Eli has not called.

“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (3:7). This time, Eli instructs him to respond differently if he hears the voice again—to say, “’Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’” (3:9).

The next time we are told “the Lord came and stood there, calling as before” (3:10). But this time Samuel responds as instructed and the Lord reveals to him that He is about to do something in Israel “that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (3:11). He is going to punish the blasphemy of Eli’s sons.  At first Samuel is afraid to tell Eli what God said, but he does and Eli accepts it. “’It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (3:18).

As Samuel grows, the Lord is with him.  He does not let any of the Lord’s words “fall to the ground” (3:19). He gains a reputation as a trustworthy prophet at the Shiloh sanctuary.

1 Samuel 4 – The Philistines are Israel’s great enemy at this time.  They are in conflict now—the Israelites encamped at Ebenezer and the Philistines at Aphek, due west of Shiloh on the eastern part of the Plain of Sharon. 

When they lose in battle, the Israelites call for the ark to be brought to them “so that [the Lord] may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (4:3). Eli’s two sons bring it.  When it arrives the whole camp shouts “so that the earth resounded” (4:5). The fervor of the Israelites makes the Philistines anxious. 

Again they fight, and again the Israelites lose; they flee “everyone to his home” (4:10). There is a great slaughter and the ark is captured (4:11). The two sons of Eli are killed.  One of the men runs back to tell Eli who is waiting in Shiloh, “his heart trembl[ing] for the ark of God” (4:13). Eli is 99 years old and blind.  The news kills him (4:18).

Phineas’ wife, who is pregnant, gives birth and then dies too.  The son’s name was Ichabod (meaning “the glory has departed from Israel”). Eerdman’s suggests the city of Shiloh was probably destroyed by the Philistines at this time as well.

Augustine (354-430 AD)
13 - Did I not, then, growing out of the state of infancy, come to boyhood, or rather did it not come to me, and succeed to infancy? Nor did my infancy depart (for whither went it?); and yet it did no longer abide, for I was no longer an infant that could not speak, but a chattering boy. I remember this, and I afterwards observed how I first learned to speak, for my elders did not teach me words in any set method, as they did letters afterwards; but myself, when I was unable to say all I wished and to whomsoever I desired, by means of the whimperings and broken utterances and various motions of my limbs, which I used to enforce my wishes, repeated the sounds in my memory by the mind, O my God, which You gave me. When they called anything by name, and moved the body towards it while they spoke, I saw and gathered that the thing they wished to point out was called by the name they then uttered; and that they did mean this was made plain by the motion of the body, even by the natural language of all nations expressed by the countenance, glance of the eye, movement of other members, and by the sound of the voice indicating the affections of the mind, as it seeks, possesses, rejects, or avoids. So it was that by frequently hearing words, in duly placed sentences, I gradually gathered what things they were the signs of; and having formed my mouth to the utterance of these signs, I thereby expressed my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me the signs by which we express our wishes, and advanced deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life, depending the while on the authority of parents, and the beck of elders.

Interesting analysis of the way we incorporate into us the particular language we are raised with and the universal body language and tone that all people share. We all also “advance [as Augustine did] into the stormy fellowship of human life.”

Friday, June 28, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: 1 Samuel 2 and Augustine's Confessions 12

1 Samuel 2 - She prays a kind of canticle. It is thought by some to be the model of Mary’s Magnificat but is less personal, expressing the hopes of the lowly and poor more generally:

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; . . . There is no Rock like our God. For the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings love, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world (2:1-8).

The sons of Eli are “scoundrels” and have no regard for the duties they have as priests or for the proper share of the sacrifices that were offered: “[T]he sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt” (2:17). Samuel’s mother, meanwhile, comes to see him every year and brings him little robes to wear.  She has other children too as a reward for her piety.

Now, the behavior of his sons disturbs Eli, but he cannot change them, nor intercede for them: “If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession?” (2:25)

It is all part of God’s plan. He intends to raise Samuel up to take their place. A mysterious man comes to visit (an angel perhaps).  He says to Eli, “I revealed myself to the family of your ancestor in Egypt when they were slaves to the house of Pharaoh.  I chose him [Levi] out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to offer incense, to wear an ephod before me . . . I promised that your family and the family of your ancestor should go in and out before me forever’; but now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me; for those who honor me, I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt” (2:30).

The retraction here is part of the retraction of favor from the whole shrine at Shiloh—really the only example I know of in the scripture story where the favor of the Lord is withdrawn forever and transferred to another locus. Ezekiel uses the behavior of these two priests as exemplary of the kind of bad leadership that the Lord will punish—chapter 34.

The fate of the two sons is foretold -- they shall die on the same day, and the Lord then promises to “raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind.  I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one [the king in this context] forever“ (2:35).

Augustine (354-430 AD)
12 - You, therefore, O Lord my God, who gavest life to the infant, and a frame which, as we see, You have endowed with senses, compacted with limbs, beautified with form, and, for its general good and safety, hast introduced all vital energies— You command me to praise You for these things, "to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praise unto Your name, O Most High;" for You are a God omnipotent and good, though You had done nought but these things, which none other can do but You, who alone made all things, O Thou most fair, who made all things fair, and orders all according to Your law. This period, then, of my life, O Lord, of which I have no remembrance, which I believe in the word of others, and which I guess from other infants, it chagrins me— true though the guess be— to reckon in this life of mine which I lead in this world; inasmuch as, in the darkness of my forgetfulness, it is like to that which I passed in my mother's womb. But if "I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me," where, I pray you, O my God, where, Lord, or when was I, Your servant, innocent? But behold, I pass by that time, for what have I to do with that, the memories of which I cannot recall?

I pass by it too inasmuch as it is a dark to me as the time I spent in the womb. But I see that time in others, and it hard for me to reckon it as a time of “iniquity” from birth. We are more animal-like at birth, but also budding into that creation of reason and groping toward God. And while we don’t seem to do much in these earliest times, we are groping for ALL that is outside us – groping with our eyes, with our cries that drawn people to us, with our bodily needs, which call out the caring nature of all those around us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: 1 Samuel 1 and Augustine's Confessions 11

1 Samuel 1 – Elkanah of Ramathaim (or simply Ramah), an Ephraimite, had two wives—Peninnah and Hannah.  Peninnah had children but Hannah, whom he loved more, did not. 

When Israel still worshiped and sacrificed at Shiloh, Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas were priests there.  Hannah wept and prayed there to have a son, promising to make him a nazirite for his entire life if God would only grant her this.  God is addressed here as YHWH Sabbaoth Jerusalem Bible note says this meant ‘YHWH of Armies’ and was associated with the ark, which was in Seilun at this time, 12 miles south of Nablus; it was a title used often in the major prophets—except for Ezekiel and in the psalms.

Eli observes her one time. At first he thinks she is acting drunk—not unusual apparently during feasts such as Tabernacles, but she explains her grief to him and he asks God to grant her prayer. In due time, Hannah does have a son and names him Samuel.  When she is ready to wean him, she brings him to Shiloh along with a bull, flour and wine.  These she sacrifices and then offers Samuel to Eli: “I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord” (1:28).

Augustine (354-430 AD)
11 - Hearken, O God! Alas for the sins of men! Man says this, and You have compassion on him; for You created him, but did not create the sin that is in him. Who brings to my remembrance the sin of my infancy? For before You, none is free from sin, not even the infant, which has lived but a day upon the earth. Who brings this to my remembrance? Does not each little one, in whom I behold that which I do not remember of myself? In what, then, did I sin? Is it that I cried for the breast? If I should now so cry—not indeed for the breast, but for the food suitable to my years—I should be most justly laughed at and rebuked. What I then did deserved rebuke; but as I could not understand those who rebuked me, neither custom nor reason suffered me to be rebuked. For as we grow we root out and cast from us such habits. I have not seen any one who is wise, when "purging" John 15:2 anything cast away the good. Or was it good, even for a time, to strive to get by crying that which, if given, would be hurtful— to be bitterly indignant that those who were free and its elders, and those to whom it owed its being, besides many others wiser than it, who would not give way to the nod of its good pleasure, were not subject unto it— to endeavor to harm, by struggling as much as it could, because those commands were not obeyed which only could have been obeyed to its hurt? Then, in the weakness of the infant's limbs, and not in its will, lies its innocency. I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother. Who is ignorant of this? Mothers and nurses tell us that they appease these things by I know not what remedies; and may this be taken for innocence, that when the fountain of milk is flowing fresh and abundant, one who has need should not be allowed to share it, though needing that nourishment to sustain life? Yet we look leniently on these things, not because they are not faults, nor because the faults are small, but because they will vanish as age increases. For although you may allow these things now, you could not bear them with equanimity if found in an older person.

The origin of sin in us. An interesting book I am reading notes that language itself is “metaphor” – finding concrete things to represent the thought one is trying to convey. The word sin comes from the Old English word “synn.” It means "to miss the mark" or "to miss the target" which was also used in Old English archery. We embody a capacity to reason, and when we don’t act rationally, it seems and is “off the mark” and is judged so by others. When we are children, we have the capacity in us to grow in reason but it takes time, and one of the ways we learn that is by missing the mark.

I don’t think you really get a sense of what sin is until you “see it” on your own for the first time. I remember being censured or told things I was doing that were “wrong” or “selfish” or “not allowed.” But my first recognition of “sinfulness” in myself came when I was about eight, and I started to tell my friends – those who visited with me in the apartment where I was living with my grandfather. My grandmother had just passed away and I was dealing with the reality of death and aging. I also had a strange situation in having both parents alive and living in NYC but only seeing them monthly on brief outings. So I started to use a painting that was up in my bedroom to explain to friends that my parents lived on the farm pictured in the painting – up in Vermont. But my parents thought the schools were better in Westchester and had me staying with my grandfather to go to the schools. It was a romantic falsehood; there were horses and other animals I love on the farm. I went there in the summers. We did usually go away in the summers to vacation with aunts or uncles.

The lie became something I had to carefully hide. It became impossible to have friends over because they might say something about the farm to my grandfather. It was bad and the weight of it did not leave me until we moved; and that move was the beginning of my real sense of God’s presence. Enough for now.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: 1 Samuel (Introduction) and Augustine's Confessions 10

Introductory Information on the Books of Samuel: The books of Samuel trace the last years of the judges and the first years of the monarchy.  While the monarchy provided strong government, “the religious meaning of kingship had to be worked out so as to preserve the more basic belief that Israel was a people subject to one king only, Yahweh himself” (Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament, 227).  Samuel lived in the 11th century BC.  He served the shrine at Shiloh where the ark was kept.  In a desperate defense against the Philistines, Samuel’s predecessor, Eli let the Israelites carry the ark into battle against their enemies only to have it taken in their defeat.  In their desperation they ask Samuel to give them a king.  God gives in reluctantly and Samuel interprets it as a rejection of God’s sovereignty (1 Sam 10:19).  In the writings, Boadt says, there is a pro-Saul tradition (see 1 Sam 9: 1 through 10:6 and 11: 1-15) and an anti-Saul tradition (see 1 Sam 7: 1 through 8: 22, 10: 17-27 and 12: 1-25).

The Jerusalem Bible says Saul (c.1030) was first a judge, but recognition by all the tribes invests him with a broader authority. Saul dies on the field at Gilboa around 1010.

Augustine (354-430 AD)
10 - I give thanks to You, Lord of heaven and earth, giving praise to you for that my first being and infancy, of which I have no memory; for you have granted to man that from others he should come to conclusions as to himself, and that he should believe many things concerning himself on the authority of feeble women. Even then I had life and being; and as my infancy closed I was already seeking for signs by which my feelings might be made known to others. Whence could such a creature come but from You, O Lord? Or shall any man be skillful enough to fashion himself? Or is there any other vein by which being and life runs into us save this, that "You, O Lord, hast made us," with whom being and life are one, because You Yourself art being and life in the highest? You are the highest, "You change not," [Malachi 3:6] neither in You does this present day come to an end, though it does end in You, since in You all such things are; for they would have no way of passing away unless You sustained them. And since "Your years shall have no end," Your years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers' days have passed through this Your day, and received from it their measure and fashion of being, and others yet to come shall so receive and pass away! "But you are the same;" and all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, You will do today, You have done today. What is it to me if any understand not? Let him still rejoice and say, "What is this?" Let him rejoice even so, and rather love to discover in failing to discover, than in discovering not to discover you.

Hard to know exactly what Augustine is trying to get at in this section except still trying to comprehend fully the nature of a creator who is somehow contained maybe fully in all that simply IS but is probably larger – grander than even the WHOLE. Deep in it is a conviction that anything that IS must have been created by something that could conceive of it, order it, develop it and sustain it. We know experientially that they is what is involved in “creating.”

It’s sweet to see Augustine pass for a moment over our time and those of us who, like him, cannot live without trying to see into the roots of our “being” human.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Judges 21 and Augustine's Confessions 9

Judges 21 – The Israelites had also agreed at Mizpah that none of them present would give a daughter in marriage to the tribe of Benjamin. After the battle, they go to Bethel and bewail the loss of the tribe. They also swore at Mizpah to cut off any clan that did not come to the assembly at Mizpah—they carry out this threat now. 

They realize that not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead had come, so they are put to the sword (everyone, that is, except virgin girls).  These virgins (of a clan who had not sworn to not intermarry with Benjamin) are then given to the men remaining to the tribe of Benjamin (the 600 who had escaped to the rock of Rimmon in the wilderness—20:47), so that the tribe will not be lost forever. As for the remaining 200, they are told they may go up and carry off women who “dance in the dances” at the sanctuary at Shiloh.  These women may marry the Benjaminite men remaining. 

After these sad chapters the author repeats the obvious: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Amen--as we do now, sometimes with as much wisdom as these people showed.

It is clear that the book of Judges brings together stories and perhaps writings from a host of different sources, times and points of view.  The variety is simply part of the reality they must deal with in their sad state, but it is also the chaos man just naturally sinks into when there is no centralized ethos or law. That it is incorporated into the “story” again speaks volumes for the people of Israel, who more than any other people I know, have looked at the darkness in man with a clearer and more uncompromising eye than anyone else I know of.  The “fall” pursues us even on the road to redemption.

Augustine (354-430 AD)
9 - And, behold, my infancy died long ago, and I live. But You, O Lord, who ever livest, and in whom nothing dies (since before the world was, and indeed before all that can be called "before," you exist, and are the God and Lord of all Your creatures; and with you fixedly abide the causes of all unstable things, the unchanging sources of all things changeable, and the eternal reasons of all things unreasoning and temporal), tell me, Your suppliant, O God; tell, O merciful One, Your miserable servant — tell me whether my infancy succeeded another age of mine which had at that time perished. Was it that which I passed in my mother's womb? For of that something has been made known to me, and I have myself seen women with child. And what, O God, my joy, preceded that life? Was I, indeed, anywhere, or anybody? For no one can tell me these things, neither father nor mother, nor the experience of others, nor my own memory. Do you laugh at me for asking such things, and command me to praise and confess you for what I know?

Let us praise and confess the Lord for what we experience of Him, not speculate about a million things our minds are capable of conceiving because we are rooted in Him more than any other living creature. It is hard to avoid the ideas that people have made into simplistic creeds. It isn’t necessarily the words of the creeds that I dispute. It is how simply the words are interpreted. This poem, the last of Kenneth Boulding’s, Naylor Sonnets captures what I am getting at.

We Christians do believe that life in God, in Christ, is “eternal.” And Augustine wonders if that means he has existed in time before this present life and will be forever since nothing “in [God] dies”. Boulding sees the words as too narrow. We cannot KNOW a lot about spiritual truth:

While yet we see with eyes, must we be blind?
Is lonely mortal death the only gate
To holy life eternal—must we wait
Until the dark portcullis clangs behind
Our hesitating steps, before we find
Abiding good? Ah, no, not that our fate;
Our time-bound cry “too early” or “too late”
Can have no meaning in the Eternal Mind.
The door is open, and the Kingdom here—
Yet Death indeed upon the threshold stands
To bar our way—unless into his hands
We give our self, our will, our heart, our fear.
And then—strange resurrection!—from above
Is poured upon us life, will, heart, and love.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Judges 20 and Augustine's Confessions 8

Judges 20 – The outrage galvanizes the “sons of Israel” to action.  The whole community, from Dan to Beersheba and from Gilead in the east, comes out to Mizpah (near Ai and Jericho).  The Levite “husband” or “master” tells them what happened.  They agree to go to war with Benjamin.  They select the troops by lot—an equal number from each of the eleven tribes.  Then they go up into the land of Benjamin and try to get the people to turn over the wrong-doers, but the Benjaminites will not cooperate.  They gather to fight against their kinsmen [26,000 against 400,000], 

The Israelites consult YHWH at Bethel as to who shall lead the force, and Judah is chosen.  The first day of battle, the people of Israel lose 22,000; the second day they lose 18,000—they go to Bethlehem that night and weep, fasting and offering burnt offerings of “well-being before the Lord” (20:26). The ark of the covenant was here at this time, and Phineas, son of Aaron ministered there.  They ask if they should go up again, and the Lord tells them to go, that He “will give them into your hand” tomorrow.

When they surround the city the next day, the fighters of Benjamin are drawn out to fight, and the Israelites decide to pretend to retreat, to drawn them away from Gibeah further. The Israelites wait in ambush for them to come out, and when they get a distance away from the city, they attack.  In a fierce battle, the Lord “defeated Benjamin” (20:35). The city is put to the sword.  The men outside the city turn and try to save it, but they are cut down.

Augustine (354-430 AD)
8 - Afterwards I began to laugh—at first in sleep, then when waking. For this I have heard mentioned of myself, and I believe it (though I cannot remember it), for we see the same in other infants. And now little by little I realized where I was, and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not; for my wants were within me, while they were without, and could not by any faculty of theirs enter into my soul. So I cast about limbs and voice, making the few and feeble signs I could, like, though indeed not much like, unto what I wished; and when I was not satisfied— either not being understood, or because it would have been injurious to me— I grew indignant that my elders were not subject unto me, and that those on whom I had no claim did not wait on me, and avenged myself on them by tears. That infants are such I have been able to learn by watching them; and they, though unknowing, have better shown me that I was such an one than my nurses who knew it.

It is through our needs and desires that we first reach out to those around us and to God. I do not “know” anything about the “deal” struck between my parents and grandparents regarding my being raised by them. I grew up saying prayers before I went to sleep: “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary” and “God bless Nini, Dumps (Gramps) and all those in the house. I went to the Catholic Church down at the bottom of the hill but was not baptized. My father was an American Communist at the time, though I did not know this until I was in high school. He did not believe in God and certainly had no respect for the Catholic Church. Maybe that is why I wasn’t baptized.

My “wants” were satisfied completely by the love my grandparents had for me. We all slept on one room. My bed was next to my grandfather’s and it was mostly he who was there for me whenever I needed anything. He really was mother, father and angel to me in these years. Nothing was more important to him than my care and happiness. I did NOT grow up “indignant that my elders were not subject unto me”; they acted as if they were subject to me. They spoiled me rotten.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Judges 19 and Augustine's Confessions 7

Judges 19 – Again we start with a reminder that there was no king.  A Levite man living in the remote hill country of Ephraim takes a concubine from Bethlehem. She gets mad at him for some reason and returns to her father’s house, but he comes after her, pleading with her to return.  The girl’s father likes him and entertains him with food and drink.  Repeatedly when he gets ready to go, the father urges him to stay longer and he does.

Finally they do leave—the Levite and the woman.  They get as far as Jebus (Jerusalem).  The man’s servant urges him to stay the night at Jebus, but he doesn’t like the idea that the city does not belong to Israel, so he wants to go on to Gibeah or Ramah.  But when they get to Gibeah (belonging to the Benjaminites), no one takes them in.  That evening an old man working in the field comes into the town of Gibeah and sees the wayfarers.  He asks them where they’re from and where they’re going.  The Levite tells him and says they need no food for either their animals or themselves, only shelter. 

The man takes them in, but while they are with him, the men of the town (like the men of Sodom in the story about Lot) arrive and demand to have sex with the man.  The old man offers them his own virgin daughter and the concubine belonging to the Levite, but they don’t want them. The Levite turns over the concubine to them anyway, and they “wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning” (19:25).

At dawn they let her go and she goes to the house where her master and collapses at the door. When he finds her there, he tells her to get up, but he sees she can’t move, he puts her on his donkey and goes “home” A Jerusalem Bible note suggests this ambiguous referent means the writer had something abstract in mind here like going back to the house of Yahweh. He cuts her up into twelve pieces and sends the pieces “throughout all the territory of Israel” (19:29) with this message: “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day?  Consider it, take counsel, and speak out’” (19:30).

Can things get much lower than this—all the Levite knows is that things cannot get worse. But something must change here.  God’s “bride” here (Israel) has been deflowered, dishonored, raped, reduced to mangled parts. The object of God’s steadfast love is near death.

Augustine (354-430 AD)
7 - Still suffer me to speak before your mercy— me, "dust and ashes" [Genesis 18:27]. Allow me to speak, for, behold, it is your mercy I address, and not derisive man. Yet perhaps even you deride me; but when you are turned to me you will have compassion on me [Jeremiah 12:15]. For what do I wish to say, O Lord my God, but that I know not whence I came hither into this— shall I call it dying life or living death? Yet, as I have heard from my parents, from whose substance you formed me—for I myself cannot remember it—your merciful comforts sustained me. Thus it was that the comforts of a woman's milk entertained me; for neither my mother nor my nurses filled their own breasts, but you by them gave me the nourishment of infancy according to your ordinance and that bounty of yours which underlies all things. For you caused me not to want more than you gave, and those who nourished me willingly to give me what you gave them. For they, by an instinctive affection, were anxious to give me what you had abundantly supplied. It was, in truth, good for them that my good should come from them, though, indeed, it was not from them, but by them; for from you, O God, are all good things, and from my God is all my safety [Proverbs 21:31]. This is what I have since discovered, as you have declared yourself to me by the blessings both within me and without me, which you have bestowed upon me. For at that time I knew how to suck, to be satisfied when comfortable, and to cry when in pain— nothing beyond.

Augustine is not old when he writes this memoir of his life, but he starts here on the retelling of his journey to God. When he starts, even though he’s not as old as I am, he has a sense of life’s brevity. He begs God to let him speak about his time on earth even though he is merely “dust and ashes.” He knows the details of his “dying life” are ultimately not very important; but through the details he learned that all good things come from God.

I personally also am constantly drawn to the details of my biography as the grounds through which I came to God. I was not nursed; in 1945, bottles were thought better. But I know nothing of how my mother received me. All I know was that by the time I was two, I was in the care of my grandparents. My parents split up shortly after my birth. My father went on to another wife and other children. In those days, broken families did not mix as they do today. I never met my step-mother until I was eight or nine. My mother had serious psychological problems but went to work in NYC and had an apartment there. I had a nine-year older sister and she shuttled between them. I was placed in the care of my maternal grandparents. And it is in their love and willingness to sacrifice their time later in life to my care that the great “good” God blessed me with came through. Around age 60 at the time, they had raised five children, and lost everything he owned in the Great Depression. They had nothing when they took me in. They went to live with their second oldest son, and that’s where I grew up.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Judges 18 and Augustine's Confessions 6

Judges 18 There is no king, and the Danites need a territory to live in. This migration apparently took place before the time of the judges—the closeness to the generation of Moses is apparent from the identity of the Levite, the grandson of Moses.

They send out five men to scout for land.  They too arrive in Micah’s house.  They recognize the young Levite and ask him if the mission they are on is one with God’s favor.  He tells them it is, so they go on to a place called Laish.  It is a prosperous land, far away from the Sidonians and the Aramaens.  They report back to their people and arrange a raiding party of 600 men. On the way back to take the land, they too stop by Micah’s house but this time to bring the priest and the whole shrine Micah had set up to be theirs.  They say to the priest, “Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?” (18:19)

The priest accepts this reasoning and goes with them. When Micah realizes what is happening, he pursues them and challenges them, but they are too many for him. So the Danites arrive at Laish, “to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city.  There was no deliverer, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with Aram” (18:27-28).

They set up their own town, install the priest and his cultic shrine.  We are told at the end that he is Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses and that the shrine he establishes for the Danites will be maintained “as long as the house of God was at Shiloh” (18:31).

Augustine (354-430 AD)
6 - Cramped is the dwelling of my soul; expand it, that you may enter in. It is in ruins, restore it. There is that about it which must offend your eyes; I confess and know it, but who will cleanse it? Or to whom shall I cry but to you? Cleanse me from my secret sins, O Lord, and keep your servant from those of other men. I believe, and therefore do I speak; Lord, you know. Have I not confessed my transgressions unto you, O my God; and you have put away the iniquity of my heart? I do not contend in judgment with you [Job 9:3] who art the Truth; and I would not deceive myself, lest my iniquity lie against itself. I do not, therefore, contend in judgment with you, for "if you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?"

Cramped IS the dwelling of my soul right now – there are times when it – the tent - is large, and I see blessings even in my pain. But that is not now. How did knowledge of this suffering escape me when I was young? Seemed there was nothing but energy and direction planted in me – nothing felt cramped. I ask you God, as Augustine asked you then and billions have asked over the great bridge of time that spans the presence of human beings on this earth, for just the tiniest speck of you to come into me and revive my soul.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Judges 17 and Augustine's Confessions 5

Judges 17 – A man in the hill country of Ephraim, who has taken 1100 pieces of silver from his own mother, returns it to her; and in gratitude (?) she gives him 200 to make an “idol” for him.  His name is Micah.  He sets up a shrine, makes an ephod and teraphim and installs one of his sons as a priest.  It’s as if he is starting his own cult from his own house.  The writer simply says “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (17:6).

Now, I cannot be sure I am reading this right, but it seems to me that we are getting pretty low here.  The law and cultic observances the people were given in the Torah are nowhere in evidence here.  The “good” people have taken up stealing from their mothers and setting up idols and private shrines in their own houses. Doing what is right in one’s own eyes is bringing the people farther and farther away from the standards established by Moses and the first leaders.  And the trend is blamed on the lack of a king.  This is certainly a different tradition from the one that steadfastly sees in the idea of kingship a failure of obedience to the Lord, such as we see reflected in Gideon’s speech (Judges 8:23) and later in Samuel’s response to the request for a king.

A Levite from Bethlehem, searching for a place to settle, happens upon Micah and is invited by him to “be to [him] a father and a priest” (17:10).  He will pay him an annual salary and living expenses.  Micah is pleased because he knows “that the Lord will prosper him” because he has made the Levite his priest.

Again, this little story is so interesting.  Micah seems to know nothing about what he supposed to do to live according to the law as it was given by Moses.  But he knows a few things: he knows his faith is supposed to be central to his life.  He sets up his worship at the center of his home.  He knows that the Levitical priests are blessed by God and that to have one attached to one’s worship as father and priest is something pleasing to God.  He does what he knows; he can do no more.  There is a failure though in the larger community to nurture the people in the Law, to teach them what they should do and be.  That is why the writer says, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.  Whether the institution of monarchy will make things better still remains to be determined.  But this writer thinks having a king will help.

Augustine (354-430 AD)
5 - Oh! How shall I find rest in you? Who will send you into my heart to inebriate it, so that I may forget my woes, and embrace you my only good? What are you to me? Have compassion on me that I may speak. What am I to you that you demand my love, and unless I give it you art angry, and threatenest me with great sorrows? Is it, then, a light sorrow not to love you? Alas! Alas! Tell me of your compassion, O Lord my God, what you are to me. "Say unto my soul, I am your salvation." So speak that I may hear. Behold, Lord, the ears of my heart are before you; open them, and "say unto my soul, I am your salvation." When I hear, may I run and lay hold on you. Hide not your face from me. Let me die, lest I die, if only I may see your face.

Forget my woes? Here seems to be the first mention of these great burdens, which we carry in this life. It is not all seeing the beauty and presence of God in nature and in our ability to SEE and meditate on the order of the cosmos. These are great things, but then there are the sorrows and miseries of life too – everyone goes through them. How do they fit into the order? Augustine seems to see them rooted in God’s anger for our not giving Him the love and obedience He demands. But I don’t think that is where our sorrows come from. And for me it is the hardest thing to contend with because there is so much Scripture that points to God’s wrath as the origin of our woes. A testing of our faith – that I am willing to accept – but not wrath, especially not when the woes we suffer are related to the suffering of those we love, not ourselves.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Judges 16 and Augustine's Confessions 4

Judges 16 Samson goes to Gaza and sees a prostitute he wants.  The men of Gaza lie in wait for him all night.  But he fools them by leaving in the middle of the night, taking the doors of the city gate with him to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron—another feat of strength.

Then comes the episode with Delilah.  Samson falls in love with her.  The lords of the Philistines come to Delilah and induce her to help them find out the secret of his strength, so he can be defeated. She cooperates and tries to get the truth from him.

Three times he deceives her: telling her he can be overcome by binding his arms with fresh bowstrings; then by binding him with new ropes; or by weaving the seven locks of his head with a web and making it tight with a pin.  Then, when she accuses him of not really loving her, he finally tells her that his strength lies in his uncut hair. 

Using this knowledge they manage to capture Samson, gouge out his eyes and bring him to Gaza.  They bind him with bronze shackles and make him grind at the mill in prison.  But his hair begins to grow back, and one day they bring him out to entertain them.  They put him between two pillars.  He prays one last time to God to give him strength for one more act of revenge that he “may pay back the Philistines for [his] two eyes.” And He does. He strengthens Samson to collapse the whole building, killing more at his death than were killed all during his life (16:30). But he dies too and is buried in the tomb of his father, having been a judge for 20 years.

Augustine (354-430 AD)
4 - What, then, are you, O my God— what, I ask, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? Or who is God save our God? Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent; most piteous and most just; most hidden and most near; most beauteous and most strong, stable, yet contained of none; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud and they know it not; always working, yet ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. You love, and burn not; You are jealous, yet free from care; You repent, and have no sorrow; You are angry, yet serene; You change Your ways, leaving unchanged Your plans; You recover what You find, having yet never lost; You are never in want, while You rejoice in gain; You are never covetous, though requiring usury. Matthew 25:27 That You may owe, more than enough is given to You; yet who has anything that is not Yours? You pay debts while owing nothing; and when You forgive debts, lose nothing. Yet, O my God, my life, my holy joy, what is this that I have said? And what says any man when He speaks of You? Yet woe to them that keep silence, seeing that even they who say most are as the dumb.

These words are amazing. My favorite phrases are “most hidden and most near” and “unchangeable, yet changing all things.” I really have nothing to add today.