Cain and Abel

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell

Genesis 4: 2-5

A modern man or woman might see the story of Cain and Abel as completely anachronistic and irrelevant to contemporary life.

 

After all, one might reason, what can the practice of burning sacrifices to God have to do with anything these days?  Not even religious people do that anymore.  No one thinks of God as desiring or being pleased with some ritual sacrifice.

But the picture changes dramatically when we consider what sacrifice really is in the abstract, as Jordan Peterson does in his new book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Let’s begin our consideration of the matter here by noting that the sacrifices of Cain and Abel are the first religious acts recorded in the Bible.  We might think that such actions are unsurprising since the Old Testament itself is full of details about what to sacrifice and when to sacrifice it.  There are prescriptions for the sacrifice of bulls and goats and doves.  There are descriptions of “grain offerings” and “drink offerings,” too.

But the sacrifices made by Cain and Abel come long before the law was given to Moses.  These sacrifices recorded early in the book of Genesis are made over a thousand years before the sacrificial systems were revealed to Moses and set down in the book of Leviticus.   Thus, we may suspect that the actions of these two brothers were more or less intuitive or instinctual.  They sacrificed because it seemed right to them.  It seemed to be a way to blessing.

Peterson argues that the impulse to sacrifice was something that evolved over millennia and that it is not unrelated to the ideas of saving and sharing.  He contends that early humanity observed, over time, that those who sacrificed – like those who saved and shared – tended to be blessed or rewarded in their endeavors.   They flourished.

The practice of sacrifice was the forgoing of some immediate gratification in the hope of some future benefit or blessing.  In concrete terms, Cain and Abel surrendered some delicious and nutritious food for the purpose of pleasing God and thereby obtaining His blessing that would mean future fertility, future multiplication of their wealth.

If we think of the matter in these broad terms, then the practice of sacrifice is not something strange and archaic, it is very much a part of life.

Peterson writes that work is sacrifice.  When we put our noses to the grindstone, we sacrifice immediate pleasure or repose for the hope of future blessing.  We talked last week of the twenty-year old surfer who is at the very peak of his strength and skill and has every reason to expect that in the next five years he will be able to find and ride hollow, blue waves all over the world.  There will be thrills and exhilaration and great companionship.  Maybe even contest victories and recognition.

But he sacrifices all of this, puts away his surfboards and enters medical school where he will be subjected to long days and nights in libraries, classrooms and hospitals for years to come.  He may surf again someday, but his prospects for the kind of performance he is capable of now and that few ever know will be gone forever.

Why has he done this?  There may be altruistic reasons involved in his decision, but part of the equation in almost any such case is the notion that his present surrender will issue in greater blessing down the line.  He anticipates that his adult life will be far more fulfilling if he forgoes the five summers of love that could now be his.  Once his ordeal is completed he will bring in, year after year, the kind of income that will enable him to marry and raise a family in comfortable style.  He will find himself surrounded with interesting colleagues, intellectual challenges and with recurrent opportunity for personal growth and professional advancement.

If we think of sacrifice in that broad way, then this ancient story takes on meaning and relevance for each of us.  Then the question becomes: what do we do when our sacrifice is not accepted?  When we surrender present benefit and the hoped-for future blessing does not come to pass?

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Finishing Up: Esther and Xerxes

Let’s try to finish up our study of old king Xerxes.

 

We’ve already noted his rash and reckless behavior.  We’ve already noted his profound lack of insight into what is going on around him.  We’ve seen that he acts on impulse and that he is intemperate and easily manipulated.

But when the story turns and Esther begins to execute her plan to tell the king the truth, we see even more of Xerxes’ immoderate character.  Thus, when Esther approaches him with a request and before he has the first clue about what she will ask, he offers her “half of his kingdom.”

Moreover, when the truth about Haman is finally out and Haman is on his knees, begging Queen Esther for mercy, Xerxes misreads the situation yet again, perceiving, erroneously, that Haman is attempting to ravish the queen.

 

So, you might be saying, We get all that.  We see that Xerxes was an idiot.  So what?  What is in it for us as we read the story to day?

I think we can be pretty sure that it was a part of the author’s intent to make the case against Xerxes.  There is too much detail, too much description of his decision making to think otherwise.  Why is it there?

To make the point, I think, that this is exactly what earthly government is often like.  We expect and hope for prudence and integrity, but what we often get is recklessness and corruption.  Look at how the government actually worked then.  The king was manipulated by his advisors in every decision.  And his advisors, without exception, had their own selfish agendas in mind.  There is little thought for the well being of the king’s subjects.  All instead is focused on making the courtiers happy in the moment.

Xerxes is an idiot.  He would not know the truth if it beat down his door.  And that is exactly what Esther has to do.  She saves her race by speaking truth to power – and this at great risk to herself.  Power is often oblivious to the truth and yet we need the truth to live.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  We must speak Christ.  To live we must speak Christ.

Meditation on Psalm 57

 

He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.

One cannot study long the songs of David without being deeply impressed that, for David, life was a battle.   His poetry is shot through with complaints about unfair treatment, about enemies who laid traps for him and who slandered his name.  Here is verse four:

My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

So often we look to the Psalms to see the profound expressions of trust in God.  That’s great, but these are brought on by the crises David faced, day by day and year by year.  Should reading the Psalms remind us – even convince us – that life is a battle?  That we are not spending our days sailing, unopposed and in the favor of some kind wind.

I wonder if faith is even possible if we do not see the enemy, if we do not understand the stakes.  David’s foes, although deadly, were at least clearly defined.  He knew who opposed him.  They were flesh and blood.  Men of a rival nation who wanted to defeat Israel.  In our time the enemy, as Bob Dylan reminds us, is “subtle:”

The enemy is subtle

Howbeit we’re deceived

When the truth’s in our hearts

And we still don’t believe.

Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”

Here is Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I wonder if we can really know God experientially; have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if we don’t recognize that there is a war going on and that we are in it; if we do not recognize that we face opposition – even opposition other than our own divided hearts?

Meditation on Psalm 38

 

O LORD, REBUKE ME NOT IN THY WRATH: NEITHER CHASTEN ME IN THY HOT DISPLEASURE.

 

 

Here the writer is overwhelmed with grief.

At first he acknowledges that his misery is the result of his own sin and that the anguish he now suffers is from God:

For thine arrows stick fast in me

And thy hand presseth me sore

But, as seems to me to happen often in the psalms, the course of the poem changes abruptly and the psalmist laments not so much his own sin and merited suffering, but the evil of “mine enemies, lively and strong” who “hate me wrongfully.”

Verse twelve details the dynamics of the evil.  His enemies “lay snares” for him; they “speak mischievous things and imagine deceits all the day long.”  This isn’t difficult to understand or relate to.  Anyone who has gone to school, worked in an office  [or other workplace] or spent time in a family will know just what the psalmist is talking about here.  Things are going along fine [seemingly] and then the day comes when you discover that everyone around you seems to be watching a different movie than you are.  What was once accepted is now poison.  What you believed was affection was only feigned.  You find that what has been said behind your back is not at all what you thought was being said.  You are now a target and the crowd is working together to get you knocked off your horse.

In the next verse the writer says of these complaints and plans against him:

 

But I, as a deaf man, heard not and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.

 

When I first read this, I thought of the man unjustly accused and surrounded by those who he thought were his friends as described in the previous verse.  And it was easy for me to think that what the psalmist was saying in this verse was that he was so surprised and taken aback by what he was confronted with that he was literally speechless.  Just dumbstruck by the suddenness of it all and unable in the moment to muster any defense for himself, even though the charges against him are unjust.  Again, that’s easy to imagine.  That’s how it feels.

But on second thought, maybe the psalmist is saying something quite different.  Maybe he is saying that, as he is surrounded by these unjust accusations he ignores them and offers no defense because he knows that God is his only defense.  God is his defender.  His own efforts here will be futile, surely.  But, given time, the wheels of the Almighty will grind and – as we mentioned yesterday – the justice of his cause will shine as the noonday sun.

That is a worthwhile lesson.  This is not to say that one should never speak in his own defense.  There are times and places where that is exactly what one should do.  But there are other situations where you cannot win.  Any effort of your own will only make matters worse.  In those instances, it may well be that the only thing we can do is be silent and wait for vindication from God.  This is faith.

Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of Godin heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.

Esther: Speaking Truth To Power

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, songs and poetry and letters and law and histories.  The Book of Esther is a history in the sense that it records events that actually happened, but it is told in the form of a story.  The book is a short narrative of events that occurred in Persia (modern day Iran) and it features character and plot development, suspense and climax.

One of the marks of a good story writer is that he or she will “show, not tell.”  That is, rather than simply dictating conclusions about events or characters, e.g., “the king was a thoughtless man,” the good story writer will unfold the drama before the readers eyes by describing action and will let the reader form his own conclusions.  I think the writer of the Book of Esther was on to this.

Never in the story are we directly told anything about the character of King Xerxes, but as we read the story and see his actions and decisions, we may come to some pretty definite conclusions about him.

We see him first at a drunken party – one that he has put on to show off his wealth and power.  The writer gives us very particular details about the opulence of the setting and the extravagance of the event.  This party went on for days and there were servants with trays of drinks at the elbow of every guest.   From this we may get some inkling that Xerxes was a vain man – impressed with himself and intent on impressing others.

The first decision we see the king make involves his relationship with his wife

 

 

 

 

 

Cain and Abel

So many of the stories in the Book of Genesis leave me wondering.

What is wrong, for example, with humanity gaining the knowledge of good and evil?  Isn’t that the very thing that separates us from all of the rest of creation?  We know good and evil.  We can tell right from wrong.  Seems like half of the Bible is about refining that sense and putting that knowledge into practice.  Why is that a curse?  I think I may have a better sense about this now, after having read Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I may blog on that story later.

Today I want to talk about the story of Cain and Abel.  Everybody knows this one – the first murder story.  No doubt there are many lessons that can be drawn from the story and no doubt there have been thousands of sermons preached on this text, but the thing that always struck me about this story – that left me kind of cold and unsatisfied – is that the text gives us no explanation of why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God.  It always seemed to me that such a story in such a book should at least tell us why God acted as He did in rejecting Cain’s offering.  I’m sure that preachers and scholars along the way have come up with a thousand theories in answer to that question, but I think it is fair to say that the text itself does not give us an answer and, it seems to me, is deliberately obscure or dismissive of the issue.   Here is the text:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

The omission of any mention of God’s motive or reason for rejecting Cain’s offering bothered me till now.  It bothered me because it made it seem that God was acting arbitrarily and capriciously.  Unjustly, even.  It seemed to me that there must have been some just motive or reason and that the story would have been much better as a moral lesson if we had known that reason.

But now I believe just the opposite.  I now believe that the story is more true to life and better as a moral lesson because it does not explain why Cain’s offering was rejected.  Again, I have Mr. Peterson to thank for this.

In 12 Rules, Peterson spends quite a bit of ink talking about sacrifice.  At the most profound and fundamental level, writes Peterson, sacrifice is the forgoing of some immediate pleasure or gain in the hope of a greater, future benefit.   Under such a definition, work is sacrifice!

That brings the whole matter a lot closer to home for me.  I have always viewed the sacrifice rituals in the Old Testament as a forerunner or foreshadowing to the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, I still believe exactly that.  But the idea that sacrifice – other than ritual sacrifice – is a fundamental part of every human life, including mine, made me think harder about that dynamic and gave me a different slant on the Cain and Able story.

When we go to work we are giving up immediate freedom and pleasure and involving ourselves in something that, although it may be meaningful, takes something out of us.  It absorbs our time and energy and strength and in doing work a part of us gets used up.

We do this because we have an aim or goal in mind.  Cain, ostensibly, had the goal of directly pleasing God.  This would have led to his own good – the blessing of his efforts on the farm; the growth of his family; that kind of thing is what he probably hoped for.

By the same token, we hope that our efforts – our sacrifices – will lead to God’s blessing, too.  We may have a very specific kind of blessing in mind.  We may meet and fall in love with someone and accordingly make sacrifices for them.  Our time and our effort are focused on pleasing them with the goal of winning their love.  We may have vocational goals.  And so we practice and plan and study and make decisions in favor of the pursuit of that goal that take us away from other avenues that might have led to pleasure or gain.

We may have such goals and we may work toward them and yet so often we find that our sacrifices are not accepted.  We are not blessed.  The person we fell in love with and made sacrifices for rejects us.  The medical school that we sacrificed our youth to get into rejects our application.

And when these things happen it is more common than not that we really don’t know why we have been rejected.  At least it is not obvious at first.  If the reason for our rejection had been obvious, then we would have made a different kind of sacrifice.  The common experience is that we’ve laid what we thought was our best on the line and it has simply not been enough.  The blessing we so desired is denied us.  Our sacrifice was rejected and we, like Cain in the story, are not told why.

That makes the Cain and Abel story seem true to life and something that we moderns can relate to, but what is the moral?  So Cain is rejected – no reason given – and we are often rejected in the same way.  Interesting.  But what instruction or insight for living does the story give us?

I think it is this: faith is patience in the very face of what appears to be unfair and unexplained frustration and disappointment. Faith is that which does not rebel or give up when rejected but instead waits in the humility that says that maybe I don’t know everything I thought I knew.  Maybe there is something else; something more.

This is extremely difficult, particularly when your brother’s sacrifice – which did not seem all that different from your own – was accepted.  He gets the girl.  He gets into med school.  And here you are with nowhere to go and no one to run to.  But accepting such a judgement – such a verdict – and continuing to listen and to wait and to work, that is faith.