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The Two (Thousand) Faced God

July 17, 2012 Leave a comment

HAR HAR HAR HAR HAR HAR HAR HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR

I came across this image the other day while I was browsing r/atheism, and I thought to myself “… Huh.” I immediately launched into a write up, which was fraught with error, improperly formatted, and frankly just totally scatterbrained. Naturally, it got 120 points and a bunch of posts from people commending me, so that was cool. It made me feel better about myself. So here I am, lazy, and instead of writing entirely new material, I’m going to clean up what I wrote on r/atheism and call it its own thing.

So the argument in the image is that John and 1 John say nobody’s seen God’s face, and Jacob sees God face to face in Genesis? Seems straightforward enough, but let’s have a look at The Many Faces of God.

Unfff... Ungh... Errrrggh...

Okay, there’s a fairly complex bit of theology and narrative tradition here, but before we even get to the verses in question I think we’ll just jump right in at Genesis 16.7-13.

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ And the angel of the Lord said to her,

‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’

So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’ (Genesis 16.7-13) 

In the story, an angel of the LORD appears to Sarai’s slave-girl, Hagar. The angel convinces Hagar to return home, and informs her that she will bear a son. Despite the benevolent character having been referred to as an angel, it is clearly identified as the LORD in 16.13, where she declares that she will call Him ‘El-roi,’ meaning “The God Who Sees,” or “The God of Seeing.” It is not just an angel, but the LORD Himself, and He’s making Himself visible in the form of an angel. This introduces the notion that God can make Himself known without appearing in his “true form,” as we’ll call it. A good reference point for this is Dragonball Z. Many people see Frieza, but you’ve gotta be a real bad-arse to witness his true form and survive. God works kind of the same way or something.

With that out of the way, I think we’re ready to take on Jacob seeing God face to face.

The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 

Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. (Genesis 33.22-32)

The first thing you might notice about this passage is that it’s really fucking weird. I think we’ll go a little deeper.

What might not be immediately obvious to someone reading the text in English is the complex wordplay at work in the story. For instance, Jacob’s name in Hebrew is Ya’aqob (יַעֲקֹב), the name of the river Jabbok is Yabboq (יַבֹּק), and the Hebrew word for “wrestled” is Wayye’abeq ( וַיֵּאָבֵק). While this looks like nothing to most of us, these words have highly similar pronunciations, and form an important—and intricate—pattern within the story. Through this combination of words, both the setting and the event are drawn around Jacob’s name, and so we can determine that the structure has been carefully chosen to fit with the theme of the story. Jacob’s wrestling match with the LORD leads to a conclusion wherein the LORD renames him Israel, or “The One Who Strives with God.” “God Strives” is another acceptable translation. This replaces the name Jacob, which is a play on words from his birth narrative, meaning “He Supplants,” something Jacob had a bad habit of doing (see Genesis 27).

The Hebrew people, as descendants of Jacob, are portrayed as strong and worthy, because Jacob was the man who wrestled with God. As they saw it, they were still wrestling, and so the narrative only helps to show that this struggle was ingrained directly within their lineage. It was something they had always done, and would always do.

Jacob names the place where he wrestled with the LORD Peniel, meaning “The Face of God,” standing as a reminder that he, who had previously been afraid to so much as face his brother Esau (v. 20) had now wrestled with a deity and survived, something that is tubular by its very nature. As is a common theme in the Bible, the LORD helps Jacob to uncover and utilize his inner strength. This is portrayed best by Jacob’s hip being put out of socket by the LORD, something which does not stop him, alluding to the fact that Jacob’s strength comes from within. Of course, he needs the LORD to unleash that inner potential, but potential it most assuredly is.

All of this meshes with 16.13 quite nicely. Jacob did not wrestle with God in His true form, but with a representation of the deity. The story is a representation of man’s every day struggles with God, and how God helps us to find our inner strengths. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the story is entirely metaphorical either. There’s no doubt it was meant to be taken as at least somewhat literal history. Take, for instance, the etiological conclusion that Jacob’s battle is the reason for the prohibition against eating the thigh muscle.  However, the legitimacy of the story is entirely secondary to the theological conclusion, which must involve only a representation of a deity. The veracity of the account lends to the authority of the theology, but the theology is the most important aspect of the narrative.

We can then use Exodus 33.11a as further indication that “face to face” does not literally mean seeing God, but rather talking with Him personally, rather than within dreams or visions.

Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33.11a)

Moses is said to talk with God face to face despite the fact that in 33.20-23 God tells Moses that he cannot see the actual face of God. Thus, the LORD shows Moses his backside.

But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’ (Exodus 33.20-23)

The common assumption of the period was that the LORD spoke to people through dreams and visions, and anyone who was on a physical speaking basis with the LORD was seriously blessed, and probably awesome. To even hear the voice of the LORD would be to speak with Him face to face.

So let’s finally get into the New Testament, where our Johannine friend makes claims about who has seen God.

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1.18)

"Guess I'd better crank this shit out."

Oh, it’s fucking nobody. Nobody has seen God.

The writer here claims that “No one has ever seen God,” not actually mentioning His face. This claim is repeated in 1 John 4.12, which states that No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  On a physical level, the Johannine philosophy is that God resides within, and that the many manifestations of God that we see (the poor, the sick, the needy, Jesus Christ) are forms of God, but again, not His truest physical state. They are merely aspects of His being. However, I’d be doing a total disservice to both of these passages if I just left it at that.

The word we translate here as seen is actually ἑώρακεν, which is literally rendered as “seen,” but  more accurately means “to understand.” Seeing is understanding. In that case, we can do a very quick switch up, which leaves us with the closer translation: “No one has ever understood God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” That makes more sense. Okay, good. Phew. It’s all explained.

Oh wait, no it’s not. Just to fart out a few more, 1 Timothy 6.16 states that It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.” Again, the word here for seen is ἰδεῖν, which totally means “know” as well as “see.” John 6.46 states “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.”  The word is ἰδεῖν once more, just as it was seen in 1 Timothy. There are multiple occasions in the Tanakh where the LORD appears to people as well, and I won’t go through every one of them, but suffice to say, one should not jump to the conclusion that “the LORD appearing” literally means He appeared and was just chilling with Abraham and Isaac, especially given that the LORD often appeared as a booming voice, and not as a physical presence. Similarly, we should be careful not to assume that the metaphors of the Psalms, or the visions of Isaiah, are referencing the actual physical appearance of the LORD. I suppose those verses could very well be the subject of another essay entirely, but I’ll leave it there for now, cause I am tired.

By looking at the texts critically, we come to a better understanding of what they’re actually trying to tell us. Genesis and John were written by very, very different authors (or sets of authors) who had different vocabularies, different theologies, and different languages. The conventions they used to name concepts were different, and so when two words converge in the English language, they don’t necessarily carry the same meaning. We end here with the two texts agreeing that no one has ever literally seen the face of God, but on a deeper level, they could hardly be talking about two more different subjects.

To cap off, I think that people often forget that we don’t really know what God wants, even if we think we do. We can grapple with it and come to personal conclusions, or we can take all our answers out of a book (bad idea) but there’s no way for us to, in actuality, know what’s up. Too often I see people—myself included—speaking for God. God hates fags, God wants needs my money, and God demands marriage. God loves some people, God loves all people, and God hates black people. The Johannine school was onto something really cool with what they wrote in 1 John. If we love one another, God’s love is perfected within us. Fuck obscure passages, fuck trying to figure out what each and every prohibition means. What is the God in front of you saying? He’s saying love me, feed me, clothe me, help me. He’s saying “Do what’s right,” and He’s not telling us every detail of what that entails. For all the complex theology, the wordplay, the moral lessons and the do’s and do not’s, what’s most important is not to be a selfish dick.

Prayer Palass

And that’s why I still hate the Prayer Palace. The end.

Mark’s Gospel and the Really, Really, Really Barren Fig Tree

July 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Ain't got a clue, these guys

I don’t know what it is, but this has come up a couple of times for me in the past week, so I thought I’d address it briefly. I don’t like seeing people take the Bible out of context, and I especially don’t like when people assume they understand the text just by reading one or two lines and inferring whatever they feel like from it. In fact, I’ve decided to write a series of essays, for my own personal benefit, on scriptural questions or assumptions I find around the internet (and most prominently on r/atheism). I figure this will be a good way for me to brush up on what I already know. After all, if you don’t use it, you lose it, and so it’s not a way for me to school others, but myself.

On that note, it seems that the people in this image are confused by… The Barren Fig Tree:

"What the—?"

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
   But you have made it a den of robbers.” 

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”(Mark 11.12-24)

The Barren Fig Tree, at a glance, makes Jesus look nuts. Or stupid. Or both. To the casual observer, you’ve got Christ shouting at a tree because it’s not producing fruit, and apparently it’s out of season in the first place, so yeah, that sucks and what the hell’s He thinking? His actions come across as audacious and self-important—less so the characteristics of the most humble messiah. While not framed as a parable, this story is one of the most powerful metaphoric fables within the Evangelion, and contrary to its inexplicable appearance, it’s some harsh shit.

It’s also repeated in a slightly different order, and with a slightly different message, in Matthew 21.18-19, which I recommend people read as well.

The story of the Barren Fig Tree in Mark is a prime example of the Markan Sandwich. A common literary technique in Mark is to embed a story within two fragments of another story (Mark 3.19b-35; 4.1–20; 5.21–43; 6.7–30; 11.12-24; 14.1–11; 14.17–31; 14.53–72; 15.40–16.8). While seemingly unrelated, in each instance the two stories are carefully intertwined and work together to deliver a cohesive theological message. In this case, our very fruity sandwich looks like this:

  • [Barren Fig Tree Bun]I can't explain the cheese
  • [Temple Meat]
  • [Barren Fig Tree Bun]

(Matthew does not make use of this  technique, explaining the discrepancy in the order of events).

We can’t really understand what’s going on in the temple without knowing what’s going on with the fig tree, and we can’t really know what’s going on with the fig tree unless we know what’s going on with the temple, so it takes a little bit of hopping back and forth between the two narratives to really get a clear picture of what we’re looking at.

First, let’s dive into the Tanakh to try and get a look at the importance of the fig tree. The best verse, in my mind, is Hosea 9.10, which states that “… Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors.” Here, first fruit is a reference to Israel as the LORD’s chosen—‘divinely elected’ in the wilderness. Similarly, check out Jeremiah 2.3, where Israel is referred to as “… the first fruits of [YHVH’s] harvest.” Deuteronomy 32.10, part of a song tracing Israel’s history up and to the wilderness period, also makes mention of Israel as the LORD’s chosen fruit; the “apple of his eye.” This is likely the source of the notion of Israel as the LORD’s fruit.

Of course, as usual, the Israelite’s totally squandered their shit. In Isaiah 34.4b, an oracle from the works of Proto-Isaiah, the author delivers a prophetic smack down, stating that “… All their host shall wither like a leaf withering on a vine, or fruit withering on a fig tree.” Christ’s condemnation of the fig tree is meant as a reference to this prophecy in Isaiah. Just to throw fuel on the fire, in Jeremiah 5.17, it’s written that “… they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees…” The threat of enemies gobbling up the harvest was pretty common in Israel at the time, and is often used as a curse (Leviticus 26.16; Deuteronomy 28.25-37).

All of this helps to explain the metaphor that Christ is using here. Israel is the fig tree, the LORD’s first chosen, and its figs are its spiritual gains. Thus, the tree full of leaves, despite being out of season, is a reference to Israel’s status as the first chosen of the LORD. By all means, this tree should have a bumper crop of figs. Figs everywhere. Instead… no figs.

This entire story works well in the context of what Christ had to say about grapes in John as well:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15.1-2)

So to get an idea of what Jesus is talking about by fruits, I’m also gonna throw in a really cool quote from Paul in Galatians:

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5.22-23)

This list of virtues was clearly lacking in Jerusalem, where Christ saw that people had become bogged down with a xenophobic obsession with the law, and with pride for their culture at the expense of others, including their own people. Christ saw people calling in God’s name while simultaneously worshiping money, using faith to gain status, and making a mockery of goodness on a grandiose scale. These elements are present throughout the entirety of the four gospels, and this story works to sum up the end result of their actions.

With the first part of the fig tree story acting as the bottom bun of the sandwich, the meat of the story is placed when Jesus enters into the temple only to find it crowded with money changers and commercial vendors. Obviously, He was not pleased. As a historical reference, in 20 BCE, Herod the Great rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, only to fill it with ornate columns, fountains, and shops. It had been taken from a place of solemn worship and transformed into a commercial enterprise. No longer was its focus to honour God through sincere sacrifice, but instead it had been turned into a “Wonder of the Roman Imperial World.” A bustling micro-economy was at work, with people changing money and selling sacrifices without really thinking at all about the implications. No longer were people offering up to God, and honouring the codified rituals that make up the moral system of the Law. Instead, the temple ran itself like a theme park, with sacrifice being just one of the many tourist attractions. Worship became spectacle, and spectacle profit. It was Jerusalem’s answer to Disney World.

As Christ’s anger flares, and He overturns the tables and drives out the money changers and the counter girls, we see a very famous passage. I’ll quote it again:

 “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
   But you have made it a den of robbers. 
(Mark 11.17b)

Here, Jesus quotes Isaiah 56.7, saying “for my house shall be called a house of prayer,” only to immediately follow it up with Jeremiah 7.11, which states “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” This set of prophecies comes together as a scathing criticism of the temple.

One might translate “den of robbers” as “bandits’ stronghold,” (σπήλαιον  λῃστῶν in Mark; הַמְעָרַת פָּרִצִים in Jeremiah) further further implying that the upper class stole from the poor and then went and sought refuge in the temple, something we’re familiar with even today.

To sum it up, the temple is leaves without fruit. We are told to watch for fruits:

 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. (Matthew 24.32-33)

Orthodorky

The top bun of the sandwich is plopped on when Jesus and his disciples pass by the fig tree again the next day only to find it withered. Christ informs his followers that they must trust in prophecy, and in Him, something which is most clearly stated in verse 14 where it’s written that “… his disciples heard it.” The disciples watched as Jesus condemned Israel and cursed it to wither. The disciples watched again as Christ scorned the temple dicks with His disparaging prophecies, teaching how they had come to light. Christ is rejecting Israel. His cursing the fig tree is proof through prophecy for the disciples, as they hear Him, that they are doing the right thing in establishing His church.

Christ is bringing His kingdom to those who will bear fruits—the Gentiles. The Jews have had their chance and have borne nothing, instead turning against God to serve, as usual, money and power. Christ then proceeds to take this notion of who’s a “have” and who’s a “have not” and turns it on its head:

“Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11.24)

Christ isn’t literally saying that faith will make actual mountains jump into the sea, but that much is obvious. He’s saying that the disciples, if they put their faith into Christ and His mission, will be able to change the shape of the whole world. They did. With this quote, Christ closes the narrative, and for all his harsh words, ends on a promise.

It’s not a story about what Christ deserves, like people might be inclined to think, but what people deserve. This story showcases Christ’s prophetic condemnations both literally and through striking and complex metaphor. The anger and reproach behind Christ’s actions show the gravity of Israel’s offenses. Despite this, He’s not cutting Israel off, but offering them a promise. Through kindness, selflessness, and faith, they can have everything.

To close off on a slightly different topic, I feel like this essay is coming at a really good time for me. I’m moving to a new area in a few weeks, and I’ll be living right near a church calling itself the Prayer Palace. With almost no outreach ministry to speak of, and a pantheon of pastors who have more money than God Himself, I can’t help but be reminded of the Barren Fig Tree, and what it means for mega churches in the modern world. In a 3000 member strong congregation, you can be sure there are good people doing great things. I just can’t help but feel like, with all the allegations against their staff, the trees are probably a little more withered at the Prayer Palace than elsewhere just up the road.