A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

Wisdom Wedneday: The Evil Woman in Proverbs 6

Pro 6:23-35 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, (24) to preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. (25) Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; (26) for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life. (27) Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? (28) Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? (29) So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished. (30) People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry, (31) but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house. (32) He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. (33) He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away. (34) For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge. (35) He will accept no compensation; he will refuse though you multiply gifts.

There’s a myth that persists in the minds of young men. I call it the “perfect princess” myth. I talked about it in a post on the forms of lust a few years back. The myth is that men are bad bad bad and women are good good good. On any evangelical reading of the world and of Scripture the truth of the matter is that hearts of men and women are sick and evil (see Romans 3:23).

The myth often holds tightest in the minds of young men who obsess over women who have no interest in them but in many cases will use them as a sounding board for their frustrations with other men (husbands, boyfriends, etc), free food, or even financial support.

The author of Proverbs was aware of these dangers. As an aside, before it was an internet meme, I knew a guy who found himself in the “food zone.” The food-zone is the relationship space you enter when a spends non-romantic time with you for free food. The author of Proverbs would say that preying on a young man’s affections for free food is evil. But he would also say that the young man is just as evil for refusing the see the truth in the hopes of having his far-fetched desires for affection fulfilled. The “I can fix her/him” is a powerful narrative in the minds of the lonely.

Image result for "the foodzone"

The book of Proverbs warns young men here that such feelings of wanting to rescue such women are actually sinful because behind them is ultimately a desire (on one or both ends) to commit adultery. The proof is that when such a relationship reaches a sexual peak, nobody will sympathize when consequences occur. The attitude, the sneaking, the wishing, etc are all wrong. What’s funny is that I’ve heard this passage called “sexist” because it calls a woman evil. But at the heart of it it’s a warning to young men that evil women exist and that the innate desire to be with such women is itself evil.

Note: Observe that the evil of this character in Proverbs 6 is a particular type of evil. When the Bible says that all are sinful it doesn’t mean that all commit literal adultery. So the “evil woman” here is a particular kind of person for young men to avoid. It’s not a call (as I’m sure some monks have interpreted it) to avoid all women all the time.

 

 

 

Brief thoughts on McKnight on Pennington on the Sermon on the Mount

Scott McKnight read J. Pennington’s book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, and while he liked the book, he found the argument for a virtue ethics reading of the Sermon on the Mount helpful, but not totally convincing. This doesn’t surprise me, McKnight wrote a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that rejected any attempt to do what Pennington’s book attempts to do. 

As an aside, in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, McKnight wades briefly into the deep waters of philosophical ethics and utterly dismisses the arguments made by Kant on the basis of their being “leveled” by Stanley Hauerwas (ha!): 

“Kant’s statement of the categorical imperative is an attempt to free us of the need to rely on forgiveness and, more critically, a savior. Kant’s hope was to makes [sic] us what our pride desires, that is, autonomous.” 

I’m all for pithy dismissals of academics and dead people whose influence has gone on too long. But this doesn’t refute deontological ethics or the need for a categorical imperative (for instance, Christian theology must admit of at least one naturally available law of conscience: do what God says). Hauerwas just states Kant’s alleged intentions without any evidence that Kant thought or felt this way! For instance, if I intend to over-populate the world to destroy the human race by famine, and therefore, devise great anti-abortion arguments, they are not thereby refuted if Stanley Hauerwas tells everybody what my journal or his crystal ball says my true intentions were.

On to McKnight and Pennington.

Here are McKnight’s criticisms of the ‘virtue ethics approach’ used by Pennington:

So, while I would agree with the general description of virtue ethics he offers, the question for me is Whether or not Jesus taught that habits form a character that form a character-who-acts virtuously. I don’t see that habit of thought for Jesus.

 

So, too I can agree with this in general but I wouldn’t put the emphasis on what he does: “Namely, the Sermon is offering Jesus’s answer to the great question of human flourishing, the topic at the core of both the Jewish wisdom literature and that of the Greco-Roman virtue perspective, while presenting Jesus as the true Philosopher-King” (36).

 

Thus, too, I don’t agree: “Thus, to conclude this discussion we can arrive at an important point and depict this dual context intentionally. The point is that both of these contexts overlap in their goal of and emphasis on whole-person human flourishing, but the basic orientation of the Sermon is first and foremost that of the eschatological story of Israel, the coming of God’s reign/kingdom with Jesus as the King. This redemptive-historical perspective greatly shapes and modifies the virtue vision of the Sermon relative to its otherwise similar approach in Greco-Roman philosophy” (38).

 

So, to the point directly: Pennington finds Solomon or David behind the Sermon more than I would and he does not find Moses enough. Nothing is more clear from Matthew’s text than Mosaic themes in 5:1 with 7:28-29 and the whole — yes the whole — of 5:17-48. Not enough Moses, too much Solomon/David, and too much Aristotle. My contention is the Sermon has three plus more angles: an ethic from Above (God’s revelation as with Moses), an ethic from Beyond (eschatology of judgment/prophets) and an ethic from Below (wisdom tradition), plus christology and plus ecclesiology and plus Spirit.

 

A few thoughts:

  1. Regardless of New Testament background, if virtue ethics is true and philosophically demonstrated to be true, then that is the ethical context of humanity and therefore the proper mode of applying the Sermon on the Mount to life if it is accepted as true on the basis of its divine source. And so regardless of whether Matthew or Jesus had the Aristotelian background of virtue ethics in mind, if such a theory of human flourishing is true, then it provides a thought-space within which to interpret a divinely provided summary of ethics. 
  2. It is important to see Moses in the Sermon on the Mount (obviously), but it’s equally important to see Moses as a literate Hellenized Israelite Christian might have seen him. Philo and Josephus saw the way of life exemplified and taught in Moses’ life and law as the exemplary life of a philosopher.
  3. I would add that neither McKnight nor Pennington see Abraham enough in the Sermon. Jesus is presented as ‘the son of Abraham.’ How does that theme appear in the Sermon? I suspect in Jesus sharing a blessing with the world as Abraham was promised his children would do, and going back to Matthew 4:1-17, by being a light to the gentiles, in particular Jesus is a light of truth about the true nature of righteousness. And Abraham was also read by Philo as an exemplar of the philosophical life. Matthew doesn’t have to mean this for the resonance to be present. And Philo’s views weren’t novel. The letter to Aristeas shares similar concerns and predates Philo.
  4. In McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy, he defines ‘kingdom of God’ as basically the church: a people with a king and laws. But if that’s true, then in Aristotle’s taxonomy of politics and virtue, it is only natural that an ethos of a sort will arise from and is exemplified in the laws of a kingdom. And so this provides some coinherence of ideas between the New Testament and Aristotle.
  5. It’s well established that μακαριος is synonymous with Aristotle’s eudaimonia by the writing of the gospels. 
  6. The Old Testament itself treats flourishing as something like contemplative action oriented toward God which leads to prospering/blessedness over time, especially Psalm 1. 
  7. In ancient writings, claims of divine revelation were frequently written/interpreted as a form of philosophical discourse. Parmenides is the paradigmatic example, having written little over a century after the time of Isaiah. Socrates and Heraclitus did the same. Stephen Clark’s work Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy or Yoram Hazony’s Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. And it is in the case that several Jewish works from just prior to and during the time of Jesus and the New Testament authors (re?)interpret the Old Testament as a book of philosophy: Sirach, Wisdom, and 4 Maccabees all come to mind. 
  8. Finally, nothing in McKnight’s approach comes close to negating an Aristotelian synthesis, aside from McKnight’s insistence that it does. If Jesus’ ethic is ‘from above, from beyond, and from below, what prevents us from learning from Aristotle, and empirical psychology/social psychology about the nature of habits and their acquisition in order to help us become the sort of person Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This is what Aquinas was attempting in all of his writings, but McKnight hardly interacts at all with Aquinas, which makes sense because books cannot be infinitely long.
  9. The apparent stoic influence on the New Testament is well documented. This could be because the authors imbibed from stoicism or because the moral universe they inhabited was so thoroughly influenced by a stoic virtue ethics that they simply wrote that way. This cannot be left unsaid in a discussion of the role of human flourishing and virtue ethics in the New Testament. 
  10. The New Testament simply doesn’t have to utilize the language of philosophy to answer philosophical questions. I’ve hinted at this twice above, but I felt the need to be clear. 
  11. Finally, by the time of Justin Martyr the Christian lifestyle and thought world was considered ‘the true philosophy.’ The question is this: was this a natural development from the nature of the source material or was it imposed upon Christian discourse by the apologists? Some confirming evidence is that some recent scholars interpret Jesus as a cynic philosopher (he was obviously more than that and also probably was not self-consciously attempting to be that).  

As an aside, I’ve only skimmed a prepublication copy of Pennington’s book. So I don’t know if I agree with his whole argument. But I certainly see what he generally says is in the Sermon on the Mount in there. I recommend his article Resourcing a Christian Positive Psychology From the Sermon on the Mount

Let Your Light So Shine

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Question:

Doing your good works ‘before others’ so that they will glorify God seems to be a bit narcissistic on the surface. “Do your good deeds in such a way that people notice them and glorify God,” why should we be so sure that others notice us and attempt to parse out our motivations?”

Answer:

The solution is in the metaphor: Nor do people light a lamp and hide it. The Christian is somebody who does good deeds in such a way that their left hand is unaware of what the right hand does. In other words, they so habituate themselves to be generous that they just behave generously. So back to ‘do your good deeds before others.’ A candle doesn’t know (as a human would) that it’s a candle. It just makes light. Jesus is saying something like this, “Do your good deeds so un-self-consciously that you even do them before others and like a candle that people light so that the room will be seen, your works will bring attention to the goodness of God.” It means something like that rather that, “go around doing things to attract attention to yourself and then claim to be glorifying God.” It means exactly the opposite of what Jesus criticizes in Matthew 6.

Self-Esteem

A former student sent me a link to a video about self-esteem last week. She asked for my comments. I finally made time to watch it today. Here’s the video:

 

Matt Walsh is certainly correct here. Confidence, defined essentially as known competence in the face of difficulty is superior to self-esteem (see note below). 

But I was asked, why I do not know, for my thoughts. William James defined self-esteem with this equation:

Self-esteem, in this sense, is inevitable. It is impossible to be void of self-reflection to the point that you never compare your level of success to your pretensions. For James self-esteem is your pretension (an ideal vision of yourself) compared to your attainment. Spiritually speaking, this is most fully explained in Romans 7, but Galatians 6:4 puts it most concisely (and more positively):

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. (Galatians 6:3-4)

For the Christian there are two challenges when it comes to self-esteem:

  1. Determining whether our ideal self is a realistic portrayal of our potential based on our understanding of Jesus Christ and our personality, circumstances, and calling.
  2. Making the wise choices necessary to make progress toward our ideal self.

If you confront those challenges and always recall your admiration of Christ and your confidence in his ability to accomplish what he says he will, then I suspect you’ll be in good shape:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Colossians 2:9-10)

So, “do good things, and you’ll have all the esteem you need.”

Note: What I don’t like about Walsh’s video is that Walsh criticizes a theoretical construct (self-esteem) with a colloquial one (confidence). Note Albert Bandura’s distinction between confidence as a general term (the word Matt uses) with self-efficacy, the definition of which, Matt uses for confidence:

Thoughts on the Trees in Eden

In Genesis 2:9, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are both “in the midst of the garden.” That’s not a literary happenstance. Proverbs 3 makes a startling connection if you keep Genesis 3:6 in mind (the tree was desirable to make one wise): 

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. (Proverbs 3:13-18)

Finding wisdom is a tree of life. 

In terms of what the trees are representations of in our own daily experience I am not quite sure why the trees are in the same place (or are the same tree?). But in Proverbs, wisdom is a tree of life. Maybe something like self-consciousness of death is wisdom but also catastrophic from the point of view of personal experience? I don’t know. 

Jung and God

In Man and His Symbols, Jung attempts to tackle the topic of religious experience:

Christians often ask why God does not speak to them, as he is believed to have done in former days. When I hear such questions, it always makes me think of the rabbi who was asked how it could be that God often showed himself to people in the olden days while nowadays nobody ever sees him. The rabbi replied: “Nowadays there is no longer anybody who can bow low enough.”

This answer hits the nail on the head. We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions. The Buddhist discards the world of unconscious fantasies as useless illusions; the Christian puts his Church and his Bible between himself and his unconscious; and the rational intellectual does not yet know that his consciousness is not his total psyche. This ignorance persists today in spite of the fact that for more than 70 years the unconscious has been a basic scientific concept that is indispensable to any serious psychological investigation. (92) 

As interesting as Jung’s interpretation of the rabbi’s quote is, I find the quote itself more interesting. Why don’t we have direct experiences of God? There is no longer anybody who can bow low enough

The New Testament says this:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6b)

And, interestingly, so does the Old:

And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
(Numbers 12:6-8)

But Moses’ experiences with God are not even mediated through dreams and riddles, but through a direct conversational experience that the Bible says is unparalleled (Exodus 33:11)

But the nature of our experience of God is not what concerns me (we cannot decide how God will communicate with us). What concerns me is the mode by which we receive communication from God, and the rabbi said to humble ourselves. And over all, I think that this is right.

Now, of course, we’ve got to humble ourselves before God in the way in which God has revealed himself, but the facts of God’s revelation (Scripture, the resurrection of Jesus, the church in history, etc) are not self-evident to all. But I would suggest that whether you’re a Christian or just somebody who really wants to understand the core of reality, the first personal step is to humble yourself

Note

Jung is right. Christians can use the Bible as a barrier between themselves and God. Jesus warned the Pharisees of this exact danger:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
(John 5:39-40)

You can rely so thoroughly on the faith experience of the characters and writers of Scripture that you never place your faith in God or practice the teachings of Christ. 

But he’s not totally right. Scripture does provide truths about God which register on the moral, logical, and mythological levels and it is meant to do this. The Bible itself is clear that God doesn’t need the Bible to communicate to us. But history has shown that when the Bible is interpreted as a witness to Jesus Christ, it provides a sure guide to God. 

 

A brief spiritual exercise from Genesis 1:26-31

In Genesis 1, the Lord makes the world insofar as it is experienced by humanity, as a place he considers good and very good. It is a composition of chaos and order and more fully, in Genesis 2, God makes a Garden to demonstrate to man how, as a being in his image, to subdue the earth in a way that brings more potential out of it rather than ordering it in a stifling way (think of a garden with no bugs…super orderly but no fruit!) or leaving it to pure chaos (a field with no edible food for humans, but covered in fire ants and fleas hiding in the weeds).

With this in mind, I think part of being God’s image is asking at the end of our days: “Can I look at what I’ve made of this day and say, with honesty, ‘this is very good?'” And if you can’t, then revise yourself.

Jonathan Edwards had a practice like this, though it wasn’t explicitly based on Genesis 1:26-31:

41. Resolved, to ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.

 

Psalms 34:11-14 Genesis 1:26-31
Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
(Genesis 1:26-31)

Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.

Brief thoughts on Eden

In Genesis 1:1-2, God creates chaos and starts to bring order into the world.

In Genesis 2, the author is retelling the creation story. You can tell because Adam and Eve are made on different days, and Adam precedes the plants and animals. That’s not a contradiction any more than Jesus telling a set of parables about sheep, coins, and prodigal sons is a contradiction.

But anyway, the chaos/order motif is still present in Genesis 2. Man must tend the garden (Genesis 2:15). There is a wall (garden means ‘enclosed region’). The waters, which represented chaos in Genesis 1:1-2 are present but flow out of the garden (I suspect we’re supposed to suppose that that’s how the serpent got in).

Anyway, Eden represents a sort of ideal picture of the correct composition of chaos and order, potentiality and actuality.

It’s important to see Eden as a picture of the promise to God’s people as well, and the Bible gives us that, but in Genesis 2, Eden isn’t that yet. For instance, when Adam is put there there is something “not good” (Gen 2:18).

I think there’s a moral/spiritual application of the Eden story which we often overlook about how we manage our families, property, work space, and so-on. There will be a measure of unrealized potential in any well-ordered space. If you over-order a garden (let’s say by mowing it down) it’s not longer beautiful nor fruitful. But there’s less chaos. If you let a garden overgrow too much, perhaps there will be no safe fruit left.

So there’s a picture of something like, “in the space which God gives you, you’re responsible for ensuring that it is orderly in a fashion that does not destroy it’s potential but brings new potential out of that place.”

Of course, every choice to create order in a room or in your life is saying no to millions of other choices. But each new choice can be made in a way that makes space for new chaos/potential to be discovered. There are Proverbs about this very thing:

Proverbs 14:4 Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

Proverbs 24:27 Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

Without an ox, there’s no ox cleanup (less chaos), but there is more work.

If you build yourself a house where you can relax and chill before you order your field in a fashion in which working it is convenient, you may not work.

And here are some OT laws about this:

Leviticus 25:1-7 ESV The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (2) “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (3) For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, (4) but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (5) You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. (6) The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, (7) and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.