Mon, 28 April 2008
Despite the popularity of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, modern Christians tend not to study the Book of Exodus. Its name taken from the Hebrew for "the way out," this second book of the Bible speaks of the quintessential human desire to depart from misery and begin rejoicing. The well-known tale of Moses' birth and the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt only account for a third of the book; the other two-thirds cover the wanderings in the desert.
Thematically, Mt. Sinai (sometimes referred to as Mt. Horeb) represents two things in Exodus: covenant and its specification, the Law. Prayerful study into the depths of these themes reveals that we will be bound to slavery unless we follow God's commands, internalizing them and making them our own. In addition, one sees that modern Christians can unite themselves spiritually with the Israelites in a pilgrimage out of secular bondage into a new life in God.
God makes a covenant with his people in a wonder that exceeds Fatima in its magnitude and in the number of witnesses. If the Ten Commandments typify the covenant and the law, the crossing of the Red Sea symbolizes God's moment of deliverance from the hands of their oppressors. As Paul later explains, this latter event is a prefigurement of baptism via the cloud [baptism in the Holy Spirit] and the sea [water baptism] (cf. 1 Cor 10:2).
The final sixteen chapters focus on tabernacle worship and contain many Catholic themes. This portable tent is the dwelling place of the Lord, situated in the midst of the people, a veritable Emmanuel principle. So specific are the provisions of worship that the people begin to acquire a great reverence for God. Fundamental to the proper worship of God, reverence is intensely personal; we, too, must "Take off [our] shoes" and present ourselves to the Lord in spirit and in truth (Ex 3:5).
A brief study of Egyptian history will place Exodus in its proper context. Not long before the birth of Moses, the native Egyptians finally expelled their long-hated foreign rulers, the Semitic Hyksos that are sometimes called "the Shepherd Kings." Xenophobia quickly set in and the Pharaohs began to attack and enslave foreign populations within Egypt. Forgetting the merits that the Semite Joseph had once gained in their courts, they rounded up all the remaining Semites (of Hebrews, the forerunners of the nation of Israel) and enslaved them, even exerting population control by slaughtering male newborns.
In order that Moses might not join the ranks of the slain newborns, his parents send him down the Nile in a papyrus-and-bitumen basket. Providentially, the Pharaoh's daughter finds him floating, embraces him into her family and gives him access to all the wisdom of Egypt. The up-and-coming prince's love for his people lead him to strike and kill a man in their defense. Immediately fleeing to the land of Midian, he spends 40 years in the wilderness growing in discipline by years of searching for God.
While tending his flock one day, Moses catches sight of a bush burning on Mt. Horeb that is not consumed by the flames. This event is a powerful Christophany wherein God manifests himself in another form. God speaks "So indeed the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come now! I will send you to Pharaoh to lead my people, the Israelites out of Egypt" (Ex 3:9-10). Moses slowly accepts this commission and becomes the leader of Israel.
Mon, 21 April 2008
Paul's argument in Romans uses forensic logic and a precise application of key verses from Genesis to stress that Abraham did not earn the righteousness that was credited to him by faith (cf. Gen 15:6). Our faith must be an obedient faith and our obedience must be in faith; believing for decades and learning from his prior failures, Abraham's faith grew to a point that he was willing to sacrifice his uniquely beloved son Isaac to follow God's commands. It is impossible to earn salvation, but an active faith that produces good works is necessary for one's salvation (cf. Jas 2:20).
Abraham's spiritual pilgrimage took him from Ur in modern-day Iraq to Haran in modern-day Iran and then to the land of Canaan, the land of promise. Sojourning in tents for decades, this city-boy from Ur trusts in God more and more at every step of the journey. Abraham's witness should convict all believers to allow the Word of God, especially His promises, to dwell richly in them, leading them on a pilgrimage wherein they begin to lose their love of the world and become increasingly attached to the things of heaven (cf. Heb 11).
Both the offering of Isaac and Melchizedek (my righteous king) the Prince of Salem (Prince of Peace) prefigure Christ. In reference to the former, Isaac must have been a teenager when he journeyed with his father to Moriah, and Rabbinical literature confirms that he willingly stretched out his arms to be bound on the altar. Just as Jews imagine their prayers being offered to God like Isaac's willingly spread and bound hands; Christians should ever be mindful that our prayers are offered to God through Christ's outstretched arms bound to the cross. Turning to the Book of Hebrews, the words of Genesis exactly foreshadow the crucifixion (11:17-19).
Jacob's dream during his flight after stealing the birthright from his slothful brother Esau shows us that God is always with us wherever we travel (Gen 28:10). Jacob the con-man is humbled by an even craftier man, Laban who exploits him for 21 years. When Laban's daughters take the household gods upon their departure from Laban, it is a claim on the inheritance, not an effort to continue idolatry. Over time, Jacob realizes he must make peace with his brother Esau. In his weakness after losing the wrestling match to the Angel of God, Jacob finally surrenders everything to God and is renamed Israel. We then hear of Joseph, his beloved-son, who becomes a Christ-figure when he is hated because he tells the truth and will save his family by doing so.
Genesis is ultimately about the relationship about God and man, and every Christian must recapitulate the spiritual dimension of each of these stories.
Much has been said about the Fathers of the faith, but the Mothers of the faith are also strong characters throughout Genesis. When Peter praises the "reverent and chaste" behavior of women he uses Sarah as an example (1Pt 3:6), but Abraham's wife was no doormat! New Testament exhortations for women to be submissive must not be construed as a command for women to make themselves in victims, rather they are to be pillars of strength and obedience by virtue of their faith in God.
Music: "Airs des Silvains" from the album "Rameau and Leclair" by Philharmonia Baroque. www.magnatune.com
Sat, 12 April 2008
The first masterful 11 Chapters of Genesis set the stage for a drama between God and man peerless among all other written literature. One must not overlook the importance of God's covenant in Genesis. A covenant has two parts: it establishes a deeply personal relationship and defines the specific points on which that relationship depends. The personal name of God, Yahweh, appears throughout Torah whenever it is in reference to a divine covenant.
Through God's great mercy, the initial fault of Adam brings the great promises of the proto-evangelium: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head while you strike at His heel" (cf. Gen 3:15).
These early narratives of Genesis are often foolishly dismissed as mere children's stories, but they contain deep eternal truths. The narrative of Cain and Abel shows the depth of sin's destruction and a foreshadowing of Christ: the sacrificer who himself is sacrificed (cf. Gen 4). God's abhorrence of sin, righteousness and redemption through water come to the forefront in the story of Noah (cf. Gen 6-7). The Tower of Babel shows men's aspirations to the heights of life on their own terms; God confuses their purpose to bring about His purpose (cf. Gen 11).
Genesis 10:18-28 reveals an often overlooked and historically misinterpreted passage that is developed throughout the rest of the book of Genesis. It contains the prophesy of how Canaan is to willfully sin as did his father Ham and how these sins will bind Canaan's posterity, the Amorites, in slavery. Noah juxtaposes his cursing of Canaan with his promise to Shem when he says "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!" (Gen 10:25). The descendants of Shem will become the Semitic peoples, the forerunners of monotheistic religion. Noah also prophesies that the Japhethites (Europeans and Asians) will one day come to dwell in the tents of the Semites and learn their religion.
Starting in Genesis 12 we see that God, the divine father of every human family, chooses a particular family to be the origin of His chosen people. Despite the fact that his earthly father was an idolater, his Heavenly Father calls Abram into covenant and to be the father of our faith. Paul expounds the fatherhood of our faith when he writes, "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness" (Rom 4:3). His constant belief in God opens him up to receive God's gift, His transformation into a creature of righteousness, inasmuch as he places complete trust in God.
Music: “Airs des Silvains? from the album “Rameau and Leclair? by Philharmonia Baroque. www.magnatune.com
Sat, 5 April 2008
What denotes a proper interpretation of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis? When one begins to discusses Biblical interpretation, the terms "fundamentalist" and "literalist" quickly emerge. We derive the first of these two terms from a group of late-19th Century Christians who adhered to a set of fundamental beliefs. Earnest Christians who adhere to the Church's core teachings may be improperly perceived as radical Fundamentalists, groups of self-appointed moral policemen who cannot stop imposing their will on others. The second of these two terms, "literalist," has also taken on a negative connotation in popular parlance. Many Christians who are faithful to God's word are considered to interpret the Bible so literally that they throw logical reasoning into the wind and believe outlandish premises like that King Herod actually was a furry little fox (cf. Lk 13:32). Rather than say Catholics are literalists and associate them with a pejorative term, it would be better to affirm Catholics as believers who seek to believe and obey all that the Bible teaches according to God's intention in giving us His text, believing it to be without error and to contain all the things vital to our salvation and growth in holiness.
The question of how to interpret the Bible does not arise from problems that individuals have with the Biblical text itself but from a disagreement over Biblical issues. Three such issues emerge: (1) Do we believe in Biblical miracles? (2) Do we believe in Biblical prophesy? (3) How are we to understand "myth," particularly the "creation myth"? How a group of Christians answers these three questions directly guides the way they interpret the Bible. For instance, the historic Churches' interpretation of Scripture leads them to a belief in seven Sacraments instead of two.
Far from merely psychoanalyzing the human authors of Scripture, one does well to consider the divine intent of their words within the normal canons of language. One must never subtract the mystery of God from His Word, lest he render it flat and meaningless while multiplying his sorrows. Let us be confident in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (66:2).
In this light, we turn to the two creation stories in Genesis. Some good points to establish from the start are that the meaning of the Hebrew word "day" neither precludes nor requires a 24-hour period and, interestingly, the text refers to "morning" and "evening" before the creation of the sun. From the start of Genesis, it emerges that God creates from nothing and then orders his creation. It is clear that God makes man from dust and forms him in His own image and likeness. Despite being moral, attracted to beauty and goodness and finding his meaning hidden in God, when given the opportunity to chose between life and death, he disbelieves and disobeys. As Paul establishes, all men have sinned not only because of Adam's sin but also due to their own delight in disbelief and disobedience.
Pope Pius X's Against Modernism rebukes those who follow the lie that the Scriptures contain error or are not important to follow. St. Irenaeus says that heretics approach the Scriptures like one who destroy a mosaic of a man by rearranging its tiles into an image of a fox. When Paul says "the letter kills and the spirit gives life," he only seeks to say that the letter apart from the spirit brings condemnation and establishes that the letter along with the spirit gives life. The Holy Spirit guides us as we interpret the Scriptures, starting with the most central passages and then moving onto the more obscure points, always abiding by the living tradition and Magisterium of the Church. Unless are constrained by a right interpretation of the Scriptures, which are a "constitution of the people of God," we are prone to numerous divisions.
Let us not be so presumptuous as to deny our identity as created beings or the fact that we have an infinitely powerful creator. By humbly approaching the Scriptures buttressed by sacred Tradition and the Magisterium will we be able to see that the first eleven chapters of Genesis contain the framework of the entire Bible: the creation and ordering of the universe; the sin of Adam which we recapitulate; the prophesies after the fall that reestablish an implicit covenant and establish hope for a second Adam and a second Eve; the wayward nature of the world; Noah's salvation through water as a prefigurement of Baptism; and that the prohibition of eating meat with blood in it is a key to the sanctity of life. We will be richly blessed by respecting and savoring the Biblical texts, asking the questions that God presses to our hearts and thanking Him for all the blessings He bestows upon us.
As mentioned last week, these recordings are from a while ago (2005), so apologies if the quality is not as good as usual.
Music: Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" performed by the Skidmore College Orchestra. www.musopen.com