Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Second Sunday of Lent: The Beginning of the New Exodus

Slavery is not a good thing.

God's liberation of the people of Israel from the condition of slavery—an event we call "the Exodus," literally, "the road out"—is one of the most important events and motifs in the the whole Bible.

Although loosely related, the Readings for this Sunday are linked by the theme of the Exodus.  In the First Reading, the Exodus is prophesied; in the Gospel, Jesus begins a New Exodus that culminates in the Last Supper and Calvary.

1.  Our First Reading is Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18:
The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

He then said to him,
“I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans
to give you this land as a possession.”
“O Lord GOD,” he asked,
“how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
He answered him,
“Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat,
a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
Abram brought him all these, split them in two,
and placed each half opposite the other;
but the birds he did not cut up.
Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses,
but Abram stayed with them.
As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram,
and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

When the sun had set and it was dark,
there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch,
which passed between those pieces.
It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram,
saying: “To your descendants I give this land,
from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”
This is a very strange reading to many people, and I would not be surprised if numerous homilists this Sunday are at a loss to explain what is going on in this passage.  What is this ritual?  Is it something along the lines of Huckleberry Finn's famous cure for warts: to swing a dead cat around your head in a graveyard at midnight?

For ancient readers, however, the actions described in this passage would have made perfect sense.  The animals that Abraham brings are "clean" animals, that is, animals suitable for sacrifice or other holy use, according to biblical law.  He cuts them in two and lays the pieces opposite one another.

The smoking fire pot and torch that appear are representations of God's presence, a theophany.  The passing between the pieces of the animals had an established meaning in the ancient Near East: whoever passed through the pieces was saying, by means of this ritual, "May I be slain like these animals if I do not keep the commitments of the covenant I am now making."  By causing his presence (represented by the fire pot and torch) to move between the animals, God was saying to Abraham: "I invoke upon myself a curse of death if I do not fulfill the promises I am making to you right now."

How God could possibly invoke a curse of death on himself is a great mystery, but it recalls to mind certain themes from the New Testament, such as St. Paul's statement that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree” ... (Gal 3:13).

A covenant is a kinship relationship established between two non-relatives by means of an oath.  In Genesis 15, the ritual of passing between the animals constitutes a non-verbal oath (an oath-ritual) that establishes a kinship relationship between God and Abraham.  Most covenants included specific promises about how the covenant partners would treat each other now that they were family.  The specific promise in this covenant is that God (the covenant "father") would grant Abraham (the covenant "son") the whole land of Canaan.

In a part of this story omitted in this First Reading, God prophesies the Exodus while He is moving between the pieces:
Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years;  but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. (Gen 15:13-14)
It's a shame that these verses are omitted, because they make explicit the Exodus theme that unites the readings.

This covenant-making event between God and Abraham in Genesis 15 foreshadows the covenant-making event between God and Israel at Sinai in Exodus 19-24.

In Genesis 15 and at Sinai, God's presence is manifested by darkness, smoke, cloud, fire, and "torches" (in Hebrew, "lightning" and "torches" are the same word).  In both cases, a covenant is made.  In both cases, the promise of the covenant is the Land of Canaan (the "Promised Land").  In both cases, animals are sacrificed to solemnize the covenant.

This Reading provides us the back story for understanding the Exodus and the Passover.  These were events that God foresaw hundreds of years before they came to pass.  The Passover and Exodus were, in fact, fulfillments of the promises of the covenant God had made to Abram the ancestor of the Israelites long before they cried out to God in their suffering as slaves.

Exodus and Passover are powerful themes in Lent, as we prepare to re-live the Crossing of the Red Sea in Baptism and the Passover in the Easter Eucharist.    

2.  Our Second Reading is Philippians 3:17—4:1: 
Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters,
and observe those who thus conduct themselves
according to the model you have in us.
For many, as I have often told you
and now tell you even in tears,
conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.
Their end is destruction.
Their God is their stomach;
their glory is in their “shame.”
Their minds are occupied with earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters,
whom I love and long for, my joy and crown,
in this way stand firm in the Lord.
In keeping with the theme of slavery and liberation from it, St. Paul here describes people who live in slavery to their physical desires: "many .. conduct themselves as enemies of the cross... their god is their stomach, their glory is their shame."

These people are "enemies of the cross."  This means, among other things, they resist any form of suffering or self-denial.  They do not embrace Jesus teaching that "Whoever would come after me, must take up his cross daily and follow me."  They cannot except the restrictions on their gluttony, their drinking, or their sexual habits that following Jesus requires.  Such folk regard unrestrained indulgence of their physical desires as "freedom," but in fact it is a slavery to their passions, a "slavery" that St. Paul describes as a form of false religion: "Their god is their stomach."  By giving in to constant physical pleasures, they worship their appetites.

St. Paul is, of course, describing contemporary Western (including American) culture.  Statistics say 77% of Americans watch internet porn at least once a month.  Obesity is rampant and increasing.  About one-quarter of the adult population engages in binge drinking.  And why not?  Since the state-funded public school system teaches all children that humans are essentially biological robots, accidental products of a mindless process (evolution) that began with a meaningless accident (the Big Bang), why shouldn't we just try to have as much physical pleasure during our brief and meaningless lives?  As the ancient poet expressed it so well:
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades. 
Because we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. 
When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. 
Our name will be forgotten in time and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat.  For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
“Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. 
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass by us.
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. 
Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot.
  (Wisdom 2:1-9)
It was written c. 100 BC, but could have been written today.

Getting back to St. Paul and his words to the Philippians, we notice that he promises us freedom from slavery to the body by the power of Jesus.  Jesus has the power to transform our lowly bodies—with all their unruly desires—to be like his glorious body.  And this is a process that starts even now.  Through the disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—we learn freedom from domination by our bodily desires.  We learn to be like Christ, to "bring all things into subjection" to him, including our disordered passions.

Strong hope in heaven is necessary to experience an "Exodus" from slavery to our "stomachs" (physical desires) in this life.  Unless there his hope for a life to come, it doesn't make sense to abstain from any pleasure in this life.  So St. Paul reminds us: "our citizenship is in heaven, and we await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ."  During this Lent, let's pray for an increase in hope.
3.  The Gospel is Luke 9:28b-36:
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.
This passage plays a pivotal role in the Gospel of Luke, because shortly after the Transfiguration, Jesus "sets his face to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51), and for the next ten chapters (Luke 10-19) Jesus is journeying from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Scholars call this section of Luke "the Travel Narrative."  Theologically what is taking place is this: Jesus is gathering the New Israel around him as he journeys to Jerusalem in a New Exodus that will culminate in a New Passover (the Institution of the Eucharist) marking the deliverance of Israel not from Egyptian bondage but the bondage to sin.

Moses and Elijah arrive to talk with Jesus.  Moses represents the Law, Elijah the Prophets.  Together, the "Law and the Prophets" were the Jewish way of referring to their Scriptures, what we would now call the Old Testament.  So Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus is a sign of the Old Testament testifying to Christ, a sign of the unity of God's revelation through the Old and New Covenants.  The God who spoke to Moses and Elijah is the same God who reveals Jesus and is revealed in Jesus.

Peter does not grasp the full significance of the situation.  He suggests three tents (or tabernacles, Gk skēnas), one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, as if each held the same status.  Although he has previously confessed Jesus as "the Christ of God" (Lk 9:20) or "Son of the Living God" (Mt 16:16), here he does not seem to act consistently with that confession.  The voice from heaven, the voice of the Father, has to remind him that Jesus, as the "beloved Son," is incomparable even with the great prophets of old.

God's presence becomes manifest in a cloud, as it was frequently in the Old Testament.  For example, the Israelite Exodus was led by a pillar of cloud, and a cloud enveloped the Tabernacle when it was dedicated (see Exod 40:34-38).  In fact, the cloud covering the Tabernacle is probably the most significant connection with the cloud here at the Transfiguration.  It marks Jesus out as the New Tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Presence of God.  Peter wanted to make three tabernacles (Gk. skēnas), one for each prophet.  But Jesus is the unique Tabernacle (Gk. skēnē) of God.

After the voice of the Father speaks: "This is my chosen Son. Listen to him!", only Jesus remains.  Jesus is the fullness of revelation.  While the Law and the Prophets testify to him, Jesus lacks nothing in himself.  He is the complete Word of God made flesh, sufficient in himself for salvation.

The Transfiguration, this glorification of Christ at the top of a mountain at the beginning of his Exodus journey, foreshadows his Crucifixion, the paradoxical glorification of Jesus on a mountaintop at the end of his journey.  At the transfiguration, the glory is visible.  At Calvary, the glory is hidden under humility and sacrifice.  Yet the greatest glory of God is his mercy, his self-gift of love.  The Cross is the glory of Christ and the glory of Christians, since it signifies the ultimate self-gift of God.

During Lent, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we learn to "take up the cross daily," that is, make our lives into a self-gift of love to others.  Through these practices of liberation, we experience a New Exodus from our bondage to physical desire and pride.  Then we truly become children of Abraham, a people who live in freedom and walk by faith (Gen 15:6) as he did.  Our lives become transfigured, luminous.


Mark said...

2 questions from an old student:
1) Is there any significance to the animals being 3 years old?
2) Why didn't he cut the birds?
BTW, your book/class notes are the best gift to the Church in a long time--thank you!

JohnE said...

According to the Haydock bible commentary, the significance of the three years is that it is when the animals have obtained a perfect age. I assume it is therefore a better sacrifice -- you are offering the best of each animal.

I also had the same question about why the birds were not cut up. Later in Leviticus (1:14) a sacrifice of two turtledoves or two young pigeons are prescribed, one as a sin offering and one as a burnt offering, and the one for the sin offering is not divided completely. But here there is one of each, and I presume they are on either side of the firepot as it passes through. The turtledove and pigeon seem closely related. Perhaps this part of the covenant indicates not only death, but separation -- from one another and from God -- northern kingdom and southern kingdom, Jew and Gentile?

Also, I wonder if there might be related in some way to the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove.

R Arturo Roa said...

I have heard it said that Gen 15:5 occurred during the day time ( although I cannot tell from reading just that verse the time of day for the context)
If so, then Abraham understood God's point , that the stars are there day and night and just because one cannot see them during the day nonetheless they are still there.
Is this a plausible conclusion and are you familiar with this argument
Is this why Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness

Anonymous said...

Interesting how in the OT and NT there is talk of sleep or trance, then terrifying darkness or fear and then the revelation of God.

John Bergsma said...

Dear Art:
That's an intriguing argument, based on all the events of Genesis 15 taking place on the same day. While it's possible, I don't think it can be proven, because there could be a time lag between verses 6 and 7.

I concur with JohnE and the commentary he found re: 3-year-old animals being in the prime of life. Also, you needed two birds, one on each side of the "path" between the pieces. Birds were too small to cut in half effectively.

It's tempting to see a connection with the Holy Spirit, and surely the Spirit is important to covenant formation. There are important covenantal themes at the Lord's Baptism and at Pentecost, for example, at both of which we see some visible manifestation of the Spirit. I can't see my way clear to identifying these sacrificial birds with the Spirit, though.

JohnE said...

I wonder at times whether I try to extract too much meaning -- not just from this scripture, but others as well. Perhaps sometimes it's just an unimportant detail. Here it just seemed that if it was just a miscellaneous detail, it didn't really need to be mentioned, unless there was some sort of significance that was being communicated.

Another question I had was if there was any significance to the number or type of animals that were sacrificed. Perhaps it was a good representative sample of the animals that were of value to the people at that time? Or maybe the sizes from large to small somehow signified some sort of totality or completeness to the sacrifice?