Seven Last Words of the Unarmed

Several years ago, while reading David N. Livingstone’s book Adam’s Ancestors I wrote a piece entitled Father, Forgive Us. While Christian history includes many honorable incidents, many Christians viewed the abolition of slavery as a mandate of their faith, our history is far from clean. Christians have often used faith as a tool for oppression and the history of race in the church includes a lot of dirt. We should not see this as a evidence to dismiss Christian faith – after all many oppressed people have found hope in the gospel (as they should).

Idon’t have a great deal to add to the discussion today, but I wanted to highlight an outstanding piece by Joel Thompson and performed by the University of Michigan Glee Club under the direction of Dr. Eugene Rogers. This dates from five years ago (it was premiered in 2015) – but is oh, so timely today. The movements focus on the last words of seven African-American men who were killed by police or by other authority figures. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Amadou Diallo, John Crawford. We could add to the list … and it is rather telling that the words of the Eric Garner in this piece were repeated so recently … I can’t breathe.

Wow!

I know Eugene (and a few of the students who were involved in this performance). Dr. Eugene Rogers is currently Director of Choral Activities, and Conductor of Chamber Choir at Michigan and starting this summer Artistic Director for the Washington Chorus. This is a powerful performance piece. You can find more at this site: Seven Last Words.and also here.

The video ends with a performance of Glory

Now the war is not over, victory isn’t won
And we’ll fight on to the finish, then when it’s all done
We’ll cry glory, oh glory
We’ll cry glory, oh glory

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When Science Meets Biblical Studies

The Dead Sea Scrolls offer a treasure trove of information. They inform our reading of Scripture in many ways. They provide testimony to the antiquity and reliability of many texts in our Bibles and on the political and cultural climate surrounding the first century. In addition to some larger scrolls, like the Isaiah scroll above, there are thousands of fragments of manuscripts on leather and papyrus. Piecing these together is like solving one massive jigsaw puzzle. … Or rather many smaller jigsaw puzzles of various unknown sizes with the edges of the pieces worn by the elements of nature. Some of the fragments thought to be genuine, but of unknown provenance as finders looked to profit.

Now for the science. We are all aware that radiocarbon methods have been used to date the texts. Other methods less well known to the general public have also been used. In general the recovered texts from Qumran and surrounding areas date between 200 BC and 70 AD. This testifies to their importance. But now science has gone one giant step further. DNA sequencing has been used to connect fragments together – identifying those that come from the same animal, and thus likely the same scroll. Initial work in this vein is reported in an article that appeared in the journal Cell earlier this week. You can find the article here if interested: Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. A press release may be more readable: Dead Sea Scrolls “Puzzle” Pieced Together with DNA Extracted from Animal Skins on Which Scrolls Were Written.

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The Lord’s Day

The final chapter of Michael LeFebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation sums up his argument that the creation story is primarily a calendar narrative guiding human work, rest, and worship. He runs through the negative side effects of the modern obsession with a scientific interpretation of the text. The text was never intended to provide a detailed scientific and journalistic account of God’s acts of creation. Issues with an overly “scientific” interpretation were noted even by early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine. In fact, Luther seems to be the first major figure in the church to focus unambiguously on creation in six 24 hour days some 6000 years ago.

Modern science doesn’t dictate interpretation of Scripture – but it can help us sort through plausible interpretations. “Modern astronomy, geology, biology, and other sciences have not threatened “the historic” interpretation of the creation week. Modern science has helped the church to better sort out which historical interpretations are viable.” (p. 200) In fact, LeFebvre argues that the only consistent historical interpretation of the creation week lies in its cadence of work and worship. The calendrical function of the text endures.

What does that mean for us today? Most Christians do not observe the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Most of us focus on the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day. It is on this day that we worship and (possibly) rest. Given the institution of the Sabbath tied to the creation narrative, is this justified? In Exodus 20 we read:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. …For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex 20:8-11)

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A Day of Rest?

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27-28

Michael LeFebvre, (The Liturgy of Creation) sees the culmination of the creation week in Genesis 2:1-3. Having ordered and filled the earth, God now rests.

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

In Exodus 31 the wording is more specific, even in English translation.

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. (vv. 16-17)

Did God really need to rest and refresh, weary from the labor of the previous six days? Clearly there must be something more going on here. LeFebvre suggests that rather than commemorating God’s need for refreshment, the Israelites are called to remembrance of the fruitfulness creation that God has provided. “The implication is one of resting among the fruits of the week’s labor just gathered for the sake of feasting.” (p. 187) God blessed the day and made it holy in  remembrance of his everlasting providence and provision. LeFebvre concludes: Continue reading

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Ordered and Now Populated

In days one to three the creation, originally formless and void, was ordered for fruitfulness culminating in the sprouting of vegetation – both grasses and trees. Now it is populated to fulfill God’s purpose. Michael LeFebvre (The Liturgy of Creation) notes:

The God of creation is a being of wisdom, goodness, and beauty. But he is supremely a God of love. Having ordered the world with a capacity for fruitfulness, God next fills it with creatures whom he blessed to enjoy those fruits. (p. 167)

Day four: The sun and moon to govern time and seasons.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day. (v. 14-19)

Light is created on day one, plants appear on day three, but it is only on day four after three cycles of evening and morning that the sun and moon are placed in the expanse. Clearly the purpose of this passage is not a scientific recounting of the creation of the earth. This is not a conundrum revealed by modern science. Early Christians also found it rather confounding. LeFebvre notes the considerations of Augustine and Origen in their writings on Genesis. In the early 200’s AD, Origen wrote:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? … I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. (from the Greek, p. 365, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4)

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Ordered for Fruitfulness

These texts were written to guide the common worshiper in weekly life, not to plant “bread crumbs” for scientific researchers. (p. 149)

The overarching argument of Michael LeFebvre’s recent book The Liturgy of Creation is summarized by the above quote. Having set up the argument in the Pentateuch in general and explored briefly the focus of Genesis 1:1-2:3 it is time to dig into the text. Today the focus is on days 1-3, Gen. 1:1-13.

Prologue:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (vv. 1-2)

Although some Christians see creation from nothing affirmed and described in the opening verse of Genesis, many others have argued that this is not the intent of the verse. Other passages of Scripture affirm that God created everything and it all exists only through his sustaining providence. However, this is not the purpose of Genesis 1. LeFebvre agrees and notes that 1:1 and 2:1 (Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.) serve as bookends for the creation narrative of 1:3-31.Verse 2 describes the state of the earth as God prepares it for fruitfulness and habitation – it was formless, empty, and dark. Nothing but water.

Day one commences the creative work in Genesis 1.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (vv. 3-5)

The light is good. Without light plant and animal life cannot thrive. Thermophilic bacteria are about it – drawing energy from deep sea heat vents. LeFebvre suggests, however, that this focus of day one is not on light, but on the institution of the day as a cycle of light and dark. A day is the fundamental unit of the calendar narrative. He also notes that the translation above calling it “the first day” misses the point. It isn’t just the first day – here the unit of one day is defined.

Day two separates the waters above from the waters below, making space for fruitfulness. Continue reading

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Follow the Plot

The creation week of Genesis 1-2:3 is a culturally situated historical calendar narrative designed to lead God’s people in God’s ways. So argues Michael LeFevre in his recent book, The Liturgy of Creation. Many people, both Christians and Jews, have noticed and commented on the structure of Genesis 1 (including 2:1-3). The six days of creation have a parallel structure 3+3 followed by a day of rest. LeFebvre writes this form as an equation (3+3)+1=7.

The six days of creation followed by the sabbath day of rest shape Genesis 1. Exodus 20:8-11 makes this explicit.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

While it is common to view the reference in Exodus 20 as a recounting of Genesis 1, LeFebvre suggests that it isn’t this simple. Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative setting a rhythm for human for human stewardship of God’s creation as his image bearers. “Everything revealed about the wisdom and beauty of God in his labors during those six workdays is a model for human stewardship of the created order.” (p. 137)  The seventh day is “a holy day for the image bearers to commune with the creator.” (p. 137)

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Thinking About God When the World Goes Crazy

Tremper Longman III and John Walton teamed up to write short book How to Read Job. This book is a useful guide to reading Job – raising as many questions as it answers – and a lot shorter and more readable than their rather formidable commentaries on the book. The book of Job is theological wisdom literature that addresses the question “How should we think about God when the world goes crazy?”

How should we think about God when plagues, pandemics, pestilence, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, typhoons, and floods hit; when evil appears to conquer good and God-fearing people suffer at the hands of unscrupulous thieves and murders?How should we think about God when cancer strikes a five year old … or a forty-five year old – or an eighty-five year old loved one?

These questions are not new. They plagued the ancient Israelites as they plague us a Christians (or non-Christians) today. The book of Job, if we dig in and think it through, can help us wrestle with these questions. It isn’t a theodicy – “a vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.”  It isn’t history, providing us with an example of a righteous man (or with an image of a God who makes wagers with Satan). It is wisdom literature in the form of story (with some rather long and sometimes boring dialog) designed to help us think about God.

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Days of Creation: Occurrence or Observance?

Now we get to the central hypothesis of Michael LeFebvre in his book, The Liturgy of Creation. The creation week of Genesis 1-2:3 is a culturally situated historical calendar narrative designed to lead God’s people in God’s ways. LeFebvre writes:

Genesis 1:1-2:3 provides a narration of creation events, but the timing and details of its telling are transparently “re-mapped” to the cadence and themes of Israel’s weekly sabbath festival. The purpose of the narrative is not simply to teach the people what happened but to teach them how to remember God’s work and God’s rest through their own weekly labors and worship. (pp. 113-114)

LeFebvre aims to call us to “engagement with the creation narrative as a metronome for faithful stewardship in God’s image (the first six days) and communion in his presence (the seventh day).” (p. 114)

The creation week of Genesis 1 is portrayed as a week of 6 24 hour days followed by a seventh 24 hour day. In this the literalist is correct. However, the purpose of the text is not to relate details of the occurrence of creation. This follows from the general case that LeFebvre has been building concerning the purpose of dated narratives in the Pentateuch. Genesis 1, like the specific dates in the exodus account are intended to guide the people in life and worship through observance rather than recount details of occurrence.

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Pentateuch or Torah

The first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, are often referred to as the Pentateuch, literally five books or five scrolls. More importantly, however, they are referred to as the Torah or the law. Michael LeFebvre outlines the importance of this designation in chapter six of his book, The Liturgy of Creation. It is not that the books contain the law, as though the designation torah was restricted to the specific regulations laid down (you shall not murder, you shall not steal etc.). Rather the five books in all their complexity as a whole comprise the law.

This is important. Although the books of the Pentateuch relate a history, the purpose is legal rather than historical. LeFebvre explains:

Normally, a historical narrative is written to tell us what happened in the past. But as part of Israel’s Torah, the narratives of the Pentateuch have an anticipatory purpose. They are histories bout the past told in a manner to instruct audiences in the present and the future. Every historical narrative in the Bible has instructional value (1 Cor 10:11), but the narratives in the Pentateuch – as Torah narratives – provide a more precise, technical kind of instruction. They participate in the legal guidance of ancient Israel, by which we mean instruction in the rituals, institutions, and regulations that defined Israel as an ordered kingdom. The historical narratives of the Torah are more than models of faith (though they certainly are that; see Heb 11:1-31). They are legal definitions of the various institutions and regulations of ancient Israel in story form. (p. 96)

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