Friday, January 27, 2012

Law like Love: Genesis 23:1 - 24:10

I was brought up Seventh Day Adventist and spent most of elementary school in a two-room schoolhouse, with things like gender politics, evolutionary theory, and literature safely outside. As a sixth grader, I begged my parents to transfer me to a sixth grade where I could be in plays and go to dances; characteristically, I transferred back to the two-room schoolhouse less than a year later. I didn't necessarily agree with the principal's assessment, helpfully delivered to my erstwhile classmates and nine-year-old brother, that “the devil [had] gotten [me].” I just knew that the anxiety that had been tangled in my diaphragm since about 1990 seemed to loosen its grip when I was singing God's praises and avoiding TV on Saturdays.

Although I ultimately was won over again by our public high school's science lab, library, and precedent for sending its graduates to college, I've spent the past fifteen years moving back and forth between Adventism, apostasy, and a sort of middle ground comprised of more "liberal, postmodern" religions -- the kind that accept evolution and acknowledge that the original words in Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, and Romans 1 all refer, not to "homosexuality" (which was not a thing in Biblical times) but to particular kinds of “homosexual” sex, specifically gang rape/temple prostitution/orgies.

As uncomfortable as I am with certain aspects of fundamentalist Christianity, as able as I am to see that most people who agree with me about things like gay rights and social justice have no problem writing off religious experiences like mine, I'm also uncomfortable with the dichotomies that seem to work for the “Jesus versus religion” kid on Youtube. I think it does matter whether a literal interpretation of the Bible is enough, or whether there are multiple layers of meaning in the scripture and multiple methods of teasing this meaning out – a concept that apparently has been informing non-fundamentalist readers since Aquinas, though it failed to permeate our daily Bible classes. I don't reject rhetoric about the "sanctity of marriage" because I think the unappealing parts of the Bible are optional or are taken too seriously, but because I think they aren't attended to carefully enough. It matters to me that the initial language referred to one thing in Greek, like rape or orgies, and was changed to mean another thing in contemporary English, like monogamous gay relationships, and that that interpretive sleight of hand is incompatible with God as I understand Him, and as He is described in the rest of the Bible.

My problems with fundamentalism crop up, not when I'm told to turn to the Scripture, but in those moments where, it seems, everyone has their Bibles open but actually seem to be reading another text entirely. No matter how liberal my political beliefs are (or not?), I think the Bible should be interpreted conservatively -- by which I mean, we should take seriously what it says rather than trying to force it into line with the views that make us comfortable. I don't agree that grace cancels out the law or that the Gospel makes the Old Testament archaic or irrelevant. I read both the Old and New Testament as saying that how you do things matters, that God means for us to be intentional, particular, in our responses to Him.

Genesis -- in which salvation is still only a promise, and which is, on its face, mostly concerned with the Word, the law, as a path to God -- is full of stories where seemingly "insignificant" decisions, like turning back for a last look at your city or eating from the wrong tree, matter. It would feel better, more in keeping with my self-image as a reasonable, liberal, open-minded person, to write these stories off, to say that anything I'm uncomfortable with must be culturally dependent or somehow cancelled out by Christ. Only here's Abraham, no longer a big-picture guy, weeping next to his wife's corpse one minute and, in the next, pouring that grief into his mission to bury his dead the right way, exactly this way. Abraham's particularity is the whole point of this chapter: the two verses about Sarah sandwich a story in which distinction between buying the land to bury her and accepting it as a gift or a loan matters. This land is for Sarah and Abraham's children; her body shouldn't have to wait in a rented grave for that promise to come true.

Before, with Issac's conception, both Sarah and Abraham hedged their bets, bringing Hagar into their marriage and future as a kind of Plan B. Now, Abraham is deliberate: Sarah goes here, in land we own, because all of this will be her son's and his children's one day. This is how Abraham is faithful to Sarah and to God.

Genesis 24:1-9 functions the same way, reinforcing Abraham's new understanding that when you're dealing with the Omnipotent, the means are what matter, since the end is already taken care of, has been since Abraham was still Abram. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with marrying Canaanites -- they've just called Abraham a prince and welcomed him to use their land --  but God said not to do it that way. Abraham's last action is to ensure that Isaac's marriage is handled with the same specificity as Sarah's burial, the way God told him to do it.

This privileging of obedience, of doing what you're told instead of what you believe is right, is hard for me to accept. It reminds me of how different I often feel from a lot of people I like very much, people I relate to in most other ways and who probably wouldn't recognize this aspect of who I am. It's embarrassing to say: well, but if God says this, it's what I'm called to do, even if it seems wrong to me. It makes you sound simple- minded, weak-willed, in a context in which both of those traits can only be understood as negative.

And honestly, some of the things God cares about in Genesis do seem small. But when you're asked for one thing and respond with another thing entirely, the natural conclusion is either that you didn't care enough to listen, or you didn't care enough to do what you were asked. Whatever your intentions, your actions here reflect your conviction that you knew better. This is an unfortunate message to send your friend, your kid or your husband. It's extremely disappointing to send this message to God.

I have so little to offer God, so few ways to reciprocate His love. Perhaps the most powerful one is to be willing to do, not what I think He should want, but what He actually says He wants. Not just, or even primarily, because He can see the entire picture and we can't, but because when you love someone, you listen to Him -- even when it's inconvenient, even when you don't agree.