Showing posts with label baptism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label baptism. Show all posts

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Third Creation Narrative (Genesis 5)

I wrote in late May about the supposedly dull genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's gospel (which can be found here), and it would seem that Genesis 5, entirely dedicated to genealogy, is another dull chapter. I think that appearance is misleading.

I had a look to see what some important Christian figures had said about this chapter to get a more rounded view, so I had a look at John Calvin's commentary on Genesis: nothing about the genealogy itself, just a little about the opening phrase and on the very ending, connecting it to the Flood, plus a paragraph or two on Enoch. This seems a general trend, though I only had a cursory glance. To remedy this, I would like to give a sketch of why I think Genesis 5 is a third creation account (after Genesis 1, Genesis 2) and why it is a fascinating story which sets the scene for the enigmatic verses at the beginning of chapter 6.

We must first ask a question: what does a creation narrative contain, and what issues does it seek to address? These accounts contain explanations of origins, of where the audience came from. Although the term is anachronistic if read back into the times of the ancient Israelites, they seem to set up a certain metaphysical perspective on the world, or more narrowly on humans' role in it. Thus, Genesis 1 presents a highly theocentric metaphysical view of the world, where everything is at a word away from God's command, everything is ordered and tidy, and humankind has a great dignity as well as the task to be fruitful and have dominion over the Earth. Genesis 2, on the other hand, which truly does stand alone in a sense (though is obviously made more rounded with Genesis 1) is a very anthropomorphic picture of God's hand in creation, with God hand-crafting humankind from the earth of the ground, and is said to "plant a garden in the east" (2:8). Combined we see God as entirely transcendent and beyond everything, and at the same time God as walking with us and bringing about growth in our midst - "imminently transcendent."

I propose that Genesis 5 is similarly a creation account: it begins with God once again being said to create man, in the likeness of God, male and female he created them, then he blessed them (v. 1). In this way, it echoes directly the similar statement in Genesis 1. Except unlike what we learn in Genesis 2, Adam is not said to father Cain, but Seth. Cain is completely forgotten, and interestingly, Eve is also forgotten - neither appears again in the Hebrew Bible, though they are both mentioned in the Christian New Testament.

In fact, there's not much mention of anything going wrong in Genesis 5 at all. The harshness of life suggested by the curse in Genesis 4 seems forgotten. The fratricide of Genesis 4 between Cain and Abel seems forgotten, as everyone seems to live peacefully. The line of Seth which came about almost as a fruit of that murder seems to be doing just fine. Calvin makes a long point about death, but I think for the original audience, un-immersed as they were in the eternal life and "death as the curse of sin" theology of centuries later after God's revelation in Christ, the long life and numerous children spelled peaceful success for the children of Adam in the line of Seth.

The line of Seth contrasts itself with the line of Cain directly as even the names resemble, or are even copied: Cain-Cainan, Enoch-Enosh, Irad-Iared, Mehujael-Mahalel, et cetera. Cain's Enoch had his name attached to a city, whereas Seth's Enoch walks with God. Lamech of Cain and Lamech of Seth also contrast similarly.

This would all be accomplished if the text said "lived a long life" after each patriarch, and left it at that. There seems to be no precedent for having details about when the first son (note the text has females but it is the first son which is mentioned in each case) was born or how old exactly the men were at their time of death. It indicates a great longevity - one I admit that I am unsure about - but it is nonetheless fairly superfluous.

What then are the numbers for? I dare say there is some of the typical symbolism in various of the numbers, such as the "perfect" 777 years of Lamech. These do not concern me presently, so I would instead like to point out three things which I find interesting which one discovers when one plots the lives of these men on a time-line:

I did not attempt to draw this entirely to scale, but the recorded events do occur in the correct order spatially.

First, note the green zone, where everyone in the line of Adam through Seth lives concurrently. Here the community of the line of Seth lives peacefully among each other, as far as we can tell, and coexist amicably with all their children. For about a century and a half, everyone from Adam through to Seth's Lamech coexist.

Then the red line, and this is the crucial second point: the curse of sin rears its ugly head, and death finally enters the world naturally. The murder of Abel was death at the hands of another human, and perhaps the curse was restricted to Cain's line, but suddenly this line is painfully aware of their own mortality. Close to a millennium since Adam came into the world, and now it is clear: humankind is destined to die.

I must stress this point of surprise, the jolt that comes from Adam's, and soon after Seth's death: it will be important to understand Genesis 6's cryptic starting verses, but it is even more important for understanding my third point: Noah is born into the mortal world. Note how the red line has everyone except Noah being born before the knowledge of humankind's mortality. Noah is the first person to be raised with the understanding that part of what it means for a person to live is that at some point they die. For everyone before him, death has been at most the consequence of active human violence. Once again, this will be crucial for understanding the figure of Noah throughout the Flood narrative.

To conclude, allow me to return to the idea of Genesis 5 as a creation narrative, and more importantly, how it answers the question that such an account raises: this genealogy presents humans as being first and foremost in the likeness of God, who created us and bestowed us with his blessing. Humans are fruitful creatures, who have children and live long lives. Except there's something horribly wrong - the reader knows full well that there was a curse pronounced on the first couple, Adam and Eve, and that life is therefore finite. This third and final creation account is practically an attempt at forgetting the weight of sin, at erasing all sin from history. This is why Eve, the woman who was tempted, is not mentioned, or Cain and Abel, or indeed anything evil. It thus foreshadows the Flood, where in a catastrophic way creation tries to renew itself by putting to death all the evil that has passed.

Yet it will not work. No amount of historical revisionism will suffice to change the fact that humans are mortal because of sin. With the Flood we shall see that even forcefully removing everything that has gone wrong in the past to try and start afresh will fail: sins must be forgiven, not simply forgotten. It will take the waters of baptism, not just of the Flood, gushing from the side of Christ on the Cross, to erase sin.

Note of gratitude: to the amazing work of Leon R. Kass that I discovered recently, many of whose comments are loosely paraphrased here. In particular, I refer to his commentaries in "The Beginning of Wisdom." He in turn claims to be indebted to Robert Sacks. Thanks to them both.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Baptismal Testimony to Grace

Whilst considering how to write "The Road from Unbelief", I trawled through some of my older discussions of the topic, and I found this, which I thought I should make public once again:

Only one person here knew me before I came to Christ, and even then, not very well. It may surprise you, then, that I can count my Christian time in months, not years. I don’t have very long now to tell of how I came to where I am today, but it is important nonetheless that I testify as to how God’s Gospel has worked in me.
The death of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a trivial matter, but I never heard about it. So what, I would ask, if a man died on a cross two millennia ago? Many people did. Growing up in Spain, and as far as I was concerned, Christianity was useful for two things; the free periods the non-religious got at school and the frequent holidays in veneration of all the saints. Church was the building down the road with a bell-tower to chime on the hour and tell me what time it was. I was allegedly surrounded by 99.8% Christians, but funnily enough I only ever met one, and he complained about getting forced to go to mass on Sundays.
A few things happened, which I will later recount, that completely changed my world-view. There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!
Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.
Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.
And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 3)

(Text: Gospel according to St Matthew (NRSV) )

In the third chapter of the gospel according to St Matthew, John the Baptist is introduced. Before I begin writing down my thoughts on this passage, I want to say a few words on how I am writing these blog posts: as I posted yesterday, I am going through a set reading plan, and I plan to write down my thoughts on the passages I read as I go along. Sometimes it is crucial to get some context to understand a passage, and this might be one of them, but I do not wish to expound a whole theology of baptism before I have gotten to a passage where baptism is in any sense clearly explained. If baptism has to do with repentance, why does Jesus get baptized? If baptism has to do with becoming part of the church...then what in the world is going on here? If, as St Paul says, through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death (see Colossians 2:12 - although I am undecided about Pauline authorship), then how can this possibly happen before Jesus dies, and still the question is asked, why does Jesus get baptized? When we get to later sections dealing with baptism, in particular the right part of the catechism, we may be fit to discuss these problems better. For now, the passage:

John the Baptist appears as a very impoverished man, in his living arrangements (v. 1), his clothes and his food (v. 4). He explains his purpose by quoting Isaiah - I take that verse (v. 3) to mean that John believes he is a sort of herald. This interpretation fits beautifully with how St Matthew has been building up his conception of Jesus: royal bloodline, royal homages, and now, a royal herald.

John's ministry is one of baptism, but it appears to be a baptism distinct to the baptism of nowadays - this is just a baptism of water for repentance, yet reference is made to one different from this, utilizing the Holy Spirit and fire (v. 11). Baptism also appears to involve confession, as seen in verse 6. Now, how does John react to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism? Christians know full well that Jesus and Pharisees did not get along well - but for a first century Jew, these sections of Judaism were among the strictest and most respected. St Matthew has just done some serious juxtaposition in saying that John the Baptist is meant to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (v.3), but then rejects the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What charges are made against this religious establishment? First, they are under wrath, although the question "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (v.7) implies that this is not a particular anger at them. They should bear fruit worthy of repentance - John is saying the equivalent of "repentance without works is dead". The term "worthy" should stick out a bit, because being worthy of repentance is an odd concept - how do you become worthy of turning away from wrongdoing? Although it is a bit of a cop out answer, I suspect St Matthew is just saying in a pointed way "you have repented? Then show it." Again, repentance without works is dead.

John goes on to say "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Let us not confuse this with the converse: John does not say "every tree that bears good fruit will be saved." There is no salvation merely by bearing good fruit - but John does assert that there is no salvation unless there is good fruit involved. We are dealing with good works as necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions.

Finally, we get to the odd bit I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus' baptism. It seems like John has a similar concern to me, but Jesus just responds in what I take to be "this will do - this must be done to fulfil all righteousness." What righteousness he speaks of, I am unsure. The Greek word is dikaiosune, and it often refers to the uprightness and faithfulness of God and his people to the covenant - as such, it is a word associated deeply with the covenant between God and Israel. This sheds, as far as I can tell, no light on the matter, since there is no requirement for baptism at the time. The best I can do is to suggest that Jesus trod the path that we should tread, so it is "proper" (in the NRSV translation that I read, it uses this word and not "right") to do so, for our sake.

One special note: baptism is clearly important. Over this year, I know for certain (largely because I've read large chunks of the Bible already) that baptism is going to be assumed as a thing of the past a lot of the time, and perhaps here we see why; I suspect most people got baptised straight away, just like Jesus gets baptised before he preaches a single word.