Inhabiting a Word


Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that His word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made us small enough to inhabit a word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Body

The human body doesn’t consist of just one part. It has many parts. If the foot suddenly said, “Because I’m not a hand, I’m not part of the body anymore.” That wouldn’t change a thing. The foot would still be part of the body. If the ear spoke up and said, “Because I’m not an eye, I’m not part of this body,” it would still go on being part of the body. If the whole body were one giant eyeball, how would it hear anything? If the whole body was just a big ear, how would it smell? 

God, in His wisdom, designed each part of the body for a purpose and put each part in its proper place. If the body was made up of just one part, it wouldn’t be a body. The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Neither can the head say to the feet, “I’ll get along just fine without you!” Quite the opposite. It seems the most important body parts are also the most vulnerable and the parts which we think of as being less respectable, we take great care to clothe with respect. What’s more, the more respectable members of our body go about naked. God designed the body this way so it can take care of itself. The strong parts protect the weak parts and the respectable parts cover the not so respectable parts. This brings harmony to the human body and each part cares for the other. If one part suffers, every part suffers. If one part is honored, the whole body rejoices.

The church is the body of Christ and each person is one of the parts. Though we have many different gifts and purposes, we are all united by our love for Christ and our love for one another.

The Apostle Paul had a gift for the use of parable. His letters, written in the 1st century, to newly formed Christian churches, contain some of the most vivid illustrations in the entire Christian tradition. The fruits of the spirit, the armor of God, running to win the prize… these are all metaphors that shape our thinking to this day. Perhaps Paul’s most memorable parable is “the body of Christ.” It’s a startling image when you think about it. Paul is rejecting the notion that unity is found in uniformity. Writing to a church torn apart by divisions, he is reminding them that it is their diversity which makes them strong. We often lose sight of this when we prize certain kinds of talent over others and make vices of the weaknesses that are not our own. No single one of us can be Christ in the world by ourselves. It is only when each part works together that He is made present.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Chameleons on the Ark


Of course there were chameleons on the ark. There was every kind of animal on the ark and Noah was in charge of feeding them all. This was much harder than you’d think! Some animals ate plants, some nuts, some berries, and of course some animals ate other animals. Some ate during the day and some ate during the night. Some ate one large meal; some ate many tiny meals and Noah was in charge of figuring this all out. One particular animal that vexed him were the chameleons. Try as he might, Noah could not figure out what the chameleons ate.

The first day, he left them grass to eat and he came by the next day and the grass was still there. So he left berries but the following day the berries were untouched. The third day, he left flies and they were left alone on the fourth. This went on for awhile and Noah became more worried and frustrated as the chameleons became smaller and paler. He would say to the chameleons, “How I wish you would just tell me what you want to eat!” but each day, the chameleons continued to deteriorate in silence.

Finally, around day 15, Noah was passing by the chameleons’ cage with a pomegranate. As he stood there pitying the marvelous and mysterious creatures who would likely not survive the flood, he began to cut his pomegranate. As he cut into the center of the fruit, a worm hopped out and fell into the cage. One of the chameleons immediately seized the worm with their tongue and ate it. Surprised and relieved, Noah sent his sons to fetch some worms to restore the chameleons to health.

Later when the flood was over and Noah was watching all the animals file out of the ark, he spotted the two healthy chameleons and felt a great sense of relief that he was no longer responsible for their care.

This old Jewish midrash demonstrates the truth that God is a much better provider than we are. As human beings, we are often quick to criticize God’s management of the world but we don’t stop to think about all the intricacies and minute details that go into creation. This parable also speaks to our tendency to try and solve our problems without God. Noah worried himself with the fate of the chameleon and took their burden fully upon himself without praying for a solution. Surely the God who was in the midst of saving all of creation from the waters of the flood could be trusted to provide worms for two small chameleons. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Babble


Once, before the dawn of recorded history, the whole earth was a single tribe that spoke a single language. Humankind migrated from the east and settled in a plain in the land of Shinar. Through their singleminded cooperation, they quickly mastered the art of baking bricks and mixing mortar and began to set their sites on building a large beautiful city. With one voice they said, “Let us build a city large enough for all of us. In its center let us place a ziggurat so large that its top will be in the heavens. Then we will make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we may be scattered across the whole earth.”

When God came down upon the earth to see the city and tower that humankind was building, he was distressed. “Look at this,” he said, “The whole earth is a single tribe with a single language. This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing they come up with will be impossible for them now!” 

So God confused their languages so that they could no longer understand one another. Then He scattered the people all over the face of the earth and the city was left abandoned. So the city, which still stands unfinished, is called “Babble” because the people there could not understand one another’s babble.

The story of the tower of “Babble” (the pun works the same in Hebrew as it does in English), from the Hebrew Bible, exists not only to explain the presence of languages and abandoned cities, but also as a warning against the ways of empire. The original hearers of the story would have known exactly who the people of Babble represented: the Babylonian Empire. Their presence loomed large over the ancient world. They were feared for their superior armies and revered for their marvelous cities with Zigurats that indeed appeared to reach the heavens. They were the dominant super power of their day and no one could imagine a future in which they wouldn’t be. The Babylonian empire, like the Assyrians before them, practiced a policy of conquering by assimilation. They would conquer cities and then disperse their inhabitants, forcing them to marry Babylonians, practice Babylonian religion, and speak the language of the Babylonians. Then, within a generation or two, the conquered peoples would forget that they were ever anything but Babylonians. Babylonian culture was not only spread by force though. Their way of life was quite attractive to their neighbors. Other peoples willingly adopted their culture and customs, along with their pantheon of  gods. This story would have been understood as a cautionary tale against adopting the ways of the Babylonians. The ideology of Empire was a threat to everything that made the Hebrews distinct: their traditions, their language, and their special relationship with an unseen God. But this radical story makes clear that God’s plan is not that the people’s of the earth should be gobbled up by an oppressive empire, but that they should remain distinct. Diversity, not conformity is God’s will for humankind. This story also makes clear that the fate of Babylon will be just like Babble before it. God will scatter the people and leave their empire in ruins. An audacious unthinkable claim. Yet, that is precisely what happened. The Jewish people remain distinct to this day with their own tradition, language, and relationship with an unseen God. And the Babylonians? You can read about them in history books and visit the ruins of their once great cities. Empires rise and fall but the Word of The LORD is forever!

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Book Moth

RIDDLE 47

A moth ate words. To I who wondered it seemed
A remarkable fate, when I learned of it,
That the thing had devoured the speech of a certain man.
A thief in the dark of night, chewing through proverbs,
Replacing them with himself. That unwanted guest,
Was no whit the wiser for the words he ate.

The Book of Exeter

I can still remember coming across this poem as a child in a bright orange paperback on my Mother’s bookshelf titled, “Anglo Saxon Poetry.” I remember reading this poem and being disappointed in the riddle. “It’s a moth,” I thought to myself, “It’s right there in the first line.” I quickly lost interest and moved to other things. The wisdom of this simple parable was wasted on me. It wasn’t until I flipped through the book as teen who was hungrily devouring poetry that I chanced upon the riddle again and found much in it worth contemplating. There is a difference between being a reader who simply chews through words and is not made any wiser and a reader who understands and internalizes what she is reading. When Ezekiel is given the prophecy he is to set before the people, he encounters it in a vision of a scroll which he must eat. When the 1st Psalm declares that the righteous “meditate” on God’s Word day and night, the word “meditate” is the same word used for “chew.” We are called, as disciples, to devour scripture. But there is a difference between memorizing verses, stories, and bits of theology, and actually applying that wisdom to our lives. When we read the words of scripture, we must put them into practice. Otherwise, like the book moth, we will be no whit wiser for the words we ate.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

King Solomon’s Judgement


King Solomon was famous the world over for his wisdom. It was a gift that God had granted him to rule fairly and justly and to make good decisions on behalf of Israel. When he sat as judge over the people, they were confident that his rulings would be wise and compassionate. One day two prostitutes approached Solomon for a ruling. They had a dispute over a baby. The one who approached Solomon first explained:

“O wise King, judge between me and this woman I live with. We both gave birth to a baby boy in the same house, three days apart from each other. This woman’s baby boy died last night because she rolled over on top of him and he was smothered. At midnight, when she awoke and realized what she had done, she got up and switched our sons. She put the dead child next to me and took my son and placed it next to her. When I awoke, I was horrified to find the dead boy sleeping at my breast but once I looked at the child in the morning light, I saw that it was not mine but this woman’s. O King, we live just the two of us in that house so no one can judge between us.”

“Liar!” Shouted the other woman, “You are so stricken with grief over the death of your own son that you are trying to steal mine. Tell our King the truth about what you have done!”

And so the two women argued back and forth about who was the true mother of the living child. King Solomon finally silenced the two women and issued his verdict: “Both of you claim to be this child’s mother and yet, because you live alone and there are no witnesses, it is impossible for me to render a verdict.”

The king then called for a sword to be brought to him. “Because I cannot judge between the two of you, the only fair thing left to do is to cut the child in two and give each of you half.” Then he laid the infant on a table before him.

“No!”, screamed one of the women, “I relent! Give my son to this other woman! It is better that he should be alive and with her than to die on that table!”

The other woman said, “O King your judgement is just. The child shall be neither of ours. Continue.”

Just then, Solomon laid down the sword and picked up the child, cradling him in his arms and soothing him. He handed the baby to the first woman who had relented. “Here, boy, is your mother.” All Israel heard of King Solomon’s ruling and they were amazed at the wisdom of God that was within him.

Though this version of the “Two Mothers” parable (found in 1 Kings 3) is most familiar to Western readers, a version of it exists in many cultures throughout the world. In the Indian version, the wise ruler commands the two mothers to each take the baby by an arm and have a tug of war over a line. In the Chinese version, the mothers are told to compete to pull the child out of a chalk circle. In every version, it is the mother who relents and refuses to participate in the barbaric ritual that is determined to be the true mother. Whether these versions are all retellings of an original historical judgement by King Solomon, or whether the writer of the book of Kings placed this popular story in his history to demonstrate Godly wisdom, is really beside the point. Either way, this parable teaches a profound lesson about the true nature of parenthood. True parentage, according to the wisdom of this story, is not simply biological, it is rooted in compassion and concern for a child’s welfare. Anyone who would split a baby to make a point is not a true parent. As disciples, we can find deeper meaning in this parable about the true nature of leadership. I’ve known, in my own life, pastors who were willing to split a church in two rather than admit their failings. I’ve seen lay people purposefully divide closely knit small groups because they didn’t get their way. This kind of behavior is not spiritual leadership. A disciple walking in the way of Jesus would rather be split in two than to see or be the cause of division in the church. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…