For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, first for the Jew, and also for the Greek.

I’m not ashamed –

For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him shall the Son of man also be ashamed when he shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Mark 8:38

In Paul’s time, there were many reasons to be ashamed of the gospel. At least in civilized Roman society. This was a religion that had its origin in the contemptible and uncivilized land of Israel; the founder of this religion was a Jew and on top of that one from Galilee. The central figure in this religion died as a rebel against Rome on the cross. And besides, most of his followers came from the lowest circles in society. Anyone who would explain the content of his faith at this time had to speak about the belief in a crucified Savior who brought God’s mercy to humanity, with the requirement of a total life renewal, and a life of self-denial. This religion was spread without the persuasiveness of eloquence or poetry and was not recommended by philosophers. It knew no beautiful temples and no brilliant rituals, and colorful priestly robes could not be seen.

The apostle Paul himself had many reasons to be ashamed of the gospel. How could he, as a Jew and rabbi who was highly regarded by the teacher of his time, join a religion that considered Judaism a mere preparation? How could he now come up with a doctrine in which the study and application of the letter of the law were rejected? How could he say to the Corinthian congregation that his proclamation could not be accompanied by the excellence of words or wisdom? Did he not have “persuasive words of wisdom”?

In our time it is the same. We are ashamed of the gospel because faith in a personal God is seen as a psychological defect, and morally rejected because it assigns authority to outdated commandments and institutions – so totally contrary to the spirit of our time. We are ashamed of the gospel because it claims the truth, at a time when that is considered to be both impossible and indecent. Christians are those people who think that they own the truth and that others should follow their moral views. And what kind of moral views! Christians still discriminate against unbelievers, against women without political rights, against people with a different sexual orientation and so on. Moreover, they believe in a book in which genocide is ordered, the theft of land is a divine prescription and where it is said that a son who rebels must be stoned.

In this way, the message of the gospel in the time of Paul finds itself, just as much as in our time, in a struggle with contemporary culture. The gospel claims to be a message in which the limitations of our world are shown. The gospel points to another, unknown, yet living reality that stamps all other truth claims with a question mark. It does not set itself besides all other truths, nor does it compete with other religions for the preference of the religious consumer. In this sense, it comes completely from above, without any respect for the sensitivities of priests, sages, and philosophers.

a power of God –

Now Paul says that he is not ashamed, but he even does the opposite. He praises the gospel. It is a power of God, he says. The gospel is stronger than the world. It is certainly true that the message of the cross in the eyes of the world is a foolishness. That is the way they must see it. It’s just a bunch of words. But it is not because of an idea that these words are interesting, or because they make a good life possible, or that it is, taken together, a fascinating philosophy of life. When Paul says that the message of the resurrection – because that resurrection is precisely what it is about – is a power of God, he means to say that the object of that message precedes the meaning of the words. In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed, but not as an idea, but as something that works, changes people, and determines world history. God makes himself known in this gospel, not as a force of nature or as an attractive idea, and certainly does not coexist with other forces in life. But He is not to be discovered in any spectacular wonder in the world that is visible to all eyes. The miracle of the gospel happens in the power of the Spirit and can only be recognized by the human spirit. That is why it is not relative or dependent on our understanding. It is sufficient by itself, it is unconditional and true in itself. The gospel describes the decisive turning point in the relationship between God and man. When Paul proclaims the gospel, it is this divine decision that he presents to the conscience of his listeners, and he invites them not to process, understand and absorb this message, but to accept it. That is to say, to submit to that message with all of life and whole thinking.

to salvation –

This message also gives us a clear diagnosis of the misery in which man is trapped. We are further from God than we think, and the consequences of that distance reach beyond what we can imagine. We assume that the principle of our existence lies in our freedom to dispose of ourselves. We act in freedom, we think in freedom, we determine our destiny in life, and ultimately we are the ones who decide good and evil. There is no heaven above us that lives with us, shows the way, clarifies our final destination; there is only the earth. On the other hand, there is the gospel that says that we are imprisoned and limited by the fact that we are creatures. Our sin is also our debt. Our death is also our fate. The world in which we live is surrounded and threatened by the chaos of death and meaninglessness. Surrounded by all these denials of the ultimate sense of our existence, some may want to ask the question if there is a God? And others tried to answer that question in the affirmative and construct a religious life that brings reconciliation with the prevailing senselessness and the fatal journey of death. However, when the gospel comes, this religious hubris will have to disappear. After all, the gospel provides a final and definitive insight.

That is why the word of the gospel comes into our world as folly. It speaks of God as He is and then really intends to speak of Himself – in the eyes of the world the arrogance par excellence! This is the pretense: speaking of God as He is real and true – outside and above all of our images of God and religious representations. It speaks of that creator who became our savior. It gives us the announcement of the forgiveness of our sins and of the ultimate triumph of life in Christ above death. We can not argue that and reduce it to a philosophy. Here we reach the limit of what we can know. We can only recognize and accept it. That is what the power of God does in the gospel, making it possible for a person to acknowledge and accept it.

That is why the true content of the gospel is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that resurrection, Paul said in the fourth verse, Jesus Christ is confirmed: “as God’s Son in power.” This intervention of God in creation is not the exception to the rule, but the limitation of the reality of our rules. That which goes against all natural expectation is ultimately its foundation. The miracle of the resurrection is no more or less than the miracle of creation itself. In the resurrection, God pronounces His verdict upon death that is its secret principle. The prison of our existence is now open, the guilt we carry is being discarded. Our death is no longer a fate, but a station on the way to eternity. The impossible appears to be the basis of the possible.

to everyone who believes

This gospel requires faith; faith is the form of recognition and the acceptance of this truth. Only for the believer can this gospel be a “power of God to salvation”. Jesus was declared to be God’s Son by the resurrection, but that is “in accordance with the Spirit of holiness.” This message, that does not come from the world, cannot be accepted by a spirit that is from this world. Thus Paul writes to the congregation of Corinth: “And we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is of God, that we may know the things that have been given to us by God (1 Corinthians 2:12). ” Only idols can be directly known and understood. The power of God in the message – only words! – of the gospel contradicts everything that is taken for granted in the world and considered to be “natural”. Here is a message that does not negotiate, which cannot be partially accepted, which does not entail arguments to recommend itself to the listener. No persuasive words of wisdom, no excellence of words. What Paul proclaims – proclaims! that is, submit, recommend, exposit – is nothing less than “what God has prepared for those who love Him.” No compromise is possible. But that is not a reason for fear. This gospel does not come with violence, like the “good message” of the birth of the emperor.

The gospel can only be believed. That is, one can decide with the will to accept it, but not conclude with the intellect that it is true. It can not be based on a truth that is different from the message itself. The gospel is the foundation of all truth. This belief consists of a deep respect for God’s infinity; in the recognition of the impossible message of the resurrection, in the confirmation of the divine judgment of my sins, and in the acceptance of the way to salvation that God has pointed out in it. Who believes? He who answers the faithfulness of God with his own faithfulness, that is, God’s faithfulness is answered by faith. What does he believe? That the gospel is the power of God to salvation. How does he believe? In constantly choosing faith against the annoyance and shame that is evoked by the gospel in the world. Ultimately, it is not about inner experience, or a deep sense of sublimity, or the power of conviction, or the change of the inner mood. These are accompanying matters. The power of faith manifests itself primarily as the denial of idols, the rejection of the naturalness of evil, of the necessity of death, of the unfreedom of our existence. Faith is never just piety. Faith is never a supplement nor an addition to our human possibilities. In the strict sense, Barth says somewhere, we can not believe. And yet faith is commanded to us, and it is the necessary condition of receiving salvation.

first for the Jew, and also for the Greek.

Does it make any difference whether you come from a religious community as a Jew, or from an unbelieving community like a heathen? Does it make any difference whether you are a religious or an a-religious person? Certainly, whoever has been baptized and can be counted as a member of a church community may be the first to be called upon to make the choice for Christ. In the church, all are on the edge of this other world and hear the gospel. Yet that does not give them a preference. For both, the gospel must be heard, and both Jew and Greek have the responsibility to accept it, to believe it.

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Critical Theology

“The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy” – Slavoy Zizek, Less than Nothing, p. 10.
I have found that some of the greatest contributors to modern theology are the most vehement enemies of faith and revelation. One of these of course is Zizek. He is an atheist communist post-modern philosopher in many ways – although his philosophy is hardly described adequately by these labels. Reading Zizek is like walking through the debris of a train wreck: one cannot even imagine what a perfect “whole” must look like. But what is left after the explosion that is a Zizek-text, can become a building block or a stumbling block in one’s own thought.
The quotation I started with is such a block. It reminded me of the famous saying by Rudolph Boehm, that philosophy is essentially a critique of culture and that the only ground of legitimacy for that endeavor resides in the fact, that the object elicits this critique itself. What is lacking, drives the attempt to show that it is lacking. Zizek says somewhat the same when he continues:
“…which means that succesful (“true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents.” (Ibidem)
Can we apply this idea to theology, which was already defined by Hegel as a science of the Absolute, akin to the philosophy of the Absolute? Is theology a constructive approach to reality, a systematic design of truths, or is it perhaps a deconstructive exercise, dealing with the ‘necessary antinomies” and contradictions that all theology runs into?
At first glance I would propose three ways in which theology can realize its critical potential, and I take them as three stages that it must go through. The first of course is its Kantian stage: as a self-critique of theological reason. The second is its Hegelian stage: the systematic construction of a theology that deals with God, the world and man. The third should be its post-Hegelian stage, in which it finally reaches the ultimate form of a critical theology.


First stage: the critique of any theology that is not just theology, but a philosophy in disguise. Philosophy entered the tent of theology like Yael, and nailed biblical untruth through the head. Its disguise was warranted. She could never have approached Siserian theology (which I take to mean Constantinian theology, the basic form of a theology that allows itself to be defined by culture) without the disguise of a faithful servant, a bondwoman, a servant girl. Philosophy was for many centuries the ancilla theologiae, but it was more like Yael than like Martha. The split between philosophy and theology that was the result of her deathly stab – hammering a nail to his head while sleeping, so by stealth and not in an open confrontation – began already in the third century and became an open revolt only in the Enlightenment philosophy of Diderot and Voltaire and the like. It somehow also freed theology from the shackles of philosophy. The death of philosophical theology turned out to be a step in the right direction: now the idea of faith came into its own right – Schleiermachers proto-liberal theology profited deeply (and tragically) from this.
But at the same time the act of Yael was an act of liberation. During all of the ages in which theology developed as a pseudo-philosophical system, there was opposition and rejection by groups that found a way to harness the biblical potential to become a counter-cultural force. The Radical Reformation, despite its vagaries, was such an attempt, to a lesser degree the great reformers like Luther and Calvin, and Puritan theology afterwards. Biblical truth was in the hands of the judges in times when truth was simply what anyone thought to be right. (Isn’t the book of Judges really about post-modernism before modernity?)


Second stage: because theology was now relegated to the realm of personal belief, not in the least by Kants transposition of basic biblical beliefs into ethical principles, it could flourish again. Systematic theology or “dogmatics” became ultimately a function of the believing community, the Church. The emancipation of theology from its servitude to philosophy was the counterpart of the emancipation of philosophy as a mere servant of theology. Philosophy and theology now took up adjoining residences. Like Amalek and Israel they quarreled, yet it was clear who was who. But philosophy invaded constantly into theology’s domain and ultimately we got Jezebel and the introduction of Baäl service in Israël. Now the danger came from the inside. In order to be meaningful to an ever changing culture, theology had to become like that culture: fluid, changing, adaptive, rational. Theology in the 20th century was distinguished as phenomenological, existentialist, Marxist, neo-Marxist, post-modern. Because of that move toward reconciliation, another part of theology got separated from the motherland by adapting itself to the strictest demands of the modern humanities. Instead of the construction of a biblical theology we got the sciences of biblical literature, fragmented into document research, the study of biblical languages and literary forms, hermeneutical theory and the like. Faith became separate from its own history and traditions. Dogmatics became a historical science and biblical doctrines of Gods commandments turned into a separate section of theoretical ethics. The destruction of theology was now caused by the inner urge to be the rational counterpart of postmodern, inner and subjective faith.


Third stage. Is there a third stage? What keeps me amazed is the resilience of the Bible to its modern critique and its adaptation to modern culture, when read as it wants to be read, as Gods Word, as an “instruction from above”- Lévinas. We cannot deduce from it a nice theological system, that is ready to overthrow all other theologies because it is a full expression of truth. That was the first (Constantinian-Siserian) stage. We cannot reject philosophy on the one hand and let it re-enter through the backdoor, as the second stage did with Kant and Hegel. But we can and must move from the Bible as the textbook of dogmatics and ethics, to the Bible as the (divine, disturbing, accusatory) speech that determines the limit of all (human)speech; the Bible as the supreme teacher that corrects our thought and puts our culture – including our Church culture – under the gaze of the Absolute Other – to coin a Zizekian phrase. The idea that this Absolute Other does not exist, as Zizek says, is actually quite helpful. The Absolute Other is “other-than-being”, as Lévinas argued.)
Biblical theology is the application of biblical truth to the illusions of our faith and culture. It must explain how these illusions came to be, so it must develop an hamartiology, a doctrine of sin. It must also explain why in the history of theology so many antinomies were developed and why they are also illusory – like the opposition between justification by grace and sanctification; between election and conversion; between Gods infinite power and human finite freedom. It must develop the grammar of these illusions. In these considerations it is never about the construction of a whole system of theological metaphysics again. Never again! But it is about “unleashing Gods Word, one verse at a time”, it is about the exposition of Gods Word, that we finally allow to contradict us at the deepest level of our being.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart.

January 12th – Healing Forgiveness – Matthew 9

It is Friday, January 12, 2018! According to our schedule, we should read Matthew 9:1-17, and Genesis 29, 30. I discovered the flaw in my project. I am able to read these chapters, but I am not able to comment on them each and every day. There is too much to be said and too little time and space to say it. So I have to skip a lot of passages and I am not going to catch up.

That is why today I only want to make a few comments on the passage in Matthew.
Obviously, the first seven verses remind us of the healing of the paralytic in the gospel of Mark. If that is the case, that this paralytic is the same as the one in Mark, it is interesting to note that Matthew does not pay any attention to the crowded house and the hole in the roof. He seems to be more interested in the dialogue that takes place.
As elsewhere, I believe that the power of physical healing that Jesus displays here is meant to give evidence of Jesus’s authority for redemption. Notice that the people who bring the paralytic to him, merely expect a miraculous healing. When Jesus sees the extent of their faith, I think he realizes that they misunderstand the real problem the paralytic is facing. It is one thing to be cut off from ordinary life as a paralytic would be. But it is another thing to be cut off from God as well.
In his social environment, there will be many people who would blame him for his paralysis, reasoning that he must have done a particular sin to earn a divine judgment in the form of his almost complete paralysis. But even though there is not a hint of Jesus affirming that you, the healing that he provides does address the problem of sin and not just his medical condition. Against those who would argue that the paralysis is caused by his sin, as well as to show that the problem is not our physical suffering but our estrangement from God, Jesus proceeds to pronounce forgiveness.
Now notice, that she does not pray for the man to be forgiven, but actually proclaims forgiveness as one who is its source. It is a declaration by which a new condition is achieved. “Your sins are forgiven” is the act of forgiveness itself.
Therefore it is understandable, that the “experts in the law” say to themselves that Jesus is blaspheming. Unless Jesus is God, they are quite right. How could Jesus know, however, that they were saying that to themselves? It is suggested in the third verse, that Jesus supernaturally hears their mumbling to themselves. The fact that he can hear that, refutes their charge against him.
Jesus certainly has the authority to forgive sins. He does not connect that authority to his divine status however in Matthew. The sixth verse shows in referring to himself as “the Son of Man”. As in Daniel 7:13-14 this Son of Man actually received divine authority. The image of the Son of Man in Daniel mixes human and divine imagery – he rides a cloud which only God can do. That is the basis of his authority. I doubt very much that we find here an Aramaic “bar enash” which simply would be the equivalent of a first-person reference to himself, just “I”.
Jesus now interrogates the experts in the law. His first question is piercing: “why do you respond with evil in your hearts?” Why weren’t they just happy with this pronouncement? Maybe first of all, because this decree of forgiveness could only be given by God, through the ritual in the Temple maybe. And the evidence for God’s forgiveness would be the miraculous healing, that is, God taking away the punishment for this sin. How could it be possible that Jesus forgives, outside of Temple ritual, usurping divine authority, and without showing that by removing the punishment? All of which leads to the conclusion that Jesus is indeed blaspheming and speaking words without any force. In a sense they are saying, that a mere statements by a human being that sins are forgiven is indeed easy. No one can tell whether or not that statement has any foundation in reality. In that sense it is easier. If however only God can forgive sins, that statement must be the more difficult. Only someone with special divine authority would be able to say it without blaspheming. To say “stand up and walk” is more difficult because it requires visible evidence. In another sense however it is easier, because it merely addresses a bodily problem.
The demonstration of the authority of Jesus now comes with an accommodation to the expectations of his audience. In itself there is no need to heal the paralytic. That seems to be presupposed here. The only motivation for his healing, is the necessity to demonstrate Jesus’s authority in the proclamation of forgiveness.
Again we find a demonstration of the divine power and authority of Jesus, now in the method of healing. Jesus commands – “stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” The healing is instantaneous – “he stood up.” The response is complete obedience – “[he] went home.”
In contrast to the experts in the law, the crowd seems to understand, at least to some degree, what has happened. “They were afraid and honored God who had given such authority to men.” It may be that this reflects the fact that the crowd took the meaning of “Son of Man” as the Aramaic term for me, person. Where Jesus refers to his exceptional authority, the crowd merely looks upon him as an example of something generic.
This must give us pause. It may be better to be an expert in the law, zealous for the honor of God than to be ignorant and merely impressed by a spectacular miracle. Even though the experts in the law contradict Jesus, and deny his status, they do understand the implications of these words and actions. That may lead them to conversion. The relative indifference and ignorance of the crowd, however, remains focused on the incident itself, without being led to an encounter with the divine person performing the miracle.

January 9th – The Confusion of Languages – Genesis 11

Reading for January 9th (MacArthur Study Bible):  Matthew 7; Genesis 10-14

Now I am a bit in trouble. I spent so much time commenting on the first chapters of Genesis – hardly scratching the surface – that I’m way behind in my reading. So for the next few weeks, I need to read more of Genesis to catch up. And I have skipped the rest of the Flood narrative. Hope this will still work.

The Narrative of Babel

What a great story! It is as deep a philosophy about language as you can desire, and yet it has such vivid images that it reads like a film script. It has, despite its brevity, a highly complex structure as shown in the figure below. Besides that, it is wonderfully chosen as the interlude between the genealogies of Eber-Joktan and Eber-Peleg.

a. The Genealogical Context

Let’s start with that first. Chapter 10 gives us the generations of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. When the list comes to Eber, we find two sons: Peleg “for in his days the earth was divided”, and his brother’s name was Joktan. Is this “divided” earth the result of the confusion of languages? It might be. In Genesis, we often find that first the events are mentioned and only then the explanation is given. We read indeed in verse 31 that this is a list of descendants of Shem “by their languages.”  So before the plurality of languages is explained, we find mention of the phenomenon.

Now in chapter 10, the genealogy of Joktan, the son of Eber is followed. It even suggests that it is the descendants of Joktan that migrate to the east. But after the Babel narrative, we find from 11:18 on, that the line of Peleg is followed. From his descendants came Terah, and Abram who is the main character in chapters 12 and further. Besides this context of the genealogies of Shem, we find echoes of the Shemite history in the fact that the word “name”, which is shem in Hebrew, plays such a great part in the Babel narrative. We should be mindful of the fact that Babel was founded by the Hamite Nimrod according to 10:10. Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, was cursed because of the sin of his father, the younger son of Noah. The Canaanites, maybe because of this curse, trying to make it as difficult as possible to force them to submit to Shem (9:26), dispersed – verse 18. 

The narrative of Babel is therefore supremely important for the future of the family of Shem, out of which Terah and Abram would come. To mention just one striking element: chapter 10 gives us a list of nations and chapter 11 tells us that people had the urge to move eastward, away from the land of blessing. But in chapter 12 Abram is called to leave his nation and family, and move to the west – to return therefore to the land of blessing, the vicinity of Eden and the blessed land of Canaan. 

b. The Attempt to Achieve Self-sufficiency and Autonomy

What is going on in Babel? In the mass migration of peoples to the East, they found a plain in Shinar – probably close to the Ur of the Chaldeans where Abram lived. They Settled there. They stopped wandering and took this plain as their possession. The groundwork for autonomy was laid. But what is the goal of this migration? We find that out through their own words, in the common language of Mankind.

The text reads:

Then they said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” (They had brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar.) 4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we will be scattered across the face of the entire earth.”

So first we have the new technology of baking the bricks instead of letting them dry in the sun. They would be bricks without straw included, so the result would be like stone. The baking process made the bricks much stronger and allowed buildings that had more than one or two stories. Of course, stone would have been even stronger, but in the plain, that was not available. Technology had to come in to make this possible. Apparently, tar was in plentiful supply and could be used as cement, even stronger than the normal mortar. 

It’s the technology that now makes it conceivable that a strong city is built. Not content with a dwelling place – that as a city would have fortified walls to protect it from enemies and to keep its own citizens inside – they were also contemplating erecting a Tower. It seems to have been thought of as a religious symbol, expressing not so much their piety towards God but celebrating their own achievements. 

For that reason, the goal of both city and Tower is now expressed as to “make a name for ourselves.” Such a Name would be in competition with the Name of God that was supposed to be worshipped. Replacing God’s Name would imply forgetting the basic fact that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. It would be expressive of the attempt to reach towards the divine world, instead of waiting patiently and with confidence for Divine assistance reaching us from above. 

The ultimate goal, however, is to establish a unity that cannot be divided, to prevent dispersion by which this city would lose its autonomy. Notice that the autonomy and self-sufficiency is now a trait of a society and no longer the aspiration of an individual. But this fear of dispersion is nothing less than resistance to Gods purpose in Creation. The safe homogeneity that is established, implies a forced cohesion, social coercion, and mechanisms of oppression by imposing conformity. The unity of the language allows for all that. 

Technology makes the building of a city in the plain possible. Cooperation by coercion allows for huge building projects that celebrate the glory of the builders. The unity within society that is demonstrated in the Tower, is a religious symbol. It is a new kind of religion that under the guise of worshipping divinities that are above humanity, actually reveres the idealized image of their own humanity. 

 

Babel_structure

The chiastic structure of Genesis 11 shows the precision with which God answered the ambitions of the citizens of Babel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

c. Gods Answer to Human Social Rebellion

While Babel builds a Tower that reaches into heaven, God comes down to them. That already should remind us that God in His care for humanity will come down to them – as He also walked in the garden and stood before Abel and Cain. But this time He comes not in love but in judgment. 

A wonderful element of the narrative is the congruity between the two expressions, the first of the people “let us build”, and then God’s reply “let us go down.” It is as if the people in Babel try to perform a human version of God’s creative words in Genesis 1:26, “Let Us make man.” Just as Man is the being that expresses God’s sovereignty and character, so the city and its tower are supposed to reflect the people’s sovereignty and character. It is the quintessence of idolatry in its social form.

Then we find a diagnosis. 

“If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.

The emphasis should be put on “this”, they have begun to do “this.” What is “this”? The common language makes it possible to build a city that is religious, zealously devoted to enhancing its reputation, establishing a Name, and itself in a permanent dwelling – linking the life of the people to a soil – Blut und Boden. The result is that human beings will no longer be seen as the bearers of God’s image, but the collective, the city as a whole will fulfill that function. Individuals will then be simple members of the social organism, expendable and submissive. The “let us” is a phrase that includes also those who do not desire to do, what authorities propose. 

The diagnosis is, that people will indeed be able to do this. It is not the technology, not even the social structures that allow for such a grandiose human achievement. It is the language.

Now language in a materialistic society is merely descriptive of realities and prescriptive in the context of labor and justice. Indicatives and imperatives form the dual method of communication. Language is highly functional for social cohesion. Language in an oppressive society – but maybe that is an oxymoron – can become ideological and to some extent always is. Words can function as directives without specific contents and without an identifiable human agent that is responsible for its contents. They can function as shibboleths that identify you as belonging to a certain group and excluding you from others. They can function as passwords, allowing you access to social goods – gaining acceptance, showing yourself to be well adapted and suited for the role you have been given. Words like equality, democracy, freedom, justice, but also words like young or racist can function in such a way. 

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If there is some general agreement on the meaning of such words, without the ability to put the concepts they express to the test, language can become an instrument of oppression. As George Orwell’s book 1984 eloquently illustrates with his idea of “newspeak”. 

So what is God doing about it?

Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.

The confusion of languages is now precisely the taking away of this unexpressed and oppressive mutual understanding, that makes technological domination possible through description, and human manipulation and slavery possible because of its prescriptive force. To speak without the ability to hear – in the translation it says “understand”, but literally it says “hear” – implies that obedience becomes impossible and so is any attempt to achieve something great through the forced cooperation of the many. 

The result is the breaking up of this destructive unity and the dispersion of the people of Babel. Their attempt at unity and their refusal to be dispersed is now thwarted because the necessary condition of their attempt was taken away: the unity and simplicity of linguistic communication. Now we need to really listen because other people will express a different culture and history in their language. The dispersion leads to the celebration of differences. Any attempt to achieve this kind of homogenous unity is just a way to lead us into a destructive – ultimately fascist – uniformity. 

In the end, these people that would make a Name for themselves, that expressed their power and unity, get a name. God gives them a name. They are called Babel, which in itself reflects the confusion of languages. Maybe they would have liked it to mean Bab-El, the gate of God, but the Hebrew language knows better: it is Bavel, confusion. 

 

 

 

January 8th – The Second Fall of Man – Genesis 9

It is obvious that the narrative of the flood reflects the narrative of creation. After the land had dried up, Noah planted a vineyard – reminding us of the garden that God planted for man to enjoy. The covenant of 9:17 and the blessing of 9:1 – including the commandment to be fruitful and multiply – is reminiscent of Genesis 2. The outcome of the narrative is similar to the outcome of the story of the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the garden like Noah ate of the fruit of his orchard, and they became naked. The pure enjoyment of the gifts of God could not be sustained in paradise, and could not be sustained by man after the flood. And in both narratives, the effect of sin is immediately apparent in the nakedness. It is a parody of man’s original state when Adam and Eve were both naked and they felt no shame – Noah in his drunkenness uncovered himself in his tent.
Ham looks upon the nakedness of his father. Lacking all moral integrity he, instead of covering his father up – which is what Adam and Eve tried to do and what God did by providing them with clothes – goes out and tells his two brothers about it. It is a remarkable demonstration of lack of respect for his father and ignorance about the meaning of nakedness. This is not a story about a boy accidentally walking into his father’s bedroom, Ham is pictured as a grown man over 100 years old. Seeing his father’s nakedness is a major offense. To us, it doesn’t seem like a big thing. We are used to nakedness in our society. The cultural background of the narrative however makes looking upon another’s nakedness an abomination.
The two brothers, Shem and Japheth, act like Adam and Eve, and God himself. God did not look on man’s nakedness but covered it with coats of skin. Ham did not take their actions as his example. Now Ham is the father of the Canaanites. The priests of the Canaanite religion sometimes acted naked before their altars. It has been said that the prohibition of Exodus 20:26 is specifically directed against Canaanites religious custom.

And you must not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness is not exposed.

We read in Exodus 28 specifically that the priests should cover their bodies before God in the sanctuary:

Make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked bodies; they must cover from the waist to the thighs.

Ham and his descendants, the Canaanites, have no moral integrity, which is symbolically demonstrated by their acceptance of nakedness, specifically in worship. 

The sons of Noah are here shown to belong to two groups of mankind, those who like Adam and Eve hide the shame of their nakedness, and those who like Ham, or rather the Canaanites, have no sense of their shame before God. (EBC)

January 7th – Praying This Way – Matthew 6

Reading for today: Genesis 6-9, Matthew 6

5 “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward.

Jesus does not give a commandment to pray; he assumes that his disciples understand the necessity of prayer and like all devout Jews pray three times a day. What he is teaching, is the authenticity of prayer. There is a difference between true prayer and the “prayer of the hypocrites.”
Now, he is not against public prayer. It is true that in synagogue worship someone could pray publicly, in front of the arc. There were certain occasions when prayers were offered in the streets. For instance in times of drought when the harvest was in danger. What Jesus rejects is not the posture of people in prayer, nor their position, either in the synagogue or on the streets. His rejection of the prayer of the hypocrites is based on their motivation, so all emphasis should be put on the words: “so that people can see them.” If in prayer you are aware of the fact that others can see or hear you, you might attempt to make a spectacle of yourself. You want to impress others with your devotion or the poetic depth of your language. We might be concerned more with our reputation for piety, then with piety itself. Human praise becomes more important than God’s approval.

6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

I do not believe therefore that verse 6 is about the place of prayer so much. Every time we pray, even when we pray in public, it should be AS IF we are in a completely private place as if only God can hear us – implying a full sincerity and truthfulness. So the image of the private prayer room is not used to prescribe a space, but to illustrate an attitude.

7 When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

There is a second necessary condition of true prayer. Prayer should not be a “babbling”, which means an idle or useless display of rhetoric, or a mere repetition of phrases and divine names. Now, this does not mean that all repetition in prayer is forbidden, nor that Jesus is against long prayer. Jesus taught his disciples that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1). “His point is that his disciples should avoid meaningless, repetitive prayers offered under the misconception that mere length will make prayers efficacious.” (EBC) the reason that he refers to pagan practices, does not imply that this prohibition is directed to pagans. It is called pagan prayer, because that was the way prayers in other religions were conducted; pagan gods thrived on incantation and repetition. The essence of the pagan prayer is giving our father in heaven information about our needs. As I once witnessed, that someone in a public prayer said: “God! We have read in the newspaper that people in Sudan are suffering because of a failed harvest.” That seems to imply that we needed to tell God about this, just in case he didn’t read the paper.

9 So pray this way:

The model prayer, that we call the Lord’s prayer, is not an example of Jesus’s own prayer – we have a fine example of that in John 17. Here we have a problem when we compare the text in Matthew 6 with Luke’s version in chapter 11 of his Gospel.

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Do we have the original prayer in Matthew and does Luke give us a simplified version? That strikes me as odd, because so many times Luke refers to Jesus’s habit of prayer. Why would he use a condensed version of the whole prayer? Or is it the other way around? Luke might be giving us the original, and then Matthew expanded on it? That is the way the historical-critical method deals with this kind of thing. Because they assume literary dependency, they need to talk about expansion or condensation of one version in relation to the other.
There are many other theories. Some say that Matthews version is designed for public worship, and that he tried to make it look more like the prayers of the synagogue. The similarity with the Jewish prayers, however, are found more in the general style than in the wording of the prayer. As someone observed, extemporaneous prayers in evangelical churches have the same similarity in style without being dependent upon each other. The Lord’s prayer is merely using current forms of piety and it is to be expected that Jesus prayed in accordance with the literary custom of the time.
It seems obvious that Jesus has talked about prayer on several occasions. It seems to me that Matthew could record one such occasion and Luke another. The fact that we have two separate traditions which in essence support each other, makes it plausible that this is truly the teaching of Jesus himself – which I did not doubt in the first place.