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Nurturing Community: The Perils of Moral Discomfort in Civil Society (Part 2 of 2)

Friday, May 9, 2014

In Part 1 of this 2 part series I write about what I call the 'Anatomy of a Christian Apology'.  Community without conflict is impossible, so we're left to look for ways in which we can maintain the integrity of what we believe and yet build community among those whose beliefs are different - and in some respects very different.

Among political conservatives, this challenge is seen between those of us who view ourselves (as do I) as 'social conservatives' and those among our fellow conservatives who would likely identify themselves as 'fiscal conservatives', many of whom also identify as libertarians.  There is a sense - one which I am not completely in agreement with, but do understand - that we should leave the social issues alone.  To the extent that this is a call to afford my neighbor the full freedom of his or her conscience, I agree wholeheartedly.  But in order to succeed at building community, we do need to be able to talk about what we feel to be right and wrong, just and unjust.

Even if we are not aiming to come to an agreement, we should be able to talk about the social issues so as to come to a mutual understanding.  I am less interested in winning an argument on these subjects than in helping my neighbor better understand why I view things the way I do.  And I want to make sure I accurately and fairly understand my neighbor's different point of view.  This is why I chose homosexuality and gay marriage as my example in Part 1.  There is no issue among conservatives more current and on point for this discussion about nurturing community.

Genesis 20: The Peril of Seeing Through the Eyes of Moral Discomfort

To the reader who does not share my Evangelical, social conservative leanings, I'll ask for patience with the rest of this necessarily long post.  The stories in Genesis were told, and later written down, in part so that ancient Israel would have a way of talking among themselves about how it was they were to relate to the world around them.  As a Christian, I look for these lessons and then seek to find a way to apply them to my own life situation.  Being part of a community of people who do not share my beliefs is part of that life.

To illustrate this, I'll include here the full text of Chapter 20 in Genesis.  I'll do a couple things with this:  First, I'll highlight and boldface the parts that show how things really were and how Abraham perceived them to be.  You'll see a dramatic difference between the two.  Secondly (and I'll explain more below) I'll highlight and underline a portion where I am adopting a translation different from what you will find in published translations of the Bible.  (Bible Gateway is a good online resource if you want to compare and contrast different translations.)
Now Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev, and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar. Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.” Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a nation, even though righteous? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
So Abimelech arose early in the morning and called all his servants and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were greatly frightened. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?” Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife; and it came about, when the gods misled me from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” Abimelech then took sheep and oxen and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is your vindication before all who are with you, and before all men you are cleared.” Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
Of course I have to explain my translations (highlighted in green), especially of Abraham's dialog.  But first let me introduce the reader to a little background on the texts of the Bible.

What Family Recipes Teach Us About Ancient Texts

I grew up in a U.S. Navy family, so my dad was often gone for months at a time.  Because of this, I grew up helping my mother around the house.  To this day I still enjoy cooking and baking, and teaching my boys how to make their own meals.  Mom had this little box of index cards on which were recipes for all kinds of things.  One of those recipes was for toll-house cookies.  These were my dad's favorites, so we grew up calling them 'daddy cookies'.  If my mom was busy with other things, I would take it on myself to bake a batch when I noticed (usually on the sly in the middle of the night) that they were getting low.

I learned that this cookie recipe had come from my paternal grandma, who had probably gotten it from an earlier generation.  Most of us are familiar with these old family recipes.  I found out, however, what happens when you don't quite copy the recipe correctly.

One time I pulled out the first cookie sheet of the batch, and let it cool while I finished up preparing the second and putting it in the oven.  I then grabbed one of the warm cookies from the just finished sheet to taste it.  I grimaced and winced at the same time - if that is even possible - at the saltiness of my new cookies.  It turned out I had copied the '1 tsp' (teaspoon) of salt from mom's index card as '1 tbsp' (tablespoon), and so mixed quite a bit more salt into the dough than I should have.

Those familiar with baking will likely think: "This is why you use all caps to write 'TBSP' and lower case to write 'tsp' when writing a recipe."  This is, as it were, a 'scribal tradition' for the copying of recipes.

And just as a particular recipe might be handed down among multiple children in a family, and then get changed a little here and there - in different ways by different branches of the family - the texts of the TaNaK/Old Testament come to us in a very similar way.  Evangelical Protestants believe the Bible to be uniquely inspired by God.  But we apply that belief to the original parchments, not to the copies.  The problem we face is these originals have been long lost to history.

So imagine you have a special family recipe that the family believes originated with great-great-great grandma Teresa (my paternal grandma's name was Teresa).  You look for the original, but cannot find it.  It was probably lost to the family generations ago.  So what you do is contact all of the branches of the family to see who has copies.  After collecting all of the available copies, you start to compare them.  If you were to notice, for example, that the copy of the toll house cookie recipe from my branch of the family called for '1 tbsp' of salt, just because you know baking you are almost certain this reflects a 'scribal error'.  And by comparing all of the available copies, noting things like which family took care to adhere to 'scribal traditions' and which did not, and which were older and which were more recent, you can probably reconstruct with a high degree of certainty what great-great-great grandma Teresa's original recipe looked like.

Comparing the available ancient texts of books like Genesis is almost exactly like this.  There are 'families' of ancient manuscripts.  Each of these 'families' shows evidence of scribal traditions.  Some appear more carefully copied, others less so.  As the biblical scholar weighs the differences, when they do appear, one of the principles they apply is the principle of the 'more difficult reading'.  What this means is that if one copy has a reading which is 'more difficult' (for a variety of possible reasons), it is considered possible that a scribe creating the 'less difficult' copy may have tried to 'correct' what he thought to be an error in the 'more difficult' reading.  Thus the 'more difficult' reading is thought likely to be closer to the original.

A 'Difficult Reading' in Genesis 20

Genesis 20 is one such passage.  The word in Hebrew for 'God' is 'elohim'.  This is actually a plural word.  Conventionally, a plural subject would be paired with a plural verbal form.  But in the Hebrew Bible, 'elohim' is usually paired with a singular verbal form.  Technically, this a grammatical error, but it is done to indicate that 'elohim' is to be understood in the singular ('God') as opposed to the plural ('gods').  There are ancient copies of Genesis 20, however, which pair the plural 'elohim' with the plural form of the verb for 'wander' when Abraham says "When God caused me to wander from my father's house..."  If we were to choose this copy as being closer to the original, we would have to quote Abraham as saying: "When the gods caused me to wander from my father's house."

Now to have Abraham adopt a view like this (many gods as opposed to 'monotheism', or one God) is problematic.  But remember our principle: the more difficult reading is to be preferred because it is more likely that it was changed over time by scribes uncomfortable with the original for some reason.  But it is even more problematic when you allow the verb for 'wander' to take on its normal connotation, which is to stumble about aimlessly as if drunk.  If we allow the normal connotation of the verb, we have Abraham saying "...when the gods misled me from my father's house..."  Now we have some real problems!

Until, that is, we allow the story to invite us into Abraham's world of emotions, motives and intentions.  And to do this, we have to back up a little.

In Genesis 18:22-32 we see Abraham 'bargaining' with God.  This is where God has decided to judge Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham is bargaining for God's mercy.  Genesis 19 tells of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And in Genesis 19:27-28 the story expressly takes us back to the place where Abraham had bargained with God.  Here the Hebrew narrator uses the word "behold" to expressly invite the reader to see the scene through Abraham's eyes.  The dialog of the 'bargaining session' is very detailed and intimate.  But when Abraham returns to that same place, he sees his 'prayers' have, quite literally, gone up in smoke.  While the story tells us the angels had rescued Abraham's nephew Lot, the story leaves us to wonder whether Abraham knew this or not.

In Chapter 20, the dialog between God and the king of Gerar is interesting.  In Abraham's bargaining session with God, he appeals to a sense of justice: that God would not judge the 'righteous' with the wicked.  The Hebrew word for 'righteous' is 'tsadiq'.  It is the same word used by Abimelech when asking God "Lord, will You slay a nation, even though 'tsadiq'?"  The allusion here to Abraham's question to God in Chapter 18 is unmistakable.  (Most modern translations use 'blameless' here.  While this is a valid option, by using a different word, the English translation obscures what is otherwise an obvious allusion.)

And this, then, is what we might call the 'emotional context' of Genesis 20.  Some interpreters will argue that trying to delve into Abraham's emotions like this is inherently speculative.  While I agree in one sense - that we cannot be certain - a good story does exactly this.  It invites the reader into the inner life of the main characters.  Wondering how the main characters feel, and why they do what they do, is speculative - and is also the hallmark of good character development.  While I believe these stories to actually have happened in history, they have still been handed down to us as stories. The ancient Hebrews simply did not write their history as we do ours today.

And so it is in Genesis 20, upon coming to Gerar after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is summoned to the court of the king.  It is here where we learn that Abraham had said to himself "surely there is no fear of God in this place..."  Abraham had told the people of Gerar that Sarah was his sister (instead of his wife).  Upon taking Sarah into the king's court, the king is said to have had a dream in which God shows him the truth.  And in 20:8 we see that the men of the king's court were "greatly frightened."  There was, indeed, a fear of God among them.  By reporting to us the great fear among the king's court, and by casting the dialog between God and the king in much the same way as the previous dialog between God and Abraham, Abimelech as a character in the story is 'rounded' alongside that of Abraham. And if we adopt the 'more difficult' reading in this chapter as we have here, this is a deeply discouraged Abraham questioning much of what he thought he understood about God and his relationship with Him.

Moral Discomfort in Civil Society

In taking up this story - the story of Abraham bargaining with God for mercy with respect to Sodom and Gomorrah, how he compares the 'wicked' with the 'righteous', the subsequent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the subsequent visit to Gerar and its discouraged observations - the undertones of the debate over homosexuality and gay marriage are unmistakable even to those with a minimal familiarity with the Bible.  I'll dispense here with the tip-toeing around the bush.

It is too easy for social conservatives like me to look at the gay community and say "there is no fear of God in this place."  This is to look at my community - civil society - through the discouraged eyes of my moral discomfort with the fact others do not live as I live nor believe as I believe.  When we do this, we are assuming a great deal about which we know nothing: We do not know anything of the place in the hearts of our gay neighbors where God may well speak as he spoke to the pagan king in his dream.  And to look at my community through the eyes of moral discomfort is to adopt a disposition of discouragement entirely inconsistent with the idea Christianity has "good news."

As I point out in Part 1 of this two part series, my belief in the heterosexual complement of nature puts me in a tough spot which can only be redeemed by a Christian apology.  My beliefs are hurtful to my gay neighbors, and so there is a deep gulf between me and them.  I can deploy my seminary training toward arguing my point of view only to widen that gulf - which would be to deepen the lack of mutual understanding and, ultimately, the discouragement of my moral discomfort.  Or I can choose to see in my gay neighbor the image of God, and simply choose to be a good neighbor to him or her.

This decision runs right to the heart of the matter of nurturing community.  I believe - no, actually I know because I have experienced this first hand - that I have neighbors in the gay community who believe much as I believe about community and the role of government.  We have worked well together in the past and I fully intend to contribute my part to seeing that we do in the future.  I will do that by seeing in them the image of God and choosing to be their neighbor.  I will not assume what I cannot possibly know about a fear of God.  And I will trust that God is perfectly able to translate the life of a Good Neighbor (in spite of my failures) into His Good News.

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