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myth

Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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First Murder

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The story of the first murder found in Genesis 4:1-16 has got to be one of the oddest murder stories in history. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten it.

Cain and Abel were the two oldest boys born to Eve after she and Adam were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain grew up to become a farmer, and Abel grew up to become a herdsman. Cain brought produce from his farm and presented it to the Lord. Likewise, Abel also brought animals from his herds and presented them to the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon the offerings Abel brought but not on the offerings Cain brought. Because of this, Cain grew angry and frowned. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and frowning? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if not, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” Once they were in the field, Cain attacked Abel and killed him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.

Let’s start with Cain’s motive for murder. It appears to be jealousy or envy of his brother. Yet it is not envy of his brother’s success or of a woman they both love. No, it is envy of God’s favor. Cain resents the fact that God accepted Abel, but didn’t accept him. Of course, the story is sparse. We know nothing of their possible sibling rivalry, nothing of the resentment Cain may have felt at seeing a younger brother preferred over the first born. We don’t know how God showed his favor, whether he appeared as a man as he sometimes does in Genesis, or whether his favor took the form of blessings on Abel’s endeavors. The events related could refer to a single instance or to an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment for Abel. What we do know is that God places responsibility for this state of affairs squarely on Cain himself: “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted?” Both brought offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected because he was not doing right.

God also warns Cain that if he continues going his own way, then his life is in danger from a croucher at the entryway to sin. God tells Cain he must subdue or master the croucher. The language recalls God’s words to Eve when he pronounced punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Like Adam and Eve, Cain goes on to sin despite God’s warnings. When God pronounces judgment on him, though he bemoans his fate, he does not repent.

Later on when God provides civic laws for the Israelites to follow, he institutes the death penalty for murder (cf. Numbers 35: 16-21). Clearly, if God were determined to be just and teach the new human race a lesson in justice, he would have put Cain to death. Instead he sentences him to banishment. Cain complains that once his crime is known, anyone who finds him may kill him. Instead of saying, “Too bad. That’s what you deserve,” God does something extraordinary. He puts a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. The mark of Cain, far from being a sign of sin’s shame and God’s displeasure, is a sign of God’s grace and protection. God goes even further, threatening a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who dares kill Cain. Consider, therefore, the amazing mercy God shows toward the first murderer before insisting that God favors the death penalty for murder.

In both Genesis 3 and 4, though God threatens those who sin with death, the actual punishment is banishment from his presence. Life is in the presence of God, and death is exclusion from his presence.

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Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 2

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In my last post, I closed with an accusation of lying against God. In this post I intend to clear him of the charge—even though he does not need my defense.

How you understand what someone says depends on how much you trust that person. If you trust them a lot, you will try to interpret what they say as truthful. You will be generous and allow them a lot of freedom to use metaphorical language. If you don’t trust them, however, you will treat what they say with suspicion. You will be guarded and construe what they say as literally as possible.* You can see the difference if you compare love letters to legal contracts. Love letters are written with an expectation that the reader will construe what is said with love and kindness. The language is very open and highly metaphorical. Legal contracts are written with the expectation that the reader may construe them with suspicion and hostility. The language is very careful, circumspect, and literal. Terms are clearly and carefully defined.

We think that we trust others because they tell us the truth, but that is actually backwards. We believe that others tell us the truth because we trust them. Our default is trust. We meet strangers and trust them immediately, and our trust is usually justified. We don’t normally fact-check the clerk who tells us the price of an unmarked item is $12.99. Occasionally we meet people who take advantage of our trust to lie to us or cheat us, but they are the exception not the rule. We normally expect others to tell us the truth even though we do not know them and have no reason to trust them. True, we don’t construe what they say with the same generosity that we use with those who love us, but we also don’t treat them with the same suspicion that we reserve for people who have already wronged us.

In the myth of the Fall, the serpent does not lie to deceive Eve. Instead, he insinuates that God has an ulterior motive for his prohibition. He implies that God is not concerned about protecting her life but about excluding her from opportunities she ought to have. He introduces suspicion into her normal and natural trust of God. Eve is tempted by the prospect of improving her life but also by the suspicion that God is withholding that improvement from her.

Adam and Eve do not suffer biological death when they eat the fruit. It is not poisonous. Something happens, however. They experience shame. They feel exposed and want to conceal themselves from one another and from God. They hide. They blame others for their own choices. Though their bodies remain healthy, something within them has died just as God had said. This metaphorical understanding of death continues throughout the whole bible. Read Ezekiel 18 with this in mind, and it makes a whole lot more sense. Paul tells the Ephesians that they were dead in there sins until they believed in Christ. In the same way, the eternal life implied in Genesis that comes from eating the fruit of the tree of life is not an unending biological life. It is the eternal life that Jesus promises his followers, a life that overcomes their fear of death and makes them invincible. Those who put their trust in Jesus pass from death into life. He restores them to a relationship with God characterized by mutual trust and love.

Some people have strayed so far from this trust in God that they do not even believe he exists. They imagine that the whole story is a fairy tale perpetuated by the powerful to dominate the ignorant. I know that for the most part I cannot change minds and hearts so distrustful of God. Jesus came into a culture where God was viewed as an exacting tyrant, insisting with hair-splitting accuracy on correct behavior. Jesus revealed God to be utterly different, a loving Father who embraces those who return to him and throws them a party. Yes, he is demanding, but in the way a good Father demands the best of his children, encouraging them, comforting them, loving them, and at times disciplining them. But he is not harsh. His commands are not burdensome; they are easy. His way is not weighed down with impossible demands; it is light. He encourages his children to love one another, help one another, carry one anothers’ burdens, and forgive one another. This is the God I serve. He does not lie. He does not deceive. He invites us to trust him and live.

*This goes a long way toward explaining the wildly differing accounts of events offered by supporters of Hillary Clinton and those of Donald Trump. Trump’s supporters give Hillary’s statements and events in which she has been involved the worst possible construction. Clinton’s supporters do the same to Trump. They trust their own candidate and treat as self-serving and cynically manipulative anything the opposing candidate says or does. This is not to say that the candidates are equal. But their supporters are roughly equal in their regard for truth and justice.
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