Sunday, April 19, 2015

On petitionary prayer

We had some friends over the other evening, and the issue of petitionary prayer came up. Here was one set of questions on the table (in my paraphrase): As Christians we don't believe that Christianity is falsified if you pray for something, even something "reasonable" that seems like it would advance the kingdom of God and that is not selfish, and you don't get it. But in that case, we don't really expect to receive our petitions. So why bother to engage in petitionary prayer? What's the point? Moreover, if you are praying for spiritual strength (e.g., to resist some temptation), and you know that you will have to put in the effort yourself to resist the temptation anyway, why bother praying about it? Why not just do your best to resist the temptation?

Now, it would be simple enough to answer these questions by saying that God tells us to pray for our needs, including our spiritual needs. So do it because it's commanded, end of discussion. Scripture is unequivocal in telling us to engage in petitionary prayer: "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God." (Phil. 4:6) "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;" (Eph. 6:18) "Give us this day our daily bread...and deliver us from evil." (The Lord's Prayer) "You have not because you ask not..." (James 4:2) "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God" (James 1:5). "Pray for us...I beseech you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner." (Hebrews 13:19) "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation" (Matt. 26:41)

I think, though, that these and other verses give us more information than just a bare commandment. The most important part of this information, mysterious as it must seem, is that in some way we cannot fully understand God has elected to use our prayers as part of the causal chain for bringing about his will in our lives and in the world.

That seems incredibly inefficient. Why should I have to pray for my daily bread? God knows what I need. He could just send it! God knew the good that Paul could do if released from prison. (Assuming that Paul was the author, or one of the authors, of Hebrews.) If it was God's will to release him from prison, why did people need to pray for it? Why should God accomplish his will in any way whatsoever by means of our prayers?

But that question could be asked of anything. God could have spelled out his message by special revelation to each individual on earth, but it pleases him (at least most of the time) by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. (I Cor. 1:21; cf Romans 10:14ff) God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and could provide all the cups of water necessary for every thirsty person, yet instead he promises a blessing to those who give a cup of water in his name. (Mark 9:41)

In other words, one thing that Scripture teaches again and again and again is that God likes to do things "inefficiently." God chooses, of his own free creativity, to make us mysteriously a part of the vast web of causal processes in this world by which to bring about his purposes. And sometimes we can mess up and not do our part. So with prayer. It is just as true of prayer as it is of telling others about Christ, speaking up instead of being silent, or doing your daily work: God has a job for you to do, and if you don't do it, the ball might get dropped. Something might not happen that would otherwise have happened. Oh, to be sure, as with all our sins both of commission and of omission, God can nonetheless bring good out of evil. He is never taken by surprise. But the point is that praying is a form of working for God's kingdom. It is part of what we can and should be doing. It is causal. We don't have to understand precisely how this is so to know that it is so and that this is why God tells us to pray.

Notice that this is true even of praying for our own needs. It is true of praying for a job, for example. Presumably if one is looking for a job one is working to that end. If you believe that God is glorified by your applying for jobs, that it is a worthwhile endeavor (a reasonable enough proposition!), then you can see that God is also glorified by your praying both for a job and for wisdom in the entire process of application and decision-making.

With that point made about the real causal role of prayer, I know that there is no danger that what follows will be interpreted as saying, "The only point of prayer is that it changes you." That isn't the only point of prayer. But it is one point of prayer, including petitionary prayer. There is no spiritual exercise that is the equivalent of prayer. Nothing else can be substituted for it. An important aspect of that spiritual exercise is genuinely, sincerely asking for something from God, thinking of God as a great King who loves you, who can grant your request, and asking for it with no irony or reservation, while at the same time submitting yourself to his will if he should choose not to grant it. That is hard. It is one of the hardest things for us Christians to do. (We have Jesus' own example of it in the Garden.) In doing this we speak to the Father as to a Person. (If that offends the classical theists in my audience, so be it.) We understand that prayer is not just a rote exercise to go through. It is not just a series of motions. It is a real transaction in a real world that we cannot see. We are speaking to Someone and asking Him for something. But at the same time, we are not treating the concrete thing we request as a right. We are not saying, "I deserve this." We are submitting to Him completely, realizing that we may not get what we ask, or at least not in any visible or sensible form.

I suggest that if one tries this for a few months, repeatedly, it will make a difference to one's spiritual character.

What this also means is that petitionary prayer shouldn't be separated off into a little box from adoration, thanksgiving, and confession of sins. That's presumably part of why the Apostle Paul uses the expression "prayer and supplication with thanksgiving." Psychologically, this makes sense. If you are asking for something from God in a concentrated and sincere way, recognizing that you are speaking to a real Personal Being, but at the same time recognizing how far above you God is, then petition will be constantly passing in and out of adoration and thanksgiving. As for confession, that will be there as well, because it will be extremely difficult to come to God in that humbleness and openness of mind without recognizing that one has things one must confess.

Note, too, that confessing sins is not an option. Christians are required to do it, to be repeatedly confessing, repenting, and seeking forgiveness, to be getting their hearts right with God. So we must pray for that reason if no other, and in the process of confessing sins, asking forgiveness, and thanking and praising God, it would be quite artificial to exclude more ordinary petitionary requests.

All of this may sound rather too obvious, or thin, or preachy. But it's what I've got to offer on this urgent, practical issue.

Prayer for the Christian is like water--an absolute need. In fact, it is so whether you feel that way or not. If you make a habit of prayer, setting aside time for it and doing it with all your might, opening your heart to God, I predict that you will come to feel it to be a need as well as knowing it to be. That can only be a good thing.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Generation Gap

We were driving home from church today and passed a greenhouse with a Christian Easter message on its board: "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow." I drew the family's attention to it. Youngest Daughter exclaimed solemnly, "Wow, that's really good, that he's being so bold."

I was struck.

I cannot imagine making a similar remark to my own Christian family in childhood. I'm not saying we never heard anything about Christians being mocked for their faith in America--usually in public schools, which I did not attend. But the idea that a businessman would have been "bold" in the 1970's to put up a quotation from a Christian Easter song would never have crossed our minds. In those days businessmen still occasionally pretended Christianity to make themselves look good!

I'm not going to say that Youngest Daughter's ideas about the Christian's need for boldness in 2015 have been formed entirely independently. Without giving her the lurid details, I have definitely conveyed the fact that Christian businessmen are sometimes targets of those who hate our faith and who attempt to "get them in trouble."

It's true, isn't it? The culture has changed, and boldness is needed. Our community is probably one of the better ones, but it is still entirely possible that someone would target a business in our area for "discrimination" against certain "identities." In fact, shortly after our region passed a "gender identity" ordinance, the story came back of a Christian girl working at a local clothing store who had to deal with two cross-dressing men, one of whom demanded to try on clothes in the women's dressing room and then flabbergasted the young lady by asking, "How do I look?" after putting on a skirt. I would like to think that she put on her driest face and tone and said, "I don't think it's your color," but I'm sure she didn't have that much savoir faire.

So we can't say, "It would never happen here." A greenhouse, unlike a florist, does not celebrate events, so that helps, but any business that employs people can be the target of an employment discrimination "sting" by the shrieking harpies of tolerance.

There is a generation gap. The temptation is great to keep a low profile, and when it comes to young people with a place to find still in the world, maybe that's good advice. But I'm glad that Youngest Daughter's first thought was to admire the greenhouse owner who is displaying the words to "Because He Lives."

The new generation needs people to admire, and a bold Christian greenhouse owner is a good one to start with.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The short-sighted use of copyright power

I recently learned that Bill Luse at Apologia has been asked to take down his excerpts from Whittaker Chambers Witness. Chambers's grandson owns the copyright and has gone to a relatively low-traffic blog asking that excerpts cum appreciative commentary be disappeared from the Internet. Legally he probably has the power to do this, though, given that there was commentary, the excerpting posts might fall under fair use, depending on the percentage of the work they amounted to. However, the blogger has agreed, rightly, to the demand of the copyright holder.

Speaking for myself, I am more than a tad annoyed at the short-sightedness of Chambers's grandson in making this demand. I was motivated to go back and read Witness all the way through by reading those excerpts. It was a book that I had long intended to read but had never gotten around to, and I might have never gotten around to it were it not for the excerpts on Apologia. Since then I have passed on my love of the book to others.

I am not making an anarchic argument for the abolition of intellectual property rights, but I am going to say that holders of intellectual property should ask themselves: Do they want the property they hold to be entombed, or do they want it to be read? It is blinkered thinking to run all over the Internet trying to suppress excerpts of a book to which you hold the copyright. Even from a crassly material point of view (and I doubt that this is what motivates the grandson, though in honesty I don't know what motivates him), reading such excerpts is likely to make people go out and buy the book! I happened to own a copy already, but not everybody does. From a more important point of view, if what is in the book is important, you should want people to be interested in it and to read it. A respectful appreciation accompanied by even fairly extended excerpts isn't taking bread out of anybody's mouth, but it may put ideas into their minds.

I think Whittaker Chambers himself would be more interested in getting his words out to more people than in taking them down. He was, after all, a witness.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

He Is Risen!

It is Easter Sunday. Our world is growing ever worse. In the Middle East, the most merciless of enemies kills our fellow Christians in unspeakable ways. Here in the United States, our merciless political enemies are driving Christians out of business in an anti-Christian pogrom unimaginable even twenty years ago. (I almost wrote "a legal pogrom" or "a non-violent pogrom," but the recent death threats that have closed a pizzeria whose owner gave the politically incorrect answer to an inquisitorial reporter make even those phrases inaccurate.)

Meanwhile, three hundred Republican pundits have joined to send an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to lie again about the Constitution and to spread this sort of slavery and oppression of conscience, and the approval of perversion, all across the country. Traitors and Judases, every one of them.

In case readers have wondered why I have not said more about these events, it is quite frankly because I do not know what to say. I am appalled and stunned by the speed with which evil is taking over our land and the world.

But is it not in this context that Easter needs to come? As a blogger, I have nothing to offer you today. Nothing but Eeyorish predictions about all the badness in the world. Nothing but head-shaking.

It is Jesus Christ who has everything to offer. It is true that what he offers us, in the first instance, is the opportunity to die for him. May we recognize the moment for sacrifice when it comes and not be like Peter who denied. But he also offers us eternal life. He says, "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."

This world will come to an end. What will matter for each of us as it does is how we, as Christians, lived, and how we, as Christians, died. Of course we should continue fighting the culture wars. But we should remember at all times that our help is in the name of the Lord who has made heaven and earth and that it is he who gives the victory. We don't know what is going to happen. Good. That's probably just about where God wants us to be. Then we will acknowledge our utter dependence on him. Then we will acknowledge that he is the Lord of history and the Lord of the future, as much when we are losing the war as when we are winning, as much when we cannot predict tomorrow as when we can. And as much when we have a clever spin to put on today's bad news as when we bloggers on the right side, we mini-pundits, do not know what to say.

The resurrection says that God has the last word. So be of good cheer!

He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

What was writing like in the 1st century

I have recently been reading two books, both of which I highly recommend. The two are Colin Hemer's The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, about which I hope to have more to say later. This post is about just one bit in John Wenham's Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem.

Says Wenham (pp. 204-205),

How are we to suppose that Mark went to work? It is anachronistic to think of him working like a modern author with well-referenced sources, convenient writing materials and plenty of space. A quotation from A. Dain, the eminent French authority on manuscripts, will illustrate the point:
With very rare exceptions, one always sees the copyist in a quite characteristic attitude: he does not execute his copy on a desk or reading-stand--nor a fortiori on a table--but he writes on his knees, usually but not always, with a board serving as a writing-surface for him...It is astonishing that the professional copyists should not have used a table for their work. The truth is that Antiquity did not know what we call a writing-table. The table virtually serves only for eating, and it is always very low. It is only in the second part of the Middle Ages that one finds representations showing copyists writing on a desk, or even on a table...There is then a classical copyist position...[my omission from Dain here]. The person is seated, his left leg bent; his right leg is vertical and his knee supports the little writing board on which [he] writes. With the right hand he traces the parchment marks, while with the left he holds the sheet of parchment.
Think about what Wenham is quoting Dain as saying here: They didn't write on tables! They didn't write on desks! They wrote in this incredibly uncomfortable position sitting on the ground with a little lap-board on their knees, holding the parchment with one hand and writing with the other. Could any writing position be less useful for purposes of complex editing and redacting of a literary source? Wenham continues (pp. 205-206):

This is borne out by B. M. Metzger's subsequent study 'When did Scribes Begin to Use Writing Desks?' in which he shows that desks, tables and stands are traceable only to the ninth century. He adds useful information about note-taking:
...when a scribe was making relatively brief notes on a wax tablet or on a sheet of papyrus or parchment, he would usually stand and write while holding the material in his left hand. When a scribe had a more extensive task, such as the copying of a rather lengthy manuscript, he would sit, occasionally on the ground but more often on a stool or bench, supporting the scroll or codex on his knees (123).
He discounts the idea that the 'table' in the scriptorium at Qumran, which was solid and only seventeen and a half inches high, could have served as a writing-desk (136). Nothing could give a more vivid idea of the awkwardness of redactional work than a study of Plates III-XIX in Metzger's book, which shows how cramped scribes were even when they began to have desks to work at. In the first century tables and chairs such as we know them did not exist. Diners reclined, propped up on an elbow, at the low tables. To consult more than one scroll an author would presumably have had to spread them out on such a table or on the floor and either crawl around on hands and knees or else repeatedly crouch down and stand up again, looking at first one and then another. He could either make notes or commit what he read to memory before writing the matter up on a sheet of papyrus or vellum, or, possibly, sitting down and transferring it direct to his new scroll. Finding the place, unless he was prepared seriously to deface his scrolls, would be difficult. Handling a reed pen dipped in ink (or moistened to get ink from a dry ink-cake) to write on a surface made of strips of papyrus pith was a skilled operation--which Paul seems usually to have left to an amanuensis. In a community where most had small, dark, crowded homes, finding a room suitable for the task, and reasonably free from distractions, would not be easy.
In ideal conditions, it was not particularly difficult for a trained scribe simply to copy a scroll, though (as Dain points out) it required great concentration. Copying with some adaptation was also common in the ancient world, but it was the work of highly educated scholars. For one who was not a professional to take a lengthy manuscript with no chapter, verse or even word divisions and select, rearrange and revise it was a formidable task. It is highly unlikely that one gospel was produced as the result of an author working directly on the scroll of another; even less that he worked on two or three at once.
No tables or chairs! This information about the physical conditions of writing in the ancient world has enormous importance for any redactional theory of the origins of any ancient book, including the gospels. Indeed, these difficulties make it an interesting question as to how we come to have even the verbal similarities that do exist among the synoptic gospels. Knowledge of these difficulties in copying, much less in using multiple sources at once, should rule out altogether hypotheses according to which any of the synoptic authors were literally editing and grafting together earlier sources in anything like a complex literary manner.

Wenham gives his own ideas of how an author like Luke might have worked: Making an outline based on Mark, doing the actual writing partly from memory based on his previous reading of Mark and Matthew, fitting in as he writes additional information he had available (such as the annunciation and birth narratives), and then reading back through either Matthew or Mark (or both, but not both at once) and his own draft and making some changes to his draft in the light of this re-reading. This is conjectural and would have been cumbersome enough, in all truth, but it at least avoids the more absurd picture of Luke (or anyone else) crawling around on a large area of floor covered with un-indexed scrolls in an attempt to do a true copying-with-detailed-redaction.

This fascinating information should be much more widely known. Wenham quotes the dry comment of F.G. Downing, "[T]he long debate on the sources of the Synoptic Gospels seems to have been conducted without paying much or any attention to this issue of whether any indications of 'sensible' compositional procedures in the first century C.E. are available." (Wenham, p. 206)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Debunking the claim of "development" in the crucifixion narratives

I have recently been discussing with a friend the hypothesis, put forward by some skeptics of Christianity, that the gospels show evidence of legendary accretion in the form of the development of Jesus as a character in the crucifixion narratives. The general idea is supposed to be that we can see that Jesus changes from one crucifixion story to another in ways that are best explained by the hypothesis that the gospel writers were massaging or manipulating the portrayal of Jesus, putting words into his mouth, and so forth, rather than simply attempting to record historical events that lay within their knowledge or within the knowledge of their immediate sources. In particular, the claim is that the initial crucifixion stories in the earlier gospels Matthew and Mark portray a despairing Jesus and a prima facie meaningless crucifixion and that Jesus grows "nobler," more controlled, more martyr-like or even godlike, and the crucifixion more meaningful as the "line of development" proceeds through the gospels. This, in turn, is supposed to cast doubt on the idea that the gospels are simply memoirs of Jesus from people in the know. Rather, we are supposed to see them as having, at least to some degree, the characteristics of fictional portrayals which are therefore less than reliable concerning the actual details of what Jesus did and said.

In particular, the data used for this developmental hypothesis concerning the crucifixion narratives are

a) That Jesus says only, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" from the cross in Matthew and Mark.

b) That in Luke Jesus says, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit" when he dies, that he offers the thief on the cross a place in Paradise, and that he asks his father to forgive those who are crucifying him.

c) That Luke does not contain, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Although the following was not presented to me as a datum when I was informed of the details of this hypothesis, I can continue spinning this alleged pattern myself (momentarily, before debunking it) by pointing out

d) That Jesus commits his mother to the care of John in the gospel of John, which may be regarded as a noble, controlled, and meaningful act.

Dear reader, let me make some suggestions. When anybody claims that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, do the following: First, get a handle on what sort of trajectory of development is being claimed. Then, sit down, pick up your Bible, open it up, and read swathes of relevant text to see whether they in fact display such a pattern. Do not allow cherry-picked, even uber-cherry-picked data points to be treated as evidential in themselves. After all, your Bible is sitting right there, is it not? And there is likely to be more evidence in the Bible one way or another concerning this alleged pattern, is there not? And the facts thus far mentioned, even if correct as far as they go, are a pretty meager basis on which to build such an hypothesis, are they not?

Let me also suggest that you bear in mind all the other data we have that argue that the gospels were not massaged, fictional accounts but rather are memoirs coming from truthful eyewitnesses--data such as undesigned coincidences among the gospels (including in Jesus' trial before Pilate), unexplained allusions, pointless but truth-like details, the clearly unretouched and strongly Jewish account of Jesus' conception and birth in Luke, etc. With all this in mind, a couple of points like a-d above should be treated with grave skepticism when it is claimed that they establish a pattern of development. But in any event, the matter is quite easy to test. Which I did.  I widened my focus to the passion narratives conceived slightly more broadly than the words on the cross alone. There are probably even more points than what I am going to give, but here are the ones I found even just in a brief re-reading:

1) In all of the synoptic gospels, including Mark, Jesus says to the Sanhedrin, when asked if he is the Christ, the Son of God, "Ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power." In fact, the wording in Mark (which skeptics themselves generally take to be the earliest gospel) is one of the strongest: "I am, and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." Note that Jesus says this despite the fact that he has predicted his crucifixion (Mark 8:31). Therefore, not only does Mark not portray Jesus as surprised by his death or as seeing his death as a terrible and meaningless tragedy; Mark portrays Jesus as defying the Jewish leaders on the very eve of his death and predicting his own ultimate vindication and power!

2) These statements to the Sanhedrin are not found in John, the latest gospel! So in this area, there is exactly the opposite of any "development" of Jesus into a stronger, more godlike, or more in-charge person in the passion narratives.

3) All the synoptics record a) the darkness from the 6th to the 9th hour at Jesus' crucifixion, b) the rending of the veil of the temple, and c) the statement (attributed in Mark to the centurion), "Surely this was the Son of God." This is far from portraying the crucifixion as meaningless. These indications in the synoptics strongly imply a deep theological meaning in Jesus' death. The rending of the veil in the temple implies that his death had some sort of heavy theological effect concerning the Old Covenant. We can be sure that if these events occurred in John, they would be used to argue for "development" of Jesus, of Christology, and of the gospel writers' view of the meaning of the crucifixion. Yet they are in the earliest gospels, and...

4) John, the latest gospel, does not record the darkness, the rending of the veil, or the statement, "Surely this was the Son of God."

5) Of all the gospels, only Matthew states that the dead came forth after Jesus' crucifixion. Regardless of whether one thinks that this really happened or not, the point is that it is a counterexample to an alleged pattern of gradual development of significance from the earlier to the later gospels. Even Luke does not include this claim, and John certainly doesn't, though both are later than Matthew, but Matthew includes it along with the rending of the veil of the temple. Again, we can be sure that if Matthew were independently known to be the latest gospel, this would be used as evidence of the alleged pattern of development.

6) Of all of the gospels, only John, the latest, records the most human admission of physical pain and weakness in the words from the cross: "I thirst."

7) The three "noble" words from which, apparently, the skeptics are attempting to build their developmental thesis are, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise," and "Into thy hands I commit my spirit." But in fact, these are recorded only in Luke and not in John! John has the more ambiguous, "It is finished" just before Jesus breathes his last. In John, Jesus is not shown asking his Father to forgive those who crucify him and is not shown offering a place in paradise to the thief on the cross. So what is the developmental thesis? That Jesus got "nobler" abruptly in Luke's portrayal, for some unknown reason, and then less "noble" and more pathetic and human in John's later portrayal?

All of this is in addition to,

8) The words, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" should by no means be taken to be simply an expression of despair on Jesus' part. While they may express deep suffering on his part, they are a direct allusion to Psalm 22, which contains rather amazingly coincidental phrases seeming to foretell crucifixion and which ends with the vindication of the speaker by God. While the precise reasons for which Jesus cried out this phrase from the cross are not revealed directly in Scripture, taking it to be merely a portrayal of a man in despair is an extremely shallow, uninformed, and tendentious interpretation.

I would emphasize 1-7 even more right here, however, because they do not even require a knowledge of the Psalms. Of course, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should know that about Psalm 22, but even more than that, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should have a sufficient modicum of skepticism about the skeptics to take up and read and see the other points, which completely destroy the idea of a linear progression from sad, despairing, human Jesus dying a meaningless death to controlled, godlike figure. It's just a completely bogus claim. There is no such progression. In Luke we have three sayings not contained in John or any of the other gospels. In John we have three sayings from the cross not contained in any of the other gospels, in the synoptics we have some things not in John, and there just is no pattern of development. At all. What we have instead is exactly what we would expect to see if the various gospels had, at least to some extent, independent access to the events in question from witnesses who noticed different things, remembered different things, and recorded different things. That hodge-podge of detail is exactly what we get with human testimony to real events. 

In fact, an interesting conjecture (though only a conjecture) arises from John 19:35, where Jesus commits his mother to the beloved disciple. If that disciple was indeed the author of the gospel, it may be that John does not record the words given by Luke because he left the cross immediately and took Mary away from the grisly scene to his own home, returning thereafter alone and witnessing Jesus' last moments. It is, again, only a conjecture, and I do not wish to place too much weight on it, but it is certainly one kind of thing that happens and causes witness testimony to vary.

Skeptics, and unfortunately some Christians, are easily captivated by a kind of phony evolutionary hypothesis about the gospels. I call it the "eohippus model." Mark is the shortest, so it is like the little eohippus horse ancestor, and all the other gospels evolved by chance processes of accretion (not anything like truthful alternative witnesses!) from a Markan original.

All the evidence of the actual contents of the gospels tells against this, and there is nothing in the sheer shortness of Mark to support this hypothesis.

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as "making Jesus say" things he never said, portraying different "Jesuses" in a literary fashion, and "developing" Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn't so.

Monday, March 23, 2015

I will not let thee go except thou bless me

Dorothy Sayers has her character Lord Peter Wimsey say that the personality of Jacob irritates him. I have been recently re-reading Genesis and am tempted to agree with Lord Peter. The personality of Jacob is both very distinctive and highly irritating.

The Anglican divine John James Blunt, who wrote an excellent work on undesigned coincidences in Scripture, argues persuasively that the vividness and consistency of Jacob's personality is evidence for the veracity of the sections of Genesis that tell his story. I think Blunt is right. Jacob is always the same--calculating, tricky, greedy, nervous to the point of cowardice, a master of self-pitying drama, pessimistic. In Laban he meets his match--a trickster and dodger after his own pattern. But after putting up with it for fourteen years, Jacob takes the opportunity to make a gigantic, Middle Eastern family scene about it.

When Jacob returns from Laban to Canaan and sends messages to Esau, whom he tricked out of his birthright, Esau decides to give little brother a good scaring. One can just see Esau chuckling into his beard when he sends the message, "Tell your master that his brother Esau is coming with four hundred men." As it turns out, Esau never meant Jacob any harm, but he knew quite well that Jacob would not have changed in twenty years and that the message would send him into a veritable frenzy of worry and fret.

So Jacob sends elaborate gifts ahead to Esau and, finally, sends everyone else on ahead, including his wives and children. But when he stays behind alone, he encounters Someone a good deal more formidable than Esau.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. (Genesis 32:22-31)
I submit that this is a truly great passage of Western literature. Try reading it aloud sometime. We move almost seamlessly from the all-too-real cowardly Jacob, staying behind the women and children, to a vision scene fraught with a depth of meaning impossible to pin down.

What does it all mean? Why does the angel (or God in a theophany) call Jacob a prince with God? Jacob, of all people! Merely because he is persistent in a wrestling match?

One can just imagine what a film version of this scene would be like--the mysterious man who shows up, barely visible in the night, and falls into a wrestling position, the match, the dramatic dialogue. The attempt to "pin" each other, not only in wrestling but in the telling of names, as though knowing your adversary's name gives you power. But it is God who obtains Jacob's name, and gives him a new one.

And then the last verse: "And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted on his thigh." The sun rises on a Jacob permanently changed by something that could not have been only a vision, for it left behind an undeniable physical mark.

Yet in the text, Jacob is not changed in personality. He continues to be just as cautious, just as pessimistic, just as full of worry. He doesn't act any more like a prince with God after he receives the name Israel than before that all-night wrestling match.

What does it all mean?

To which I answer: I don't know. I think it happened, mind you. At the risk of trivializing its depth, I will say that one obvious application is that we ourselves are, or can be, God's instruments, even God's crucial instruments in sacred history, despite our absurdities.

If such a scene could come to Jacob, and such a name, then any of us may hope to see the face of God, and live.