* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The End of the Beginning: Concluding Genesis and Articulating Spiritual Premises to Move Beyond the Biblical Purpose of Cultural Preservation

Except for an odd tale of intrigue in Genesis 38 and a scene in which God renames Jacob "Israel" (even though the stranger Jacob wrestled with by the stream had already done so), the remainder of Genesis is about Joseph, one of Jacob's sons.  It is through Joseph that Jacob and his children wind up settling in Egypt, which is important for the cultural narrative of the Jewish people.  Basically, the story is that Joseph's brothers conspired to kill him because he was Jacob's favorite (and Joseph had prophetic dreams that his brothers would be bowing down to him), but then decided to fake his death and sell him into slavery.  These are the same men that wiped out a city because their sister had been defiled, but perhaps matters are different when it's your little brother that Daddy likes best.

Through various events, Joseph gets himself into and out of prison in Egypt and winds up as an influential overseer helping Egypt prepare for a coming famine.  Jacob's other sons go to Egypt to buy grain, and Joseph toys with them for a few trips before revealing that he is their brother, alive and well and bearing no grudge against them.  He tells them to get everyone from Canaan and come to live in Egypt, where he'll see to it that they're taken care of.  Of course, things don't turn out as well for Jacob's descendents in Egypt as the generations wear on, but through the momentary use of his influence, Joseph is able to make life a little bit easier on his father and brothers. 

The stated lesson derived from Joseph's story is that God was working in the actions of Joseph's brothers when they sold him into slavery; God took a malicious act and used it for good.  Good toward the people who had committed the malicious act and good for the victim of the malicious act.  Given the entire narrative up to this point, this benevolence may seem slightly incongruous, since the paradigm has been set that wicked people earn punishment and righteous people earn reward.  In that Genesis 38 story, God even puts one of Jacob's grandsons to death because he "spills his seed on the ground" when he's supposed to be impregnating his brother's widow. 

But actually, the bottom line in all of this is that God takes care of Abraham's descendents because he and Abraham had a deal.  Of course, Jacob's son Judah had gone off the reservation and had children with a Canaanite woman, so his children from that marriage weren't covered by the deal.  Thus, when Judah's sons do wrong by God's standards, they get instant death.  The God of the Old Testament is more of a cultural deity than a moral absolutist, and it's clear that the primary goal of the book of Genesis is cultural preservation.

If we twenty-first century people are interested in spiritual truth, in an understanding of the divine that has meaning for us in our lives, we cannot accept the Jewish deity as he is presented in the Old Testament.  This is why the New Testament is necessary for Christians, although many of them continue to look back at the culture and narrative of Genesis to determine how people and governments should behave today.  There is certainly some value in the spiritual truth conveyed in the Bible, but that truth is not always what people focus on when they look to scripture.  An abundance of cultural clutter gets in the way.

So, putting aside the cultural narrative and recognizing that people universally have much more commonality than they have difference, how can the book most Westerners turn to for spiritual guidance be re-evaluated?  There are some foundational assumptions that will guide us forward, and I've already articulated most of them through our look at Genesis:

First, spiritual truth is not the same as historical or factual accuracy.  Concern for validating the historical accuracy of what is written is a distraction from seeing spiritual truth that can be meaningfully applied in day-to-day life.

Second, people are not broken or in need of some external redemption.  Human beings have value because human beings have value.  People are capable of making decisions and taking actions without having to attribute the outcome to a deity or external spiritual entity.  When things go well, people are worthy of acknowledgment, and when things go poorly, people are strong enough to handle the criticism.

Third, that which people call the divine is a human characteristic.  The divine is the deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity within every person.  Sometimes it is hidden, and sometimes it is more obvious.  The divine is a part of ourselves.  We are capable of ignoring it or working actively against it, and we are capable of tuning into it and trusting it.  It is the stranger we wrestle with internally when we are of two minds about something.  It is the voice that defends us to our internal critic.  It is the vision within us that connects us to the world, other people, and ourselves.

Fourth, we exist in the finite spectrum of an earthly life.  What happens after a person dies is a matter of faith, but we do know with certainty that we have an impact on the people around us.  If there is good that we are capable of doing, it is up to us to do it.  If there is any reason to seek reconciliation with someone, it is up to us to ask for and offer human forgiveness.  We have the precious resources of this world and the people around us at our disposal for only a lifetime; it is up to us to value them.

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