A grudgeless God.

February 15, 2011

Dear reader, today I read Genesis 48-50. I guess, on finishing this rather long book I should feel a sense of satisfaction, perhaps even closure. But instead I feel a bit…hmm… Yes, like that.

This is because, dear reader, I just don’t know what write about. There is some nice heart-warming family time between Jacob and Joseph in chapter 48, Jacob’s ‘blessings’ on all this sons (most of which read more like admonitions!) in chapter 49 and then a sort of ‘wrapping in all up’ bit in chapter 50. I enjoyed reading but nothing jumped out at me.

So, what to do when you don’t what to write? Read!

I read commentaries and sermons on this passage and I found out something very interesting. In 50:15, following Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers say ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ A justified fear, seeing as they left him in a pit to die and have been living from his provision since their reunion.

But the ‘what if’ that we read in English translations is not ‘what if’ at all in the Hebrew; it is the word lu. In all other translations in scripture lu  becomes ‘if only’ or ‘would that’. But here it can’t be that can it? Then the translation would be ‘if only Joseph still bears a grudge against us…’ Why would the brothers desire Joseph’s wrath?

Well, two reflections (well worth a read; here and here) that I read suggested that in some way the brothers may well have wanted this. They desired to be punished and so have their guilt assuaged. Joseph offers them forgiveness, but this is a difficult thing to accept. 

I really recognise this symptom of guilt, don’t you? This feeling that we deserve retribution, that somehow it would be easier to take that than to fully accept we are forgiven. How hard it is to really accept forgiveness? To see that the past is forgotten, redeemed, washed clean.

This Sunday morning I was standing in church waiting to take communion and I was thinking about what that sacrament meant to me. They sermon had been on Matthew 5:21-26, all about being reconciled with one another before we approach God. And I had been thinking about a certain relationship in which I struggle with feelings on anger.

As the bread and wine came around it struck me that communion didn’t fix me, but it reminded me that I was forgiven. Jesus came so that we might be free from sin; and that freedom only comes if we are forgiven by God. And we can only fully live our freedom if we are aware of God’s forgiveness.

A difficult thing to really accept at the core of our beings; isn’t it? But it is a truth. And for a fleeting moment on Sunday morning I felt it, I felt the freedom of knowing that was nothing hanging over me, no list compiled to be read out at the end of time. There were no grudges being held in heaven.

Aaaah, what a relief!

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Continuing from last week’s post on this subject, here’s the second part of Joseph’s story in my own words:

Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, betrayed brother, stood in his feasting hall as the empty plates were gathered. His brothers, each one, had sat at that table in front of him. And those brothers, whom he had tried to forget, were now readying themselves to leave again. He needed to tell them who he was, but how? Had things gone too far? Had he pretended so long to be a distant Egyptian that he had become one?

He couldn’t speak, paralysed with fear of another rejection, or was he afraid of their loving embrace? Whatever the case, neither could he bear to see Benjamin leave again. He’s mother’s son, his little brother.

He called his stewards and told them to load the brothers’ donkeys with as much food as they could carry, and to place their silver back in their bags.

“But in the sack of the youngest,” he added “place my silver cup.” He was plotting again, to keep Benjamin near, why could he not just ask him?

As he saw his brothers ride off he called his trusted servant, telling him of the missing cup. The servant rode out to the brothers. Stopping them, he asked “Has one of you repaid kindness with evil? My master’s silver cup is missing, and you have taken it.” Of course, the brothers denied it. Why would they come all the way back from Canaan to return the man’s silver only to steal his cup? “If any of us has it, kill him, and let the rest of us will be your slaves.” They said. But the servant would not accept such a boast, instead he said only the one who had stolen would be the slave. Very well.

One by one, oldest to youngest the men opened their sacks. They were not afraid, they knew themselves to be honest men. More the horror, then, when out of Benjamin’s sack fell the silver cup. The brothers tore their clothes. The boy they had sworn to protect, the brother of the one they had abandoned. How could their father bear it? Surely he would die of grief. They wouldn’t let Benjamin be taken back alone. Loading their mules up once more they all returned to Egypt.

When Joseph met them he saw that their faces were worn. They were afraid, they were shaken. These were not the boys from his youth, who had thrown him into a pit through their own jealous wrath. These were men, fathers, looking at their youngest brother with such love, such grief. But somehow he still clung to the pretence.

“What have you done?” he asked them. “I have invited you to eat with me and you have insulted me so deeply. You have abused my trust.” He pretended not to hear their pleading, though it echoed in his mind, and insisted that Benjamin be his slave. Perhaps when they were alone, perhaps then he could tell the truth.

But then Judah was there, close to him, asking for just a word. His eldest brother told him of his father Jacob, of how the man clung to Benjamin, of how without him there would be no light in his life.

“I promised that if anything happened to him I would be accountable.” Judah confided “I told him I would give my life for his. So take me, though I am not so young any more, take me as your slave and let the young man go.”

Now here was a change. The one who had sold Joseph into slavery would now give up his own freedom in place of his brother. There was a spark of jealousy in Joseph and then a rush of warmth. He could no longer hold himself together. The pretence was over.

“Leave me!” he cried to his servants. And almost before they left he had broken down. His cries carried over the evening air, but he no longer cared.

For a moment the brothers stood, perplexed. Here was this man, this powerful Egyptian, the object of their fright, balling like a child before them. What was going on? But then he spoke, not in Egyptian this time, but in Hebrew.

“It is I, Joseph. Your brother lives and prospers in Egypt.” Silence. “I know it is a shock, and perhaps I should have told you that first day, but here I am. Does my father still live? How I long to see him.”

Some of his brothers were jubilant. Others kept their eyes to the floor, were they crying?

“No, no.” said Joseph “Don’t be afraid, have no regrets. It was not you who sold me into slavery, but God. I was sent here so that I might foresee the famine. And in this I will save you and our father from poverty. And many more besides.” When he had finished this speech there were no more words. He fell on Benjamin and wept. They all wept and kissed and embraced.

The twelve were together again, and soon their father would join them.

and they all lived happily…ever after?

 

I hope you enjoyed this story, dear reader. Writing this really has given it  more depth for me. Thinking about Joseph’s emotional state makes him more human, and more inspiring. His faith and forgiveness (two things I quite like, as you may have guessed by my username) are quite astonishing. To be able to see that all the bad times have led him there, and to have let go of all blame (Genesis:45:4-15). Amazing.

I’d really recommend this exercise, or at least the idea of considering the feelings of a character as you read. Suddenly they are not ancient patriarchs who did things we could never dream of, but people just like us. In this we see our own potential and our own flaws. Suddenly scripture is in the present. What a gift.

 

P.S. I really the picture above, I feel it encapsulates something of the reconciliation of the brothers, but with the presence of brokeness. Thank you nicolasnova at Flickr.

Dear reader, in yesterday’s post I let y’all know that I would be trying out a few different things this week. I want reading and thinking about the Bible to be a creative act. So in today’s experiment I’ll write a story. Now, I’m kind of cheating, as it’s a story you’ve probably heard before. Well, you’ve definitely heard it if you’ve read Genesis 40-43. My idea is to read those chapters and then write out in the story in my own words, without referring back to the text. Here’s the result:

 

Joseph, the betrayed brother, the beloved son of Jacob now found himself wrongly imprisoned in a foreign land. He had found favour with the prison warden, who gave him charge over other prisoners. But sometimes favour just feels like extra work though, doesn’t it? He still dreamed, still hoped in God, on the brighter days.

Now there came a time when employees of the Pharoah were thrown into jail, and Joseph was to wait on them. These men were nice enough, the wine-taster and the baker, and he got to know them a little, enough so that he noticed one morning when their expressions changed for the worse. The men had dreamt dreams, but who would interpret them?

Joseph knew, unlike others around, that it was not a special skill you needed to interpret dreams, but a touch of faith. So he told them that he, with God’s help, would reveal their dreams meanings, and somehow they believed him. So each in turn told their dream. The first of thee vines and a cup held by Pharoah himself, the second of three baskets and bread pecked by the birds. The first dreamer found joy in his interpretation, and this had made the second brave, but he would find despair. For one would live and one would die, and on the third day, like so many proofs after, it came to pass, just as Joseph had said.

“Remember me.” was Joseph’s simple request to the wine-taster, the living man, and for a while hope fluttered in his heart. Any day now he would be free by command of the Pharoah, his innocence would be known and, perhaps, he would return to his father. But the day was long in coming, and just as he had begun to forget his hope, his touch of faith paid off. He was called to his destiny, but first he needed a shave.

The Pharoah had dreamed dreams, dreams that  the fate of a nation, of a world. Seven sleek and fat cows being eaten by seven starved ones, seven healthy ears of corn devoured by seven hungry ones. No one knew what it meant, until Joseph was remembered, and called. Of course, he did not know either, but God did and he knew God.

There were to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity. The only way to survive was to plan; they would need to collect a fifth of all that was produced in the next seven years. Joseph knew this, he had always had a knack for organisation, with his father, with his former master, even in prison. Somehow the Pharoah saw this in him. Joseph, was, after all, the only one who could interpret his dream.

And then it seemed to happen all at once. From being prisoner Joseph was suddenly second in the land. This Hebrew boy was given a grand home and a chariot, power and authority, and a wife, a beautiful wife. He loved her, and she bore him two sons. He began to forget the pain of the brothers who had left him for dead; his family was here now. He wanted for nothing. But still, a part of him ached.

Perhaps he was not surprised when, in the time of famine when all were coming from near and far to find food, he saw the ten figures approaching. Men from the land of Canaan, Hebrews, he was told. But he knew already who they were, and he was overcome. With what? Anger. Grief. Perhaps worst of all, love.

There they were, his brothers. Bowing before him now, just as in his dream. The thought flickered across his mind that without the dream its prophecy wouldn’t have come to pass; it was that which pushed his brother’s jealousy over the edge, that made them abandon him.

He longed to be recognised, but when they looked up at his face they did not see. How could they? He was grown and he was alive. How would they see their brother’s ghost in the face of this Egyptian. His name and his language had changed, he wandered what part of him, the beloved son of Jacob, still remained.

It was then that he panicked. Where was Benjamin? His mother’s only other son was not among them, had they killed him? Or left him for dead too? He had to know, so he concocted some story; they were spies and to prove their story they would have to bring their brother back. But they should leave a brother as collateral.

He saw their fear of him, they called him themselves his servants, and then he heard them speak. He had not heard his mother tongue for many years, just the familiar tones brought tears to his eyes. And what they were saying; that this misfortune was a punishment for their mistreatment of their brother long ago. How true it was, yet they did not know and he could not tell them, not without Benjamin. He went away to weep, his control could stand no more.

When he returned he selected Simeon as their guarantee and sent them home, but not before he had ordered for their bags to be filled with wheat and their money returned to them. Of course, they could not know the reason for this. Yet.

And then Joseph waited. Meanwhile the brothers travelled home. Reuben repeated what he had been saying for many years. If only they had listened to him and cared for their little brother; God would not have punished them so. It was perhaps Reuben, the firstborn, who had carried the most guilt all these years; he could not stop it and now he watched his father wither away with grief, clinging unhealthy to Benjamin; the only son of his beloved Rachel left in this life.

And, of course, Jacob would not give up his youngest son to this unknown Egyptian, however hungry they were. His sons pleaded with him but it was only when the food ran out that he yielded. He was bereaved, he said, as he watched them leave again. Since the day they had returned with the torn cloak of his dreamer son he could not bear to watch his sons leave.

When they returned Joseph was waiting. He ordered them to come to his house. Now course, they were afraid and they began their interaction with him by offering gifts and explaining the mistake with the money; they had meant to pay for his grain. They were not thieves, they were his humbled servants. But they were surprised by his easy manner; he had received the money, they need not worry. They were to eat with him, and their brother, Simeon, was returned.

They joy that Joseph felt on seeing Benjamin seemed to blind him. When his brothers were seated around their table, ordered from oldest to youngest, he longed to take his place among them. But it was not yet time. Instead he made his excuses and rushed away, to weep again, like he had done these many weeks, waiting. He had been trying to stifle his hope, afraid that the brothers would never return. But they did not leave Simeon as they had once left him. Perhaps they had learned.

So Joseph took his place at the Egyptian table, but he sent portions to his brothers, and the biggest by far to the little one, whom he had once seen in his mothers arms and was now grown. He would spoil him for all those times that he had missed…

To be continued!!

 

Well, that was fun. I hope you enjoyed it. But was it a good experiment?

Yes, definitely, I feel like this story, which is very familiar to me, has been refreshed. Writing it out like that made me really connect with the emotions involved, especially for Joseph, but also for Reuben and Jacob. I also noticed that, for me, the dream interpretation and the getting all rich and stuff is not the remarkable part of the story; it’s the family stuff that really gets me. I got a sense of Joseph’s longing for home even through his great success. It also hit me how every misfortune led him to the amazing place he finally finds himself.

Wow, I’m actually raring to go now, can’t wait to read the next part, think I’ll probably use this exercise again. But there’s a whole week of wonder to come before then. And I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow with the Psalms…

Genesis 36-39 is a bit of a strange mixture. The story of Joseph’s first dreams and his brothers selling him into slavery (this family has issues!) in chapter 37 is sandwiched between the genealogy of Esau and the strange story of Judah and his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, in which she tricks him into sleeping with her so that she can have offspring. I’ll say it again; this family has issues! Then we have Joseph’s first experiences in Egypt, in which he is put in charge of his master’s entire affairs, only to be wrongly accused of adultery and thrown in prison. Don’t worry though, soon he’s put in charge of the prison too: bonus!

Yesterday I sat and read these chapters and, do you know, I couldn’t think of any thing to say about them. These stories are really famous, and undoubtedly rich in meaning and inspiration, but I just sat there with the theme from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as sung by Jason Donovan no less, going around in my head. You know the one “any dream will do!‘. If you’re in the US, this may mean little to you; enjoy the cheese all the same!

Enough of that. I have come up with a few ideas… I could tell you a fun fact; that one of Esau’s descendents is called Eliphaz and another Tem, and the Eliphaz in the book of Job is Eliphaz the Temite. But there’s more! Job is from ‘Uz’ and that’s another of the descendents of Esau, meaning that it’s likely Job is from Edom. Does this means that he wasn’t a Israelite? But he was still God’s favourite? Pretty cool stuff here in the Old Testament about inclusivity, huh?

And I have other thoughts about how cool Reuben is for trying to save Joseph and risk the wrath of his, apparently homicidal, brothers. Or how Tamar could be seen as a strong woman asserting her right to offspring that men had denied her (a childless widow would have had a hard time in those days, still does now in many ways). Or how God’s is always with Joseph, whatever happens.

All of those things would make for interesting posts, I think but none of them really excite me. I don’t particularly want to write about any of them.

I was speaking to my husband yesterday about getting mentally exhausted; I think many of us tend to get this way. You can rest your body a lot but still be making mental lists and plans, or worrying, or engaging your mind more productively but still, working it hard! I think the most tiring thing of all is performing for others. In my case if I were to writw about one of the above topics I’d be doing my ‘I’m a really good Christian who’s always inspired by the Bible’ performance, or perhaps my ‘I’m a dedicated and thought-provoking blogger’ performance. But I’m tired of performing.

So instead I shall break the cycle and say I don’t really know. And that’s okay. And tonight, or today or whenever you read this it’s okay if you don’t know too. It’s okay if you’re tired, or unenthusiastic about something, it’s okay if Psalms don’t always set your world on fire, or you dreading going into to work. It’s okay not to be perfect all the time. We’re not perfect, in fact our very imperfection is part of the Good News of Jesus; we don’t need to be perfect because we’re not God!

There’s no “blessed are the extremely busy; for their’s is the blackberry of heaven” in the Sermon on the Mount, and no “woe to you who rest now, for you will be busy later!”. In fact, God’s big on rest, just look Genesis 2:3 it says God rested.

So give yourself a break. And I’ll try to give myself one too. Thinking is over-rated, I’m off to giggle and eat and watch TV…

There are many familiar stories in Genesis 24-27, but have you heard the one about Isaac and the wells?  I hadn’t, or at least I don’t remember it. In between the birth of Jacob and Esau and the story of Jacob’s supplanting his older twin, lies this unfamiliar take of Isaac’s time in Gerar, where he went due to a famine.

Well, the beginning is familiar enough. This is yet another story which begins with a man in a foreign land pretending that his wife is his sister for fear of the other men. Like father like son, eh?

But the story tells of how Isaac came to prosper and so was expelled from the land and later made peace with Abimelech, King of the Philistines (26:12-33). This story is illustrated through the accessibility of wells. No, seriously.

At first we are told that the Philistines blocked up all the wells dug by Abraham’s servants in previous times. Why? Water is a precious thing in these Middle Eastern locations wouldn’t you just use them for yourself? Is this about blocking something else? Wiping out the memory of someone’s presence? Perhaps.

Isaac digs these wells again, after he has been expelled by Abimelech, and his servants find new spring water but the herders of Gerar claim that it is theirs. So Isaac calls that well “contention”. Then his servants dig another and again it is quarreled over, so he calls it “enmity”. Finally, they find a third well, so it is called “broad places” or “room”, because “now the Lord has made room for us.”

All this water-finding doesn’t go unnoticed. Soon Abimelech turns up with his advisors to swear oaths with Isaac. He says ‘We see plainly that the Lord has been with you’ and he wants to make peace with this man who finds springs in dry places and whose seed comes back a hundredfold (26:12). Isaac agrees, they feast and rise in the morning to make oaths. Just as they finish Isaac’s come and tell him “we have found water” and so he calls this well something like the Hebrew word for “oath”.

Now, yes, this is a story about power and access to natural resources on one level. But I don’t think that’s why it stood out for me. The story of finding water in dry places, and this being both a source of contention and sign of power seems to work on many levels.

Digging well’s is not easy. There were no giant drills, no clever technology to survey what lay underground. How would you even know where to start? Is it all trail and error? This is a laborious task to say the least, but necessary for one’s very survival. So this is what Isaac did when he left Gerar; he looked for life elsewhere.

Nothing happens between Isaac’s exile from Gerar and the king himself turning up to swear oaths with him except this finding of water. Were these life-giving springs a sign of God’s favour? Did the Philistines see the water flowing wherever Isaac when and rethink their policy?

I like the idea that with labour but also with favour we find water in the dry places. That our own effort and God’s steadfast love, as the psalms so wonderfully put it, combine to produce springs from the desert place. I like that these wells can become symbols of God’s presence with us. When we find water in times of dryness, when we find hope in times of dispondency, when we look for life where others see death, the world sees God with us.

So, there is always water to be found. Will we start digging?

I’ll be honest, I can’t help being more than slightly disturbed when I read Genesis 16-19. The appalling treatment of the slavegirl Hagar (16:1-6); the disturbing story of Sodom when Lot tries to give a ravenous crowd of men his virgin daughters to “do to them as you please” (19:1-11), the creepy story of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so they could become pregnant by him (19:30-38). Let’s just say there are nicer parts of the Bible.

First things first: reading the story of Sodom I wonder how anyone could take the story of Sodom as a blanket comment on homosexuality. The crowd of men that surround Lot’s house and demand to “know” the angels are attackers, not seducers. Yes, their attack may have a sexual element but it’s still an attack. Rape is the ‘abomination’ here, whoever it is done to. And that Lot offers his two daughters in the men’s place doesn’t necessarily imply that it would be better if the rape was heterosexual! Perhaps it implies that Lot himself has been corrupted by this place or if not that he protected them because they were guests (19:8) or even because they were angels (19:1). How this story can be equated with a loving monogamous homosexual relationship is beyond me. Just needed to get that off my chest.

Now, onto to the good stuff. What has made an impression on me more than the disturbing treatment of women and angels in these chapters is the way Abraham (given his name in chapter 17), Sarah (likewise) and Lot all communicate with God.

When told that they will still have a son, despite being 100 and 90 years old respectively, Abraham and Sarah both laugh at God. In fact,  “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). I can imagine him rolling about on the floor; “O, Lord, that’s a good one!”. He manages to get  away with it though. Not so with Sarah, she’s told off (18:9-15). I love how she tries to hide it too, telling God she didn’t laugh, to which he replies “Oh yes, you did laugh.” It’s like a pantomime.

Do you ever laugh at God? Laugh at the possibility of the impossible? Laugh at the idea of your wildest dreams coming true?

It’s nice to see in Genesis that incredulity is not only an aspect of faith in the cynical 21st century, but has always been there. Comforting to think that even the mother and father of a great nation didn’t quite believe their calling.

How about negotiating with God? Ever try your hand at that? Abraham and Lot do. I especially like the scene of Abraham trying to talk God down from destroying Sodom (18:22-33). At first he asks confidently if a Just God will destroy a city if there are even just 50 righteous people live there? God agree to spare Sodom if there are 50 righteous people. Then Abraham sees he’s on to something, tries his luck, and talks God down to 10 righteous people, each time asking with more polite reverence “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more…” Haggling with God? I didn’t know that was allowed. Lot negotiates too. When fleeing he is told not to stop anywhere in the Plain but he says “can’t I just go to that little city over there? It’s only a little one!” (perhaps not in those exact words).  And God let’s him!

So what’s that about? How much is negotiable? Is prayer negotiation? When do we argue with God and when do we just do what we’re told?

I like this God who listens to the appeals of his people, who will be reasoned with. It’s a bit anthropomorphic maybe, but there’s something quite appealing about a God that you can laugh with/at and talk to. Hagar certainly knew this in the desert when she fled from her harsh treatment (16:7-15). Although she is sent back (perhaps she could have negotiated a little better there) she is promised that it will not be in vain. And she calls God El-roi which probably means God of seeing or God who sees.

In all these stories God is almost tangibly present, there to be laughed at, scared of, reasoned with and, of course welcomed (18-1-8). He is not far off executing his plan with clinical precision but close, a guest as well as a God.

I long for a relationship with God like this. Most of the time I don’t have it but these chapters, odd and disturbing bits aside, inspire me to think of God as involved in my life. And quite right too. God is present, involved, accessible. We just need to be open to negotiation.

In Genesis 12-15 we meet Abram, or the artist-soon-to-be know-as-Abraham as I like to call him, and his entourage. This is the man from whom God will make a great nation, the one whose descendents will be as numerous as the stars.

Seriously? This guy?

I have heard a lot about Abraham being obedient to God and confident in his promises even when there’s little hope. I’m sure it’s all true. But I’ve never really had good relationship with his stories. Today when I was reading the second story we are given about him, 12:10-20, I actually let out a little gasp despite being on a rather crowded bus. Now, I must have read this story several times before but it is still pretty shocking to me.

There’s a famine so Abram goes down into Egypt with his wife Sarai (soon-to-be Sarah). She is really beautiful and he knows the Egyptian men will desire her. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect from their lustful ways” he says… oh no, sorry what he actually does is gets her to pretend she’s his sister so that the Egyptians won’t kill him. Nice. Then of course he lets her be taken into Pharoah’s house (if you know what I mean) and laps up the brother’s benefits; sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, you name it…

Seriously? This guy??

Yes, this is the guy, dodgy marital values and ill-gotten riches don’t seem to deter God from his choice, and that makes me uncomfortable. This is just one example of many in the stories that follow of women being treated like chattel and there being no overt criticism of this treatment in the text. Sure, God does send a plague on Pharoah and put a stop do to the utterly degrading situation, but there’s no punishment for Abram. Sarai is voiceless in all this, used for her looks and sex appeal and later focussed on for ability, or inability to bear a child. This text seems so stuck in the time it was written, in a time when women were often named among property and only valued in terms of their sexual and reproductive functions.

But what would I rather? That there was a miraculous gender-equality in a story originating thousands of years ago about the firstof the patriarchs?? Well, yes that is what I’d rather, but it’s not what’s here. The Bible is timeless text in some ways, but not in others. Rejecting it because of that seems to throw the baby out with the bath water.

So is there much here for a 21st century woman? Although I find it hard to look past these injustices to a great theme, Abram’s willingness to follow God does indeed shine out from these pages. And would it really be better if he were perfect? God doesn’t call us based on our perfection. If He did then the Bible would have a lot fewer characters. And the Church would have a lot fewer members. If He did then I would certainly be off the list.

So I will try to get my relationship with the artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Abraham back on track. Not by ignoring his imperfections, nor by embracing them, but by accepting them. There are no perfect protagonists in Bible, if there were then there would be little space for us to imagine ourselves as among those God has called. He calls murderers and adulterers and persecutors (Moses, David, Paul) and makes them into imperfect servants. In doing so he shows us that there is no one He can’t use. And that’s some pretty good news.

I am a big fan of making pop songs into worship songs. My new favourite is Madonna, Rain. No, seriously;

Rain; feel it on my fingertips, hear in on my window pane, Your love’s coming down like rain. Wash away my sorrows, take away my pain, Your love’s coming down like rain. 

Come on, if it was by Tim Hughes you’d love it…

That song’s been going around in my head today, and it has helped me think about today’s passages. Genesis 4-7 makes me sad. Cain and Abel, Lamech’s disturbing song (4:22-24), the declaration that God was “sorry that he made humankind on the earth” (6:6), the decision to start over; the flood.

I suppose Noah’s Ark is often told as a positive story of a righteous man who is chosen by God to make a fresh start in a turbulent world. It’s a Sunday school favourite. But the beginning of this story and its preceding chapters don’t fill me with enthusiasm. Even for Noah, is this a great deal? Stay in an ark for months and months and return to an obliterated land… oh cheers!

How did it go so wrong so quickly? From Eden to oblivion in 3 chapters? What does that say about us? What does that say about God?

There’s a great phrase that Rob Bell uses; the stories of the Bible aren’t important because they happened, they’re important because they happen. When a Bible story disturbs me I know it’s because it resonates with something happening now, inside me or in the world. Usually both. So I ask how do these things in Genesis 4-7 happen? Well, humans still kill, we get angry, we forget God. The world makes me sad sometimes, that’s why these stories make me sad… God doesn’t wipe us out though. But maybe there’s a different kind of flood coming.

When I remember that God is Love, and when I remember that this story happens the water starts to feel different. The story starts to be about cleansing and renewal, not smiting and destruction. Washing away sin seems very loving really… Your love’s coming down like rain…

If you read this story as literal then it’s hard not to see it as extreme. Of course some would take the ‘don’t question God’s justice, they all had it coming’ stance, but I don’t. I can only see this as a story about the power of God to renew, however dark it has become. I see the flood like a baptism of the earth, a promise that there is nothing good that cannot be salvaged. Creation is good, humans can be good, we were created good.  Just as everything can been corrupted, everything be cleansed. It may take retreat, labour, loss but transformation is always possible. When I relate this to the gospels, to Jesus’ washing away of sin, then the message comes alive even more.

Rain is what the thunder brings, for the first time I can hear my heart sing. Call me a fool but I know I’m not I’m gona stand out here on a mountain top til I feel Your rain… who knew Madonna was so deep?

photo by  cosmonautirussi on flickr

And what a way to begin. Genesis 1-2:3 is wonderful isn’t it? True poetry; “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water.”

And from that came sky and light and tree and birds. Even “great sea monsters monsters” get a mention. And finally, but never finally, us. “Let us make humankind in our own image…male and female he created them”. These first 34 verses are so profound, so potent with meaning and significance that I have few words. I’m sure I’m seeing them as is a dark mirror dimly. They effect me very much like John 1 does. There a rhythm to these words that seeps truth into your pores. Read it, read it now! It tells us of a God who brings light from darkness, fertility from barreness and who gives us the gift and responsibility of his creation.

I didn’t know until recently that many scholars agree that this and Genesis 2:4-3:24 are two different accounts of creation, but it makes sense to me. It’s feels awkward to fit these two together. Creation has a different order and the depictions of God really contrast . In the first story God is he but seems more mysterious and formless than God in the Garden of Eden, who talks with Adam and strolls through his creation. I’m not saying these are different Gods, not at all, but different aspects definitely. And it’s nice to have them side by side, as if one of the first messages of the Hebrew scriptures is a pluralilty of experience and understanding; something I feel the Church could do with embracing more and more.

The story of Eden is one we all know, or we think we know. There is no apple, Eve is no whily minx (she isn’t even called Eve yet, just woman). It is certainly one we recognise. Wanting the one thing we can’t have; knowledge not always being a blessing; shame that drives us away from God.

But I suppose what I want to say today is don’t forget the first chapter of Genesis, or see it as a prologue to Eden. Genesis 1 tells us we were made in the image of God. That’s really important. I don’t think it matters if you don’t take the six days literally, I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that we are part of God’s creation, which he called good “indeed, it was very good”.

There is prevelant theology that we are inherently wicked, which some verses of scripture, especially from the psalms, seem to back up. That idea that our innate nature being displeasing to God always troubled me. Indeed, the week before I was baptised I broke down into floods of tears at my house group because that very thing was being discussed and I was worried that I shouldn’t get baptised in a church that held this idea as true. Needless to say everyone was very loving about it and I took the plunge that Sunday. It is nice for me, then, that here in Genesis 1 I find an ally. God created us in his image and called us good; could we really be capable of changing the very nature of God’s creation? We can forget it, corrupt it, we can live in a state of sin that separates us from it, absolutely – that’s what I think the Eden story is about to a large extent – but change it? Change God’s creation inherently? There’s nothing about that in chapter 3. Toil and conflict? Sure? A state of irrevocable wickedness? Not so much.

So I am thankful for this first, deep mystery, that of creation, into which our Bible gives an insight. God created light out of darkness. I look out of my window now and see sun on autumn leaves and blue sky. And I am thankful to the creative God in whom I believe and whose work I could never reverse, however badly I screw up. And who will not turn away from me even though I hide in shame. Before God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, he makes them clothes…