Tag Archives: Genesis

Building a City

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Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 16th century

After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else happens: human beings, desiring to be together, join in building a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place favorable for human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

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Bless the Tree in Your House

 

Don’t forget to bless the Christmas Tree. Long ago, God placed a tree of life in the garden of paradise as a gift to all human beings, a tree of wisdom and knowledge and laden with every good thing. Our Christmas Tree reminds us of that tree and the blessings Jesus Christ brings at his coming,

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Jacob Wrestling with God

Jacob wrestling

Our lectionary– the collection of readings we use day by day at Mass–concentrates on key stories of the bible, but unfortunately it leaves out a lot. We’re reading two key stories about the Patriarch Jacob from the Book of Exodus this week. Jacob discovers the presence of God on his journey; then he wrestles with an angel.( Genesis 23, 33-43)

The other readings about Jacob from the bible– which our lectionary leaves out– seem far from edifying, however. Jacob and his wife Rachel, Laban and his sons don’t seem to be the most honest people as they strike deals and, by hook or by crook, try to get the best deal they can get. At least to me, they don’t seem like people you want for neighbors or do business with.

Yet, God promises Jacob what he promised Abraham:

“I, the LORD, am the God of your forefather Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. These shall be as plentiful as the dust of the earth, and through them you shall spread out east and west, north and south. In you and your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing. Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you.” (Genesis 22,1 8-28)

Even with those sublime words ringing in his ears, Jacob seems to go back to his wheeling and dealing, as if the most important thing in the world is the extra sheep he’s going to wheedle out of his father in law.

The Old Testament certainly portrays real life. The early Christian scholar Marcion wanted to throw out the Old Testament altogether, because he claimed it wasn’t spiritual enough. God wouldn’t promise such great things to people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives and relations and slaves.

I suppose that’s one reason for us to keep reading the Old Testament:  God works in real life. “God is a Potter; he works in mud,” the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis entitled a chapter in one of his books.

Two things commentators note about the stories of Jacob. First, he doesn’t recognize the presence of God until afterwards. “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he exclaimed, ‘Truly, the LORD is in this spot, although I did not know it!’” That’s an interesting discovery we all can make. God is there and we don’t know he’s there.–except afterwards.

Second, the commentator for the New American Bible says this about the story of Jacob wrestling in the dark at the river edge with the unknown figure: “The point of the tale seems to be that the ever-striving, ever-grasping Jacob must eventually strive with God to attain full possession of the blessing.”

God engages us and wrestles with us, whether we like it or not, and we will have scars to prove it.

Genesis: 11-50

We might call the section of the Book of Genesis we’re reading the next two weeks at Mass (Genesis 11-50) its Jewish phase. The first 10 chapters of Genesis describe the origins of the world and the beginnings of the human race. Chapter 11 begins with the call of Abram. At morning prayer today our reading from the Book of Judith tells us to recall how God dealt with Abraham and how he put him to the test. (Judith 8, 25-27) For the Jews living after the exile (the time the books of the bible seem to have been finally assembled) Abraham was someone to look to as they made their way in uncertain times, when the road ahead was unclear.

The road ahead doesn’t seem clear for us either.

The Commentary from the New American Bible describes these chapters from Genesis as a book exiles can learn from:

Genesis 1150. One Jewish tradition suggests that God, having been rebuffed in the attempt to forge a relationship with the nations, decided to concentrate on one nation in the hope that it would eventually bring in all the nations. The migration of Abraham’s family (11:2631) is part of the general movement of the human race to take possession of their lands (see 10:3211:9). Abraham, however, must come into possession of his land in a manner different from the nations, for he will not immediately possess it nor will he have descendants in the manner of the nations, for he is old and his wife is childless (12:19). Abraham and Sarah have to live with their God in trust and obedience until at last Isaac is born to them and they manage to buy a sliver of the land (the burial cave at Machpelah, chap. 23). Abraham’s humanity and faith offer a wonderful example to the exilic generation.”

I like Jesssica Power’s poem on the great patriarch:

“I love Abraham, that old weather-beaten
unwavering nomad; when God called to him
no tender hand wedged time into his stay.
His faith erupted him into a way
far-off and strange. How many miles are there
from Ur to Haran? Where does Canaan lie,
or slow mysterious Egypt sit and wait?
How could he think his ancient thigh would bear
nations, or how consent that Isaac die,
with never an outcry nor an anguished prayer?

I think, alas, how I manipulate
dates and decisions, pull apart the dark
dally with doubts here and with counsel there,
take out old maps and stare.
Was there a call after all, my fears remark.
I cry out: Abraham, old nomad you,
are you my father? Come to me in pity.
Mine is a far and lonely journey, too.

Learning from Water

 

In the encyclical letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis tells Christians to let the sacraments teach them respect and reverence for creation. Water, bread, wine, oil–sacramental signs– bring us into the divine mysteries, but they also call us to care for the created world, our common homes.

Water, for example, is the sign of the sacrament of baptism. It’s more than what we drink. In the bible it’s a sign of life and chaos. In the beginning, God moves over the chaotic, formless waters to form a world that good. (Genesis 1, 1-2)

Because it symbolizes the life and chaos found in the world, it’s no wonder that Jesus begins his ministry by going down into the waters of Jordan River. I doubt the Jordan was sparkling clean then. Judging by the river we see today, it was likely always muddied. It was muddied then as now, muddied as human life is muddied then as now.

jordan-396When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, he entered human experience and brought new life to it by the power of God. The liturgies of the eastern churches, especially, see the waters of the Jordan, changed and blessed by the Word made flesh, flowing all over the world. Wherever human life is, wherever life of any kind is found, there is water. It’s a sign of God’s blessing.

Water is holy. We baptize in clean water because, by the power of Jesus, we are given new life and the promise of eternal life. We become a new creation. Water is holy, but it also has its chaotic nature. In the gospels it threatened the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. “Did you not know that when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death.”

The scriptures say Jesus is revealed as he goes into the water at his baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice from heaven proclaims. Jesus continually reveals his power over water. He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he turned water into wine at Cana. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,” he said. Blood and water flowed from his side on Calvary.

Let’s not forget either, that water today plays a major role in climate change. In the last century the sea level globally has risen almost 7 inches and in the last 10 years it has risen more rapidly than ever. The rise in sea level is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.

This affects us especially in the New York/New Jersey area where I’m writing from. More than 20 million people live along our coastlines, near the water. Flooding and drought from changing patterns of rainfall can affect the homes we live in, our water supply for food and drink. The poor and the vulnerable will be affected most deeply as sea levels push salt water onto our coasts and further upstream in our rivers.

Water, in which Jesus was revealed, now calls us to live responsibly and care for the earth.

Putting Stormy Times in Place

The scriptures are meant for stormy times, and they put stormy times in their place.

Last Sunday’s gospel was about the storm at sea from Mark’s gospel. Night’s coming, the wind rises, the waves sweep over the boat. Looks like the end, and Jesus is asleep.

I was thinking about the storm created by Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si.” Take a look at Twitter, #popefrancis, and you will see what I mean. What is he getting us into?

Today we began to read at Mass about the call of Abraham from the Book of Genesis. Brother Angelo read it slowly, as he usually does, dwelling on phrases you could miss.

“The LORD said to Abram:
‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.’”

“…a land I will show you,” God says. Not a land you will show me.

“You will be a blessing…all the communities of the earth will find blessings in you.”
Not your land and it’s not about you, but it’s a blessing for all nations.

“Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.”
Seventy-five? How old is Pope Francis? How old are we?

“Abraham took his wife, Sarai, his brother’s son Lot, all the possessions they had and the persons they acquired in Haran.”
Too many people, too complicated to go anywhere with such baggage.

So Abraham built an altar near the Terebinth at Mamre.
The early Christian commentators say the terebinth tree at Mamre is a symbol of the cross.

“Then Abraham journeyed on in stages to the Negeb.”
“Are we there yet?” Not there yet, only “in stages.”