About twirlingjen

I am a Diaconal Minister in the United Church of Canada. I live in Yorkton with my family where I minister with the folks at St. Andrew's United Church. Please feel free to use and adapt the resources you find here.

Abram as a Human Trafficker

Last week, Abram and Sarai set out for a new land. They travelled with Abrams’s father and his nephew Lot. They settled in Haran. They stayed there for a while before God told them to move on again. They travelled around heading in the direction of the Negeb.

And here our story picks up again in Genesis 12:10-20. There was a famine in the area so  Abram and Sarai head to Egypt. As they get closer to Egypt Abram decides that Sarai should pretend to be his sister. I suspect that Sarai didn’t have much say in the matter. She is taken by Pharaoh and Abram gets rich. Sarai as a person doesn’t seem to be particularly important to Abram. She was no good for childbearing but her beauty could be used to acquire wealth. Sarai was only important for what she could get for Abram.

Many commentaries about this passage focus on Abram’s lack of faith in God and God’s promise but I’m more interested in Sarai’s place in this story. Vered Tohar examines how this story has changed through time and offers commentary on the Midrash passed down through centuries. One version of the story, Midrash Genesis Rabbah, says that Abram put Sarai in a box before trying to cross the border into Egypt. He was willing to pay customs on the goods (clothing, silk, jewels) that were in the box. The customs official insisted on opening the box and discovered Sarai hiding inside. See Vered Tohar’s full article here.

There are several ways to look at this. Maybe Abram was engaged in a little human trafficking. She wasn’t any good to him since she was barren so at least if he could sell her he would get some money out of it. Perhaps he intended Sarai as a gift to the pharaoh. As I read this account I had the image of Sarai being gift wrapped.

We are not told what Sarai thought about all this. Did she go along with Abram’s plan willingly? Was she afraid for her life? Did she see being at the palace as a way out of her life with Abram? I wonder what Sarah’s relationship with God was like. Abram had already received a promise from God that he would be a great nation. Did Sarai see herself included in that promise? Perhaps since she was barren she felt like she had no connection to that promise. What did Sarai think about God as she was passed back and forth? Did Sarai trust this God or did she pray to the gods of her family instead? Did she have anything to believe in?

For many centuries, women have been the property of men and were passed around as the men in their lives saw fit. It is easy to believe that this type of behaviour is in the past but what happened to Sarai still happens. There are still places in our own time where this happens. Sometimes, the women involved see it as normal—they don’t know any different. Sometimes it is a way to survive. I’m thinking of young women being groomed for prostitution. It might start out as what feels like a real relationship and then the women find themselves being shared. By the time they realize that the relationship isn’t real, it is too late and they are trapped.

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International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation found that there were almost 25 million people trapped in slavery in 2017. Of these, 4.8 million were sexually exploited. Sexual exploitation earned $99 billion in 2017. There’s big money involved in sex trafficking and that hasn’t changed. Abram saw an opportunity to profit by giving away his barren wife. He wouldn’t have to feed her anymore and she wouldn’t be a burden to him. She was still beautiful (apparently) so she could be a gift. In exchange, Abram would receive sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels. He became a very rich man out of this exchange.

Somehow, Pharaoh became aware that Sarai was Abram’s wife. We are told he had great plagues. Maybe Sarai passed on an STD to him which she, in turn, had received from Abram. It could have been something the Egyptians hadn’t encountered before. Pharaoh sends them away with all the wealth he had given Abram.

And Sarai is back with Abram whether she likes it or not. She is left with no options but to go where the men tell her. Sarai continues to be barren and she has the added stigma of being with someone other than her husband—even if it was Pharaoh. I wonder how Abram treats her now. Sarai is a strong woman who, like many other women–past and present–live through violence and trafficking. She is a woman who can give courage to others. Sarai survived and went on to become a central character in our faith story.

As with many biblical women, we need to hear their story and reflect on how the story might sound from their perspective. This story continues to focus on the men—Abram and Lot and their interactions with the people around them. I’ll be following Abram and Lot’s adventures for the next few weeks as the lectionaries skip over a few more stories. I’ll come back to Sarai in a few weeks with the birth of Ismael.

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Can Sarai find hope?

Last week, I wrote about the genealogy of Noah’s descendants. Following that is the story of the tower of Babel which does make it into the lectionary. Genesis 11:9-32 is another genealogy which takes us from Noah’s son Shem up to Abram and begins the story of a specific family of faith which we will follow for many generations.

This genealogy is also quoted in Luke 3:34-38 as a way of linking Jesus to Abram. That link was not the original intent of this text, but it suits the author of Luke’s purposes in giving Jesus credibility within the Abrahamic tradition.

At the end of fifteen generations, we come to Abram. Abram marries Sarai. She is the only woman named in this genealogy. The first thing (after her parentage) that we are told about Sarai is that she is barren. It contrasts what has been and sets up what is to come. The creation has been created with all its abundance of creatures. Even the flood couldn’t wipe out that abundance. Now one of the main characters in the story is unable to bear children.

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I imagine how devastating her barrenness would be for Sarai. In a world where women were valued for their fertility, I wonder how she was treated by Abram and her in-laws. Did she endure repeated rapes as Abram tried to get her pregnant? Was she the one forced to work the hardest and eat only the scraps left from everyone else’s meal? Was she snubbed and shamed in her family because she had no children? I suspect that Sarai felt like nothing in her life could change and she would be trapped in a life of violence. I wonder how Sarai found hope in the midst of her circumstances.

Many people find themselves trapped in lives that they did not choose or feel like they have no choice. It seems to me that it would be difficult to maintain hope and have a sense of God’s abundance when there are so many barriers. I’m thinking about people who access the food and clothing shelf at the church where I minister. Many find themselves in situations they didn’t choose. There are mental health, addiction challenges and physical barriers to employment compounded by criminal records, lack of education and racism. I wonder how many of these folks would find it hard to maintain hope and a sense of God’s abundance.

There is a disconnect in the biblical story between the abundance of creation and Sarai’s barrenness. Sarai seems like a small island of barrenness in the vast abundance of God’s creation. But as we go on with the story over the next few weeks, we will find that this is not a permanent state and that Sarai is able to participate in the abundance of God’s creation.

The Wise Ones…Not the Christmas story

In the first chapter of Matthew, we read the story of how the angel appeared to Joseph and told him to stay with Mary. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, there are no shepherds and no angels singing in the sky. In this version of the story, the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream prior to Jesus’ birth is followed directly by the wise ones arriving to worship in Matthew 2. There’s some time missing in this story. It is likely that the wise ones did not appear until at least two years after Jesus’ birth. Jesus is no longer a baby. He is a toddler by the time this story occurs.

We don’t know a lot about the wise ones. Because there are three gifts, we assume there are three wise ones, but we aren’t told that. In other places, the word we have as kings or wise men is translated as magi which means magician—anyone who could interpret dreams or the stars. But in the Greek language of the time, it meant something specific: Zoroastrian priests. The Zoroastrian priests may have been men or women, and they had a full breadth of knowledge including: “philosophy, history, geography, plants, medicine and the heavens.” Within their community, they were known as “physicians and problem solvers,” hence wise ones.

Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia about 3500 years ago. Followers of this faith believe in one God who created everything. It has a core value of “Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds.” Within this faith, fire represents God’s light or wisdom. It seems an appropriate story for the beginning of Epiphany.

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Epiphany is a Christian season which means the coming of light. As Christians, we often speak of Jesus as the light of the world. As Christianity was spreading, there were many cultures celebrating the winter solstice. They would light fires and pray for the sun’s return. Christian missionaries became very good at assimilating festivals from other faiths into Christianity. The missionaries told people that the son (Jesus) who is the light of the world would return. It’s why we started having Christmas trees with candles—candles representing Jesus’ light in the world.

Light is important across many faiths and cultures. Isaiah 60 from the Hebrew scripture refers to light that will come into the world. The Zoroastrian priests from Persia saw the comet flash across the sky and knew that the light signified something important.

The comet would foreshadow political change. And it does. As the priests visit Herod, they set in motion violent events. Herod knows that the comet signifies a change in politics. He knows that his position is tenuous, and he wants to do everything he can to hold onto his position, so he orders the deah of all children under two.

Jesus and his family were lucky enough to be warned by God,  or maybe they just understood the politics of what was to come. What about all the families with children that didn’t have the ability to flee to another country? I imagine the horror of those days as people waited in fear for violence to occur and yet are helpless to prevent it.
This story makes me think about the millions of refugees around the world right now who are looking for places of safety. People who are fleeing violence just like Jesus and his family. We watch this happen from the relative safety of our homes and community but without having a sense of how to end the conflicts so that people can return home. Jesus and his family fled to Egypt and stayed there until Herod died. They thought it would be safe to go home. They started travelling and realized that Herod’s son was now King, so they went to Nazareth rather than home. It still wasn’t safe. The ruler had changed but the violence and instability remained.

What Jesus brings to us is a way out of the violence and fear. Jesus is heralded as a king but not a king the brings violence and death—a king who brings peace and compassion. Jesus is the light against the darkness of Herod’s actions. Jesus is the goodness against Herod’s evil. The Zoroastrian priests recognized what Jesus would be in the world. They recognized light—someone who would shine a light on evil and point the way towards God. That light wasn’t of their faith, but it didn’t matter, the light was too important to be dismissed.

Progressive Christianity holds as central that we need the core values of Christianity to be everywhere—love, compassion, peace, justice, hope, joy. Christianity has a history of not being able to see these values outside of itself. Progressive Christianity asserts that these values transcend religious bounds. The wise ones of this story already knew that.
In other words, Jesus isn’t the only light. Christianity isn’t the only light, and we need to seek light where we find it but always follow the light. Along the way, we will meet many travelers seeking the light and following faithfully. We might be on different paths, but we seek the same things—a sense of oneness with ourselves, the Creator, the earth. We seek love, compassion, peace, justice, hope and joy.

In a world where many people are unsafe and live with violence, we need this light guide us. We need to be bearers of light, bringing the light everywhere we go and into every place of violence and fear. The light has always been in the world—sometimes shining brightly, sometimes more difficult to see. But the darkness, violence and fear cannot overcome the light. Light will always shine in the darkness. As we celebrate epiphany, I invite you to join with me in following the light to seek Jesus and his path.

 

Complicated Families and Politics

The next passage that’s missing from the lectionaries is Genesis 9:18-10:32. This passage contains two sections that are related. The first identifies Noah as being the first one to plant a vineyard and make wine. Noah is enjoying the fruits of his labour and overindulges. The result is that his children have to deal with the consequences. Perhaps you have had to sit with a family member or friend who struggles with addictions of some kind. Maybe you can relate to the sons who had to deal with their father passed being passed out. Addictions and a tendency to overindulge in certain things continues to be a part of human experience. In dealing with a situation like Noah’s, some people are more comfortable than others. This story shows the messiness that comes with addictions and the reactions that people might have. Ham may have seen Noah passed out and not been sure what to do. In many families, there will be an organizer—someone that everyone else turns to for advice or that manages every family crisis. Shem or Japeth may have been that person.

We also find that family dynamics are complicated. In working with families around times of death, I’ve discovered that it isn’t unusual for a conflict to arise which results in family members being left out of wills. That’s essentially what happens here. Ham was not helpful in a crisis, so Noah cursed him and his descendents. The other brothers who had been helpful in a crisis were given a blessing.

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The second section of the story deals with a genealogy of Noah’s descendants. According to Walter Brueggeman, Noah’s descendents form nations which then develop political alliances. This genealogy begins with Japeth whose descendents are given the least amount of detail. They are merely listed by name over three verses, and we are told they become the coastland peoples.

Ham, the son who was cursed, receives eight verses and then his descendent Canaan receives another five verses. Altogether this branch of the family receives the most print in the genealogy. There are recognizable names in this genealogy: Cush, Egypt, Raamah, Jebusites, Amorites. Nimrod is listed as a mighty hunter, and we are told all the cities and regions that he enters and creates a kingdom. We are also told about the expansion of the Cannanite territory. Even though Ham’s decendents were cursed, they seem to have amassed a huge amount of territory.

Shem, the oldest son, becomes the ancestor of Abram. He isn’t listed here, but we’ll meet him in a few weeks. Shem’s decendents are listed by name with a description of their territory.

In this passage, the focus is on what becomes Canaan, the area we currently know as Palestine. Canaan becomes a focal point for many biblical stories. It is the area where Abram eventually settles. After a time in Egypt, the Israelites return to Canaan. This passage establishes a historical connection to the land to which God’s people return again and again.

Just like family dynamics, the political dynamics are complicated and don’t always seem fair. Why do Ham’s descendents receive the most amount of territory? When Noah cursed them and left them without a blessing, did they have to become much more aggressive in order to survive? And yet, in a few chapters their relatives—Shem’s descendants will be arriving on their doorstep. Relationships—familial and political—are complicated and shift over time. This passage reflects both those realities. Through all these changes and complications there is a sense of continuity and connection with the past, present and future realities.

After the Flood…

In Genesis 8:19-9:7, the flood is over, and the water has receded. Plant life is growing and there is finally dry land upon which to set foot. God’s creatures leave the ark to enter a new creation. It would have seemed natural for Noah to offer a sacrifice of thanks for safety. And then God makes a commitment in 8:20 “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind.” God continues to care for the earth and the creatures who live in it. Humans on the other hand, struggle to care for the earth.

This passage goes on to again, as in Genesis 1, give other living creatures to humans. This passage is different because it indicates that the creatures will be afraid of humans. This is no longer the quiet utopia of Genesis 1 where humans live in harmony with the creation. The writer seems to have picked up on a subtle shift in the relationship between humans and other creatures. We see this lived out in our world as creatures are hunted for sport and other creatures become endangered or extinct because of human activities. There is reason for other creatures to be afraid of humans.

The next part of this passage seems to be advocating revenge killings and capital punishment. This type of killing creates a cycle of violence which, while it might seems satisfying at the time, causes more death. There are many passages which seem to support this view.

I struggle with scripture encouraging this cycle of violence. Individual passages need to be placed within the context of the whole canon of scripture and alongside beliefs about God’s character. Throughout scripture I see a God of forgiveness and compassion and redemption who desires wholeness for all creation. With capital punishment the possibilities for healing are limited. This path of violence doesn’t seem to lead to a God of wholeness and so I question the validity of the instruction for capital punishment.

In our own context we know that capital punishment doesn’t work as a deterrent. There are numerous cases of people being on death row and then having convictions overturned when new evidence comes to light. For some research on this see the Death Penalty Information Centre.

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When there has been a murder, another death might feel justified. I think the instruction given in this passage speaks to the raw grief and the injustice of murder. Another death might feel satisfying, but it cannot undo the violence or return a loved one to life. Capital punishment simply places the anguish onto someone else’s loved one. It does not create the healing and wholeness God seeks. It does not come from a place of forgiveness and compassion.

As a society, we need to understand and wrestle with root causes of violence to prevent violence from occurring. We need to find ways of supporting people who’s loved ones have been killed and we also need to help perpetrators of violence find forgiveness, compassion and redemption. As soon as we refuse to entertain the possibility of forgiveness, compassion or redemption we have lost our ability to see a human in God’s image

Why Does God Destroy Some and Not Others?

The story of Noah continues. Noah and his family, along with the animals have shut themselves into the ark. Once they are safely inside rain starts to fall, and our story picks up again in Genesis 7:19-8:5. In this passage, I can almost feel the water rising and see the destruction happening. It is pretty gruesome to imagine all the animals and people that have been destroyed floating around the ark. And still, the rain and water go on. There seems to be no end in sight or time.

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I imagine Noah and his family finding a routine to their day as they care for the animals entrusted to them. I imagine their despair as they float along. What happens when their supplies run out? Will they just float forever until they all die as well? Has God forgotten them? And just when it seems like this story might have a very depressing ending, God remembers.

God remembers Noah and his family and all the creatures in the ark. Once God remembers, the rain stops and the waters begin to go down. Just as I can imagine and feel the horror and despair rising in the first part of the passage, I can see and feel the relief and release as the creatures in the ark realize that God hasn’t forgotten and they will survive this. Finally, the land begins to reappear, and mountains poke out from under the water.

There are several theological challenges with the Noah story. This passage got me thinking about why only a handful of people and other creatures are saved from destruction. It is a question that we wrestle with throughout scripture. Is God’s saving action for all people, all creation or only a handful of select creatures that meet some criteria known only to God?

To dig into this a bit, I want to be clear that when I talk about saving action, I am speaking in the broadest sense. Salvation has to do with healing and transformation. A continuation of spirit after death may be a component of that action, but I am not primarily concerned with what happens to our spirits after death. When I think about God’s saving action, I am thinking specifically of this creation, God’s relationship to this creation and where humans fit in this relationship. The other thing I need to be clear about as I write this is that I don’t believe in an interventionist God. God is always a presence in the world but doesn’t control the world or what happens.

Sometimes, the Noah story gets distilled down like this: The world was evil. Noah was good therefore God chose to save Noah (and some creatures) and start over again. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we try to live good lives but don’t always do it as well as we like. Most of the time, we cannot categorize people as good and evil. We all have the potential for good, and we all have the potential to destroy.

If we think more closely about the Noah story, we might have to ask ourselves whether we see ourselves as Noah or as one of the people left behind. Most of us would want to see ourselves as Noah. We live good lives and listen for God and try to do what is right. But there’s only one Noah and his family—maybe ten people who end up on the boat. More likely, we are the ones destroyed by the flood since that’s where the majority of people have ended up.

It is uncomfortable to think that we are like the people God (according to the story) destroyed. Most of them were probably not evil. They were ordinary people going about their lives, trying to survive and raise families. Sometimes they were compassionate, loving, honest and just. Sometimes they cheated a bit, lied or stole something. That doesn’t make them evil—just human.

So what are we to do with the idea that God saves some and destroys others? Why were Noah and his family warned about the flood and given an opportunity to escape? I struggle with the idea that God intentionally destroyed so many creatures. I suspect the flood was a natural disaster. Floods, tsunamis, forest fires, earthquakes and other disasters happen regularly and shouldn’t be seen as punishment for sin. They often prompt us to ask the question “why”? The writers of this story asked the question “why” and answered it by saying the world was evil and humanity was essentially sinful. I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the question of why. Sometimes bad things happen.

There are natural occurrences in the world which are destructive and sometimes it seems senseless. I don’t believe God causes these disasters, but it sometimes seems like God has abandoned the creatures impacted by these disasters.

I think the movement in this passage is important as it moves from seeing the destruction to God remembering. I don’t think God forgot or was off daydreaming even though the text has that type of feel to it. As the rain quit and the waters receded I imagine the people in the ark realizing that God was with them. In any disaster, there is the moment of horror and destruction where it is almost impossible to see anything else. As there is a bit of distance and the chaos starts to right itself, a new reality develops. In this new reality, it might be possible to see God’s presence or start to make meaning out of the event.

I need to believe that even in the midst of whatever disaster is occurring God weeps as much as we do at the destruction that happens. I also believe that God is present in human responses of care, compassion and love. The story Noah should give us pause to reflect on these big theological questions and wrestle with them. I also believe it is ok not to have a complete answer to the question of why. We know that the story of Noah is not the end of God’s action in the creation and that the questions raised in this story continue to be wrestled with throughout scripture and beyond.

Christian Hope

Habakkuk is a short book—only three chapters.
This reflection is based on a bit from each chapter: Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4 and 3: 17-19. This prophet is angry. He sees all the bad things around him and cries out, why God? Why don’t you do something? Anger at injustice is a good thing because it tells us that something isn’t right. But when the anger becomes consuming and overpowering it becomes destructive for ourselves and others. In the midst of what we see around us it is easy to lose hope and find ourselves drawn into the despair we see around us.

In the closing verses of the book, the prophet places his trust in God. Saying,

Even though the fig tree doesn’t blossom,
Even though there’s no fruit
Even though the olive crop failed and there’s no food;
Even though there’s no livestock
Even though (and you can fill in your own blanks here…)

I will rejoice in God; God is my strength.

Habakkuk places his future hope and his trust in God. That’s challenging when it seems like the world is falling apart and you can’t see God. Jesus comes from a long line of prophets who poured out their anger at injustice and challenged their communities to live more faithfully. As Christians and followers of Jesus we join in this group of prophets who cry out for justice and mercy in the world. Every time we help someone in our community, every time we support the work of Mission and Service, every time we work to change structures that oppress, we are living our Christian faith. When we do these things, we join our voices with the voices of other prophets past and present. We create a bit more hope in the world.

When we gather around the communion table, as we will in a few minutes, we remember that the world is hurting. We remember that people and communities are broken which means that the body of Christ is broken because we are all members of Christ’s body. We look around the world and see violence and injustice. When I pour the cup, it is this blood that I see. As long as there are people who live with violence, poverty and exclusion, Christ continues to be crucified. This is what I see when I break bread and pour wine at this table.

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It might sound a bit depressing, but this table also gives hope. At this table we remember bodies broken and blood poured out. We also celebrate the bread of life and the cup of blessing. We celebrate the prophets—past and present—who use their anger at injustice to lift up people affected by injustice. We recommit ourselves to work towards a world where God’s hope for the world is realized. Our Christian faith gives us hope that the injustices we see around us do not have the last word. Just as Jesus death was not the end of the story, the violence and injustice we see around us is not the end of the story.

We wait for the birth of Jesus. We dream in hope of a world reborn. We work with faith in a Christ who has walked this path before us.