Friday, October 23, 2009

A Humble God Who Stands, Our Stance Towards the World

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 66.

Tov quotes Genesis Rabbah 49:7, which states:

“The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD (Gen 18:22…). R. Simon said: “This is a correction of the scribes for the Shekhinah was actually waiting for Abraham.”

According to this passage, Genesis 18:22 originally said that God stood before Abraham, but the scribes corrected it to say that Abraham stood before God. Presumably, the scribes made their correction because the original verse detracted from God’s dignity: the superior is supposed to sit while the inferior stands at his behest, so it’s more appropriate for Abraham to stand before God than for God to stand before Abraham. Exodus Rabbah 41:4 likes the original reading, however, for it presents God as humble.

Tov thinks it “unlikely that the original text would have read ‘while the LORD remained standing before Abraham”, yet he acknowledges that “the practice of correcting a text out of respect for a god or gods is…known in the Hellenistic world” (66). In a footnote, he refers to the Greek grammarian Zenodotus (third century B.C.E.), who thought “it was not befitting for Aphrodite to carry a chair for Helen and thus he deliberately altered the text of Iliad III 423-426…”

God is worthy of respect, for he is the most dignified being in all the universe. There are plenty of times when he reminds us of that, for he often says, “And they shall know that I am the LORD.” Yet, he is also humble, and he brings himself low to help us out. In Christianity, Jesus exemplifies this, for he gave up his riches to become poor, that we through his poverty might become rich (II Corinthians 8:9).

2. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 163.

…the Jewish community owed its survival largely to the Roman policy of toleration. Jewish tradition does not speak kindly of Rome or of most of its emperors. One cannot expect the Rabbis to be neutral to a Titus who felt that the Temple must be destroyed, “so that the Jewish religion might be utterly eliminated; for with the removal of its source, the trunk [i.e., the Jewish people] would speedily wither.” Nor could they take lightly the offensive tax to Jupiter Capitolinus imposed on them as a punitive measure. Yet, in the retrospect of nineteen centuries, Rome must candidly be acknowledged to have dealt with the Jews harshly but not viciously. At no point did it proscribe the Jewish religion, and barring the short period of martial law during the insurrection of Bar Kokhba, it never attempted to prohibit the Jews from congregating and pursuing their religious curriculum. Synagogues arose and were given imperial protection throughout the empire. Rome adhered to its traditional policy of rule by law and of full toleration for ancient religious associations.

When I read this paragraph, I thought about the Beast in Revelation 13. Most biblical scholars say that the Beast was an oppressive Roman emperor, perhaps Nero (54-68 C.E.) or Domitian (81-96 C.E.), who was heralded as the resurrected Nero (see Revelation 13:3). But, if the Roman empire tolerated the worship of the one true God, could it have been the Beast power? Revelation 13 says that all the world worshipped the Beast, except those written in the Book of Life (Christians), and that those who refused to worship the Beast’s image were killed. Sure, the Roman empire killed Christians for not participating in the emperor cult, but the Jews were exempt from that requirement, for the Roman empire only required them to sacrifice on behalf of the emperor, not to him or the Roman gods. The Jews made those sacrifices to their own God. Would the Beast of Revelation 13 be this tolerant of the Jews’ worship?

Or did the author of Revelation believe that, in some sense, many of the non-Christian Jews were allied with the Beast and worshipping his image, and that their worship of the one true God was not legitimate? Revelation 2:9 states: “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (NRSV). Could there have been a Christian belief that many of the Jews who did not believe in Jesus had ditched God in favor of the beastly Roman Caesar? John 19:15 presents the Jewish leaders as saying, “We have no king but the emperor.” Was there a sense among certain Christians that many non-Christian Jews were too cozy with the Beast?

At the same time, Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount argued against Jews resisting the Romans. And Jews under a foreign power were supposed to honor their captors, as Jeremiah 29:7 affirms: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” But perhaps the lesson in all of this is that there’s a difference between being in the world and of the world. One should seek the welfare of the city in which we live, but our primary loyalty should be to God. Perhaps certain early Christians believed that many non-Christian Jews had sold out to the world. This, even though, paradoxically, many Jews also caused Rome a lot of trouble through their insurrections!

There is being too cozy with the world, mounting insurrection against the world, and God’s way. The third path looks rather murky, and I can’t define it totally, but I think it includes Christians being meek and loving to the world, while also remembering that they have another country, whose values are often different from the world’s. You’d expect this third path to be persecution-proof, but it’s drawn its share of persecution throughout the ages!

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