Monday, November 9, 2009

A Comforting Presence

For my reading of Fishbane yesterday (in Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), I came across three concepts that stood out to me. They're in rabbinic literature.

1. Exodus 12:41 states that, at the Exodus, "all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt." This probably refers to the Israelites themselves, but Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Bo' 14 interprets the "hosts" as angels. That's most likely because there are biblical passages that present the hosts as such (e.g., I Kings 22:19).

I like the idea of a host of angels going out with the children of Israel when they left Egypt---going out to be with them, to protect them, to guide them. The children of Israel are not alone as they embark upon an unpredictable journey.

I think about the show Touched by an Angel. Tess once said that the people in the story were surrounded by angels. On an episode in which Satan blew up a building, masses of angels of death dressed in white went into the building to escort the casualties to the afterlife.

When I was in Massachussetts, I was faraway from home for the first time in my life, and I was embarking upon an unpredictable journey. I was lonely and depressed. But my Grandma sent me a book that nourished me, Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul. In one of the stories, a man is walking the streets at night, and some dangerous thugs look like they're going to jump him. But they end up running away instead. The author says that they must've seen protecting angels standing behind him. This story has been in my mind as I've walked streets at night, which I try to avoid nowadays.

In a cartoon after that story, a man is praying at his bedside, and a couple of angels in T-Shirts that say "Help Squad" (or something like that) rush into the room. The man asked for help, and God immediately sent his angels.

Why are angels popular? Maybe because they give us assurance that we're not alone.

2. There's a slight bit of tension within the Bible and rabbinic literature about who delivered the Israelites from Egypt: was it God alone, or one of his angels? When I was at Harvard, someone gave a lecture about Exodus 12: part of the passage says that God himself will go through Egypt and smite the firstborn, whereas another part states that an agent of God (a mashchit, or destroyer) will do so. Jon Levenson saw a theological development here, though I don't remember in which direction: Was it a movement towards monotheism, removing agents of God so God does the work himself? Or was it a move towards seeing God as so great and removed that he uses agents?

In Exodus 33, the Israelites had just upset God by worshipping the Golden Calf. God says that an angel will lead them to the Promised Land, but he himself will not, for they make him sick. But Moses pleads for God himself to accompany the Israelites. There's something comforting about angels being with us, but it's even more reassuring to know that God himself is personally with us, that he cares for us that much.

This reminds me of something I read about St. Augustine. I think it was in one of Philip Yancey's books. Augustine asked us to imagine if we were to go to heaven and hear that we'd experience eternal bliss, but we'd never be able to see God's face. According to Yancey, many of our responses would be "Never???", since we're relational creatures.

I watched a video about the Jehovah's Witnesses' belief about Jesus, and it said that they don't think people during the millennial reign will actually see Jesus. That sounded like a bummer to me, to tell you the truth! There's something reassuring about the Protestant belief that we'll be in heaven with Jesus. As Dauber from Coach said on the Stand, his mom is in heaven, "eating the bread of life with Jesus" (which doesn't make much sense, since Jesus isn't eating that bread, but the idea of being with Jesus is comforting).

3. The rabbis said that God was suffering with the Israelites in Egypt, almost as if he himself were enslaved and delivered. I remember a young seminary student praying to God, "When we hurt, you hurt." And something that often drew me to Christianity was its idea that God became a human being and experienced the same hurt that we do.

Does this solve the problem of theodicy? Not really. God can stop evil anytime he wants, but he doesn't usually, at least not right now. It's a mystery why he doesn't. But the old evangelical mantra of "God will be with you in your suffering" gets me through some rough days.

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