The Taser's Edge

Hearing and Speaking the Divine Name

I love it when constancy is the sound of God’s realness and nearness.  This summer I noticed for the first time that the sound of the air conditioner or the refrigerator can be revelation, if we are listening.

I couldn’t tell you what the source of the sound I’m hearing this morning is.  I think there’s just enough distant and near traffic alongside the blood moving through the veins in my ears for it to sound like a background of wind, or more accurately Spirit, behind and under everything.

Things having being (sometimes) remind me of God, and that is a great joy.  It’s not just that these things ‘exist’ but that they ‘are.’  So for me, the question of the ‘existence’ of God really doesn’t matter.  Does God exist?  That we would ask this threadbare question means that we will end up at best with a threadbare answer, no God or a God who doesn’t matter.  A more important question is this:  “Is God?”  There is a question that matters for everything that also “is.”

From the burning bush, God says, “I Am,” and it appears throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s personal name.  We Christians throw around the transliteration ‘Yahweh’ because we think we know something, and because it is still a foreign word, we throw it around lightly.  We are incapable of reverencing it.

But what if we began to call God “I Am?”  That, after all, is what Moses heard.  We might realize quickly why observant Jews have honored the Name by avoiding speaking it for thousands of years.  We might have to notice that it is no casual thing to speak the Name of God.

“I believe in I Am” (a condensed version of the ecumenical Christian Creeds in their entirety).  If we begin to know what we’re saying in that simple prayer, then we will find that five words can totally exhaust every emotional and spiritual resource we have.  Reach 1st grade understanding, and we would speak it and then not be able to pray for a year.  Reach an adolescent understanding, and as we spoke, our whole bodies would rattle and smoke like a satellite burning up in re-entry.  In fact, if we actually could understand the fullness of that phrase, we would be totally incapable of speaking it at all.

Move Over, Prayer of Jabez

This morning, I was reading in Numbers and I was struck by this:

Numbers 10:35-36–“And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.’  And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.'”

The setting is the long march through the wilderness from Egypt to Israel.  So apparently, each moving day, the ark followed the pillar-shaped manifestation of God, and the people followed the ark, and Moses prayed for God to clear the roadway ahead.

As I have experienced exegesis of passages such as this, in churches and at Duke Divinity, we are presented with two options:

  1. Go deep into the history and grow to see how our Biblical narratives underwrite the atrocities of colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, etc.  “Redeem” the passage by ignoring it.
  2. Read it metaphorically.  “Redeem” the passage by cleaning off all that messy physicality and history.  (We wouldn’t want murdered innocent body and blood involved in the church’s life.)

I’ve already made it clear from those definitions that I find them both lacking.  And that’s because I wonder if there’s a third option, which is the both/and option.  I wonder if that both/and might be the gift of postmodern exegesis.

It makes my post-colonial ears simultaneously shudder, curdle, and shrivel (something I would have bet wasn’t fully possible) to read such a passage.  God chose a particular people (Israel), gave them a bunch of other particular peoples’ land (Canaan) through taking a side in an armed conflict which was fought against against not only armed soldiers, but civilians down to children, and even animals.  That’s the claim the Bible makes.

How postmodern of me to be offended by the Bible!

From R. Crumb's "The Book of Genesis"

But that’s not postmodern.  Post-colonialism isn’t postmodern.  It’s entirely modern.  Conceptions of human dignity and freedom which drive contemporary theory are straight-up Enlightenment, and post-colonial theory (alongside plenty of other post- theories) is the blossoming of a very much modern flower.

Strange, then, that both post-liberals and fundamentalists would want to read this Numbers prayer as a narrative detached from real history.  The first group wouldn’t necessarily care about the history, as the story is what matters, and history gets in the way of a good, clean narrative.  The second group wouldn’t care about the history, because any reading of the story as grotesque would be a ‘liberal’ reading rather than a faithful reading of the good teaching of God.

So, why not do both options named above?  Why not be deeply offended by the historical claims of the Bible, that God ordered and was the power behind ethnic cleansing?  And why not, at the same time, be taught to pray by the very horror?  Why isn’t that the post-modern way forward?  Why isn’t that the faithful way forward?