Monday, July 24, 2017

Joseph: The Dreamer in Exile

Joseph Pt. 1
Genesis 37-41

Before we go into this story,
I feel the need to go back and review the entire history of the Jewish people.
It will only take a minute, I’m just covering a couple thousand years.
Now keep in mind that these are all approximate guesses,
And not everyone agrees on it, and some things don’t add up,
but that’s how it is when you’re working with ancient history

And this was a group of people who most everyone else didn’t
know how important they would be to us today, so lots of stuff
wasn’t recorded, but this is the best info that I could find.  

Here’s the good years:
1800 – 1700 BC – Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael,
1500 BC – Joseph
1280 BC - The Exodus
1200-1000 BC  - Judges
1025-1010 BC – King Saul
1010-970 BC King David
960 BC – Solomon’s Temple Completed

Then things started to go not so good for them.

931 BC – Split between the Northern and southern kingdoms: Israel (
Samaria) and Judah
740-722 BC – The Northern kingdom Falls to Assyria
597 BC -- First deportations to Babylon
586 BC – Jerusalem falls to Nebuchadnezzar and Solomon’s temple is destroyed – The Exile
540 BC – Jews allowed to return to Israel

See that didn’t take long. I’ll tell show you why I reviewed that in a minute.

So the common mythology that was believed until about the 19th century is that Moses wrote the book of Genesis. The image was that at some point when he was wandering around the desert homeless trying to take care of every Israelite, and he sat down and wrote a book.  Some people still adamantly adhere to this belief today, like really adamantly.

Until the 1940’s the Catholics banned their scholars from investigating the origins of Genesis and the rest of the Pentatuch, the first five books of the bible, because they thought it was sacreligious to suggest it wasn’t Moses.

In the 19th century, biblical scholars started to realize that the stories of Genesis did not look as uniform as if they were done by one writer. They seemed like they were more hobbled together from many sources. Some use one name for God, other parts use another. There’s repetition and contradicting narratives. The oral sources are called JEPD.  
We could talk for hours just on this topic, but I’ve got other places to go today.

So today, scholars believe that parts of the book of Genesis were shared orally and pieces were written down by many different authors and shared for centuries and then complied together sort of into what we know as Genesis around the early 500’s BC.  

Now the story of Joseph in contrast to the rest of Genesis seems to be consistent and fluid and seems to be written down by one person and not shared orally first. Scholars think that it was written in the early 500’s, same time that the rest of the stories were complied together, and then put on the end of Genesis.

So, what was happening in the early 500’s?   
The Babylonian Exile.  Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was destroyed, the King and his sons were killed and a large portion of the people of Judah were separated sent off to Babylon and lived as Exiles in a gentile country. 

With some adjustments, I think it would have been akin to the Syrian war and the refugees made to leave their home.

Now the Jews that were made to leave, were at least given a place to settle in Babylon.
But this was still horrible moment for the Jewish people.
It was the demolition of their home, their religion, a separation of their people their family, their heritage,
and mostly it seemed like the destruction of God’s promise to them.

The survivors lived in a foreign country against their will and were often treated with hostility.
It was a test of faith in God’s promises.
For the people who thought that God was with them and for them,
they wondered if God had abandoned them,
or if this was all seen as punishment from God for sins.

So this is the time when Genesis and actually most of the
Old Testament was compiled and written down.
It's obvious why land and offspring, and heritage,
and long term stability for their people were the recurring desires in Genesis.

Now I was just reading someone’s  take on this in some book,
and Facebook  Jesus came through again. He wrote:

The Hebrew Scriptures are an artifact of a dying civilization lying on the ground bleeding, going back through its life and wondering what went wrong.
This gave me a interesting take  Joseph and the rest of Genesis that I didn’t really have before.

Joseph, and all of Genesis was written by people looking back from the middle of a huge disaster that  tore apart their whole country, people, and religion.  

If we forget this fact and when it was written, the story of Joseph is just a great adventure story of a slightly conceited, cocky, young guy who has some problems, but always comes out on top because he believes in Yahweh and follows God’s law.

Which isn’t terrible, but it sounds a little like a prosperity gospel,
believe and do your best God will reward you type of story which is not what we usually see.

But if we remember that Joseph was written at the Israelites lowest point,
when it looked like they were utterly destroyed and God had left them,
I think it makes a lot more sense.

So many of us know the basic story of Joseph because it’s been used a lot  in popular culture.

Joseph, the dreamer, is sold by his brothers to some traders, and then he gets sold then as a slave in Egypt, to Potiphar, a high ranking official in Pharaoh’s court.

So the dreamer is displaced from the promised land in the gentile land, Egypt, the empire.  

While he’s in the empire, Joseph is falsely accused based, his strange religion is called out,  and he’s put into prison.  Desperation upon desperation. 
This is not just the story of one boy, it’s the story of the Jewish people.

Joseph Sold into Slavery By His Brothers
Karoly Ferenczy
When we look at it this way, the story of Joseph is a story of hope in desperate times.
It’s about having faith through terrible situations,
it’s about  living as an alien in the middle of the empire, and  not letting God’s dreams die.

So given the reality of the conditions under which it was written, the questions I think this story asks are:

Is God punishing us if everything seems to be going wrong?
Is the dream over?
How should we behave as exiles in a foreign land?
So we’ll go right to the first question

Is God punishing us if everything seems to be going wrong?
Things are bad for Joseph.
His dream interpretation skills get him in trouble,
his favor with Jacob gets him in trouble.
Even his coat gets him in trouble. He’s sold into slavery, he goes to prison.

If bad fortune was a sign of God’s punishment,
 then Joseph would have to have done something very wrong to anger God.
But we know from the beginning that that was not the case.
The story does not portray Joseph as doing anything worthy of punishment.
Also, we know that Joseph was Jacob’s son,
and if God didn’t punish Jacob then God was not going to punish this family.

Actually, every time he comes into a bad situation, his the special gifts that
God’s gave him seems to come through and he’s put into the best position he can be put in.

This was actually something that happened to Israelites
while they were in exile. Some rose to prominence in Babylon.
They were allowed to live freely and work and run businesses.
They still longed for home and stability and their own land and people,
But it says that when they were able to return to Jerusalem,
some opted not to, but stayed where they were, like lots of refugees do.

The Joseph story shows us bad things happen to good people.
And God can work good things out of bad situations.
This was a hope and consolation for those living in exile.

Now  I don’t want to give the end of the story away, but
Joseph is reunited with his brothers after about 20 years, and
they wonder if he will be angry with them and punish them.
But Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid.” “You planned something bad for me,
but God made something good from it.”

I do like how this translation words this.
The brothers planned something bad, but God made good.
The world does bad things to us. Not God.
God makes good out of a bad situation.
In this world where things are unfair and evil thoughts and actions exist,
the righteous will suffer.
God is always working at bringing good out of bad.
Joseph is seen as nothing but a good servant of God.
His suffering is a sign of the world he lives in and not God’s displeasure.
He actually suffers because of his righteousness.
In the age of the prosperity gospel,
this is a message that we need to be reminded of again and again.
Bad things happen to good people.

So, onto the next question:

Is the dream over?
Joseph, God’s dreamer is sent to a foreign land and then he’s imprisoned. if Joseph isn’t being
punished by God, then it might look like God has lost or given up or left us all together.

Lots of people note, that until this story, God is an actor in Genesis.
He comes and personally talks to people or he sends messengers to consort with them.
But in this story, God is silent. God is mentioned, but God is not to be seen.
Has God lost? Have we lost God?   No, but God is hidden.

In times of crisis, sometimes we have to look beyond the obvious
to find God’s presence and power working through our hopeless situations.
God abides in Joseph, the hero of the story, in the faithful, in the dreamers,
blessing the world, even though the world may not know or serve God.
This blessing comes through Joseph, but it’s never fully in Joseph’s hand.  SLIDE

Just because things are not looking good,
it doesn’t mean that God is lost or the dream is over.
As Joseph shows us, the dream may be in a foreign land,
the dream may be in prison, the dream may be serving another country,
The dream may not look like we think the dream should.
But God’s dream of  people that number more than sand in the desert
and stars in the sky, that  live in harmony and worship him,
and who are a light to all the nations, that dream has not died
and will never die it still lives in the hearts and lives of those who believe,
like it lives in Joseph and in us.

So if God is not punishing us and the dream is still alive,

How should we behave as exiles in a foreign land?

Joseph is definitely depicted as a model for how to act in his displaced situation.
Although Potiphar’s wife tries to, It says that Joseph doesn’t want to sleep with Potiphar’s wife
because he doesn’t want to betray Potiphar or to “Sin against God.”
So even thought Joseph is not in the land of his ancestors,
or the place where Yahweh is worshipped, he still follows Yahweh’s teachings.

Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife (who has no name)
tells us not to be seduced by the wiles of the empire.
Now, some might assume that is a moral for Jewish men not to have relations with gentile women
but by the end of the story, Joseph marries Aseneth,
the daughter of an Egyptian priest,
so Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife is more than a sexual moral.

It’s about not being seduced by the trappings and comforts of the empire which are tempting.
It’s a warning about all the seductions of living in a powerful and well-off place.
It’s about not forgetting that we are God’s children and should behave like it.

Joseph cannot win in this situation, if he sleeps with her, he’s doomed and if he doesn’t he’s doomed,
so Joseph opts to maintain his integrity and his ideals
and face the consequences of not adapting to the culture.

As believers living in the empire, we should be “in the world, but not of the world.”
Sound familiar.
We can talk next week about whether Joseph
actually sticks to his principles by the end of the story.
But for right now, he’s doing pretty well.

There’s also another element to this question.
Again, I don’t want to give away the story if you don’t know it,
but it turns out incredibly well for Joseph
and actually for everyone in the end.

Besides reuniting with his brothers and his father,
Joseph’s presence and actions save the people of Egypt,
and his whole family and all the Israelites from starvation.
Joseph and the dreams that he carried with him were a blessing to others.
So, in a foreign land, even in a hostile land,
the children of Yahweh are a light to the other nations.

Now even though most of us have been born in this land and lived here all our lives,
this advice is still relevant for us.
We are believers in God’s dream and a land that is
hostile to God’s dream.
Sometimes it probably feels  like we are aliens in our own world.
And it should. We live a different way.

But while we’re here, we should not be seduced by the trappings of the empire.
Not be sucked in by the comfort and the ease of living, but remember who’s we are.
But we should still be a blessing to this world whenever we can.

So the story of Joseph is not just a story of one plucky young man
who follows God and is rewarded.
It’s the story of a dream in exile.
Of a people trying to get their heads around how to live in a new reality.
It’s about whether or not God is with us, when everything seems to be against us.
It’s about not giving up on God’s dream no matter what the world gives us.

This is the story of believers throughout the ages
living in a hostile world, but knowing God will always be there.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hagar & Ishmael

Genesis 16 & 21
Hagar & Ishmael

These are not easy stories for us in this day and age.
Abraham and Sarah don’t end up looking so much like models of the faith,
not to us anyway.
They seem petty, weak, callous, and cruel.
By the way, for part of the story, they are Abram and Sarai
and for the other part they are Abraham and Sarah.
I’m just calling them Abraham and Sarah to not confuse myself.
Hagar & Ishmael in the Desert, Emily Mineo

The short story for us is that Sarah got impatient and wanted a baby  
and she forced another woman, her slave, Hagar, to have a baby with her husband.
But Sarah gets all jealous cause it’s not her baby
so she has Abraham dump Hagar and the baby in the desert to die.
Sounds like the Real Housewives of Hebron or worse.
And God seems to go along with all this, at least he doesn’t complain about it.

These are the father and mother of our faith.

Now for sure, this is not Abraham and Sarah’s  best moment.
But I’m guessing that the first hearers of this story would not have be so unnerved by it
they wouldn’t have judged them so harshly and their actions would have made much more sense at the time.

Much this story is motivated by the norms of their society,  
which are foreign to us and might explain their actions.  Some of them are:

  • Having offspring (especially male) was an absolute driving force and the purpose of marriage.
  • Sarah and Abraham were old and childless, which was seen as shameful.
  • Men often had several wives, often in order to ensure offspring.
  • Slavery and the caste system created by it was unquestioned.

So to explain these. .

Having a male offspring was an absolute driving force and was the purpose of marriage.

At this time (and really for most of history) marriage was not driven by love,
or romance, or companionship or any of the things we now assume marriage to be about.
The sole reason to be married was to have children, specifically male children,
in order to carry on the family name and business and wealth into further generations.
This and having land were of primary importance to a family, and notice that God’s promise to Abraham includes both of these things: land and offspring.

The oldest male was the ‘favored’ one who would inherit the family business
and most of the family’s wealth and responsibility passed on to him.
Younger brothers got “gifts” , but the oldest got most everything else.
The oldest would have stayed with his parents, taking care of them
and the family and the slaves and everything else they had. 
The females would have joined other families, the younger men might join another family too.

This singular ambition to have a male heir drives both men and women to do things that seem very strange and out of place to us like Lot’s daughters, and Tamar, it’s the reason for a Levrite marriage, where a widow would marry her brother-in-law.  Many of the sexual, family things in the bible that we think of as weird  can be traced to this one objective.

Sarah and Abraham were old and childless (which was shameful.)

So when God promises Abraham that he will have as many descendants as there are
stars in the sky and grains of sand in the desert,
Abraham is 75 and Sarah was about 65 they have no children.  
Now some people say that these numbers are actually exaggerations of some sort. Some say that you need to divide by 5, some say that it means months not years.  But it’s not clear. Genesis says that Abraham lived to 175, but it says that Noah lived to 900 so Abraham was pretty young comparitively. Many religions have longevity myths about  their ancestors. Regardless of the actual age, it says that Abraham and Sarah were old. Too old to by many people’s estimation to have children.
So the promise is given to Abraham when he is 75 and Sarah is 65. When Sarah has the idea to give Hagar to Abraham, Abraham is 85 and Sarah is 75. 10 years have passed.  It really doesn’t seem like this important thing is going to happen.
Given the last thing we know about offspring and male heirs, this would have made Abraham and Sarah’s marriage -- and even their whole lives -- a complete failure. The future of their wealth and all that they’ve worked for would have been in jeopardy.
Women were understood to have one job, and that was to have babies. If Sarah didn’t do that for the family, her life was in vein. Sarah was afraid of dying in shame. She was racing against the clock. It makes sense that Sarah would be impatient.

Men often had several wives.

If the sole purpose of marriage was to have heirs to carry on your name, then marrying more than one woman makes sense.  There was no fertility clinics, no adoption centers. If the first wife was not able to bear children, another was chosen or given (because it was assumed to be the woman’s fault.)  Most multiple marriages in Genesis were in order for children to be born, either for the man or for the woman’s sake.  The child born to a woman’s slave would have legally belonged to the first wife.
Thankfully polygamy seemed to fall out of practice around the time of the Jewish exile, thousands of years ago.

Slavery and the caste system created by it was an unquestioned norm of the day

Slaves were sometimes prisoners of war, sometimes they’ve sold themselves into a temporary state of slavery, or have been sold by their families to pay off debts.
And Hagar was probably given to Sarah at her marriage. Slaves that belonged to wives could not be automatically taken by her husband. Sarah would have to give her slave to her husband as a wife to Abraham and then the child would be her child. But Sarah would still be in charge of the slave.
So Sarah is driven by the overwhelming societal need to have a child and even though this all seems to be Sarah’s idea, it’s put her in an uncomfortable position.  The heir might have legally been her child, but it really wasn’t, and then on top of that, the slave that she offered up to be a surrogate was disrespectful to Sarah.
To the first hearers of this story, Hagar would probably
have been seen as the one who did wrong.
She did not  honor her place in this system.  

Unfortunately, slavery didn’t fall out of practice until just recently.

While Sarah and Abraham would not have seemed not at their best,
for the first hearers, this story wouldn’t have seemed completely erratic and cruel
because they would have been living in the same environment with the same rules.

Now if we said or did any one of these things or acted on them today,
we would be seen as crazy, we would get a stern talking to,
or we would be arrested, and I for one am glad.
We are different now, we’ve progressed, and God has had a hand in that.

But I’m not here to get Abraham and Sarah off the hook or make them look great.
I want to say that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as morally superior to them,  
because we are willing parties of our own cultures and norms,
And when we’re put into stressful situations, we often will
act on them instead of in the best way we know how.

Even if we have an inkling that something  is wrong,                                       
we are still part of these systems and we live within them,
many of us at least think that people should know their place and abide by the
written and unwritten rules and things might be better for them.
What will future generations say about us and where we are now?

But right here, just 21 chapters into the bible,
we see God challenging the world that Abraham and Sarah live in
and the rules they abide by.

Now the frustration for most of us is that God doesn’t work fast enough. 
God doesn’t just overturn unjust and cruel systems like violence and slavery and misogyny
and correct the problems of civilization in one stroke.
But God doesn’t completely live by them either.
God works against them gently, he’s undermining them,  he almost makes fun of them. 

For instance:
Hagar is in every way shape and form an outcast.
She is a woman, she is a slave, she is an Egyptian, from another culture,
She was given the privilege of bearing the child of her master,
and then she had the nerve to disrespect her mistress.
The tradition says she deserves to be abandoned in the desert and ignored.

But this story,
God’s messenger comes to her. To HER.
A pregnant, sassy, runaway slave.
And the messenger does tells her to go back to Sarah, maybe for her own safety,
but never scolds her or tells her to reconsider her ways.

On the contrary, the messenger tells her not to be afraid.
and announces to HER that God will give HER many children.
And that she should name her child Ishmael,
which means ‘God has heard her.’

Now these kind of announcements are not given to women.
Actually in the Hebrew Scriptures, this is the only time the announcement of a birth is given to a woman.

And then to go even further Hagar has the chutzpah to
names God. She calls him El Roi, Which means ‘God sees me.’
God names other people, people don’t name God. But Hagar did.

Just 16 chapters in to the book,
we see a God who is  not playing by the rules, who sees and hears the outcast,
who makes great promises to sassy women.

And then when Ishmael is 13 and Sarah finally does give birth,
Sarah sees the older boy, as a rival to her younger child.
And she has Abraham throw them into the desert with little water,
obviously with the intent that they would die there. 
God hears Hagar and the boy again.
And the messenger of God, uses that famous biblical line, “Do not be afraid”
and God gives her a well with water.

It says that God stays with Ishmael as he grows up. 
God does not abandon him or forsake him,
just because he was born out of Sarah and Abraham’s impatience.
But God makes a great nation of him too.

Now Muslims and Arabs trace their heritage to Ishmael.
They say that he was an ancestor of Muhammad.
In Islamic tradition, it is Ishmael who was the one to be sacrificed, not Isaac.
I learned something new.
And even though the story in Genesis continues to follow
Isaac and his offspring, Ishmael is no less treasured by God, 
He is not a second class citizen, he is Isaac’s brother and equal
and is given a special promise and  becomes great nation in his own right.

God loves the outcast.
As I said, God is not overturning societies and rules and customs in one stroke.
God’s just slowly undermining them, slowly overturning them.
Changing hearts and minds.

For the first people hearing them,    
these stories must have been shocking to them too, but for different reasons.

For them having  children would have been extremely important      
but the heroes of the story are two old barren people.
And then God makes them wait 25 years to make it happen.

And those people think that first born male heirs are important. 
but if you look in Genesis, almost none of the first born sons
who were supposed get the blessing and birthrights,  end up getting it.

Hagar talking to God must have been an outrage. 

Having Ishmael as the first born, not get Abraham’s inheritance,
but as the child of a banished slave still get God’s honor
and promise must have blown their minds.

If this is what God does, It’s hard to pick good and bad.
It’s hard to know who God loves and who God doesn’t.
It’s hard to say who is in and who is out.
And maybe that was the point.
With God, there is no in and out. Right from the beginning.

Like a slow erosion,  
God is taking centuries and millennium to do it,
but maybe one day we’ll really know and live this.
God is out to change the world, by changing
the hearts of the people in the world.
By making us so uncomfortable
with the way things are that we can’t live with it any more.
God is not just demanding that everything change.
God wants us to demand it too.
This is no short and easy fix.
God is in this for the long-haul.
God started right from the beginning, and
God is still working with us today.

The story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael should give us hope. 
God is still working through our outdated systems and cultures.
And through subtly challenging our prejudices and preconceived notions.
God is slowing working to help us get out of the knots we have gotten ourselves in.

And God is not swayed by our shortcomings and foibles and personality defects.
God is not turned away by our impatience, or our rivalry, or pettiness or weaknesses.
Not only is God not turned away, but God is working through them.

And for those people who have been cast aside by our   
own culture and systems and prejudices,
Those that our society has declared second and third class citizens
They are Ishmael and God is El Roi, God hears their cries and God sees them.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sodom & Gomorrah

Genesis 18 & 19
Sodom & Gomorrah
Now the story of the destruction Sodom and Gomorrah falls in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah and isn’t a very important story as far as the lineages or God’s covenant with Abraham goes, but it’s a significant story because it does make a very interesting point about this new burgeoning relationship between God and humans.
And it has been so misused against people and God that I didn’t want to ignore it.  

Most people have interpreted this story to say that the sin of  Sodom and Gomorrah
is homosexuality and/or  sexual promiscuity.
That’s what made God so mad and that’s why God destroyed it.
Supposedly the moral of that story is 

“God is likely to destroy things, people and whole cities, etc,
and God doesn’t like homosexuality, so don’t be that way,
don’t make God mad and you won’t be destroyed.”
Obviously, I don’t think that is a very good moral..

But emphasizing the sexual sin of Sodom started pretty early,
and since the 13th century, the name of Sodom is synonymous
with any different kind of sexual act.

That is a terrible for what it has done to gay and lesbian people,
and for what it reduces God to – an angry judge who’s
happy to destroy everything in his path.
It’s disturbing AND I don’t think the story says that,
it doesn’t paint a picture of God like that.

Two questions  I would like to answer about this story:  

What was Sodom & Gomorrah’s sin?
Does God really blow cities up?

Before we get to these two questions,
just a bit of background on Lot. 
Lot's Wife, Chris Goodwin
Lot is Abraham’s nephew.
They left their homeland together and they traveled together.

They were both very prosperous in their own right – lots of cattle and livestock.
But they had so much, it said, that their shepherds were  
getting into arguments about who’s livestock were grazing where. 
And so they decided to go their own ways.

Abraham went  to Hebron and Lot went to Sodom.  
Now Sodom was one of the cities of the Plain. Which were on the intersection
of the Jordan river and the Dead Sea, in what is now the country of Jordan.
It was a very prosperous area.  Lots of things grew there then, even though its mostly desert now.
There were 5 cities together and Sodom was the real Metropolis.
So Lot lived in Sodom, and he was a really rich guy,
 but he was a new comer. A visitor.

After the two mysterious strangers come tell Abraham and Sara that they
are going to have a son, the three strangers
walk away from the tent and are talking.  

The Lord is talking to the two other strangers
(further proof that one of the strangers is God)
and this conversation seems to be in earshot of Abraham. 

God wonders aloud to the other strangers if he should keep his plans
about Sodom and Gomorrah secret from Abraham.

God has apparently heard a lot of bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah.
God has heard many cries of injustice from the people there
and God plans to do something  about it.
The two other strangers go on to Sodom,
And God decides to go down there too and see for himself.

So to the first question:

What was Sodom & Gomorrah’s sin?

As I said, for many years, the answer has been assumed to be .   
that the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah was sexual in nature.
Specifically same-sex relations

And some people who believe this take that anyone who
has a consenting same-sex relationship is angering God,
and could cause God to snap and destroy them or everything.

Now the truth is, the story really doesn’t actually say what the sin of Sodom is.
So people have had to guess from the context.
The only thing the story definitely tell us is that
some of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah
are crying out and that is what gets God’s attention.
The stuff about sexuality comes from the
rest of the story after the strangers go to Sodom : 

The other two strangers get to Sodom in the evening before God does.
Lot is sitting at the gate almost waiting for them and invites them into his house.
They say, “no no, it’s no problem, we’ll just sleep outside.”
But Lot convinces them and they come in the house
and Lot makes a big dinner for them,
which Abraham and Sarah had just done just a few hours earlier .
I don’t know how they ate again.
It’s like trying to juggle Thanksgiving with the in-laws.

So, the strangers are eating their second feast of the evening,
and all the men of the city surround Lot’s house
and demand that the strangers be sent out to them so they can “know them”.
The Hebrew word they use is  “yada” and it can mean lots of things --
To know, to perceive, to understand, to meet, to get acquainted with, to acknowledge
so there’s not a complete agreement about what they mean.

But I think the context is pretty clear and it does seem that “yada”
means here “to know”, as we say, “in the biblical sense”.

In other words, the men of Sodom demand that Lot send his
visitors out to them so they  can sexually assault them.
It’s terrible and frightening, no matter who is doing it to whom.
It was meant to humiliate the strangers.

This is not a relationship between consenting adults.
This would be non – consensual, it would be assault, rape.
Even in early biblical times, where the rules of
intimate interaction are decidedly different than they are today,
this was a horrible violation of some vulnerable people.

So equating this with two people who have a
consensual relationship is just ridiculous.
Apples and oranges really.

This is a violence by the village on two people who are new to the town.
Like all rape, it’s about power, exercising it and taking it away from people.

So there’s this sin, which is terrible.
But the sin is sexual assault, not sexuality, not even promiscuity really.
But there’s more to this town’s sin than assault and some people say it’s hospitality.

Now hospitality doesn’t sound too important today,
today it’s about hotel work or putting out the right cheese and crackers for guests.
But thousands of years ago,
In these desert environments, hospitality was a matter of life and death.

And it was about more than the random wandering stranger.
It was about how insiders treated outsiders.
How the powerful treated the powerless.
And if the Bible is a source to us, this concept  very important to God.

This story is exaggerated, it  shows blatantly the lack of hospitality of the people in Sodom
contrasted with the super hospitality of Abraham and Lot.

When the strangers visit Abraham and he gives them his best.
He doesn’t hold back, he gives them a huge spread of food.
He probably could have gotten away with bread and water, but he
gives lots of bread 20 loaves or something like that, a young calf to eat, water, and milk.
He goes overboard on the hospitality.
Then when two of the strangers go onto Lot’s house,  
He gives them another meal, even baking bread for them  in the middle of the night.
Another crazy thing to do.
The chosen family of God welcomes strangers and treats
those are the most vulnerable with kindness.

But the rest of Sodom doesn’t treat the vulnerable with hospitality.  
Not only do they reject the strangers, they want to harm them.
They actually ask them out of the house so that they can humiliate
them in what was considered the absolute worst possible way.

Now, I will not go into Lot’s solution to this request.
where he offers up his two young daughters to the mob of men.
I cannot reckon this with any kind of righteousness today.

But I will say that there were other rules in play,
and protecting visiting male strangers by offering up his
own daughters might have been seen as the ultimate in hospitality  - even though it’s crazy today.
And I will say that Lot and his daughters have a complex relationship
that you can go on to read further in chapter 19.
But back to the story at hand:

When Lot stands in the way and offers an alternative to attacking the strangers,
the men of Sodom yell at him and reveal their true feelings toward Lot,
and tell him that he’s just a lousy “immigrant”, a new comer,
an interloper, and that he shouldn’t judge them.

For this story, the faithfulness of Abraham and Lot and this chosen family
is contrasted with the waywardness of the rest of humanity.
The way they treat the other, specifically the weakest among them.

The sin of Sodom is not about who they chose to love,
it’s about how they chose to hate.
It’s about how they treat the stranger, the immigrant, the less powerful in their midst.

And to prove my point, I refer to the Bible, to the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 16:

49 This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud,
had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity;
but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.
50 They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me,
and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it. Says the Lord.

So the sin of Sodom is about how the powerful treat the un-powerful.
It’s about the rape (in many ways) of those who are weaker.

And we know about that.
When we’re looking at a health care bill coming from
our ruling class, the congress and senate –
some of the wealthiest and best paid and best insured people in the country
and how they are planning to take away emergency
health care from the most needy, the most vulnerable,
the oldest, the youngest,  the poorest, in our country -
and transferring that money to the richest in the form of tax breaks,
we’re talking about the sin of Sodom happening in our own backyard,
and should take this story as a warning for all of us.
As is stated in the bible over and over again, God does not like this kind of behavior.
 And we know what happens when God doesn’t like something.
Which brings me to my next question:

Does God really blow cities up?

Some modern TV evangelists like Pat Robertson 
would like you to believe that God does just that.
He blamed the hurricane in Haiti several years ago
on the fact that God was angry with the Haitian's practice
of voodoo one hundred years or so ago
So even though now the country is mostly Catholic, God destroyed it.

And some Christians have spent a lot of time proving
that there really was more than a natural disaster in the
place that they believe Sodom and Gomorrah to have been.

But does God really destroy, and whole civilizations?
I don’t think I’m very comfortable with that thought.
It goes against most of what I know and understand about
God through Jesus Christ.

Here’s some things to remember: this a new relationship between 
God and God’s people.
Previous to this relationship and revelation,
human’s relationship with the divine was difficult at best.
Gods were understood as arbitrary and acted to satisfy their own desires.
Humans were mostly seen as pawns and play toys.
But now we have a God who is not just using humans for entertainment.
God has a relationship with us.

And this story of Sodom and Gomorrah makes the point
that the relationship with this God is not the same as the old gods
Things do not happen arbitrarily outside of the relationship between God and humans.
People aren’t just pawns in the gods’ games anymore.
 As Walter Bruggemann, the renowned Old Testament Scholar writes,
“it is no longer a closed system”,
humans are now involved, God is concerned about how we treat each other.
And in comparison to the old way of thinking of the divine,
God’s actions are just and merciful.
And in the story, Abraham has been bold enough to intercede in this    
divine retribution, and God responds to him. Interacts with him.
It’s no longer a closed system, and the system now includes an element of grace.
Abraham argues with God:
“If there are 100 good people, would you save the city?
Okay, how about 50 good people? You’re way more merciful than that.
How about 45, 40, 30, 20, how about 10 God?
Would you save the city then? ” God is moved by Abraham’s plea.
Even though in the end it doesn’t seem to matter.

And Abraham, the righteous child of God,
does not just pray and barter with God for himself,
he puts himself out there with God and prays for others, again, hospitality.
He leverages his relationship with God
for the weaker among him.

One other thing about how we read these stories,
 we shouldn’t just read them and say, “this is exactly how God acts.”
We have to look at the TRAJECTORY  
of what this story  is trying to tell us about God and about God’s people TODAY.

The exchange with Abraham tells me that God is just and merciful
and loves his people and is in relationship with them. 
And the trajectory of that truth tells me today --
knowing where humanity has come to
and that redemption and loving our enemies is part of God’s plan --
that a God would not destroy a city even with only 10 righteous people.
God is capable, but God does not.

Still, I was thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah and I was
still stuck on this question of whether God destroys civilizations.
And so I had a conversation this week with my Facebook friend, Jesus  -- son of Joseph.
And he said something that I thought was very insightful,
Which makes sense because he is Jesus.

He said:
The pattern I see (in both OT and NT) is that every time a corrupt, evil civilization dies, Yahweh takes credit for it. It happens to Sodom, to Egypt, to Canaan, to Israel, to Judah, to Babylon, to Persia, and then Israelite civilization dies completely in 70 AD (something I will have lots to say about in my own preaching), and it has continued happening in the 2000 years since, and still is. And in each case, it's described as something like "the Coming of the LORD."

Is it accurate to say that when Nazi Germany was defeated, it was in some ways the work of Yahweh?
I would say yes, sort of, from a certain point of view.

Another point of view is that every civilization reaps what it sews.
Civilizations built on hate are not sustainable, and they eventually experience the results of their behavior.
 And this is as it should be.
You could say it is the will of God that people experience the natural consequences of their choices.

"Civilizations based on hate are not sustainable.”
So in other words, God has formed a world that will eventually reject hate and rejects evil.
This is easiest to say by telling a story where God suddenly destroys an evil city.
But in reality, it doesn’t happen that quickly, in the flash of a moment,
it happens over decades and centuries.
It’s a slow process, but inevitable.

In other words, as Martin Luther King Jr. Said,
“The arc of the universe bends towards justice.”

Our systems can’t sustain forever under the weight of greed, and violence, and inequality.
Brian McClaren, another great theologian of today, calls it The Suicide Machine

We can see our own system now imploding from 
consumerism, exploiting others and our natural resources for personal pleasure.
We can see it coming apart from the love of weapons, guns,
the machines of war, years of hate and fear.
And after centuries of the weakest being enslaved and cast aside,
used and ignored and thrown away, our sins have come to roost.
Our greatest hope and our greatest fear is that God’s will will be done.

Right now, our plan of action as people of faith,
is to try and help change the society that we both love and hate.
To help us all see the error of our ways and change course. 

But at some point the story of Lot tells us that the
answer might be to get out before it’s too late,
and don’t look back longingly, like Lot’s wife did,
to our wealth, and comfort, and ease of life.

So this story is bad news for the rich and the haughty.
Because they have the farthest to fall.
And it’s bad news for those who
laugh at and ignore the weak,
and don’t have mercy for the helpless
They have already had their good times. 

But the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is good news for the poor,
for the immigrants, for the elderly, and the weak, good news for the peacemakers.
For those who have cried out at the injustice in the world.
Good news for those who have been chewed up by the suicide machine
since it started churning.
It’s actually good news for everyone.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah tells us in, its own way,
that the arc of the universe does bend toward justice.
God’s way will be our ways.
Good will triumph.
Love and justice will win.