Genesis 4-6, Psalm 2, Matthew 2
Can the Bible be trusted?
Genesis 4 – 6
Back when I served a church in Richmond, Virginia, I had lunch one day with a bright young lawyer who had visited our church for a service. He was dubious about religion and the need for attending and participating in a church, so I invited him to lunch, hoping to learn more about his life, his spiritual journey and his questions regarding faith and religion. During lunch, he mentioned that he had tried to read the Bible, but when he read that Adam had lived to be 930 years old, he put it down and stopped reading. While not a scientist, he had enough back in science to know that no human can live 930 years. He quickly surmised that the Bible was a book that could not be trusted.
Sadly, he made his way only to the second paragraph of the fifth chapter of Genesis. He had barely read the Bible. Worst of all, he missed the opportunity to glean wisdom, truth and life from the greatest book of all simply because he tried to interpret it with 20th century eyes. A lot of learning, discovery and development have taken place in the world since the time of ancient Israel and the time of Jesus. Our concepts of time, space, knowledge, truth, communication and social relations have changed enormously.
In order to understand the Bible better, we must begin by recognizing that it is an ancient text. It was written in a time and age far different from our own. The Bible was written in a patriarchal age, when women had little authority. It was written in an environment that was often violent and where ancient customs took place, which are far different from the customs that govern Western society today.
The two things that I would highlight in today’s reading are “numbers” and “sin.” In the first case, we read that Adam lived to be 930. He was 130 when he became father to his third son, Seth. Adam and Eve had already given birth to Cain and Abel. After having fathered Seth, Adam lived another 800 years. It is both impossible that Adam was 130 when he fathered Seth and that he lived another eight centuries. To believe the Bible and to glean wisdom, truth and life from its teachings does not require that we believe that Adam was 130 when he fathered Seth or that he lived another 800 years.
The way that time was counted and added in the ancient world was far different than today. Soon, we shall read about the Flood and how it rained forty days and forty nights. The word “forty” often appears in the Bible. It is a Hebraism or expression in Hebrew that does not necessary mean the number 40. It means “a time that seemed to have no end.” Hence, we can read in the book of Genesis about how long Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalele, Jared, Methuselah, Lamech and others lived and take what we read with a grain of salt. The takeaway here is that God blessed them with long lives, and God’s favor was upon them.
As for “sin,” it first manifested itself when Eve listened to the snake tempting her to eat of the fruit found on the tree of life growing in the Garden of Eden. She encouraged Adam to eat the same fruit. When God found them and they hid, because their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked, God asked them why they had eaten from the tree which he had commanded them not touch.
Each in turn denied responsibility. Adam said that Eve had encouraged him to eat of the tree. Eve said that the serpent had said that she could partake of the fruit of the tree of life. As is the case so often with each of us, they failed to take responsibility for their own actions. “Sin” is an ancient word that comes from archery. In Hebrew a word that is often used for “sin” is harmartia. This word means “to miss the mark” when shooting an arrow.
I think back to the summer that I spent at YMCA camps outside Burlington, Vermont and Wolfsboro, New Hampshire, where my fellow campmates and I took archery lessons. Inevitably there was a young camper who would fool around at the archery range and point his bow in the wrong direction and release an arrow that was so far from the target that it might hurt someone passing by. The instructor would quickly come behind him and place his large hands upon the small boy’s shoulders and reorient him so that his arrows flew in the right direction. Often in life, God must reorient the direction we are facing so that we will not harm ourselves or others. When God corrects us from sinning, it is a very good thing, and it is done to help us and to help others.
In today’s lessons, we read about the advent of sin in the world. It started when Adam and Eve violated the boundaries that were clearly established by God. It continues through their family when their son Cain struck down Abel, after God accepted Abel’s sacrifice of an animal but not Cain’s sacrifice of a harvest offering. Scholars believe that this story is a way for the ancient Israelites to explain the origin of the sacrificial system which called for offering unblemished lambs and other offerings as a sacrifice to God to atone for their sins. This practice culminated with Jesus’ self-offering of himself as “the lamb of God,” which takes away the sins of the world.
What is clear is that sin entered the world and spread like a virus. Fydor Dostoevesky wrote a wonderful short story called The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In it, Dostoevesky writes about a man who falls asleep and dreams that he is visiting another planet inhabited by people who are perfect and have never sinned. This planet is a paradise of peace and harmony. One day, the man tells a lie and one of the inhabitants of the planet who experiences the lie realizes for the first time that it is possible not to tell the truth. This person tells a similar lie and lying quickly becomes part of the culture of the planet, bringing with it other sins that damage relationships, culminating in the first murder on the planet.
It today’s reading we learn about the first murder committed in the Bible. The cast of characters that we shall encounter in the pages that follow are a mixed lot at best. They reflect our own weaknesses and imperfections. In the pages that follow, we learn about God’s plan for the world and the principles that God has established for healthy relationships and meaningful existence. We also learn about the ramifications of violating these principles and the harm, pain and injury that occur when we turn from God and God’s teaching and let sin rule our lives.
This is an underlying theme found throughout the entire Bible, and it is a theme that underlies each of our lives. As we read these initial stories of Genesis, we need not worry about their factual basis. Who did the sons of Adam and Eve marry? Why was Cain fearful that others would slay him for being a murderer, if the only people remaining on earth were his parents? What matters is the underlying theme that God has created us in God’s own image, and when we stray from being faithful to this image we harm not only ourselves but others as well, and we miss out on the peace and joy that God has planned for us.
In chapter 6, we read that human beings have begun to populate the earth. God warns that his “spirit shall not abide in mortals forever….” From henceforth humans will not live longer than 120 years. Now there is an age cap on human existence. Furthermore, God surveys the wickedness of humankind and determines that something must be done. The stage is now set for the Flood and the story of Noah’s ark.
Many of the psalms are attributed to King David, and the rabbis have always taught that even those not attributed to King David were composed by him. Hence, we find in the Psalms a collection of poems that were set to music by the ancients. They were written to instruct others in the way of life by a wise king anointed by God who made both wise and unwise decisions.
Many of the psalms are therefore addressed to kings. A king was created in the ancient world by being anointed with oil. The word for oil in Greek is “chrism” from which we get the word “Christ.” Jesus was a person who was anointed by God to serve as king. Each of us is created in his image and anointed with oil at baptism to serve as a small reflection of Christ on earth. That is why we are called “Christians,” for we are people who have been anointed to serve our king of faith.
The psalmist addresses the king in Psalm 2 saying, “I will tell you the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.’” These words travel down through time and will speak to the role that Jesus was to play for us. As for us, this psalm reminds us that there is judgment and that God takes seriously how we lead our lives.
We are admonished to “serve the Lord with fear…” (Ps. 2:11) Throughout the Bible when you read the word “fear,” you will almost always benefit by translating it or replacing it with the word “respect.” As the author of the Book of Proverbs notes, “Fear is the becoming of wisdom.” We can profitably translate this as “Respect is the beginning of wisdom.” When we respect God and act appropriately towards God because of our respect for our creator, redeemer and savior, it guides our behavior in an appropriate and loving way. When we disrespect God, the possibilities of sinning becoming rampant and we quickly mar the image of God within us and are apt to do and say things that diminish ourselves and hurt our relationships.
In Spain, Italy and some other strongly Christian countries, it has been the practice for centuries to exchange gifts not at Christmas, but on January 6, when the Church celebrates the Feast of Epiphany. This is starting to change, however, as the custom of exchanging gifts on Christmas Day in the United States and other countries has started to make an impact elsewhere. The Feast of the Epiphany is when the Church celebrates the visit of the Three Kings, who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
The Bible never mentions that they were kings. Rather it describes them as “wise men from the East.” Scholars believe that these wise men from the East were actually ancient astronomers from Persia, which is where Iraq is now located. Several decades ago an archeologist uncovered an ancient book called The Star Almanac of Sipper. In this book, scholars found notations made by ancient astronomers in Persia of the movements of the stars during the time of the birth of Jesus. It was recorded that a very unusual conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn along with the constellation of Pisces occurred. This happens only once every 800 years and took place when Jesus was born.
Saturn symbolized a king. Jupiter was linked to Israel, and Pisces signified a birth. By studying the stars in the sky above, these ancient astronomers were able to discern that a child had been born, who would grow to become king of the Jewish people. So, they followed the star and brought gifts, which signified Christ’s kingship over the Jewish people, as well as foreshadowing his painful death with gifts that also were used to embalm a body.
Attached to this powerful story we find the story of the slaughter of the innocents, normally commemorated by the Church on December 28. This event occurred when King Herod learned from the wise men that a baby had been born, who would become king of the Jews. Herod, who was paranoid about any threats to his power, instructed the wise men to return after they had found this infant king so that he, too, might go and worship him.
Herod’s real desire was to exterminate this infant, who might one day become a threat to Herod’s own power. Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men took an alternative route home. Herod meanwhile orders the death of every child two years old and under in order to protect himself against the threat of any child who might grow up and usurp his authority as ruler over the Jewish people.
A similar act occurred under the Pharaoh following the birth of Moses, who like Jesus was miraculously spared from death, being hidden in Egypt in the Pharaoh’s own palace. We shall read about that later. Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels and was written for a Jewish audience. Here Matthew makes a close analogy, as he will throughout this entire gospel, between Jesus and Moses. It reminds us of the monstrous evil that rulers have frequently imposed upon children throughout the world and how the forces of evil have often been unleashed upon the most innocent in society.
Herod died in the year 4 B.C., which leads scholars to date the birth of Jesus just before this. Upon learning in a dream that Herod had died, Joseph took Mary and Jesus and returned to Israel, where Jesus was raised in Nazareth, so that the biblical prophecy that a Nazorean would become the Messiah might be fulfilled. Throughout this text, we see God working through angels and dreams and weaving together a path to salvation amidst the forces of darkness and evil, which would seek to extinguish hope, truth and life. God prevails.
Before reading the Bible each day, put yourself in the presence of God by beginning with a short prayer. Invite God to guide you as you read the Scriptures so that you will glean wisdom, truth and life to help you lead your life this day. If you find it difficult to pray extemporaneously by yourself, then try praying these words each day before you read the Bible “O Lord, as I read your Word, may your light and truth guide me in my reading so that I may receive your wisdom and hope in order to live more faithfully and so that I may bear your love and grace to all whom I shall meet this day. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”
What are your thoughts about sin? Do our actions ultimately matter to God? Will God eventually judge our lives?
Holy and gracious God, as we give ourselves to the reading of your Word, may you slowly reveal your nature to us and instruct us in your ways, so that we might see ourselves more clearly as you see us and see more clearly the way that you are preparing for us to walk in so that we may fulfill your purpose and discover our bliss. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania