Sunday, February 17, 2008

From Cain To King - Oh The People God Picks

This might actually be turning in to a series or something. It is certainly something upon which I am ruminating, as I wrestle with the implications of God's Providential work in the world.

In seminary, I took a class on exegetical method, the single most rewarding class I took. The professor, Dr. David Hopkins, moved us through various texts and various ways to read them, from the simple uses of a Concordance to various more advanced readings. One of the texts with which we wrestled that spring semester, 1992, was the story, as he called it, of Cain and God. Rather than "Cain and Abel", Hopkins pointed out that Abel is not a subject of the story at all, but rather an object, a prop in the struggle between Cain and God. The most fascinating part of the story, for me, is what is too often missed - there is no condemnation from God for the murder of Abel; indeed Cain receives a blessing from God, the mark of Cain which is in fact a sign of divine protection. I realize this is a reversal of "traditional" readings, yet it has always been clear to me this is the function of the "mark of Cain". Indeed, by calling the story one of "Cain and God", it focuses attention on who the real actors are, and the role of God's grace here. Cain murders his brother - a crime from which his blood cries forth from the ground - and even as God's anger rises, Cain's thought is not on repentance, but on his own safety as he ventures out in to the wider world (to all fundies who subscribe to creationism, I want to know where all these people who threaten Cain's life came from, since Adam, Eve, and now just Cain should be the only people on earth; just wondering). And God provides that blessing.

In a similar vein, the entire story of David, from young shepherd made war hero to the entry in to Jerusalem, making it the capital of this new kingdom, through the civil war and reconciliation, is one of multiple betrayals, rape, murder, war, fratricide - and, of course, the threatening of the line of succession, this time the royal line rather than the line of patriarchs. Through it all, the LORD's work is done. The child born of the rape of Bathsheba, Solomon, becomes king. The story of Solomon's reign follows the same pattern, set out as early as the stories of the patriarchs, and made clear in the story of David - God is there, not despite, but even in the midst of the limits of human moral and ethical conduct.

Flashing forward a few thousand years, to the life and work of Martin Luther King, I think we see the same dynamic in play. It is quite clear, from abundant evidence, that King engaged in some serious intellectual dishonesty in his doctoral dissertation. This plagiarism should have been evident to his principle reader, Harold DeWolfe, but was apparently overlooked for what might be a variety of unknown reasons. In his personal life, King also left much to be desired; he had an eye for the ladies, and there are enough anecdotes confirming it to say that he was most likely unfaithful to his wife, who suffered much for the life he chose (and carried his work forward best she could, left to raise their children alone after his death). Yet, who would deny that he was about God's work? Who would question his commitment to justice, not just as an American ideal (although it certainly was that), but as a Biblical mandate? Who would doubt the sincerity, indeed transparency, of his oft-stated need for strength from God for the work he felt called to? Because he was a bit of an intellectual thief and a philanderer, does that negate either the reality of his faith, or the faithfulness he gave to the cause of human freedom and justice?

There are those who would say such a thing. Yet, this betrays an ignorance of the way God works, even as the Biblical authors presented quite clear evidence to the contrary. Moral scolds and nannies to humanity, they believe we need to be squeaky clean in our lives before we make a single statement about our faith, or about how to live our faith in the world. Too bad God wasn't listening to them when he called his prophets to marry prostitutes, when he anointed David king, and kept faith with David throughout his self-induced troubles. Too bad God wasn't listening when God was going about making a murderer of Christians the most famous of the early missionaries. Too bad God wasn't using a prostitute, a turncoat prostitute, as a vehicle for the Hebrew people's victory over the city of Jericho.

God is not a moral scold. God knows the limits under which we live, and loves us and uses us to achieve the divine ends even in the midst of all the scandal and even evil in our lives and the world.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More