Is Cain also Israel?

The last couple days I’ve been mulling a different approach to the Adam and Eve narratives, which may very well be akin to an allegorical fable intended to aid a post-exilic Israel in keeping from future apostasy.  This thought is not original to me, but I do think it is new to many evangelicals.

We tend to spend a lot of time on Genesis 2-3 (which is funny because the Bible itself doesn’t seem to spend much time there), but we rarely talk much about Genesis 4.  This, of course, is the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of the first family.  Now, fools like me tend to get caught up in the problems with some of the details of the narrative (such as of whom Cain was afraid).  Nevertheless, I’ve begun wondering whether the line of thinking we’ve been exploring surrounding Adam as Israel might similarly apply to Cain and Abel.

The tale is fairly simple.  Cain and his younger brother Abel each bring offerings to the Lord.  Abel, to his credit, sacrifices the first and best of his flocks.  Cain, on the other hand, brings a sampling of his crops, but not the best of what he’s harvested (vv. 3-4).  Somehow the two realize that God had approved of Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s, triggering Cain’s anger (vv. 4-5).  Ultimately, Cain kills his brother Abel rather than righting his own devotion to the Lord, and Cain is subsequently exiled (vv. 8, 12, 16).

Here again, like the narrative of the Fall, the reader is presented with two options, this time surrounding worship.  Offer the Creator the first and best of your sustenance or worship with something substandard.  Just as in Adam’s story, Cain chooses not to align himself with God’s standard – not in his initial worship, nor in his response to a prophetic call to correction.  Rather, Cain – like Israel, who killed the prophets who came to her (Lk 11:47-48) – chooses blood over repentance.  In the end Cain is cast off to a land far to the east, a proto-Babylon, perhaps.

How many times throughout Israel’s history is the nation rebuked for their deficiency in worship?  The parallel is not perfect, but Amos 5:21-27 comes to mind as representative:

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.  Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!  Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?  You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god – which you made for yourselves.  Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty (NIV).

Of course we could also cite the Elijah narrative (1 Kgs 17-18), the indictments of most of the kings of Israel and Judah (see 2 Kgs 21:2-6, for example), the famous Micah 6:6-8, or the entire book of Hosea.

At the center of the dilemma throughout Israel’s history is the question of felicity to their Creator.  The central question of the Old Testament is whether Israel will remain faithful to their covenant with the Lord or pursue the affections of the so-called gods of their neighbors.  Worship is the heart of Israel’s story, and exile is the consequence of their prostitution.

Reflecting on this history, I wonder if during the exile or perhaps after the return, some theologically minded Jew wrote down the story of Cain as a cautionary tale to set at the beginning of this long narrative of Israel and her God.

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Adam: Mini-Israel

Yesterday, I offered a little linky to David Williams’s thoughts on the necessity (or lack thereof) of a historical Adam for the historicity and efficacy of Jesus’ work.  Today, I’m presenting one of the more common approaches to Adam that does not require that he be a real historical figure.

Some scholars believe that the text of Genesis 2-3 was written not by Moses in the 15th century BC, but by exilic or post-exilic Jews in the 6th or 5th century BC.  (I don’t know all the arguments for this, but consider that in other Hebrew literature Adam is not referenced until 1 Chronicles 1:1, a text certainly written after the exile.)

If indeed Genesis 2-3 (and perhaps the entire proto-history of Genesis 1-11) was written during or after the exile, then the Adam and Eve story take on a different shape and fresh meaning for the people of Israel.  Many of us have approached Adam’s story as a story expressing universal origins, that all people everywhere can trace their roots to one man: Adam.  But it may be that Adam and Eve’s story was written not to reflect universal humanity, but to reflect specifically on the story of Israel.

Think of it this way.  A theologically minded Jew has been reflecting on his people’s predicament in Babylon.  How is it that the people of God ended up here in pagan Babylon?  How is that the Temple has been destroyed?  What of the promises to our ancestors?  What of God’s faithfulness?  Slowly, he begins to come to the conclusion (as every other biblical writer did) that the blame rested on Israel’s unfaithfulness – their sin – against the Creator.

To help instruct his people and advise them against moving this direction again in the future, this theologically minded Jew begins to lay out a story.  The Creator places a man in an idyllic setting, a garden in which all he needs is close at hand.  The man is given instructions to cultivate and to protect that unique plot of soil.  Alas, the man is deceived and chooses a direction contrary to the covenantal agreement between him and the Creator.  The sad result, inevitably, is that the man is banished, exiled, from this land flowing with abundance.

There it is: Adam is Israel’s story in miniature.  As Peter Enns writes in his recent book The Evolution of Adam, “Adam in primordial times plays out Israel’s national life.  He is proto-Israel – a preview of coming attractions. … Israel’s drama – its struggles over the land and failure to follow God’s law – is placed into primordial time” (66).

And there it sits, rather ideally, right at the front of this vast collection of books detailing Israel’s history with God.  It’s as if those compiling the Hebrew Bible knew what they were doing, letting readers know in advance the kind of story they were about to begin reading.

Oppenheimer:Prometheus::Jesus:…

Among my most popular (a relative term if ever there was one!) posts on this blog is a post in which I first began wondering aloud about the historical Adam and Eve.  This ongoing debate in the Christian community does not look like it will disappear any time soon, especially with the growing consensus around the results of the human genome project and some fresh approaches to the text of Genesis 2-3 itself.

This morning, a post from David Williams, campus minister for InterVarsity’s chapter at NC State and Meredith College, caught my eye for its approach to a common objection to a non-historical Adam.  It’s worth the read, but I’ll summarize.

Williams’s thoughts are launched from a simile found in a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, in which the great scientist is compared to Prometheus.  It’s a natural connection.  Dr. Oppenheimer was the principle figure in developing the atomic bomb, thereby bringing atomic fire to earth.  Prometheus, according to the ancient Greek myth, stole conventional fire from Zeus and brought it to humankind.  Sadly, each then spends their lives trying to warn humanity of the dangers of their discoveries, though to little avail.

The question Williams poses, then, is whether the comparison of Oppenheimer to a mythical figure makes (1) the comparison any less poignant or (2) the person of Oppenheimer himself any less real.

From there, Williams makes the leap to the connection Paul makes between Jesus and Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  A common argument among proponents of a historical Adam is that if cease to believe Adam was a real historical being, then our footing for standing on the historicity of Jesus becomes shifting sand.

But let’s apply Williams’s question to Jesus and Adam.  If Adam were mythical, for argument’s sake, would the comparison between Jesus and Adam in Romans 5 be any less poignant?  Would it invalidate the notion that Jesus brought grace and justification and righteousness and life (Rom 5:15-19)?  I don’t believe so.

Would it make Jesus any less real for someone to compare him to a mythical figure?  Does it make Jesus any less real that he compared himself to any number of metaphorical images (the bread of life, the door, the resurrection, the good shepherd, etc.)?  I don’t believe so.

Kingdom-Minded Civic Engagement

Yesterday I posted a review of A New Evangelical Manifesto.  Although I didn’t spend much time with the issue, I alluded to a criticism that many of the proposed ways forward for American evangelicalism smacked of the same problems that have us where we are today.  That is, much of the American church has allowed itself to nestle into bed with one or the other dominant political ideologies of our day.

We’ve become, in many ways, a civil religion, a church that tends to promote the trappings of the state rather than standing outside the state.  The result is a compromise of our prophetic voice.  We can be ruled by our political systems (and we often are) while we lose our ability to speak for the better way of the Kingdom.  (For more on this, it’s worth picking up Michael J. Gorman‘s Reading Revelation Responsibly, which I also reviewed in several posts in 2011.)

At any rate, I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s review with a couple of pieces from Greg Boyd’s blog.  In response to some pointed questions on major social issues, he articulates, in my opinion, a way of addressing convoluted political topics in a way that allows us to remain faithful to the one ideology that matters: Jesus Christ.

First, there is this from his response to the question of abortion:

The unique Kingdom approach to abortion doesn’t focus on figuring out the “right” political solution, getting “the right” candidates into office or getting the “right” bills passed. As with everything else about the Kingdom, it rather focuses on manifesting the self-sacrificial love of God towards women with unwanted pregnancies and towards their unborn children.

This post was followed up by another focused on Kingdom solutions to “unambiguous evils,” like slavery.  From Boyd:

When confronting unambiguous evil, its appropriate to use whatever influence you have to influence government, so long as it does not violate our calling as followers of Jesus. But our focus, and our confidence, must not reside here. It ought to rather reside in that unique kingdom power that is unleashed when the people of God imitate their Lord by being willing to enter into solidarity with oppressed brothers and sisters and to bleed on their behalf.

The Kingdom is neither Republican nor Democrat.  It’s not even American.  It’s time we start thinking and acting out of our allegiance to our Kingdom homeland.

Review: A New Evangelical Manifesto

David P. Gushee, ed., A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good, St. Louis (Chalice, 2012).

I’ve written before that there are substantial changes afoot in Western Christianity.  For many, the standard evangelical ways of addressing questions of the faith in both belief and practice are themselves being questioned, largely from within.  These challenges, further, are generally not the testing of a rebellious youth.  Rather, on nearly every front, they are genuine questions based in a desire to better understand the Gospel in its fullness and to act it out faithfully.

I was excited, then, when I came across A New Evangelical Manifesto, hoping to find a collection of believers articulating this 21st century reformation.  I came to the book hoping to find a promising articulation of Christian practice that extended beyond what has passed for faithful evangelicalism, especially in America.  No longer is it enough to practice a private devotion to Christ and cast the appropriate conservative ballot each November.  No, that type of Christianity simply won’t do.  I had hoped to find a positive answer in this collection of essays.

A New Evangelical Manifesto is, like most things, a mixed bag.  In some ways – some important ways – the volume expresses some massive improvements to thinking about our faith and its interaction in the public sphere.  In other equally important ways, the solutions on offer here miss the mark by a wide margin.

The book is divided into three sections.  The first, entitled “A New Kind of Evangelical Christianity…”, is an effort by seven writers to put into words the ideas behind their personal longings for a better way to be evangelical in America.  This is followed by eight more essays on how to better love marginalized neighbors, such as women within the church or Muslims at home and abroad.  Finally, the volume lands on seven public policy issues worth reassessing from biblical perspectives.

It is the first section, in which the writers hash out ideas for regaining an American church that better reflects the Gospel, that carries the most promise.  As such, it is this part that will have my attention in this review.

The problem, as Brian McLaren sees it in the first essay, is that the American church has become too politicized, that we’ve sacrificed the ideal of Christ for the ideal of a nostalgic and nativist America.  Fear has come to rule our churches as we look out onto the landscape of our nation.  Naturally, political parties have used those fears to their own advantage, and co-opted many ardent believers.

This is best illustrated by the chapter from Richard Cizik, former Vice-President for Governmental Relations of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).  Here, Cizik describes an interview he gave in 2008, in which he candidly told his interviewer, Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” that he had voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary with Hillary Clinton.  That admission, alongside remarks that he was personally wrestling with his stance on civil unions, led to his immediate dismissal from the NAE, which he had served for 28 years.  One wonders, in the face of incidents like these, whether the organization would be better named the National Association of Republicans.

Steven Martin, a founding member alongside Cizik and editor David Gushee of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, picks up this thread in his essay, “Where the Church Went Wrong,” suggesting that the evangelical church in America has, whether knowingly unconsciously, sided with “worldly forms of power instead of God’s power” (12).  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.  The church has been doing this for the bulk of its history.  It’s an understandable temptation, he writes.  After all, the church is ultimately called to do the impossible.  Any power it might grasp could seem a gift from God.  But, ultimately, “the basis for Christian life is the act of following Jesus” (15), who neatly carved a path apart from all political powers.

But are Christians to just disengage?  Are we to avoid the temptation of political power by shrinking into our steepled enclaves?  Paul N. Markham, in “A Theology That ‘Works,'” tells us that to do so would be an affront to our faith.  “Our view of God,” he writes, “is one of a loving and just Creator, and it only takes a brief look around to see that the world is not what God would have it be.  This is a problem.  It’s our problem – and we see ourselves as workers with God to do something about it” (43, emphasis original).  This faith cannot, must not, be private.

The final two-thirds of A New Evangelical Manifesto attempt to offer solutions to the problem staring down American Christianity.  Some of these solutions, I’m afraid, make the same error the conservative church has been making, but in the opposite direction.  They are keen to sidle up with the politically left in an effort to engage society.  Other solutions on offer here do a relatively fine job of balancing the radical call of Jesus with civic engagement.  None, however, seemed as radically enthralling as Jesus himself.

If you find yourself unsettled by the state of affairs in American evangelicalism, if at times the church feels more like the body of the Right than the body of Christ, then this is worth the read.  It is a help to crystallize the problem at hand and the engage with other views that offer some way forward, even if this reviewer disagrees with those paths.  A New Evangelical Manifesto is fine enough opening to this dialogue.  It will not be the last word.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.