THE OLD TESTAMENT IS ABOUT YOU
ABRAHAM AND LOT
Unselfishness and love of peace
What is it about the character of Abraham that might show us why God chose him as his chief apostle in this era and chose him to establish that centre where God would reveal the faith?
Abraham is not shown to be perfect, he lied in Egypt about Sarah, his wife, and caused a great deal of distress by saying that she was his sister and allowed Pharaoh to take her into his household because she was a beautiful woman. This caused a great deal of distress with the result that he was more or less thrown out of the land of Egypt instead of being put to death. God preserved Abraham and Sarah, for he had given a promise to Abraham that could be fulfilled only through Sarah. Nevertheless, we will find Abraham to be both generous and ethical in his overall behaviour.
Abraham brought his nephew Lot into Canaan with him. One of the things we notice is that Abraham is not full of ego and self-cent redness. He is interested in peace, he doesn't want strife between himself and his brother's son. This concern for peace brings him to suggest that he and Lot take their flocks and their people and part company so that there will be no conflict between them. He does this in a very unselfish manner. Abraham suggests that Lot can choose which direction he will go. If you choose to go to the left, I will go the right. If you choose to go to the right, I will go to the left.” He gives Lot the choice instead of insisting on the choice himself, and choosing the best land for his own use. In a reversal of Cain’s action, although he is the oldest and the one with authority and power, he yields to the younger man, the one who is under his authority. Instead, he yields and gives Lot first choice. Lot looks down on the green valley of the river Jordan and chooses this waterway, as far down as the southern shore of the Dead Sea, in which he will graze his flocks.
We see that Abraham is conscious of the possibility of strife and resolved it in favour of peace and he has been unselfish and allowed Lot to choose the better land and the better area for himself. Abraham deals in every way honestly and fairly with the people with whom he is intermingled now in Canaan. He doesn't take things that belong to someone else, there's a negotiation, a price, a purchase, an alliance for everything and every bit of land that he needs.
Such choices confront us regularly in our daily lives. It is difficult to choose peace over getting our own way or yielding to someone else even when we are wrong. Moreover, do we in all cases and every time deal fairly and justly with all people? In all these matters, Abraham is an example for us to follow.
ABRAHAM, SARA AND THE PROMISE
With the story of Abraham and Sara, we enter into the truly historical era. All that went before is the recording of ancient oral tradition, but Sara and Abraham bring us into the era of history recorded in writing and inscriptions that appeared in every area of the great fertile crescent and the Nile valley.
Why would God call him out of that land and take him to another one, if He wanted him to be a witness to Him, to the Truth, the Living One, an apostle as it were, and to give to him and Sarah both this promise? Perhaps we can only speculate that Chaldea was given over so deeply to a kind of idolatry and the rising of the monarch as a divine person.
Perhaps, however, there is another reason: because Canaan was in the centre of the world “fertile crescent” in which the most ancient civilisation developed. Here, the great empires of the world met and that so much of the trade and travel passed through. The Egyptian, Chaldean, Assyrian, Hittite and other empires, finally the Greek Empire of Alexander of Macedon; all of these came together, encountering each other around the area of Canaan. This means much of the information and influence exchanged between the civilizations passed through that area. As a result, God is calling His apostles Sara and Abraham to that place, where the witness can be given to all of the activity that goes through this area. In a way this is the proper centre for dissemination of the true faith in God. Abraham heeds God's will and he is called to this great challenge, Come out of your father's house, out of this land of your ancestors and I will lead through a great wilderness and a desert, on a great, long, arduous journey to a land you have never seen, know nothing about and where you have not so much as a place to put your foot that you can call your own, and there I will make you the father of many nations. Abraham believed, he followed God and went to that place to which he was called.
Not all of us are called to such an extreme exercise of faith, but we are called and we have to make a choice. Sometimes the choice is to leave a place where we are being spiritually destroyed, even though we have roots, a home, family and people there. Yet we realize that spiritually it is a place that is not satisfactory for our salvation and we need to go someplace else, because our salvation is far more important than all these other considerations. We need to trust God, His calling, to lead us to the place where we should be. Abraham could have said “Look, I do not have anything there, no land, no relatives, no people, if I move down there with my flocks, sheep, my people, my tribe, those who are already there are going to resent it, they are going to be angry and may try to destroy us. He could have found all kinds of excuses, like the men in Christ's parable, there was a certain ruler who made a wedding banquet for his son and he called for those who were invited,” but they all made an excuse why they could not come. Abraham made no excuses, he simply packed up and went. This is a choice too that we have to make often, between the things that are material that we might possess or have and things that are spiritual; a choice between paradise and alienation. This story is not only about Abraham and Sara; it is also about us, about our choices and our priorities, about our relationship with God, with Christ Jesus.
I wonder how many people are aware that, traditionally in Judaism, people were discouraged from reading Genesis and the book of Ezekiel until they had mastered the rest of the Scripture. That was because there are so many temptations to form idolatries based on the texts themselves. I believe we have seen some of those idolatries formed by our Fundamentalists both in and outside the Orthodox Church. That is why we want to discuss this in a more existentialist manner; that is to say, how does it bear on our actual existence, our actual lives? There are two schools in both science and in existentialism. Orthodox Christian theology is existential; St Gregory Palamas was a great existential teacher.
In these two schools there are two views, the one that mankind and the universe have no meaning, that we are just some carbon-based organisms that happened to infest the universe by accident; or the other school of both science and existentialism that mankind has very profound meaning for the universe and the universe itself has profound meaning.
The universe and the world have profound meaning to us because this is where we live, this is our home, and the universe is our rather large backyard. It is ours and it is filled with incredible beauty that is ours to enjoy as well. We see this beauty more clearly now because of the Hubble Space Telescope and all of the images sent back by cameras, but even without that we see such an incredible beauty. We realize that there is an intense meaning to all these things. Moreover, the Holy Scripture itself has far more meaning than many writers, even profoundly Christian writers actually give it. For Fundamentalists it is the Old Testament, particularly the Torah, the first five books, which many Jews call the “book of instruction”, but Christians tend to call “the books of law.” It has an abyss of meaning that many of our Christian people fail to grasp; some reduce it to a history or a list of reasons for punishing people, and they begin to see justice only as punishment, rather than as “rebalancing,” “setting things right.” But that is actually the original meaning of the words translated as “justification” in the New Testament justitia in Latin and dikaiosine in Greek. Certainly in the Greek of the Scripture, these words do not signify something juridical. One grows weary of seeing Fundamentalist Christians rummage through the Old Testament trying to find ways to hurt people and never looking for ways to apply the deeper meaning to people so that we have a deeper understanding of humanity. That is what we are pursuing in this series of discussions.
We have come now to the calling of Abraham, which yet brings us to another dimension of meaning that applies to each of us. We see this great choice being made by Abram in Chaldea. Why did God call Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and lead him through that great, long, arduous path through Haran, down to Damascus into a land where he did not have any place? He did not own anything until he bought the Cave of Machpelah (Hebrew: מערת המכפלה, Me'arat HaMachpela, literally, "Cave of the Double Tombs"; Arabic: المغارة ż Al Magr, "the Cave") to bury his wife in, and he grazed his herds in what would have been communal land, because the Bedouins, the wanderers would graze their flocks wherever they could, yet this land was promised to Abraham and that is a story for yet later.
Right now we want to look at the original calling of Abraham. Why would God call him out of that land and take him to another one, if He wanted him to be a witness to Him, to the Truth, the Living One, an apostle as it were, and to give to him and Sarah both this promise?
Why "The Tower of Babel?" (The origin of our English word "babble.")
The Hebrews refer to the Tower of Bab'el as "Babel." This is a Hebrew play on words. The Hebrew word "vavel" means confusion, chaotic or babbling, and they made a word play on Bab'el. What actually transpired at the tower is something we can never know. It is certain that the various languages, races, and nations did not originate with the collapse of the society that built the tower. If we follow biblical chronology, there were already tribes in the Americas before the tower was built (indeed, before the flood took place). However, some sort of chaos and sever rupture in the society around the area of the tower certainly took place early in that civilisation's history.
There are many facets to the Hebrew Scripture or, as we call it, the "Old Testament."
ON THE TOWER OF BAB’EL
Let’s reflect that the flood at the time of Noah was generated by the flood of human passions, which had built up to such an enormous volume, that it was able to drown man spiritually, to crush his life and rob humanity of an authentic life except for those who chose to orient their will toward God and toward God’s will. After the Flood and after Ham’s betrayal of his father, we see that the descendants of Noah went into the plain of Shinar and there they decided to build another city. In this city they are going to exalt themselves.
We know that in the time frame of history, this story is not literal. If that was the case, if these things had taken place according to the chronology of Scripture, the Flood would have occurred at the time when the Egyptians were building the pyramids, and certainly all of mankind did not speak the same language at that time. There is, however, something here that is rather important for us to understand, an that is that it does matter how we use the skills, abilities and talents we have. It is not appropriate for Orthodox Christians to use them for aggrandizement, simply to give oneself a name, only for our own interest and to exalt ourselves. This happens with people who have a lust for power and who desire, not a peaceful and harmonious life, but who desire to rise up above others and to dominate them or to get ahead at all costs. We see this in the society around us, and can be tempted to follow such a path. We must, however, discover another path.
The story of the building of the city possibly refers to ancient Urok (Arak) in Mesopotamia. The ruins of this city have been uncovered, together with a ritual tower called a ziggurat. It is important to understand that the theme of this story is a conflict between ego and virtue. This is a conflict that takes place within our own hearts when we follow with our own passions and self-centred desires.
We are going to talk a bit about what the word virtue actually means and see how it is pitted against ego, then we will see how this story about the building of the city and the tower of Bab’el is about us. Bab’el means “Gate of God.” The tower was going to be built right up to the Gate of God – right up to the heavens, an assault on Heaven itself as it were. The word virtue (Gk. “arÍte”) actually means to use our skills and abilities to create something beautiful and useful. A sculptor who takes a piece of stone and sculpts a beautiful statue from it because he wants to create beauty – this is virtue. He has used his skill to the best of his ability, to create something of quality, something of beauty. If a sculptor uses his talents and abilities to carve a statue only to make money or to make a name for himself, it is not virtue, it is simply business. This is the difference between virtue and ego. In the building of the city and the tower, we see that skills and abilities were used for the sake of ego, self-centredness and self-love, whereas the skills could have been used to build a home or a shelter, or something of elegance and beauty for the sake of beauty and usefulness. We will not speculate on alternate interpretations of the motives of the builders because this is a story with a moral to it, and the moral point is made by the way the story is told in the Scripture. We must take the story as we have received it in order to understand its meaning. This story is an analysis of passions of pride and ego and a lack of humility. These are things that can drive a community apart and create deep divisions and enmities.
Let us continue discussing virtue and the concept of virtue and ego. We are all given some kind of ability and skill, even if that ability is something that does not fit into the marketplace well. Love, for example: the ability to have an open heart toward people and to be loving and kind and gentle can be manifested in many ways. Those people who go out of their way to be kind to street people, to give comfort and consolation to somebody in sorrow, to visit someone in a nursing home; all these things are acts of virtue because we are using the skill or ability that we have within us for something positive, something useful, something good, and not something that focuses on our own ego, lust for money or self-centredness. Every one of us has to face the challenge of whether or not we will examine ourselves and try to see what kind of skills and abilities or talents that we have. Our calling is to do this not in terms of being competitive in the world, and not in terms of seeking a proper job position, or seeking what kind of an education we will get so that we will have marketable and commercial skills of some kind. Those things must be done by everyone in our society, but that is not a path to virtue or to an expression of our Orthodox Christian faith. In this context, we should see what skills and abilities we have which can be put to a good creative and positive use. If a person is very skilled at fishing, then find someone who is lonely, who has no one and would love to have companionship and company and take them fishing with you, share that moment with them. We can use any of our skills and abilities in a virtuous way. Virtue and a virtuous way does not mean being ultra moral, praying and being in Church regularly. It also is manifested in the use of our energies in a manner which is compassionate, caring and creative, and which reflects the idea that we understand that our energies are a gift from God to be used for the good of others. It may be easier for us to use the same abilities and gifts solely for self-serving reasons and ego.
It is understood that we have to take care to prepare ourselves for the future, choosing how we will educate ourselves so that we earn our own living and support our families, but we can also plan how to use these skills only for selfish goals. This is the struggle that faced the people who came out of the ark, multiplied and came into the land of Shinar. They were presented with an opportunity for a new beginning; the possibility of faithfulness and virtue was set before them. The story of the tower of Bab’el is reflected so often in man’s repeated failure to follow through on such opportunities. It is the story of our own personal failures also, for the story is about each one of us. This is the point we wanted to make in this discussion of the Tower of Bab’el and the building of the first city after the settling of the ark. A new society is formed, but formed on the same basis on which Cain built his city – the a drive toward egotism and self-centredness. We should not assert that everybody who was there, present and taking part in the building up of culture, society and civilization in that area of Chaldea (Babylon) were disposed in that kind of negative manner. The story is there, however, to emphasize our own struggle, the struggle of humanity in general. War, murder and all manner of wicked ness flow from ego and self-love, and this is the great story, the great warning to us from all these narratives in the Scripture. This is the struggle we must all undertake in choosing the path of our own lives.
This story is about you, it is about us, it is about us as individuals and us as societies. To use our skills and abilities in a virtuous manner, to create something beautiful, creative, useful to mankind to others, whether it is in a great or small way, it is nevertheless a virtue which helps us in the struggle for our salvation and draws us closer to God, Who created the universe in beauty and made a fit place for man to live creating something that was shared by all humanity and all living things.
Hopefully when we read or hear the story of the Tower of Bab’el, the story of Chaldea (Babylon), we will remember that the story is about universal meaning, about our choices between virtue and ego, unselfish love and self-centredness. Hopefully, we will come to understand that our great struggle to return to Paradise is the struggle to return to unselfish love, and in that unselfish love, to use all of the gifts that we have in a virtuous manner; that is, to create beauty, harmony, peace, love, something that will make mankind a little better and the life of the world a little more peaceful. This is what the story is really all about and what it is actually trying to reveal to us, so that we will know that this very struggle is taking place within each one of us, in our hearts every day of our lives.
Perhaps one of the more important, though neglected, aspects is the personal one, the aspect that speaks to each one of us as an individual.
It is important to see the Hebrew Scripture as more than a history of the short-lived Kingdom of Israel and the remnant of Judea. The Old Testament is a chronicle of humanity, but it is also the story of each one of us, of our own spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical struggles.
As we navigate the narratives of this great book, if we pay attention, we constantly find ourselves in familiar surroundings; the depths of love and hate, the corrosive effects of egoism, bitterness, malice, envy and self-focus, but also the heroic struggle of mankind, the presence of hope and joy. There, we find the same constant tensions between constraint, self-discipline and self-control, and the chaos and destructive energy of unconstrained desires and passions. All these are present in the daily lives of each one of us, and in the society and culture around us.
Join me in examining the ways in which the Hebrew Scripture tells the story of each one of us, of our parishes, our families and our communities, as it unfolds the history of Israel.
There is a notable detail in the creation narrative. Light exists before those heavenly bodies that we usually associate with the source of light. This is something that has to be the case, whether one is speaking in strict scientific terms or in spiritual understandings. The energy of creation, formless, void and in chaos, gradually formed into the stars, including our sun, as form and order began to permeate the universe.
The separation of light from darkness is the result of the rotation of the earth on its axis. But there is spiritual revelation here. We are told that God-the-Word separated the light from the darkness. Let us begin then, with God, our Lord Jesus Christ, separating light from darkness in the universe. This should be the most profound image that we carry with us, for on the Cross, God-the-Word once more separated light from darkness in the hearts of mankind
IN THE BEGINNING
In the Symbol of Faith when we confess, “And without Whom nothing was made that has been made,” we are talking about Jesus Christ, we are talking about God the Word as the One Who made all things. In the creation narrative, when we talk about the separation of light from darkness, this has a very profound meaning that will echo down throughout the whole period of human existence, up until the end of human history. Christ Jesus separates light from darkness. The light is necessary for life, and the darkness is also present in life. Our Lord Jesus Christ is always striving to separate the light from the darkness within mankind. While both light and darkness have their proper pace in our lives, they are also used symbolically. In the light, we can see clearly, while in the darkness we can only grope our way along, we cannot see the realities of life, and there is always a certain danger in the darkness. Within each one of us our hearts have to be recreated by the Presence of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Our Lord stands without, desiring to enter into our hearts to separate light from darkness within each one of us. We must see both the light and the darkness so that we can make a clear choice. Much later we will hear that men desired darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil, but that the light was in the world and the world could neither comprehend nor overpower it. That light was present, calling upon everyone to let it shine it in their hearts, to separate the light from the darkness within them and having separated it, to make it clear what is darkness and what is light. The more filled with the Divine Light that our heart becomes, the more it becomes the Kingdom of God (Paradise) within us, as Christ promised. When Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, two thieves were on crosses together with Him. The two trees in the Garden of Eden are in fact a prophecy and type about the Cross, because one thief looked upon Christ on the Cross and saw in Him "the good" and then recognized for the first time his own wickedness. So the Cross of Jesus Christ became, at that moment, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil for this brigand. When the man said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom,” the Cross of Jesus Christ became the Tree of Life for him, because Jesus Christ is the fruit of the Tree of Life, the One Who can bestow upon us everlasting life. On the other side of Christ’s Cross was a man of equal guilt as the first thief; but he does not repent, in fact he reviles Christ. In this we see that the Cross of Jesus Christ becomes a dividing line between light and darkness, between the heart that has become illumined through repentance and the heart that remains in darkness because it will not repent and open itself to the grace of the Holy Sprit. Here on the Cross, Christ separates light and darkness visibly before us, and the two thieves are a type of the light and the darkness that constitutes the inner struggle of everyone
We see this struggle flowing throughout human history and throughout our own personal history, because the Cross of Christ still stands within and before each one of us as the dividing line between light and darkness. This dividing line was present when Christ created the earth and made it habitable. The grace of the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters bringing forth life, and there was light of God's grace shone in the Garden of Eden. St John Damascene tells us that the Garden was Paradise because it was filled with light, the Uncreated Light of God’s Glory. Unfortunately, mankind chose darkness rather than that light and departed into the outer darkness, away from the light of God's love and glory. Jesus Christ will use that formula sometimes in His parables, “Cast them forth into the outer darkness, where there be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” We see this in the prophecies, we see this reflected in the New Testament, and we see above all that there stands before each of us the choice between light and darkness, life and spiritual death. We see the Ark as a dividing line also, between those who laughed at Noah and those who were on board the ark with him.
We are all called upon daily to open ourselves to the light and try to root out the darkness that is within us. Our Lord Jesus Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit are there to help us, because the light of Christ’s love and glory shines into the heart that opens itself toward Him and the Grace of the Holy Spirit fills the heart with the illumination of that glory the more we struggle to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit and to unite ourselves with Jesus Christ and to live a life in Christ.
A person can be very religious and still be filled with darkness, because being religious does not necessarily mean that you have faith. We can be religious to such a degree that we become cruel, destructive, full of hatred for others, full of malice and convinced that we are absolutely right and the rest of the world is absolutely wrong. Yet it is never us that are right; it is the Church that is right, not us. We have to choose even within the life of the Church our position – whether in light or in darkness, whether to be simply religious or whether to have a living and vital faith and struggle for a life in Jesus Christ. The light and the darkness both stand together until the end. This is the Mystery of Paradise in the end, that the light fills everything, all in all. That it illumines and gives life to the faithful and to those who rejected Christ and those who are brutal toward their fellow human beings or are indifferent toward their fellow human beings, that light of Christ’s love and glory will burn them like an everlasting fire. Therefore, let us, as we proceed through the Old Testament, consider its meaning and consider the meaning of the separation of light from darkness, and of the meaning of the knowledge of good and evil. Let our lives be consecrated to the struggle to acquire light and cast out the darkness from our own hearts and our own minds. This means not only our egoism and self-centredness but those things that are created because of them: all of our prejudices, our ill will, our evil feelings toward others and all of those things that constitute the kind of darkness. This is what the creation narrative begins with: the separation of light from darkness and the begetting of life, and this is how our lives have also to begin anew in order to become authentic lives; the separation of light from darkness within us, the choosing of light, the struggle to drive out the darkness by increasing the light of the grace of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s Presence within us. We cannot do this just through religion; we can do it through a living and vital faith in Our Lord God and Saviour Christ.
THE "GARDEN OF EDEN" NARRATIVE
The ego as the root of evil
Fall into an unauthentic life
As we understand the creation narrative, God created humanity from perfect love. This means that He also created us with freedom. Love demanded without freedom is a psychosis, it is not love. Love given without freedom is an obsession, it is not love.
With authentic love, there is also trust. God demonstrated His authentic love, with its freedom of will and trust, by placing before mankind a choice. Why? Because without choice, there is no freedom. Even in marriage and friendships, love unfeigned require freedom and trust, as any successful marriage demonstrates.
The "two trees" in the garden are certainly a metaphor and prophecy, not something to be taken literally, as if one could eat an apple and suddenly know the mysteries of good and evil, or a pomegranate and live forever. Are the trees not rather a fore-image of the Cross, upon which God-the-Word would once more separate light from darkness? Had not God already planned for our redemption even before we fell?
In Eden, humans lived in an atmosphere of unselfish love. God had created them in His own likeness and image, so they had freedom of will, unselfish love and virtue, and humility.
The "tree" that Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from is a metaphor, a symbol, and also a prophecy about the Cross of Christ, so we will not discuss it here. The important thing is what the temptation was about and what its results are.
Satan tempted the humans by offering them a counterfeit of something that they already had. "Don't trust God, He's just being selfish and does not want you to have knowledge. If you have this knowledge you will be like God."
The humans forgot that they were already "in the image and likeness" of God. Satan painted a false image of God as being vain and egoistic so he created a counterfeit; a false image of God and of what it meant to be "like God."
Satan had set the fire of egoism, self-love and self-centredness in the heart of mankind. Once Adam and Eve had accepted this temptation, they fell into this egoism and self focus -- they accepted the counterfeit instead of the Grace which God had given them.
This is the root and base of all human tragedies, murders, robberies and deception. It does not matter whether you take the entire "Eden narrative" literally, as allegory or as a mixture of both. The story is about each one of us both as individuals and collectively.
The temptations we fall to are almost always counterfeits for what is real, and we yield to them because of our own ego and self focus. This is the greatest spiritual struggle for each one of us, and this is the ultimate meaning of the story. As with Adam and Eve, so often what we accept is a counterfeit of something that God has already given us. We choose the counterfeit and lose the gift of Grace. The "Garden of Eden" narrative is about you.
Cain and Abel
The story of Cain and Abel amplifies what we are taught about the fall of mankind, and our own condition. Egoism and self-focus are at the root of the violence in our world. Every war, every murder, every act of violence begins in the heart of man. Those who lead in creating such violence and wars, pogroms, attempts to destroy those who are “not like us” are people without empathy, people who cannot or will not identify with the sufferings and struggle of others. Murders arise from greed from envy and pride.
This narrative portrays the first such crime amongst humans, and a crime made worse because it the murder of one’s own family member.
We are told that the two brothers brought their thanksgiving offerings in due season, to offer to God. Abel, who offered from the heart, had his offering accepted. Cain’s offering was not accepted because it was not offered from the heart, from love, but rather because of a law, a rule, a regulation, and he offered it, not in heartfelt thanksgiving, but from obligation. The difference in the “first fruits” being offered was not the issue. God tells Cain, “If you had rightly offered, your sacrifice would have been acceptable.” He did not say “If you had offered the right thing...”
Cain lost nothing from the fact that his offering was not accepted this time. God will later remind him that he, as the firstborn, has the leader and head of the tribe, that because of this he had dominion over his brother. This was not enough. Cain’s ego and pride were offended. Moreover, the righteousness of Abel was a censure to his conscience.
The solution to the situation should have been repentance and a striving to correct himself.
Instead, his pride and ego overcome him and he does the unthinkable: he murders his brother. Remember that the Ten Commandments begins with a reference to murder and ends with forbidding us to be envious. Envy is born of ego and self-focus, and it unleashes great fires and great tragedies. We are all subject to is deception, and none of us should think that we are immune to its excesses.
This story is about us; about us a individuals and as societies, and perhaps this is why we are told that Cain built the first society, the first village (hardly a city by today’s standards, but a complex human society).
This is also a story of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Notice that after murder has been committed, God does not come down in a fury of vengeance and outrage. Rather, He comes to Cain with love and attempts to lead him to repentance. In the Garden, although God certainly knows where Adam and Eve are, He nevertheless calls to them to come into the open and repent. Now, He asks Cain, “Where is your brother....” Did God not know all that has taken place? Certainly He does, but He is call upon Cain to confess his horrible deed and repent. Indeed, following the narrative, one can almost hear God speaking with tears of sorrow and compassion as He makes every effort to lead Cain to “turn from his sinfulness and live.” God even goes so far as to prevent Cain from being killed by others, because so long as he is alive, he can repent and return to God.
Cain, the story tells us, went yet farther away from God, just as we ourselves do when we do not repent of our sins and falls. The story is about us, and it is also about God’s infinite love and mercy.
Commentary on Cain and Abel
We should not think that anyone of us are completely exempt from such a possibility. We are all human beings, we are all capable of great wickedness; and we are all capable, with God’s grace and our struggle, to also become people of genuine holiness and sanctity.
Think about how this applies to you in your daily life and even in the practice of religion. Remember that religion is not what the Orthodox faith is about, it is about a living faith in God, not a "system." Faith does not consist in coming into accord with a system of facts; faith is an orientation of the soul toward the will of God.
This is how the second story of Cain and Abel plays out in our own personal lives. God’s heart is always open to us. as it was to Cain. Note that God’s heart was open to him even if though he did not repent, but this is not going to do Cain any good, because he himself will not return to God’s heart. In fact he departs further from God. The designation "he land of Nod" evidently comes from a Chaldean word that signifies “to wander.” So he wanders farther away from God, and now he has greater alienation, greater separation, and this alienation is going to be the great story of the Hebrew Scripture, our "Old Testament.". Alienation and the great struggle against idolatry and above all, the idolatry of ourselves and the idolatry of religion; because religion can become a very destructive idolatry. One can be intensely religious and worship his religion without ever having genuine faith and without ever having a real relationship with our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, with the community of the faithful. This is one of our great tragedies. It comes about from that venom of Eden, the fall into egotism, self-centredness and self-love. The real result of the fall then, and what we call sin, is an inclination to habitually misuse our energies, a proclivity for the misuse of our energies. Religion without a living, transforming faith, is a form of idolatry. This misuse of our energies is what sin really consists of.
My teacher, Father John Romanides, once said that “religion is a neurobiological illness,” he said that “Orthodoxy is its cure” (I did hear him say once that “faith is its cure”). This is a very telling statement, because here we have two brothers who were obviously religious. They offered the thanksgiving sacrifices that, according to religion, they were supposed to offer. That was the religious thing to do, a religious act. One of them, however, had love and faith and the other one did not. They both believed of course, but belief is not the same as having faith. Faith in God means to have love and trust in God, to desire a relationship of love with Him, to express that love in ways that we, in our weakness, are able to; knowing that despite the insignificance of the offerings that we make, God receives them lovingly when we offer them from the heart in love.
Here we have then this problem of religion without faith, and we will see it again in Christ’s parable about the publican and the Pharisee, and the one about the prodigal son.
Let us pause now and look at ourselves. How often are we fulfilling things in externally because we are "supposed to," because it is expected, because it is the Law? Even in our religious life, we can be observant of rules and codes, but still not have faith. We can be quite diligent in the external practice of our religion, and never have a relationship with God. This is a great tragedy for us, and this is what the story of Cain and Abel is telling us first of all. Do you see what your ego can bring you to: your ego and self-love can so corrupt you that you can murder your brother, and then try to hide from it and cover it up. You may not actually murder your brother in the strict sense, but you may try to destroy him with gossip and slander, or in some other way, but all the same, you are guilty. Ah, foul envy, foul jealousy, and all are a product of our ego and our self-focus, which is sometimes self-love and sometimes self-hatred.
FROM CAIN TO LAMECH
Cain has introduced murder into the life of mankind. That is what egoism, self-centredness and self-love can lead us to. When we add self-righteousness, which is a form of narcissism, the results can be even worse.
Do not think that anyone of us is completely exempt from the possibility of committing such a crime. We sometimes perpetrate evil deeds in our minds, even if we do not carry them out literally. We are all human beings, we are all capable of great wickedness; and we are all capable, with God’s grace and our struggle, to also become people of genuine holiness and sanctity. People tend to think that one become "holy" by means of externally correct behaviour, some even realise that there must be some sort of inner change also. However, the greater part of becoming sanctified is to rid ourselves of our self-delusions about ourselves.
Think about how this applies to each one of us in our daily lives and even in the practice of religion. Remember that religion is not what the Orthodox faith is about; it is about a living faith in Christ Jesus and His Gospel, not a system of law or a moral code. Faith does not consist in coming into accord with a system of facts or doctrines; faith is an orientation of the soul toward the will of God. Think about how the story of Cain and Abel plays out in our own personal lives. We may not commit actual murder, but the egoism, envy, self-justification that we say already with Adam and Eve, frequently recurs in our own lives. Moreover, in our idolatry, we see God as a harsh, brutal dictator who creates earthquakes, tornado, floods and other disasters which destroy the faithful and the good together with the unbeliever and the evil. Yet, after Cain killed Abel, the amazing thing is that we do not hear of God thundering down for juridical justice. “I am going to punish Cain, I am going to make him pay! I am going to give him a death penalty, I am going to kill him with anger and fury!” No! God comes down with great gentleness. “Cain, where is your brother?” “Ah! I should know? I mean, am I my brother’s keeper?” And then you can almost see the tears in the eyes of God: “Oh Cain, what is it that you have done? You were the eldest, the inheritance was yours. Why have you done such a thing?” In all of this, God is hoping that Cain will open his heart, hoping that Cain will repent, and God’s heart is open to him should he repent. God’s heart is open to him even if he does not repent, but it is not going to do Cain any good, because he will not return to God’s heart. And in fact he does not; he goes away further from God.
Perhaps this does not even mean that Cain went away to a different geographical location, but only that he alienated himself further from God. In any case, he wanders away from God, and now he has greater alienation, greater separation, and this alienation is going to be the great story of the Old Testament. Alienation and the great struggle against idolatry and above all, the idolatry of ourselves and the idolatry of religion because religion can become a very destructive idolatry. One can be intensely religious and worship his religion without ever having genuine faith and without ever having a real relationship with our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ and with the community of the faithful. This is one of our great tragedies. But it comes about from that venom of Eden, the fall into egoism, self-centredness and self-love. The real result of the fall then and what we call sin is an inclination to habitually misuse our energies, a proclivity for the misuse of our energies. This is what sin really consists of.
We can reflect on the great Canon of St Andrew of Crete; he does not go into a great deal of detail, but he certainly calls upon us to liken ourselves to the sinners and the disobedient and unbelieving people of the Old Testament. So that having examined ourselves, it gives us an opportunity to cleanse the idolatry out of our hearts and to follow God in truth and in spirit, knowing that we can only know God through Jesus Christ; because in the Old Testament we often see God through the lens of the passions of a humanity which, in its idolatry, so often transfers its own passions onto God, because Satan is tempting them to recreate God in their own image, or at least to recreate their concept of God. This idolatry is also part of the great story in the "Old Testament," this is part of the great struggle.
We spoke about Cain and Abel and we see that Cain became the first murderer and that this murderer rose from his own ego. The next such crime we will see is not explained to us: Lamech, who was the seventh after Adam, had killed both a man and a youth. In the Hebrew Scripture it tells us that he beat the young man to death and that he just killed the other man. He has committed two murders, and he is evidently lamenting that he had done it. We are not sure if he repented, but he is lamenting to his two wives, both of whom appear to have been barren in the beginning. Now we come to this rather confusing part of the Scripture, which we are not going to be discussing at this point, but we are told that mankind has somehow become more and more wicked. This is not surprising, because mankind’s history starts with falling into ego, then with murder, then with the murder of two people and then with whatever kind of wickedness they had fallen into which was so destructive. History informs us of the cruelty and savage massacres of this ancient era, and little is left to the imagination when we read of it in secular history.
Lamech said to his wives Ada and Zila, "Listen to me, O wives of Lamech, and pay attention to my words. I have killed a man, wounding myself, and a youth, harming myself. If Cain was to suffer sevenfold then I, Lamek, seventy and sevenfold."
One evil piles upon another, and we become imitators of the sins and crimes of our fathers. Cain has initiated mankind into murder, and as seeds sown in a filed produce an increase, so the seeds of murder begin to bring forth their crops.
After the Flood, God warns the children of Noah, "Whoever sheds a man's blood will have his own blood shed by man: For [I have} made man in the image of God." (9:6) And again, in the incarnation, He says, "whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword."
It is the image of God in man that Satan hates; and it is because of this image that he incites us to commit murder. His target is really the image and likeness of God that is within us — a murder of God by proxy. It is for this reason, also, that Satan strives to corrupt mankind. He desires to replace the image of God within us with his own image, to re-make man in the image of the Evil-One.
PREFACE TO THE STORY OF
NOAH AND THE ARK
There are many aspects to the stories in the Hebrew Scripture, the “Old Testament.” For the sake of our discussions here, there are two things that the Old Testament continuously reminds us of and these are things about ourselves. One of them is why we human beings have an inner conflict between good, bad, holiness and wickedness; why we so often fall and the source of our the inner contradictions that torment us so often. The other is the tendency of humankind toward an idolatry. These facts have much to say about corruption in our societies and the strife and bloodshed in our world.
Reading about these things will reveal to us why our Lord Jesus Christ instructed us to pray, “...and deliver us from the evil-one” rather than “deliver us from evil.” God has created mankind in His own “likeness and image,” that is, with freedom, intellect and a will toward virtue. Satan, trying to become more glorious than God, fell and came into an enmity toward God. Now he lures mankind into the idolatry of trying to recreate God after his own image.
One aspect of the Old Testament is that it tells us about how mankind transfers his own passions, his own cruelties and his own aggressiveness onto his understanding of God. This idea flows throughout the Old Testament. Gnostic teachers such as Marcion and Mani carried this so far that they actually thought there were two Gods: an evil one in the Old Testament and a good one in the New Testament. What is really happening here is that Satan is trying to distort the understanding of God. Satan promised mankind that he could become like God, but instead, lead man to think that God is like man. Mankind’s concept of God becomes an idolatry, a kind of self-worship, because he thinks of God as being just a “giant human” or a projection of fallen humanity. If people are cruel and murderous, then they re-image God as being cruel and murderous; if mankind is aggressive and vulgar then they recreate (in their own minds) God as being aggressive and vulgar. So what Satan has done now is to trick people or lead them into a counterfeit of God Himself. God has revealed Himself as being perfect, unselfish love, and being trusting of mankind, so Satan wants to offer a counterfeit. And that counterfeit is a god who is mentally created by man, in man’s own image and likeness, with man’s own passions.
We should keep this in mind as we continue to look at the way each one of us finds himself in the Old Testament, and we find a picture of mankind itself in the stories we read.
THE STORY OF NOAH
Betrayal and Loyalty
We could refer to Noah as an “apostle.” He preached the truth of God and salvation by obeying God even though people thought that he was foolish for doing so.
We are told in the story of Noah that the path of wickedness which began with Cain's murder of Abel, followed by Lamech's murder of two men, continued to expand. This is the next narrative that we will look at in order to try to find ourselves within it and to try to discover within our own hearts whether we would have been on board that ark or not. There was choice to be made then, just as there is a daily choice for us in our relationship with God and our neighbour.
From the beginning of the creation, we see that God is constantly blessing all of His creation. When mankind began to defile the earth and rob the earth of its blessing, disregarding both God and fellow humans as well the living things and the world around them, we are told the story of Noah’s ark.
In the story, Noah is told to build a large ship called an "ark" and to bring on board it representatives of every known species of animal, along with several plants. Noah was told that a great flood would occur that would destroy mankind, except for those who were repentant and became faithful to God. The building of the ark took a very long time, and Noah used the process as a way of warning people and calling them to repentance. Orthodox Christians understand that the Ark is type of the Church. The holy apostles called people into the Church, and away from the sinful and destructive attitudes of the world around them. This is just what Noah was doing in his own time. The flood took place just as Noah had warned, and the earth was cleansed.
Noah really becomes an apostle of the Living God because he is preaching to these people as he builds the ark. Hearing Noah's words and seeing his actions, the people had to make a free choice. The choice is between God and the corruption of the world, between life and death. Noah is calling them to something else also. He is calling them to struggle for have self-control and self-discipline in order to lead decent lives.
In the same way, we are called upon to make such choices. We do not have to have forty days and forty nights of rain in order to sweep us away. We can be swept away from an authentic life and from a life of contentment and a life of inner joy by the passions and corruption of the world around us. We can, on the other hand, pay attention to the actual meaning of the story of Noah and choose the kind of struggle that Noah calls us to, and have an authentic life, a life filled with meaning, hope and love.
THE STORY OF NOAH TEACHES US
OUR ROLE IN CREATION
God has bound man together with the created universe; man was intended to be a point of unity for all creation. Mankind is material, intellectual, spiritual – made up of everything that the universe is made up of, a combination of all the things that occur within creation. By accepting the counterfeits of Satan we began to be more a point of disunity, and all of these wounds and divisions that occur in our human nature developed amongst us.
We must often make a choice between spiritual life and spiritual death. Let us look at the story of Noah’s ark from this point of view, because the ark is a type of the Church, and true spiritual life is to be found within the Church because it is there that the Tree of Life still grows. The altar of the Church is a type of Paradise, we receive from the chalice the fruit of the Tree of Life, which is Jesus Christ Himself. In the description of the building of the Ark, and the command about what to bring into the Ark, we see that all of creation was symbolically represented and encompassed in the ark. A type of everything that exists was there, for God did not just command various clean animals, but clean and unclean animals alike, and plants, particularly those that could be used for food, and birds and creeping things – all of creation was encompassed in the ark and they were all redeemed together with mankind, represented by Noah and his family.
This is similar to what Apostle Paul says: “All creation is being redeemed together with mankind, because all creation will be set free into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (Rm. Xx ) There is a very close bond between us and the created universe and the ecosystem in which we live. We suggest that this story tells us that we are encompassed together with the rest of creation. We have a role to play as the centre of unity in creation and we have a responsibility to the ecosystem in which we live; a responsibility to humanity and to all life on earth, to preserve our biosphere.
EGOISM: THE SON BETRAYS THE FATHER
When the ark landed, we find a rather disturbing story of a son’s betrayal of his father. One of Noah’s sons, Ham, found his father passed out drunk and naked. He humiliated and degraded his father. When he mockingly told his brothers about their father’s condition, the other sons of Noah showed their love and respectful for their father by entering the room holding blanket. The entered backward, with their faces away from their father, and covered him with the blanket in order not to shame their father.
No matter what family we have, when we begin to raise children, not all of them really follow our teachings and follow our path. Some are led into disrespect, and not just disrespect, but even into a kind of revilement of everything that their parents have stood for. Sometimes a child is right not to accept everything that the parents teach, because they come to realize that some of these teachings are just prejudices or they come to realize that some of us are just too Pharisaical or too full of judgment or condemnation, lacking in compassion and that sort of thing. But there is this rejection of the whole concept, the whole idea, the whole system of values that the previous generation had, the complete disrespect for the parent, and therefore the disrespect for the values and the things that were passed on to the children. This always leads to some kind of sorrow and grief, because we do not realize that human experience has formed many of these basic values – thousands of years of human experience. Sometimes when a child comes to this point of being completely rebellious against the parents and against what they have taught and passed on – particularly when the parents are believing people – they are not just rejecting what the parents have taught them, but rejecting also thousands of years of human experience which has taught us that certain things are necessary for survival; for the survival of societies, for the survival of communities.
How does this story apply to us? We also have to make choices. Each one of us has to make a choice about how to deal with the values and the teachings, the instruction that have been given to us by our parents, our grandparents. To totally reject everything and all the standards that have been taught by the parents leads to a degeneracy in society. From the beginning of the story of Noah’s ark we see the majority of the people rejecting the revelation and the proper relationship with God and neighbours. It was not just the flood that caused them to be swept away, rather they allowed themselves to be swept away and spiritually drowned by their own passions.Meanwhile, those who were listening and heeding their consciences, the voice of God, were lifted up in the ark which is a type of the Church carried above this flood. They had the self-control and self-discipline necessary in order to reject what was wrong and struggle for what is good.
When we read in this story about Ham’s betrayal of his father Noah, and the great respect and reverence with which the other brothers approached their father, we also see something about self-control and self-discipline. The other brothers might have been tempted to look upon their father’s nakedness just out of curiosity, but they had self-control and they held self-discipline and they did not. This is the problem with Ham; he had no self-discipline, no self-control and therefore no respect and no reverence. Because without self-control and self-discipline, we also cannot have self-respect or respect for others.
There is something yet more pointed about this story, however, and that is our relationship with our neighbours, with other people in our own lives. Rather than expose our brother of sister’s sins, we ought rather to cover them. We are here to help lift each other up, not to push others down; to help our brother heal, not to cut his wounds deeper. We, as followers of Christ, must learn to respect our neighbours, our brothers and sister in the faith and others in the same way that the righteous sons of Noah love him and covered his nakedness. Too often we behave like the unrighteous Ham and mock and revile our neighbours for their weaknesses and failings rather than entering backward to cover the sins of others. Even when our own weaknesses, failings and sins stand glaring before us, we find opportunity to uncover our brother or sister’s sins, mocking them and trying to put them to shame, as if we ourselves were sinless and perfect. Such actions separate us from God, from the love of Christ and from the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is, perhaps, the central lesson for us in the story of Noah, this is where we find ourselves in the story and the point at which the story becomes about us; each one of us personally.
This is the story of Ham and his brothers and the choices made by them, and a story about each one of us and the choices made by us. The ones who had self-discipline and self-control and some reverence and respect. We respect things that we do not necessarily agree with; we should respect elders because they have survived so long, and because at least within the pool of older citizens – not everyone is wise but there is wisdom and experience among them.
What happens to Ham when he has to face the reality of what he has done? He becomes an outcast. But why is it that he has to serve his brethren? What kind of bondage or slavery does he fall into? Does God make him the slave to his brethren as punishment? Or is there rather something else being said to us? People without self-discipline and without self-control inevitably fall into bondage. Ineed, they fall into many different kinds of bondage. We are not supposed to have a weak will, we are supposed to have a strong will, but a will directed toward the will of God and submissive to the will of God. We have to have enough self-discipline and self-control to resist peer pressure, to resist the desire to find an artificial way to have some kind of temporary happiness, which could include drugs or alcohol, or to do evil because of our egotism and self love. The Church has given us the path and the means toward proper and effective self-discipline and self-control. We need to have a certain amount of proper self-esteem also, and this self-esteem comes primarily from the knowledge that Christ loved us enough to die for each one of us and to rise again for the sake of our salvation. He took our sins and burdens upon himself and carried them to the Cross for each one of us, and this is the proper self-esteem. This means that we have self-respect which is manifested in respect for others. Having no respect for others, Ham clearly also had no self-respect, but in a kind of self-loathing, he tried to make himself look better by shaming his father and darkening his own heart.