Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 – Musing About Genesis Bloody Carcasses
From time to time, the prescribed readings from the Common Lectionary fill me with dread and despair. Something about those bloodied, split, rotting carcasses that sealed the deal between God and Abraham makes me wonder about the nature of the god we have projected into the heavens and ask: Have we evolved or has God? The story of God’s promises to the “Chosen People” portrays God as a churlish player in humanity’s game of tribal rivalry. While I’d rather not preach on the text from Genesis this Sunday, I know full well that simply reading this text during worship without elaboration, will if folk are paying attention, leave a distasteful oder in the sanctuary that will surely spoil our appetite for our common meal of body and blood disguised as bread and wine.
The readings for this coming Sunday have me thinking about tribalism. There’s always more than one way to look at things. Tribalism has served us well. New people to meet can be exciting or it can be frightening. Taking comfort with your own people is wonderful, but taking too much pride in your own kind is dangerous. One minute you’re cheering for your team the next minute you’re hurling insults at the other guy and one too many insults and the next thing you know you’re at war. A little tribalism is a good thing, but how much tribalism is too much? Tribalism is a basic human survival instinct. Tribalism is lodged deep within our psyches and has been from the very beginning of time. Tribal is part of our primordial selves. Tapping into this basic human instinct can mean the difference between survival and death.
Tribal thinking exists on almost every level of human life, from the international to the local. Attack a human on any level and that human will resort to instinctive behaviour. When threatened humans have two basic instincts, fight or flight and the choice between the two often comes down to tribalism. If you have enough people to back you, you’ll probably choose to fight. Not enough people and you’ll probably choose flight.
Human kind has evolved a great deal over the centuries but we haven’t evolved very far from our basic instincts. You don’t have to scratch a fan too deeply to find the primitive tribal mentality. Tribalism is seen in the way we portray our rivals. I once heard a Kiwi say, “I root for two teams, New Zealand and whoever is playing Australia.” Sporting competition is all well and good, but when tribalism is carried to its worst possible conclusion, wars beak out. Tribal feeling is then exacerbated in times of war, and tribal propaganda is used to dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to hate or kill without any qualms of conscience. We don’t kill human beings in war; our victims are not someone’s child, spouse, or parent. NO, one kills either, the Huns, the Krauts, the Japs, the Nips, the VC, the insurgents, the fanatics or the terrorists.
There is within us all a basic, dominant, intrinsic fear of those tribes different from our own, a predisposition to be on guard against them, to reject them, to attack and even to kill them. This tribal tradition arises out of our deep-seated survival mentality and it feeds something at the heart of our insecure humanity. We are tribal people to our core. Far more than we will consciously admit, the religions of the world including Christianity rise out of and undergird our tribal thinking.
Religions are all too often, very deep expressions of a tribal mentality that worships a tribal god. Take for example this Sunday’s reading from the book of Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18. Here we have the story of Abram a wandering Aremeian, who is about to become the father of many nations. Abram has a vision; a vision in which his god promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky if Abram only promises to worship YAHWEH as his only god.
To seal the promise YAHWEH enacts an ancient tribal custom, common in Mesopotamia. YAHWEH said to Abram, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram brought God all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Most High God made a covenant with Abram.”
Centuries ago, in the days of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, custom dictated the appropriate manner in which a bargain was to be sealed. When two parties entered into an agreement, a covenant, they would take a bunch of good-sized animals, slaughter them, sever them into halves, clear a path between the pieces, and require that each partner to the agreement walk between them as a sort of self-curse. Kind of like: “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” By passing through the severed bodies of the animals, each partner says, in effect, “May the same thing happen to me if I do not keep my word.”
The whole thing sounds so very barbaric to our modern ears. But this story is part of the foundation of the narrative that begins the narrative of YAHWEH’s covenant with the chosen people.
The last two verses of this story are not usually read in church. The crafters of the lectionary leave them out; perhaps because they are so very offensive. But I would argue that we include them because it is important for us to remember that tribalism permeates our foundation myths.
“When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between the halves of the sacrifices. On that day YAHWEH made this covenant with Abram: To your descendants I give this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
The Promised Land, the land God promised to the chosen people was not some vacant lot somewhere, waiting for inhabitants to come and enjoy the bounty of milk and honey that flowed there. The Promised Land was inhabited by many tribes; tribes who worshipped other gods. And there have been wars and rumors of wars in the Promised Land from that day to this.
The image of YAHWEH painted by this story is not a particularly glorious one if you are anything other than the Chosen People. The Kenizzites the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephiam, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites, rue the day YAHWEH chose the descendants of Abram over them.
This image of a tribal god is offensive to our modern ears. We much prefer the more evolved image of God that Jesus paints in the gospel text for this Sunday. “Jerusalem, O, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her babies under her wings—yet you refuse me! “ This mother hen god is a far cry from the YAHWEH of Genesis.
So, I ask you, did God evolve, or did human perception of God evolve? Think of the stars in the heavens, too numerous to count, and yet we dare to describe the Creator of all that is and all that ever shall be as if our images of God are complete. John Shelby Spong has written a great deal about the dangers of worshipping a tribal God. He reminds us that our knowledge of God is ever-evolving and cautions us to remain open to new possibilities when it comes to speculating on the nature of our Creator.
So much of our Christian doctrine relies on deep expressions of a tribal mentality that worships a god who is little more than a tribal protector. The reality of worshiping such an image of God is that all too often it causes us to sink into tribal attitudes. The more we sink into tribal attitudes, the more our lives are consumed with hatred; and as a direct result the less human we become.
In times of tribal conflict the natural survival instincts within us take over and are hurled at our enemies. This tribal mentality may well have been an asset in the human struggle to survive during the evolutionary process, but unless it is transcended, a deeper humanity ceases to be a possibility.
We cannot be fully human so long as we are consumed with hatred against those who threaten our survival. If the purpose of Jesus was and is to bring life abundantly, then we need to realize that this goal will never be possible until both our tribal mentalities and our tribal fears have been addressed.
Tribal hatreds diminish the humanity of the victims and tribal hatreds also diminish the humanity of those who are the haters. The image of the tribal God of Israel was still alive and well in the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. It was inevitable for Jesus, the fully human one to have to confront this tribal mentality.
Jesus ministry was about empowering his followers to step beyond all tribal boundaries into the fullness of humanity that his life so clearly exhibited.
Remember that we live in the 21st and not the first century. Remember Charles Darwin and all that we have learned about humanity since Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution. Humanity is a work in progress. We have evolved over the centuries and as our understanding of our purpose and meaning in the world continues to evolve so to will our images of our Creator. As we evolve we begin to understand that evil does not come from some external force, but rather comes as a result of our incompleteness. What we call evil rises from the incompleteness of the evolutionary process. We are not so much fallen sinners who need to be rescued as we are incomplete creatures who need to be empowered to step into the new possibilities of an expanding life.
When we understand that the evil things we do to one another are the result of our incomplete humanity we begin to see how inappropriate it is to portray our Creator as an avenging God bent on punishing us for our sinfulness. Evil cannot be controlled by threats or by discipline, parental or divine. Security can never finally be built on violence. To be saved does not mean to be rescued. To be saved means to be empowered to be something we have not yet been able to be.
In Jesus we see humanity that is not defined as fallen or sinful. Jesus’ humanity is so whole and so complete that Jesus is experienced by those he encounters as one who is filled with God. We see in Jesus one so radically human and free, so whole and complete that the power of life, the force of the universe—that which we call God—becomes visible and operative in Christ and through Christ. Somehow, in some way, though some means, God was and is in Christ and this God presence can still be met in the depths of our humanity. Our task, here and now, is to move beyond tribalism in order to trace in the gospel tradition the echoes of the transforming power that Jesus made visible and public. Those echoes that we discover, paint a consistent portrait that points to the power present in Jesus’ life, a power that people began to identify with God.
Even though the earthly life of Jesus came to an end around the year 30 CE, the power of Jesus was such that Paul, writing in the early fifties, could still make a claim that was so astonishing in his time that it must have hit his readers like a message from outer space. To the Galatians Paul wrote that inside the Christ experience people had with Jesus, all of their tribal barriers melted away! In Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek,” neither Jew nor Gentile.
To the Romans, a few years later, Paul still had this sense of the Jesus experience when he wrote that salvation has come from God in the person of Jesus and is available “to the Jew first and also to the Greek”. Paul insisted that “God shows no partiality”. These were astonishing claims.
The power of Jesus had expanded Paul’s tribal boundaries and, through these writings the followers of the way were enabled to embrace the world. In the letter to the Colossians, a disciple of Paul proclaims the same transcending message that shrinks tribal identity to nothingness: “If you have been raised with Christ, there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free…, but Christ is all and in all.”
Something about this Jesus is sufficiently unique and life-changing that it has the power to enable us to set aside the million-year-old human survival game of tribal identity and to feel Christ’s call to a new level of humanity. Christ empowers us to be so deeply and fully human that we can actually escape the security lines built to serve our primitive survival needs. In Christ we are called to lay down our survival barriers, to step beyond tribe, beyond language, beyond the fear-imposed levels of our security. We are called to step into a vision of humanity that opens to all people the meaning of life and in doing so opens us to the meaning of the MYSTERY we call God.
When we put away our tribal fears we can begin to see in the fullness of Jesus’ humanity the very face of God. To be followers of Christ in the 21st century is exciting! There’s a new reformation afoot as we open our hearts and minds to the wonders of our God and begin to explore the abundant life that Christ calls us too. Is it frightening? You bet! Encounters beyond the confines of our tribe are scary. But I am convinced that abundant life lies beyond our tribal boundaries. So, do not be afraid! There is much more for us to learn and know for the wonders of the MYSTERY we call God are as numerous as the stars in the sky, and the blessings that lie ahead are beyond our ability to count.