Monday, 3 July 2017

Noah, Abraham, and the Level of the Time

There is a long-standing habit of rejecting the morality of Genesis, and through it the God of Israel. We see it already in Marcion: the God of Israel is a vengeful god and thus cannot be the God of Jesus. We see it today in your more vacuous atheist attacks on Christianity (which often seem blithely unaware that such anti-Christian rhetoric is equally anti-Jewish). Marcion can be forgiven for what is a thoroughly ahistorical approach to reading ancient writings, but the person living on this side of the great breakthroughs in historical thinking achieved by the nineteenth-century cannot, especially when that person claims to stand in a position of moral and intellectual superiority above the single most influential tradition in human history (with its influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the tradition of ancient Israel can rightfully claim to have more fully shaped humanity than any other tradition, religious or otherwise). Such an ahistorical approach fails to reckon with a basic reality, namely that Genesis operates at which Lonergan calls the level of the time.

Let's take two examples: the flood and the non-sacrifice of Isaac. Denuded of details, the flood sounds horrific. The God (who will eventually become that) of Israel wipes out all but eight persons via torrential rains and flooding. It has the taint of genocide, as the nephilim--the "giants"--are all killed in the process. But details matter. The Genesis account indicates that the God of Israel did this not out of caprice or malice, but rather out of righteous repentance for creating a humanity that turned its thoughts and actions towards evil (Gen. 6:5-6). He preserves Noah because Noah is the one righteous man among his generation. This moral dimension is highlighted when we read comparable accounts from the ancient Near East. In these accounts, Enlil sends the flood to destroy humanity because they make too much noise. They disturb his rest. The "Noah" equivalent is saved because another god, Enki, warns him, but there is little sense that "Noah" receives this warning because he is particularly righteous. The ancient Israelites seem to have taken a typical pattern of ancient Near Eastern storytelling and invested it with a profound moral reflection upon good, evil, and their respective consequences. Yes, they said, the divine realm did indeed send the flood, but not because humanity was annoying but rather because humanity had turned its collective energies to evil. It was a profound reflection--a sort of early theodicy, really--written at the level of its time, using the resources at hand.

Or take the non-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Certainly, read with a twentieth-century sensibility, the God of Israel comes off as a bit of schmuck. He commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeys, which doesn't necessarily make him come off as a particularly caring father, and then at the last minute the God of Israel intervenes by sending a ram to sacrifice in Isaac's place. This seems all quite cruel from our vantage point. But the story was not written from or to our vantage point. It was written from and to that of several millennia ago. And we know that at the very least the ancient Israelites understood that their neighbours engaged in the act of sacrificing their children to their gods. The extent to which such a practice existed in actuality is an open question, but it certainly existed in the Israelite imagination. This story responds to that reality by saying that Israel's God is not a God that requires one to sacrifice one's child. Restricted almost entirely to the device of storytelling to make that statement, the originators of this account must provide narrative action. Indeed, Genesis gives little indication that the persons responsible for its creation were even aware of the device of explication, whereby one relays a story and then says "And this story means X." Narrative action is almost entirely the medium of expression. It would not have been much of a story if the God of Israel just showed up and said "Hey, Abraham, just so you know, I don't expect you sacrifice Isaac." It would have been even less of a story if the God of Israel hadn't said or done anything at all. In fact, when one thinks about the task--convey through a story that the God of Israel does not demand human sacrifice--it is difficult to imagine something far off from what we find in Genesis 22.

The level of the time both enables and limits. The level of the time was such that the ancient Israelites had developed a morality capable of reflecting upon the question of divine goodness. This was a significant breakthrough. In humanist terms, this can be understood as the product ultimately of evolution, which led to the advent of an animal capable of such reflection, and of historical processes that led to ever-deepening reflections upon morality. In theological terms such a humanist understanding can be affirmed, but also understood as the work of divine grace. But the level of the time was limited almost entirely to storytelling as a means by which to conceive and articulate those reflections. Looking back, millennia later, as the inheritors of the moral and intellectual tradition to which they were contributing, these early efforts seem virtually barbaric. Such a judgment however seems quite ungrateful. We might call these early efforts "primitive," in the etymologically precise sense of coming first (or at least early) in a sequence, but that does not obviate the remarkable breakthroughs that are evident in these works. We, the heirs of such breakthroughs, might have moved well past them, but we can only do so because of the advances made by the ancients at the level of their times.

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