About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2021/01/15

Gate and road logion (new reading and interpretation)

Enter through the narrow gate;

for the gate is wide and the road is easy

that leads to destruction,

and there are many who take it.

For the gate is narrow and the road is hard

that leads to life,

and there are few who find it.

 

Gospel of Matthew (7:13-14 quoted here from NRSV) preserved for us this saying of Jesus with clear signs of Semitic parallelism. Gospel of Luke has an abbreviated version (13:24). It is therefore highly probable that this logion was preserved in the Q source (A presupposed Early Christian collection of Jesus’ logia).

     Often it is being interpreted along the lines of Christian ethical or moral exclusivism. I would like to suggest a different reading based on the historical context and how ancient city gates and roads were built and how they functioned.

 

The Hellenistic walled cities, and sometimes even cities without walls, had what can be described as a ceremonial gate - a main entrance to the polis which was used for different processions and for welcoming dignitaries and imperial or royal messengers. This main ceremonial gate was built on a main road leading to the city. Besides this main entrance, the city often had several side entrances connecting it to the countryside either in the form of postern gates, if the city was walled, or just streets extending to surrounding farmland.

 

A network of the Roman imperial roads is not necessary to introduce. Romans inherited and perfected earlier similar networks which were built by preceding empires (Hellenistic kingdoms, as well as Persian and Assyrian empires). It is also well understood that these imperial roads were built for easier and more efficient administration but primarily for military purposes of communication and easier movement of armies. On the other hand local roads were formed by local communities to serve their immediate needs of local commerce and farming.

 

Based upon these observations I would like to offer my dynamic equivalence translation of this logion:

 

Always take a narrow gate.

            The main ceremonial city gates

            and straight Roman roads

            are built for armies and lead to destruction.

But the narrow gate and the twisty roads

            are for civilians and lead to life.

 

This reading (interpretation) clearly goes beyond the narrow moralistic exclusivism and offer richer and deeper context, anti-imperial outlook, and theology which fits well with the rest of Jesus’ message. 



2021/01/14

Choose life

Several years ago, while talking about the biblical beatitudes, I also mentioned that the Bible contains lists of curses. I will never forget the surprise of one of our dear members!
     Of course, there are curses in the Bible. When it comes to important matters in life you cannot have blessings without complementing curses. Actually, there are entire lists and even solemn cursing liturgies.
     Here is a sample from the Book of Deuteronomy:

"Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor's boundary marker."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

"Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person of the road."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

"Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

 

      Hebrew Prophets often composed litanies of woes and prophetic invectives. Here is just a verse from one of the litanies in Isaiah: 

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,

who put darkness for light and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

     In the New Testament Jesus' famous beatitudes are complemented with what can be described as his rant of woes against religious and political hypocrites. Here is an example.

Woe to you, religious teachers and leaders, you hypocrites!

For you proudly give religious tax even of mint, and dill, and cumin, while you neglected what really matters to God, justice and mercy and humble faith.
     There are clearly times and situations when matters are truly serious and present us with a stark choice between blessing and curse. Just as Moses of Deuteronomy reminds us:

     "Today I have placed before you choice between life and death, blessings and curses. And I call on heaven and earth to witness your choice. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your children might live!

2021/01/08

Our renunciation

John the Baptist, as his epithet suggest, baptised people and with it he preached repentance. There is quite a widely shared and deeply rooted confusion what he actually meant.
     For John and in the Bible - repentance has little if outright nothing to do with guilt feelings or displays of self-affliction or self-denigration. The New Testament was written in Greek (Hellenistic Koine) and repentance in Greek is METANOIA μετανοια that literally means a thorough reorientation of thinking, of outlook on life. But John the Baptist did not speak Greek - his language was either Aramaic or Hebrew. In Hebrew repentance is TEŠUVAH תשובה‎ . This word is derived from root ŠVB שוב which means turning around, going one direction and then ŠVB turning 180 degrees and going back - that is repentance - redirecting of our life. No melodramatic outpouring of our inner spiritual feelings and our yearning for personal salvation. True repentance is a down to earth practical reorientation of our individual and communal lives, eventually an ideal  redirection of the entire society.  

For that reason in the past four years at Rutgers we adopted in our worship at least once a month this litany of renunciation and acceptance.


We renounce falsehood, lies, deceitful words, and actions.

   We take up truth, honesty and openness.

We renounce anger that leads to harm with words and actions.

   We take up words and actions that help create peace.

We renounce egotism, selfish grasping, and stealing.

   We take up honest work and care for others.

We renounce racism, nativism, and dividing people to us and them.

   We take up divine love which embraces all people.

We renounce insults, slander, and evil judgment of others.

   We take up what encourages, comforts, and offers hope.

We renounce bitterness, violence, and the desire to cause harm.

   We take up kindness, gentleness, and work for divine justice and peace.


We do it, because we want to live out biblical repentance and its true original meaning and ethos. Depending on the socio-political context it can be quite a radical part of liturgy. The more dire situation we live in the more radical it feels. 

And that was also the situation of John the Baptist and what he had in mind when he preached repentance - reorienting lives to be in harmony with God’s will. And conducting baptism - through baptism opening up a new realm - welcoming people to God’s future.


On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday we want to do just that. Reaffirm our Baptisms and commit ourselves to God’s will and God’s future.

2020/12/30

Christmas tank

Right before this Christmas a friend from Florida shared with me this picture - a battle tank M60 all decked with Christmas lights.
    I though what a strange sight! I could think only of one similar example - The Pink tank of Prague. It was a Russian tank displayed on a high pedestal in the center of Prague and it was painted Pink in protest against Russian imperialism and militarism. It even caused an international diplomatic incident. You know, imperialists do not appreciate humor at their expense.
    But such mockery was certainly not behind the tank in Florida since it stands in front of a Veterans’ clubhouse hangout and veterans don’t usually poke fun of themselves. I also did a quick google search and found about another dozen of Christmas decorated tanks all over the United States and in military bases overseas.
    It gave me pause. The Florida tank was clearly not an outlier. It was part of a well established practice. Those who decorate tanks for Christmas - What kind of Christmas do they celebrate? What kind of Christianity do they confess? What kind of Christ-Child do they welcome? One wrapped in camouflage swaddling clothes? Have they ever heard about the birth of the Prince of Peace?
    These poeple must follow some kind of a strange bellicose religion! And there is indeed a great need to return Christ to Christmas! Right among those who scream for it the most.
    And that is something you might not know, or I certainly did not know, about American religiosity. And there is also a good reason for a Peace Church like Rutgers to exist, to preach and worship and witness to the coming of the Prince of Peace.

2020/12/03

Chickadee and a falling tree

About two weeks ago I was photographing chickadees on Iona Island on the Hudson River. And then suddenly came a gust of wind and a big dead old oak tree came crushing down just a few yards behind me. I jumped up really shaken just like the little chickadee who flew away.

       That entire experience got me thinking.... You know, there is a famous philosophical thought experiment which goes like this "If a tree falls in a forest and no person is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" 

       And the precise scientific answer is NO. Because sound is an air vibration as transmitted by our ear and recognized as sound only in our brain. The falling tree produces air vibrations, they become sound only in the brain of a person. If there is no person to hear, there is no sound." 

       But there is an inherent problem with this technical answer as I observed the chickadee. Humans are not the only creatures to hear. In a forest, there is always someone to receive and process air vibrations, actually hundreds and thousands of creatures! We even know that other trees and plants and mushrooms can sense, process and react to vibrations.

        The thought experiment about the falling tree was clearly designed by some arrogant anthropocentric philosophers all puffed up with human self-importance. Forest itself is a one great and constant dialogue of all possible creatures. Yes, it is more than a dialogue, it is a symphony composed and played and appreciated by an intricate lacework of forest creatures.

 

This Sunday we will rejoice in the Divine vision of nature in harmony. Join us in worship on this Second Sunday in Advent when we listen to Isaiah 11:6-10.

 

2020/10/30

Blessing on journey to afterlife

Two lines from Ketef Hinnom II  with the tetragramaton
and request for a watchful protection.

In 1979 an archeologist Gabriel Barkay from Tel Aviv Univ. was performing a survey of an ancient necropolis at Ketef Hinnom (a ridge between Rephaim and Hinnom valleys) south west of Jerusalem.
            There his team discovered an earlier unnoticed part of ancient tomb and most importantly an alcove used to store burial remnants and refuse. There, in what can be described as ancient cemetery refuse dump, they found two small relatively heavy metal cylinders roughly of the size of a cigarette butt, or a small marker cap.
            These two cylinders turned out to be two silver scrolls. When they were carefully unrolled scholars discovered that those scrolls were inscribed with old Hebrew script. Both scrolls appeared to contain an abbreviated quotation of the Priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24ff)
            The LORD bless you and keep you;
            The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
            The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Paleographically the scrolls are datable to the 6th century BCE, Biblically speaking - before or around the time when Babylonians captured Jerusalem and sent many Judeans to exile.
            Some people immediately claim that these two silver scrolls were the oldest ever discovered quotation from the Hebrew Bible! But that is a shallow fundamentalist argument. More likely is that scrolls contain quotation from an oral priestly tradition. But regardless it was quotation from the written biblical text or from oral tradition we need to pay attention to the context. The full context is indeed so much more interesting!
            Firstly we can consider the full text on the scrolls. There was not only the “biblical” quotation of the priestly blessing. And remaining text clearly shows that the scrolls were originally personalised amulets providing personal protection of the wearers. Similar scroll amulets are well documented throughout Ancient Near East. Very often archeologist find their small tubular containers while papyrus or parchment scrolls decomposed over years. In Ketef Hinnom we have opposite situation, we have scrolls while containers likely decomposed.
            Secondly we can also considering the context of the find in a tomb. The amulets provided  protection not only for the living but also for the journey to afterlife. That is further strengthened for instance by a blessing inscription from a tomb in Kirbeth el Qom. Departed are accompanied on their journey with blessings.
            And so the Aaronic or priestly blessing, used weekly in worship in many synagogues and churches, is not only the oldest part of our worship preserved in writing, its oldest function was in apotropaic magic, and it was used to protect and accompany the loved ones on their journey to afterlife.   

And that is something you might not know about the Bible and I find quite meaningful and touching as we mark All Hallows and Souls Holy Day. 

 

Comparison of Ketef Hinnom scrolls with the Masoretic (Biblical) Text 

 

2020/10/14

Ancient Sinai Caravanserai

Did Hebrew god YHWH have a wife? Was there a time when Hebrew people worshiped a divine couple - god YHWH and goddess Asherah? If you read only the Bible you might think those are silly and even offensive questions. But they are not as silly if you consider the full picture. There is a number of indications that this was exactly the case.
            For instance deep in the Sinai Peninsula is a place now called Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (30°11'10.59"N  34°25'40.91"E). On the walls and on the pottery of that place was a number of religious inscriptions expressing prayers, best-wishes and blessings in the name of YHWH and his ASHERAH (Paleographically dated between 800-760 BCE). And there were also drawings further suggesting and strengthening this religious interpretation.
            Scholars argue about the exact purpose of that place. Based on the religious graffiti and some other artefacts it might have been a wilderness shrine for desert nomads. Based on its solid structure it might be a small detached garrison protecting an otherwise desolate stretch of the road. And it could also be a caravanserai - a stop and watering place just off the main north south trading road from Gulf of Aqaba to Mediterranean shore.
            Or it could be all of those things together. Frankly, all three functions are easily mutually compatible. In desolate places, people tend to gravitate together. And if you travel through the empty expanses of New Mexico or Nevada you can easily come across a gas and service station, police outpost and small chapel catering together side by side for travelers’ elemental needs of sustenance, safety and spirituality.
            And thus from graffiti written and drawn by a number of ancient travelers in the Sinai Peninsula we realize that the Bible presents to us an official, orthodox, if you want a high brow, version of religion while regular folks along the ancient roads had their own thoughts and hopes, their own religion. And traveling through the vast spaces of dangerous wilderness they put their trust in the divine couple, YHWH and (his) Asherah.
      And that is something you might not know about the bible and the biblical times.
(Here I wrote about it a little bit more.)

And there is another lesson specifically for religious experts, while they write their books people draw their faith in graffiti. People have always believed what they wanted. I found it profoundly humbling. Every rabbi and every pastor should take it to their heart and remember it.

And finally this is also an invitation to our Sunday Worship. We will not talk about Yahweh and his wife. This Sunday will be about who is our neighbour and openness to hospitality talking about open and diverse nature of inns and caravanserais. Join us if you can.