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."

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.

 


 

2020/10/09

Compassion and healing

Crown prince Yaṣib came to his father,

he lifted up his voice and cried:

    Listen, I besiege you, O noble Keret,

    listen, and let your ear be alert!

You have not defended the widow,

you have not protected the powerless!

You have not stopped the plundering of the poor.

You have not fed the orphans under your rule,

you have not protected widows around your throne!

    And for all those reasons

    your bedfellow is illness,

    your concubine is disease.  (KTU 1.16.vi.46-51)

 

This is a short and slightly adjusted quotation from an epos recorded on a clay tablet about three thousand years ago. All that long ago people already knew that there was a connection  between arrogant, abusive and corrupt power and suffering and illness. (Aren’t we reminded of it by our recent national events?!)

            But please, understand me well, I do not believe for a moment in a vindictive God. This was composed centuries before the first sentence of the Hebrew Bible was ever written! Yet people already knew what constitutes a healthy society! It was and still is taking care of the widows and orphans, the poor and powerless. There is simply no denying that there always has been this connection between selfish, incompetent rulers neglecting the most vulnerable and the suffering of their subjects and their societies. In fact it is also a heartbreaking logic because the vulnerable always suffer twice - first they suffer being neglected and then they suffer the secondary consequences of that neglect - unhealthy and collapsing society. 

            Thankfully there is a way out of it if only we decide to take it. This logic of lack of compassion and illness can also be reversed and compassion does lead to broader healing.

            Have you noticed how many examples of just that healing we have in the Gospels? They give many accounts of Jesus’ miraculous healings. But this Sunday we will listen to a very special healing story from the gospel. To my best knowledge, among all the miraculous healings, this is the only healing which is part of a parable thus being a direct invitation for all of us to step in and follow the suit.     



2020/10/01

Priest and King

Biblical writings are proverbially difficult to date. They contain some very old stories (myths and legends or prophesies and poems) which were transmitted orally for generations and then reworked and substantially edited by generations of authors and scribes. Thus it is very difficult, almost impossible, to date any text in the Hebrew Bible.
            But then, there is Psalm 110. With this psalm there can be hardly any doubt when it was written. The psalm itself gives us the date of its composition. It is spelled out in the ACROSTIC. Acrostic is a stylistic device, a form of alliteration, in which the message can be hidden in plain sight. Each line or each verse or each paragraph opens with a letter and those letters together give a message. In this Psalm the first letters of each verse read in Hebrew SIMON (THE) AWE(SOME) and they refer to a known historical figure Simon Thassi, or Simon Maccabee. He was an early and important ruler from the Hasmonean dynasty who ruled over Judea between years 142-135 BCE.
            This identification is further confirmed by the content of the psalm. Interestingly, this psalm mentions an obscure, legendary, MELCHIZEDEK. This mythical figure is directly connected with Simon Maccabee. Simon had a problem as he was from a priestly family and he was of Aaronic lineage but did not have any royal legitimacy - no connection to the  Davidic dynasty. Melchizedek was brought up to help with it because he is mentioned in Genesis as a King but at the same time receives from Abraham an offering. Melchizedek is king and priest at the same time. Simon’s propagandists lifted up Melchizedek from obscurity to legitimize similar conflation of royal and priestly function. This psalm is also particularly fierce and bellicose. Thus well suited for a bellicose and chauvinistic Maccabean ruler with a legitimacy problem.
            Psalm 110 might be ascribed to David but was written centuries later in Hellenistic times as propaganda tool for the Maccabean priestly dynasty attempting to legitimize their political rule. And this psalm might be just the tip of an iceberg. Many scholars suspect that substantial parts of Hebrew Bible were actually written quite late in Hellenistic times and with similar religious and political agendas.
            And that is something you might not know about the Bible.

And for our Sunday service we need to understand that priests in ancient times were unlike any modern priests. They were not only religious professionals but they were directly associated with the leavers and structures of power. They were princes like bishops in feudal Europe, like ancient Billy Grahams and Jerry Falwells deeply implicated in corrupting religion and being corrupted by power structures of their times. 


 

2020/09/17

De-labeling

“Do you know the difference between a pirate and a privateer?” We were asked this question almost as soon as we landed in Kingston, Jamaica. “Both do the same but privateers plunder under royal patronage,” our guide told us taking us around Port Royal fortress. Of course the Jamaican would know considering their turbulent history. 

            After all that is not a new observation. Already around the year 420 C.E. Augustine of Hippo wrote: When you dispense with justice, what are all the kingdoms but large scale bands of thieves? For what are bands of thieves in shorthand, but little kingdoms! The gang of men; ruled by a chief, and kept together by the compact how to divide the loot among themselves... (De Civitate Dei 4.4) I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of this Augustine’s major tome, that the Church should replace the civil state (Roman Empire), but I note that in describing empires and bands of thieves Augustine knew what he was writing about. He lived in the dwindling years of the Western Roman Empire. It was crumbling all around him unable anymore to enforce its laws and control its own narrative (who is to be called king, who bandit, and who thief). And Augustine was making his peace with this change, he was rationalizing that the Church is more important than Rome and destined to take over.

            Pirate, bandit, thief or king: these are all just our human labels, words we use to control each other. But when the king (or simply a head of state) is behaving like a vulgar criminal, when he is unable to utter a sentence without lying, when the whole system is rigged against the little guys and more and more people are left out, then we are forced to look underneath those labels. Then we need to peal those labels off and try to look at each other as Jesus would - with disdain for the rulers and compassion for the little guys, with compassionate justice. This Sunday we will try to do just that.

Manuscript of Augustine's De Civitate Dei by Jacobus De Stephelt from 1472

And here is transcription of the Latin text:
Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parua regna? Manus et ipsa hominum est, imperio principis regitur, pacto societatis astringitur, placiti lege praeda diuiditur.

2020/08/27

Long Exodic Journey

Thirty years ago I and my Central European friends lived through quite radical changes. Those were the heady times of the Velvet Revolution and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. The Russian totalitarian regime in Central Europe had just collapsed, the Iron Curtain was no more, reunification of Germany started to be discussed and Vaclav Havel was president.... After many many decades of occupation, oppression, political and economic corruption and a permeating cold war with the constant danger of nuclear annihilation we were just starting to breathe freely, almost nothing seemed impossible.

          And exactly at that time, as we were intoxicated with the newly achieved freedom our professor of the Hebrew Bible gave us an ice cold shower. We have just left Egypt, he told us. Soon you will be serving churches and your task will be to lead your congregations through the forty years of a wilderness pilgrimage. Gaining freedom is the first step, preserving it, expanding it and learning how to live with it will be the center of the true spiritual struggle. 

            And he was so right, so prophetic, so prescient! Just look at Hungary or Poland these days! My native Czech Republic or the original lands of the East Germany are still struggling with it...  Even if everything goes right - such great societal transitions do move like glaciers, slowly with geological speeds, requiring patience and tons of perseverance because unfortunately they can be easily stopped, reverted or overturned. Just think about, in our American experience how it was with the Emancipation, Reconstruction and what happened afterwards.

            My professor was not clairvoyant - he just knew well his Hebrew Bible. He knew, he taught us, that the Exodus was not history, I learned from him that it was best described as a legend or a myth, but exactly for that reason it was perfectly suited to describe our human nature and experience across ages. The crossing of the sea into the freedom is always just the beginning. It is followed by forty years of a tough journey requiring discipline, patience and perseverance.

            Complexities of the Exodus journey, that road to freedom, will be our theme this Sunday. Join us to learn and be encouraged.

 




2020/08/21

Bovine theology

You probably know the infamous story of the golden calf. When Moses was up on the mountain, Israelites beneath the mountain created for themselves out of their gold an idol, a statue of a bull (Exo 32). And shortly afterwards they were seriously reprimanded and punished for it. It is so deeply rooted in our culture that in western languages the golden calf became synonymous with false gods, for false religion, for idolatry.  
    But reality might not be that simple and straightforward because we know that in the old parts of the Hebrew Bible God, YAHWEH, is actually linked with bovine imagery. One ancient divine title, which is often translated as “The Mighty One of Jakob/Israel” (for instance Gen 49:24 or Psalm 132) originally meant and can be more precisely translated as “The Bull of Jakob/Israel”.
    There are also a few passages which speak about God’s horn or horns (Hab 3:4). Even Moses when he returned from the final meeting with the LORD a few chapters later (Exo 34) - there is a very strange passage -- Moses returned and on his head were horns, so that he had to veil his face not to scare people. (But don’t look for it in the most modern translations - they absolutely unplausibly translate that Moses’ face was shining and that is why he wailed himself. But in reality in the Hebrew text it is clear - Moses grew HORNS.  
    There was evidently a time when the bovine imagery was acceptable even as an honorific attribute for the biblical God. So what happened that the image of bull was abandoned? Why did the bovine imagery and theology become cursed? Why did it become a synonym for idolatry and blasphemy?
    Clearly bulls, calves and cows are innocent, it is not their shape or their nature. Biblical story is deeper and more serious for us today. Here is a spoiler - real cows have nothing to do with our idolatry. They are lovely, curious, intelligent and as our Hindu neighbors would say, they are holy animals. If anything is connected with our idolatry then it is what we project into the cows and how we portray them. In our own otherwise very urban city a cow on a sidewalk (actually a statue of a charging bull) is a quintessential example of our proclivity towards worshiping ourselves, our vaingloriousness, our individual and collective delusion of grandeur and power.
    Come this Sunday as we learn from the bible to love and respect cows and avoid Idolatry and dangerous false religions of our own days.

 

 

2020/08/14

Which Decalogue?

Do you remember the political and legal fights over displaying the Ten Commandments in courts and public spaces? In the Bible Belt they appear with almost boring regularity. And when they happen I always wanted to ask, which Ten Commandments are they so obdurately requiring and defending.

            I want to ask because each main Judeo-Christian tradition has its very own version of the Ten Commandments. Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants each have their different version. They always end up with TEN commandments - but each tradition reaches that number differently. 

            And it goes as far as artistic representation of the ten commandments. When they are presented on two tablets one can usually tell which religious tradition is presenting them. Jews divide commandments 5 on each tablet. Roman Catholics and Lutherans, not always, but often divide them 3 commandments on one tablet and 7 on the other. Calvinists and other Protestants often have 4 and 6.

            The Bible itself does not make things any easier because in the Bible there are two versions of the Ten Commandments. One is in the book of Exodus and another version is in Deuteronomy. AND THEY ARE NOT IDENTICAL. These two versions contain about two dozen differences. Some differences are just minor - stylistic (presence or absence of copula), some are more substantial - lexical (choice of words and synonyms). But for instance the entire explanation why to keep Sabbath holy is completely different between versions.

            I take these differences and this diversity as the Holy Spirit reminding us that what really matters are not individual words, but their essence, their meaning, their message.

            Join us this Sunday when we discern and rejoice in the diversity of the Law and its message.


2020/08/06

Three times miraculous manna

If you have over two million people in a desert, and that is what the Bible implies for Exodus (600,000 men without women and children), you have over two million people marching through the deserts and wilderness and you have a big problem. Every single day you need for them over two metric tons of food (based on the humanitarian daily rations).

            Biblical authors recognized this hurdle and offered a neat solution. All those people received manna, miraculous food dropped by God directly from heaven (almost like those humanitarian daily rations). They received it for all the forty years of their wilderness wandering.

            After the Bible was written, rabbis familiar with the Sinai climate and geography realized that there was another problem. After all those forty years and two million people, there should had been a mountain of waste, about 30,000 tons. Although desert climate would perfectly preserve it, the waste was not there, it was missing.

            They came up with a lovely and elegant solution. Manna was miraculous food and ergo it miraculously did not leave any waste. That explained provisions and missing waste but a rabble-rouser might ask, “what about human physiology?” How could anyone, besides carnivorous Texans and Wisconsin cheeseheads (I know I know those are stereotypes), deal with no residue diet for forty years? It might be an utter torture! No wonder the Israelites were so ill disposed and grumpy all their sojourns in wilderness. Unless, of course, they were provided with miraculous plasma coated gastrointestinal tracts.

            Enough of this fundamentalistic silliness! Exodus is not to be taken literally, but it can still be taken seriously. Exodus is a saga (In a similar manner as Odyssey or Anabasis) and it is a thrilling and formative legend. Within it, manna, that miraculous food from heaven, is a parable, a powerful and important parable.

            Join us this Sunday as we explicate this parable and rejoice in divine loving care, and divine will for all the hungry.


Picture from our Deacons' Thursday Meal Program during pandemic.


2020/07/30

Being Followed

Have you ever had that uneasy feeling that you are being followed?
     Unfortunately these days in America that might not be a paranoid delusion! It is done by the secret police. Peaceful protesters are being literally snatched from our street and pushed into unmarked civilian cars by governmental agents. It happened in Portland and this Tuesday (the 28th of July) it was filmed here in NYC. Nikki Stone was kidnapped and detained by secret policemen in an unmarked car, allegedly for some minor infraction.
     I grew up under a totalitarian regime in central Europe and would never believe I might see anything like that in the United States. This is the stuff of hard-core nightmares. Please, don’t take it lightly! My dear late friend Rev. Diana Austin was similarly kidnapped in the 1970s by Argentinian Junta and almost did not survive and her friend Elisabeth Käsemann, a daughter of a famous German Theology Professor, was “disappeared” from Buenos Aires street and murdered in a sacred detention center.
     Plain-cloth agents kidnapping pedestrians in unmarked vehicles is NOT normal! We must not be silent, we must identify with the protestors and demonstrators. And in 96 days (from this Friday the 31st of July) we all  must go and vote and thus express our revulsion over this state of affairs. We must resist this abuse of power and at the same time we must resist fear.
     In Judaism and in the early Church there was a lovely legend that people of God escaping from Egypt were also followed on their journey across deserts from slavery to freedom. But they were not followed by any agents, they were followed by a mysterious life giving source of water. According to that legend (first ever recorded in 1Cor 10:4 and then mentioned by Philo and in Talmud) the spring of water followed them, wherever they went. And that is going to be our text and our theme this Sunday. On our journey to freedom, we are supported by a divine gift of refreshment and strength. So, do take heart! We are being followed by sweet, refreshing divine blessing. And don’t forget, in November go and vote. 

2020/07/23

Pillars of cloud and fire

Kīlauea - a pillar of "fire" here being bent by the trade-wind.
In the book of Exodus we hear that when Moses led people of God from Egypt, on their journey to freedom and the Promised Land, they were led by God in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.
            I personally saw those pillars in Hawai‘i. I saw the pillar of volcanic gases rising from the Kilauea caldera and at night the view was even more mesmerizing. That pillar of gases was shining red and orange being illuminated by the incandescence of lava lake.
            I have no doubts that was the image which biblical authors tried to describe. And it is not just another rationalistic explanation trying to explain biblical miracles. This recognition offers us several important insights.
            The first one is factual, geologic and geographic because the Bible does not describe just any volcanism. It clearly alludes to an eruption of a shield volcano. Hawaiian volcanoes are of this kind. But the same type of shield volcanoes also exists on the western side of the Arab peninsula all along the Red Sea.
            Theologians, historians and cartographers of the early 20th century were specifically locating Biblical events at Hallat al Badr volcano in the North West Arabia, but it does not fit the time. That volcano seems older than human history. There are, nevertheless, other much younger volcanoes further south. Some of them active in historical times. One eruption and its lava flow almost destroyed Medina in the XIII century CE. Another volcano on the border with Yemen erupted as recently as 1810.
            I am not saying that Exodus took place in what is today Saudi Arabia. But I am convinced that some biblical authors had the first-hand experience with volcanism in this broader geographic area. Just think about it! At least part of our faith tradition, and the one as important as  theophany, was anchored in the broader region of Mecca and Medina as it powerfully influenced the imagination of biblical authors.
            And that is the other insight we can gain. Shield volcanism is calmer, more peaceful than destructive eruptions of stratovolcanoes (like almost proverbial Vesuvius or recent American experience with Mount Saint Helens.) Lava lakes and lava flows on lava fields last for a long time and are truly awe inspiring, especially if you get closer.
            On Kilauea I finally experienced what Rudolf Otto meant by Mysterium tremendum et fascinans (Divine mystery before which we both tremble and to which we are at the same time attracted). Before I read about it, I knew about it, I studied it. On Kilauea, I experienced it in my entire body. I witnessed pillars of cloud and fire and was forever touched and transformed by this encounter and its intersection with my biblical faith. The glowing light, the radiating heat, the volcanic smell, the deep infrasonic hardly audible rumbling all of it touched not only senses, but permeated my entire body. Now I know first hand why the biblical authors used this image.
            On our journey we are being led by awe inspiring, dangerous, yet benevolent, yes loving and protecting God. Come to rejoice in divine exodic liberation, divine presence, protection and guidance. The march to freedom continues.

A "pillar of cloud" above Halemaʻumaʻu crater in the light of the rising sun. 

2020/07/17

Path through the sea

This week I want to invite you to a beach. Not for a swim, though, but for lessons how to walk on water.
            In the gospels we hear about Jesus walking on water. Most of the miracles Jesus performed were to help people, he healed them, he fed them, he even brought a few back from the dead.
            Walking on water appears to be one of very few ostentatious, arbitrary perhaps frivolous miracles. Nevertheless, this miracle is anything but capricious! It plays a very important role. Walking on water is a true epiphany story. Or to put it differently, the early Christian told this story to explain who Jesus was for them, to explain in a simple story his divinity. There are famous sea walking precedents, biblical and even millennia older.
            This Sunday we will rejoice in one of those earlier examples. We will actually hear about the entire community of faith following God and walking on water. And we all will be invited to follow. So this Sunday, Meet you on the beach! And don’t worry should it be choppy or even stormy, that is and has been part of the deal.      

2020/07/08

Radical Passover Feast

An orange represents the radical nature of Seder and thus can also indirectly illuminate the radical nature of our Holy Communion.
            When our Jewish friends celebrate Passover all aspects of their Seder feast become allegories telling the story of liberation from slavery. Directly in the Bible we hear about the significance of the Passover lamb and hear explanation of the unleavened bread matzoth.
            Then after the fall of the Temple and through the Medieval times the Seder feast was developed further. Each part plays some role and has some  meaning. Maror and Chazeret are two types of bitter herbs reminding of the bitterness and harshness of the slavery. Karpas is a vegetable which is dipped into salt water or vinegar and representing the tears of slavery. Charoset is a brownish part of apples, raisins and nuts standing for the building materials used for slave labor in Egypt.
            And then in the 1980s an orange, Tapuz, was added by Dr. Susannah Heschel. She protested prejudice against Lesbian and gay members. She picked an orange for its sweetness and fruitfulness to represent LGBTQIA contributions to their communities of faith. And if the orange has seeds even the act of spitting seeds represents spitting out, rejecting, prejudice which narrows minds and attempts to limit divine grace.
            Our Christian tradition of Holy Communion, Eucharist, came exactly from the same source of the Passover feast. Jesus’ last supper was very likely a celebration of the Passover feat. In gospels you can make out some early aspects of the pointing and storytelling of when Jesus takes bread and explains and afterwards also the cup.
            The Passover feast (Seder) is a remembrance and actualization of the liberation from slavery. In our Christian permutation it became a radical program of God’s new kingdom in which no one will be enslaved by any injustice or prejudice, in which no one will be hungry and all will share freely in a radically new community. Every time we celebrate communion we enact liberation from slavery and envision Jesus’ new kingdom and the orange (Tapuz) is a beautiful reminder of its radical nature.

2020/07/02

Mystery of the biblical narrative genre


Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua Judges, Samuel, Kings - There is a great structural problem with all these Biblical books. If they were written at the time in which they want us to believe, they should have been written as epic poetry - And they were not. They were composed in prose.

           Just imagine Homer in mundane prose narrative! It would not do - it would be very strange. What is true about Greek culture is also true about other Ancient Near East literature - Gilgamesh is a poetry, the legend of Sargon is written in verse, Canaanite myths and legends are all poetry. Biblical historical narratives simply do not fit the time and genre.

           To use the Greek dating: All the historical books of the Hebrew Bible must have been written after Homer (as enigmatic as his dating might be). They must have been written from the time of Herodotus (c.484 – c.425 BCE) onward and considering their theme (Exodus and journey through Desert, or Royal Saga of David and Solomon) after Xenophon ( c. 430 – 354 BCE).

           And so, just like the oldest parts of the New Testament are not gospels but genuine letters of Paul (1Tes, Gal, 1+2 Cor, Phil, Philem, Rom) in a similar fashion the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible are not books of Moses, but some ancient prophets. Oldest recorded versions of Exodus could be preserved in Hosea, Habakkuk or Micah.

            Join us this Sunday, in July we will listen, learn and rejoice in the divine story of Exodus.