Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I’m currently reading a book by Thomas Cahill called “The Gifts of the Jews”, in which his thesis is that we (people of the modern western world) get our worldview from the Jews. If it wasn’t for the Jews, we would perceive the world completely differently. The Jewish worldview is the dominating one today, but this was not always the case. To begin his book, we dive into the worldview that was found everywhere in ancient cultures since the beginning of civilizations. And we see it first in the Sumerians, in a city called Uruk. But how do you go about discovering the mindset of a people who lived about 5,000 years ago? Cahill says, “The worldview of a people . . . is to be found in a culture’s stories, myths, and rituals, which, if studied aright, inevitable yield insight into the deepest concerns of a people, by unveiling the invisible fears and desires inscribed on humans hearts.” And so, we have to go back to perhaps the oldest piece of literature, written on 12 clay tablets in cuneiform script: The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh probably lived during the middle of the 3rd Millennium B.C. where he reigned as King of Uruk, a city that sits on the banks of the Euphrates River in present day Iraq. According to the Epic (which was passed down orally for a long time before actually being written, hence the embellishments), Gilgamesh is part human and part divine, since his mother is the wild cow goddess, Ninsun (I’m sure young kindergarten Gilgamesh loved Career day… “Um, my mom is the infamous wild cow goddess, she couldn’t make it today”), and his father is Lugalbanda, who was also a King of Uruk. Now, to the Sumerian, the most important quality was extreme ambition. These people were wealthy businessmen, who sought worldly prestige, victory, and success above all else. And Gilgamesh epitomized all that the Sumerians idolized. But there is no peace in Uruk because of Gilgamesh’s behavior and superiority. So the people call to the universal mother, Aruru, to send someone to contend with Gilgamesh. She creates and sends Enkidu, a man described more like a werewolf than a human. Enkidu is supposed to find Gilgamesh and fight him. But before he can, Gilgamesh sends a powerful weapon: a woman. When the woman, Shamhat, encounters Enkidu he is suddenly transformed from wild beast into civilized man (beware… the powers of women…), where he is then fit for the urban life of Uruk. In the end, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become very close companions, until Gilgamesh provokes the wrath of Ishtar (Uruk “goddess of love and war”, a logical combination) to the point that she sends down the “Bull of Heaven” to destroy them. Well, Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the bull, but one of them must die to pay for their impious acts against the gods. And Enkidu is chosen. Gilgamesh is deeply troubled by the loss of his close friend. He resolves to escape his human fate and find the secret of immortality, a status that has been granted to only one man: Utnapishtim (In the epic, Utnapishtim saves his family and a remnant of animals from a universal flood, thus making him worthy of being immortal). So Gilgamesh seeks the advice of Utnapishtim, and travels with his wife to the paradise of Dilmun, where Utnapishtim resides “like a god” living forever. But before they arrive, the wife of Gilgamesh, Siduri, gives him some intriguing advice:

Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
You will not find the eternal life you seek.
When the gods created mankind
They appointed death for mankind,
Kept eternal life in their own hands,
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Day and night enjoy yourself in every way,
Every day arrange for pleasures.

This is fascinating. The Sumerians viewed the heavens (stars, moon, and sun) as being like gods. They, like most ancient cultures deified the heavens and worshiped them. The heavens were eternal but the earth was cyclical. And so they viewed life as the great Wheel. People are born, they live they die. Cahill says, “Human life, seen as a pale reenactment of the life of the eternal heavens, was ruled by a fate beyond the pitifully limited powers of human beings.” The moon became a huge heavenly figure, because it is born, waxes, wanes, and dies, just like we do. The Epic of Gilgamesh shows one of the deepest desires of every normal Sumerian living in the city of Uruk: eternal life. They wanted to be like the stars that show brightly in the heavens forever. But they were instead left with the disappointing fate of inevitable death. Their gods created them to live, enjoy pleasures, die. Their gods “appointed death to mankind”, and “kept eternal life in their own hands”. And so, the center of life became pleasure, and your god became a good luck charm, helping you achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible. With these gods, we should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”.

Then, Yahweh steps into the picture.

In the town of Ur, a Sumerian city-state located just up the river from Uruk, there lived a man named Terah, who was the father of Abram. Terah takes his family to Harran, a sister city of Ur. This is where the story found in Genesis goes from genealogy to narrative again. It’s been centuries since the flood, and also centuries since God has spoken (as far as we know). Yahweh calls upon a Semite, who has been raised in the Sumerian culture, named Abram. And Yahweh’s first message is to leave (Genesis 12:1). This wealthy business man is going to leave the center of business, the source of all his wealth, and go to a land he’s never heard of, with people who (according to the Sumerians) are uncivilized and poor. As Cahill puts it, this was a migration “in the wrong direction”. But, Yahweh promises to make Abram into a great nation through whom all would be blessed, so the incentive is there, if he can believe what Yahweh is saying.

Fast forward. Abram is still without child. And he’s old. And his wife, Sarai, has been on Medicare for a couple of decades. The promise of descendants “as numerous as the dust of the earth” is starting to appear more like empty words, considering Abram doesn’t even have one son. So Abram decides if this plan falls through he will just be leaving his estate to his chief servant of Damascus. But God says, “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them." Now, surely this is déjà vu for Abram. He’s seen the stars thousands of times. Perhaps when he was younger his dad would take him outside and say, “Look up at the heavens and look at the stars. That is where the gods live.” But now, Yahweh is giving Abram the heavenly tour, and He says, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be,” (Genesis 15:4-5). This is huge. Not only will his descendants be like the dust of the earth, but now Abram is told they will be like the stars of the heavens. This, to a Sumerian, means eternal. Suddenly, Yahweh introduces eternity into the heart and mind of Abram. The only way a Sumerian could even get close to immortality was through children. Fertility was so important, because you lived on in your children. But Abram’s descendants will be like the stars, shining in the heavens forever, because he is about to covenant with the only true, eternal God. In fact, when God covenants with Abram (something a businessman like Abram would have been very used to - you cut a covenant by killing an animal and walking in between the two halves of its body), it is God and not Abram who moves between the cut up animals (Genesis 15:17), which means that if the covenant is broken it is God who will be “cut”, just like the animals lying on the ground before them. This God is willing step out of the heavens, and put himself on the line. He is willing to sacrifice for this Semitic nomad, all to share his eternal life with him, and all his descendants. Gilgamesh was seeking for eternity, but could not attain it, because he was talking to the wrong gods. But Yahweh is different. He is not a lucky charm that you carry around to ensure a good crop, or great wealth. Unlike the other gods, he is not distant, somewhere up in the heavens, but rather he has come to earth, clothed in his eternal power, to enter into a relationship with Abram. And in doing so, Yahweh has not “kept eternal life in (his) own hands”, but rather has come to give eternal life. Life is no longer a cycle of death, the great Wheel, but starting with Abram, Yahweh is making life an epic journey. From Ur to Haran, from Haran to Canaan, from Canaan to Egypt, from Egypt back to Canaan, and so on until we get to the cross, where eternal life was poured out for all. So that we, who are already made in His image, can become one with this God, and shine like stars in the Heavens.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Last night for the first time I had the opportunity to teach the bible class for the Spanish speaking congregation at the church I attend in Smyrna. Now, after four years of high school Spanish I have been able to acquire a decent level of understanding and fluency, nevertheless the one word I would use to describe last night’s experience would be: humbling. “If any man thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall”. If any man (me) thinks he knows Spanish well, take heed when you teach a bible class entirely in Spanish, cause you (I) will fall. Now, “fall” is probably a bit harsh, but certainly I was not prepared for how difficult it really would be. To try and convey my thoughts in an understandable manner in a different language to people of a different culture in different walks of life, most who have been Christians longer than I’ve been alive, was incredibly difficult. I recognized this while preparing for the class. As I weighed my options for the text of my lesson I quickly ruled out several scriptures simply because there is no way I could take the message of that text and express it in an understandable way. Needless to say I immediately ruled all apocalyptic literature (I don’t understand Ezekiel in English), several Psalms due to the vocabulary used (how do you say zither in Spanish?), and most every scripture that is written in narrative form, (do I use imperfect, no wait preterit, nope imperfect subjunctive… how about literary present tense?) which eliminates almost the entire old testament. So I was left with la primera carta de Juan (1 John), because of the simple gospel message I could pull out of it and because John is my favorite biblical author. But much to my surprise, even teaching for this book was a task that required I simplify the message even more. In fact, by the end I was almost left just reading the scripture, asserting our convictions already established on this truth, and proclaiming how amazing and beautiful this truth is. And, much to my amazement, it worked. The class went great. Everyone left so encouraged and filled with the joy of the Lord we could hardly stop. Now, I assure you, it was because of absolutely nothing that I did. In fact, it was because of everything I didn’t do. We simply celebrated the simplicity, the beauty, the glory, and the power of the gospel message.

I realized after the fact that this lesson would have bombed anywhere else. If I would have given that same lesson in chapel at school, or at highpoint at my church, people would have probably criticized my lack of preparation, my lack of originality, my lack of explanation, or my lack of depth. This is an example of something I said last night, (just it was in Spanish last night), “Jesus Christ died so that we might experience life, and he gave up his righteousness to take on our sin, so that we may take on his righteousness,” (basically 2 Corinthians 5:21). Now if that would be my main point, the climax of my lesson in most class settings, people might be sort of disappointed, because we already know this. We’ve been hearing this for our entire life. It’s as if we’ve arrived to the point to where when someone states a truth of the gospel we expect a deeper explanation immediately because that truth is not enough by itself. “Well, yes, Jesus died so we might have life, but…. So what? We already know that.” It’s as if with spiritual “maturity” we grow to appreciate the beauty of the gospel less and less, because we’ve analyzed and explained away the meaning. In the Spanish class, when I said that, immediately everyone smiled, and most everyone said with such overwhelming joy, “Amen! Glory to God! God is so good!” Now, I understand that expressing our joy in the gospel is not only done through verbal recognition of God’s greatness, but rather in the lives we life, but what is important is the enthusiasm with which they receive the message. And if you knew my friends in the Spanish church, especially the preacher, Israel, you would know that enthusiasm is lived out. And contagious.

Walt Whitman once wrote a poem that I find applicable here. It’s called, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer”.

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

Another poet, A.E. Housman said this about poetry: “Even when poetry has a meaning as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out . . . Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” Being that my English teaches constantly has us analyze poetry, and prose, I wholeheartedly agree with Housman’s observation (especially if it decreases my work load). But I think that sometimes we do the same with Scripture. Now, trust me, I love analyzing the bible, I love studying the historical context, and cultural context, and diving head first into all the facets of a verse. And those things are great. They for sure help enhance your understanding. But, let’s not get so caught up in explaining a text that we miss the beauty. (“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:40-41) Like the speaker in Whitman’s poem, when I hear the learn’d minister sometimes I feel tired and sick. Because so often, I grow tired of the proofs and figures, the charts and diagrams that we have created to explain God. And so I wander off by myself and look up in perfect silence at the stars, in silence before the beauty of the Creator, only then to be unable to hold myself back from praise.
That’s what happened last night while teaching. As we collectively admired the words of God expresses in John’s letter, we had to express our joy over this simple truth. And today, must live out our joy, not in words, but in actions.