Why is humanity caught in a recurring pattern of violence and oppression that seems a permanent fixture of life on earth? Why is it that humanity is in a perpetual state of turmoil? The history of our world is of one oppressor following another. Must our past always be prologue? What needs to happen to alter humanity’s bent toward self-destruction? It will be a surprise to many, but the Bible has both the cause and the cure. If only we would pay attention to label the malady sin, or to blame the devil, or to blithely say that Jesus is the answer, is to avoid having to deal with what it really is, a swirling vortex of destruction that has the world in its grasp. It’s hiding in plain sight if we had eyes to see, and once seen, it vanishes.
This website is all about Biblical interpretation, but it’s not the surface readings we got in Sunday School, (and bless the hearts of our early teachers). The Bible will only be useful if we know how to see it on its own terms. Enlightened readers will find an enlightening Bible. So, let’s see how this works.
In the hugely successful TV comedy Gets Smart, which I’m sure many of you have seen, the forces for good were continuously beset by the forces of evil known as KAOS. It’s actually the Biblical story in a nutshell, for our world is continuously beset by primeval forces identified in Genesis as the Deep, the home and promoter of the chaos that we see all around us.
The Bible: Distilled Wisdom
Christians and Jews come to the Bible for answers to life’s questions. However, the Bible isn’t arranged in a question-and-answer format. Rather, it’s a book of wisdom that, in many and various ways, through its stories and narratives, presents a view of God, the world, and ourselves. The Bible, rather than recounting epic stories of ancient times, invites us into its world through these stories so that we might understand our world. To ask, for instance, were Adam and Eve real people, or historical characters, is to ask the wrong question. Rather, what does the story of Adam and Eve have to tell us about ourselves? And having done so, does it resonate with our lives? The Psalmist challenges us to “taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed are those who take refuge in the Lord.” God is saying, try me, you will find I am your answer. In my remarks, we’re going to look at the world through the wisdom of the Bible to see if it’s shed sufficient light on our world today.
Chaos begins its work
The opening chapters of Genesis set the stage for us. We are confronted here with two realities. The world that God created is declared very good in the very first chapter, and just a few short chapters later, God observes that humanity has become so corrupt, so violent, so irredeemable, that God decides to wipe them off the face of the earth. “And God said, I am sorry that I ever made them.” And we ask how could this happen in a very good creation? Most of us here familiar with the idea that God created the cosmos out of nothing creation ex nihilo, the theologians call it. However, this is a concept that is foreign to the Bible. Genesis 1 states this, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void.” The earth was already there as a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. From this God brought order out of the chaotic primordial matter, and, in the words of Walter Bruggemann, “For much of the Bible, the energy of chaos continues to operate against the will of the Creator.” Inherent in creation itself is the possibility of a return to chaos. I bolded that because it is an essential idea to understand the Bible and thus, to understand our world. Inherent in creation itself is the possibility of the return of chaos. The wisdom of the Bible meets the reality of our world head-on.
The next creation story in Genesis 2 offers us a pertinent insight. It states that the Earth, to reach its potential, needed someone to till it, as there was no one to till the earth. From the beginning of God’s intentions for the Earth, humans were required to achieve God’s purposes. Therein lies the rub. In order for the world to become what God wants it to be, God needs the cooperation of humanity. God needs the cooperation of you and me. In that cooperation, humans with God hold chaos at bay. When that cooperation diminishes, chaos returns now. Sin, in actuality, is the movement away from God’s created purpose toward chaos. As God said to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it”. Chaos is lurking at the door, ready to spring at any moment. It must be mastered, or it will overtake us. This is life in our world.
A good example is our current climate crisis. Many weather scientists believe that if we are not able to stem the rising temperatures of the Earth, we will reach a point very soon of no return. The conditions will make Earth impossible to have life on it as we know it, and humans, whom God needs to keep chaos at bay have disappointed once again. And so, it continues. We are inundated with mass shootings, police violence on Blacks and Brown’s, violent protests of all kinds, an insurrection at the nation’s capital, and more, hour after hour, day after day. The pundits are often asked, with all this attention to the problems, is America getting any better? And the answer from them is mostly no. A sweeping overview of history only reinforces the notion that our world has always been a place of violence. Even the vaunted one hundred years of the Roman Pax Romana was maintained by brutal measures. Recently, The New York Times reported that of the past 3,350 years of history, humans have been entirely at peace for just two hundred and sixty-eight, or eight percent of recorded history.
In the Enuma Elish, the creation story of ancient Babylonia, humans were created out of the murdered god Kingu. As his blood spilled on the ground, humans sprang forth. That was their way of accounting for the violent ways of humanity. The Genesis account bears witness to the violent predilection of humanity as well. From the murder of Able by Cain, humanity descends into an ever-increasing cycle of violence that ends with God’s sorrow that God ever created humanity and resolves to destroy them from the earth. But must creation continue to move from very good to chaos and back over and over again in a never-ending cycle. Are we doomed to live in perpetual mass shootings, dehumanizing racism and other indignities, holocausts, mass starvations, economic exploitations, war, and personal violence? Are we?
Can there ever be a doubt that humanity needs to be redeemed? The theory of evolution has somewhat of an explanation for why humans tend towards violence. Taking a neutral position on the basic goodness or not of human beings, evolutionists fall back on the fight or flight mechanism to explain why violence is often a remedy in human relations. Genesis, on the other hand, offers a different explanation, one that I find not only fits modern cosmology but evolutionary theory as well.
The defense against chaos begins
Thankfully, Genesis, which showed us the origin of our predicament, chaos inherent in creation, also gives us the remedy for it. It shows us how God is actively working to redeem the world. It begins when God remembers Noah. What a remarkable statement. Although we are told the chaotic waters destroyed the mass of humanity and most of its creatures, the righteousness of one man, Noah, was enough to stop the delusion and have God begin once again to recreate the world. As Margaret Meade reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Throughout the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament, it is always the faithful remnant who preserves God’s intentions for the world. When God calls Abraham, God reverses dealing with humanity as a whole and starts over with one human. He says, “I will make of you, Abraham, a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing, and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” By patiently working with Abraham and his descendants, who became the nation of Israel, God provided a vision of how the world would look if it followed God’s vision for it. Israel would become a light to the nations, that is to say, a beacon that would display the blessings of God on Israel in such a way that the entire earth would make its way to Jerusalem and want to become a part of this wonderful community where people lived for the sake of each other and worship the One God.
What is this all about? Well, it’s all about Jubilee. Are people hungry? Feed them? Are people ill, treat them? Are people enslaved? Free them? Are people oppressed? Relieve them? Such a community would be the envy of the world.
The prophets of Israel understood God’s goal for Israel as a light to the nations. Zachariah foresaw a day when “ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” And Isaiah wrote, “these foreigners, I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer, for my house shall be called the house of prayer for all peoples.” At least this was the plan, but we must never forget that chaos is always lurking, ready to erase any gains for wholeness, or, in the words of George Carlin, “Never underestimate the power of people to change the good into the bad.”
Chaos as systemic and structural evil
Israel never lived up to this challenge to become a beacon that would draw all people to their God. Rather than see God rule the world from Jerusalem, they saw Babylonia, Persia, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, and then Rome conquer and rule over them in turn, you see a pattern here. The kingdoms of this world are arrayed against the kingdom of God. They’re relentless in their will to dominate, and their success is the success of chaos: violent oppression. So, when we think about the systems of the world that can take hold of us, it’s worth considering the word that we hear in Ephesians chapter 6. What we read there is that we are involved in a battle that’s not with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities. In other words, our battle isn’t against human beings, it is with systemic and structural evil that the Bible names chaos. This requires a spiritual response called repentance. The good news is that if we recognize and acknowledge the systems that enslave us through repentance, because we are part of the problem by not doing the will of God in our world, which only complicates chaos and adds to it. As we experience this liberation, we will be participating with God in the dispelling of chaos and the establishing of God’s intentions for our world. Racism comes quickly to mind. The Bible is very clear that God’s love is extended to all, that God wants all people to prosper and live a life of well-being, and that no one is beyond the providential care of God. Indeed, Jesus said that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust, and the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous. Yet the principalities and powers, chaos’s agents, continue to sew suspicion of the other, mark differences as deficiencies, and promote false claims of superiority and inferiority in an effort to keep God’s hope for humanity a distant, if not impossible dream. Only personal and corporate repentance can stem this evil in our world.
Chaos is winning but the goal is still in place
The goal of accomplishing the worldwide recognition of Yahweh as the only true God did not happen through the nation of Israel. We owe it to the apostle Paul, who saw the mission of Jesus as the force that would unify Jews and Gentiles. In other words, all nations together into one family, thereby fulfilling the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed in him. Matthew follows by patiently teaching his congregation of Jews to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all nations, to Ethnos, every ethnicity, and every kind of people in the world, which was always God’s intention to bring into one community. There is no way that we can say that God has abandoned the Jews, not at all, but has brought Gentiles and Jews together in the pursuit of God’s purposes for our world. Christians believe that it is through Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praise God, saying, “for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people, Israel.” What God has done is to take Jews, Gentiles, and all people and put them together in one community. John the Revelator picks us up and declares, the nations will walk by this light of Jesus, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Well, it appears that neither Israel, Luke nor the Revelator got it quite right. Now, some two thousand years since the Jesus movement began, can we say that the church got it right? One might even dare to ask, has God another plan in mind? Given God’s ability to change direction due to facts on the ground, we can only surmise, and for some of us even hope. But here we are in the meantime, when the goal for God’s world is at the mercy of chaos, with its knee forced heavily on the neck of the world.
Can the Church rise to the occasion and become the leaven that leavens the whole lump of the world? Can we truly commit to thwarting the destructive results of chaos by living for the sake of one another and the world? Can you? Can I? This remains to be seen…or not.