Archive for August, 2021

Out of the Depths

Out of the Depths

Robbie Tulip

Kippax Uniting Church

Sunday 6 June 2021

Our readings today are from the Old Testament, from Genesis, Samuel and the Psalms. The theme that brings them together is the fall from grace. 

The fall is a simplified mythological story told to explain why there is evil in the world. We hear in our readings of the expulsion of humanity from paradise, of the fraught decision of ancient Israel to put trust in a king rather than in God, and of the Psalmist’s profound voice of hope from the depths of our anguish that God will forgive our sins.

The Genesis text begins with a remarkably human depiction of God on earth, strolling around in the garden of paradise in the cool of the evening. God is wondering what has happened to Adam and Eve, who are nowhere to be seen.  As we know, they are hiding from God because their mentality has been transformed by eating the forbidden fruit and they are newly ashamed of their nakedness. 

This story imagines the presence of God together with humanity in a world of peace and plenty, a picture of our ancestors in easy communication and dialogue with our divine Creator. That picture of divine harmony, life in a state of grace, then contrasts with the harsh news of the Fall.  God expels Adam and Eve from Paradise for their breach of trust when they ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The surface story of the fall invites us to explore its deeper meaning about the nature of human existence and history. The surface story is entirely symbolic, and its meaning points toward a remarkable match to the real events of big history.  Big history is the emerging approach that places written records in the context of the whole of history, putting traditional stories into the context of archaeological, geological and cosmic time. Biblical interpretation can be placed in the context of the scholarly scientific accounts presented by big history, to see how the stories relate to what accepted research tells us actually happened. 

The fall from grace into corruption is a central idea of the Christian theology of sin. The story of the fall seeks to explain the pervasive depravity of the world, the sense that humanity has lost our connection to God and is on a trajectory toward destruction.  Looking at the Biblical story of the fall against big history, we can compare the mythology of the fall to the slow historic shift over many thousands of years from the nomadic economy of the stone age to the settled agrarian culture of Biblical times. For tens of thousands of years through the ice age, all humanity lived in small clans moving around large areas, hunting for food and gathering wild plants.  However, as population grew, people found that growing crops offered a more secure life, as the romantic image of freedom and abundance in stone age life became impossible. Settling in one place enabled the growth of technology, with major innovations including metal, writing, housing and agriculture. 

Economic progress brought discovery of how to smelt copper and tin, then to combine these metals into bronze alloys, and then to use the higher temperatures needed to make iron tools and weapons.  There is an interesting paradox here.  The technological advances of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age over the millennia before Christ are seen in mythology as bringing a moral decline, a fall from grace.  The widespread myth, originating in India, tells of a descent from an original long golden age through successive morally worse and shorter ages of silver, bronze and iron, characterised by steadily growing ignorance and violence.  This combination of material progress with spiritual decline is a key element of Biblical theology, firstly in the expulsion from paradise and then in the story of God’s anger inspiring the flood, and then in the demand from Israel for a king.  Analysis in terms of big history has also shown a direct correlation between these changes in social organisation and underlying drivers of natural climate change.

The Bible picks up on this mythology in stories such as the murder of the nomadic herder Abel by his brother Cain, the settled tiller of the soil.  These sons of Adam and Eve came into conflict over divine favour. Cain won through violence, reflecting how agriculture created economic power and social hierarchy.  The Bible story can be read as a parable of how progress came at the price of the loss of the freedom enjoyed by the earlier small mobile human clans of the paleolithic period.  The social control required to manage an agricultural economy enabled a larger population, but it also opened the way to methods of slavery and war, with systemic inequality between classes and sexes generating power and wealth by inflicting suffering.  The agricultural diet provided more food but at lower quality, which is why people today see the paleo diet as more healthy. 

These issues around the fall from grace flow through into the story of Samuel and Saul, where Israel faces a political dilemma, whether to maintain its old traditions of rule by men of God or to follow the path of other successful nations and appoint a king to rule over them.  Samuel points out the likely negative effects of this decision – that a king will use absolute power to oppress and enslave and tax the population in arbitrary and unfair ways. But the elders can see the military risks of not having a king.  They see that the unity brought by a rigid social hierarchy will enable defence of the land against invaders, whereas the older informal reliance on the wisdom of initiated elders and social equality lacked the efficiency needed to run a national army.  The elders point out to Samuel that they trust him but not his sons, showing that the old ways of handing on knowledge to govern the society are failing.  The source of power is shifting from the knowledge of the elders to the economy of the king, as metal and writing and agriculture overwhelm the old traditions, and practices with roots in nomadic culture had to be abandoned.

This story of Israel’s demand for a monarchy reflects how the social evolution from nomadic to settled life required a hierarchical state.  This social evolution brought the victory of monotheism over polytheism, as societies organised in larger units, and also the victory of patriarchy over the older morality that recognised greater local autonomy for small clans which had allowed greater equality between men and women.  

There are many stories in the Bible that reflect what we could call the tectonic forces of social evolution.  The story of the fall from grace is the big shift, as the changing economy forced changes in belief and social practice, coming like an earthquake after the plates of the earth had built up enough pressure.  One remarkable example of this shift of thinking is the second set of Ten Commandments issued by God to Moses, described at Exodus 34. The first command is to cut down the Asherah worship poles that communities used to worship the divine feminine.  In early times the God of Israel was known as El, and was married to the goddess Asherah, reflecting a belief in gender equality, or at least female autonomy.  The divorce of Yahweh from Asherah led to this commandment from God to Moses to smash the Asherah religion.  The underlying causes included the pressures of military security, as the people of Israel found that national defence required social unity that was impossible with the older decentralised systems of gender equality.  Like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the destruction of older religions came like an earthquake for the society of Israel.

The Old Testament and Mosaic Law supported the system of hierarchical patriarchal monotheism that came into power as a direct response to economic and social forces that can be equated with the fall from grace.  As a small nation surrounded by large empires, Israel felt it had no choice but to ensure social unity and political security through shared religion.  This situation brought forth the call of prophets like Samuel that the national unity of Israel required the moral unity that could only come from faith in God. The prophets taught that the only hope for national sovereignty was found in divine sovereignty, and that faith in God would enable friendship between Israel and the great powers based on moral standing and reputation and mutual respect.  The story of the prophets is that the failure of Israel to generate moral unity – a failure caused by the fall from grace – was a major factor in its loss of national political freedom.

The Bible puts all this material into the context of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Second Adam.  As Saint Paul tells us, in a powerful symbolic myth in Romans 5:12, death came through Adam and life and grace came through Christ.  My reading is that this message of redemption through Christ is the central story of human history, but in an entirely symbolic rather than literal meaning.

I mentioned the myth of descent from a golden age. This story appears in the Bible with King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue with head of gold and feet of clay explained by the prophet Daniel.  This story of a lost golden age of wisdom and peace originally came from India, with the descent over twelve thousand years from the golden age into an iron age of ignorance and war, followed by ascending bronze and silver ages to a new golden age. 

Christ appears at the low point of this cycle, representing the spirit of eternal truth in the midst of darkness and ignorance. As the spirit of the golden age in the midst of the iron age, Christ shows a path to universal redemption of the world through his willingness to suffer death on the cross.  The resurrection of Christ symbolises how goodness is stronger than evil and love will win over hate.

The Genesis story of the fall ends with God telling Adam and Eve that they must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life and live forever.  The tree of life is a remarkable image appearing at the start of the Bible in Genesis and then not until the final chapter of Revelation.  The tree of life symbolises the state of grace that existed in paradise before the fall, and also the expected future return to a state of grace, with the vision of a time of the healing of the world when God will again be present in the garden of the world, like in Eden. 

As we ask now where our focus should be to somehow restore our lost state of grace, to again become at one with the tree of life, Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that the key is to treat the least of the world as though they were him.  The moral framework of the Bible cannot be used to validate traditional social hierarchy, with its separation of spirit from nature.  Jesus tells us the return to a state of grace will require an inversion of the prevailing values of the world, placing human dignity and equality at the centre of an ethic of love.  The Bible provides a wonderful and realistic story of planetary hope, explaining the source of our problems and a path to their solution through Jesus Christ.

1 Samuel 8:4-20, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)-
Psalm 130, Genesis 3:8-24

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