Campaign Stories: Wiliken 20

Wiliken wiped sweat from his brow as he reached the top of the hill. It was a sunny day and the sun had sapped a great deal of his strength out of him, but they were almost there.

Jean-Baptiste had already begun his descent down the hill before either Ugarth or Grace had managed to reach the top. Wiliken felt a certain level of freedom when he traveled away from the city. Whenever he felt that Douglas wasn’t watching him, he felt that he could breathe easily. There was a part of the githzerai that felt anxious that the bard had not followed them. This mission was normally Douglas’s sort of adventure, and yet he had stayed behind in the city. It was curious.

As they approached, Wiliken felt a moment of uncertainty. There were two towering she-bears standing with tensed muscles and their backs turned to the adventurers. Wiliken didn’t know what was more disturbing – the fact that the bears didn’t seem to notice the party approaching or the fact that the party had decided to sneak up on a pair of battle-ready she-bears. The bears were transfixed on a point in front of them, a point that Jean-Baptiste had summoned them in order to guard, a tiny tear in reality.

When Jean-Baptiste had arrived the previous night, he’d wanted to lead a party back out into the wilderness that very evening. Jenkins had convinced him to rest and wait out the storm.

“The she-bears can handle guard duty until morning,” Jenkins had said.

“I suppose you’re right,” Jean-Baptiste had responded. “And if they are overrun, I will know.”

It was clear that Jean-Baptiste was unhappy, so Jenkins had called a council on the matter in the middle of the night. Jean-Baptiste recounted his story of being deep in meditation when he’d heard a deep rubbing sound. He’d felt the anomaly before he’d even seen it, a small gash in space much like a knife wound in flesh. Out of it had popped a small creature the size of a house cat which immediately began to devour any living plant, insect or small rodent nearby. Jean-Baptiste had killed the beast immediately, for the creature had disgusted his natural senses just as the gash in the open air had. The creature was no longer a threat, but Jean-Baptiste could see that the tiny gash was growing. He told the group that he had first attempted to close the portal. When he couldn’t he cast a ritual that would slow its growth and decided that he may need help.

The she-bears parted as they walked by. When everyone was present Jean-Baptiste touched the nose of each sentinel gently and released them from their duty. They bounded off into the forest, never to be seen again.

When Jean-Baptiste had originally described the creature, the others had speculated as to its origin. Ugarth had remained silent. As he approached the creature, he became clearly disturbed. His composure fell apart immediately and in a fit of rage he began stomping the dead animal with the heel of his foot before collapsing onto the ground in despair.

“What is wrong with the orc?” Wiliken asked.

“These creatures,” said Grace. “I believe they may be the same beasts that killed Ugarth’s people. He was once the king of the orcs, you know?”

Grace went on to explain that some of the people in the party had been there during the fall of Ugarth’s kingdom. They had been uncertain where the creatures had come from, but they had assumed that it was an Iuzian attack, some sort of biological warfare.

“But these portals aren’t Iuzian,” Wiliken suggested. “They’re far too primal, too asymmetrical. They almost look like they were created on accident. Far too crude for an empire with advanced teleportation capabilities.”

“I believe you’re right,” Grace said.

Shortly after they’d arrived, the portal popped shut, leaving no evidence of its previous existence. The party returned to the Felshore knowing nothing more than they had the previous evening, but Jenkins held another council just the same. When they explained what they had seen, Jenkins said, “If there are other such portals, I believe I can track them down. I will need the help of our githzerai friend.”

“You will have it,” Wiliken said.

Ugarth, Grace and Jean-Baptiste pledged their support as well in the search for the next portal.

“Would you care to join us, Douglas?” Wiliken asked. The human stood next to Jenkins with his arms crossed. He considered for a moment before saying, “I have more pressing things to do here in town.”

The others parted to make preparations for their departure, but Wiliken lingered behind.

“Can you give us some privacy, please?” Jenkins asked Douglas. Douglas looked at the wizard angrily before stomping off.

“How may I be of service?” Wiliken asked.

“You have been developing some uncanny abilities lately, it seems,” Jenkins said. “Heightened powers of the mind, one might call them. Don’t be frightened. Any wizard of a high enough caliber can sense these things. What I want from you is to meditate on the portal you saw today. From your description, I will pinpoint our location and send the party out to investigate.”

“I wish to join the investigation party,” Wiliken said.

“That can be arranged,” Jenkins said. “I suppose you’ll want some time to prepare as well.”

Wiliken had been dismissed, but he lingered behind for a moment uncertainly.

“Is there something else you would like to talk about?”

“I fear that my son has become too powerful for us to track,” Wiliken said.

“That is disappointing.”

“But I think there is a way to find him,” Wiliken said. “I believe that if I were to travel back in time I could stop him before he becomes a threat, and I believe that you are the only wizard in the world who has the power to send me back.”

“I will have to think on that,” Jenkins said. “At the moment I am drained. I don’t believe I could even send you ten minutes into the past.” Jenkins looked Wiliken over. “I will need a few items. Perhaps when you return from this mission we can discuss acquiring these things.”

Jenkins might have known about Wiliken’s newly developed powers, but the githzerai felt certain that the wizard didn’t know everything he’d seen in his visions. And he didn’t need to know either. Wiliken had no concern at that moment for tracking down his son. That was only a means to a higher level of trust in the Felshore. What he really wanted was to save his wife, to bring her back to the land of the living, and to do so he would need Jenkins’ time magics.

Campaign Stories is continued in Wiliken 21.

Genesis 7: Watching TV

Seven. I only got seven chapters in before Genesis broke me.

When I was in seminary I learned that Genesis is a tricky book. After all, the book begins with two competing creation stories each featuring a different order of events. My way of dealing with that, for the purposes of blogging, was to suggest that the order was poetic. The two accounts were a pair of literary methods that each emphasized the importance of humankind in different ways.

For six chapters I’ve worked to package Genesis into a unified narrative; on the seventh chapter, I rested.

The original goal I set for my contributions to #TroubletheWaters (which is by no means a requirement for other contributors) was to approach the text honestly and courageously, letting the words speak to me without the noise of my own prior knowledge and the teachings of others. I had been doing pretty well at this endeavor, but then, like I said earlier, Genesis broke me.

It’s not like I’m saying me and Genesis are done forever. I actually harbor quite a deep love for the Hebrew scriptures. When I say that Genesis 7 broke me, I mean that I am no longer able to read the Bible as one continuous and consistent drama. In other words, I am no longer attempting to see a meta-narrative in this text, one story that binds all of the other stories into a logical, cohesive whole. The unavoidable truth that we find in the book of Genesis, as in many other books of scripture, is that multiple voices are found therein and they each speak a different tale for a different purpose, and what they are saying is quite often logically inconsistent.

Genesis reads like my mom and dad’s arguments while watching TV. At my parents’ house there is invariably some sort of CSI or Law and Order playing on the screen in their living room, and my dad will be certain that a guest actor is the same person he remembers from some earlier show like Columbo, Perry Mason, or Rockford Files. My mom will chime in claiming that the actor my father has in mind died two years ago and that my dad is really thinking of so-and-so from Murphy Brown. After that, they just go at it. The last time I witnessed such a dispute I actually looked into the actor’s history using IMDB (internet movie database). When I settled things, I expected my parents to be happy, but in actuality they seemed far more annoyed than relieved. What I had perceived (perhaps wishfully) as a collective pursuit for the sake of understanding was for them a competitive sport, a sport that I had just ruined.

The voices in Genesis compete with one another as well, each claiming to have access to a more true, more compelling version of events than the other. They agree that the subject matter is that of Noah, his wife, their sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives – though none of them can seem to remember the names of the female protagonists – how they lived in an age of violence, that God’s hatred of violence is the reason for the flood that will destroy all life on Earth, and that God helps eight humans and a whole mess of animals to escape extinction in an ark. What they don’t agree on is big. Dad thinks no humans live for longer than 120 years, but mom keeps saying that Noah was 600 years old when the flood hit. Uncle Howie says there were two of each animal, but your mom (his sister) corrects him that there were more of the domesticated animals.

“They had to eat,” she shouts.

Uncle Howie shouts louder, “They were vegetarians!”

Your cousin Willy interjects that there were extra birds too.

“Nobody asked you!” everyone else shouts in unison. Because of the power of their conviction Willy doesn’t even raise the question of what happened to all of the fish, but it was certainly on his mind how God intended to drown all the fish.

Some of you may join me in seeing this text as irresponsible. My reasoning is that the argument among the various Biblical sources as to the age of this or the headcount of that is so loud that it covers up any account of the suffering experienced by all the people who weren’t privileged enough to get on the boat, all those “wicked people.”

I don’t claim to know what it was like to be one of these people who drowned because of God’s wrath, but I have lived through a flood. On the day I proposed to Amy, April 19 of 2014, the flood waters began to rise in Lowell. You get used to water pooling in low places when it is raining, and it is not that uncommon in Michigan, as elsewhere, to drive through water that might just be too deep for your car to safely get through. These are common, every day fears. But when the puddles start pooling together and creeping ever so slowly toward you, it is a different story all together. By the time we evacuated, many of the roads we’d normally take had already become impassible, and I was struck with a feeling of terror. If we couldn’t get out of town, what could we do? Drive to the highest point in town and hope that we could wait it all out in our car? And what if the flood waters reached us there…

I have the beginning of an understanding of what the flood might have been like. There are some important differences between my story and the ancient flood story. The Genesis account depicts a time before there were emergency early warning systems or motor vehicles that could spirit you away from the floodplain. Most importantly, those who attempted to escape had nowhere to escape to. I never had cause to give up hope, but when a flood can submerse even the peaks of the highest mountains you are faced with a completely different situation. The only thing these people had to look forward to was an ugly death by drowning.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when all of humanity deserved to die. I have trouble listening to a story about the corruption of every species on the planet without imagining exceptions, and I’m not talking about Noah and his family. Am I to believe that even out there among the wicked there was not a single soul willing to help a neighbor out from under an overturned oxcart? Is it possible that there was not a single champion of mercy available to carry the injured to a place of relative safety? While we’re talking about Noah and company staying high and dry on a luxury cruise with all the cute little animals, God is murdering humankind. That includes children. That includes babies. And, yes, that includes the unborn in their mothers’ wombs. Perhaps you’re OK with God perpetrating the largest scale mass murderer in the history of everything – we’re told they had it coming, after all – but how does it feel to know that God just aborted every last innocent, ensouled, helpless human fetus in this same fit of rage?

This is not something to turn away from. This is something we need to think about every time we talk about a righteous God delivering a great hero of faith from destruction. This is something not depicted in our pretty children’s picture Bibles, but nonetheless we must consider the human cost of God’s wrath. To do anything less would be pretty darned irresponsible.

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus

Genesis 6: The (First) War to End All Wars

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the ever-so-familiar tale told in Genesis 6, I want to take the route of William Shakespeare and begin with a dramatis personae of the factions of intelligent life involved in this story.

First of all, there is God, who is also called Lord [Gen. 2:4 NRSV, etc.], but whose real name is unknown, unpronounceable, and represented by the tetragrammaton “YHWH.” God is the creator of everything that we know, or the one who organized, ordered, and conquered the chaos, depending on your interpretation of Genesis 1. God is composed of spirit (“a mighty wind”), has knowledge of good and evil, and possesses immortality. We know this because after God blessed Adam and Eve with the divine spirit, and directly after they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God cast humankind from the garden lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever like God and God’s droogs [3:22]. Nobody has called God all-powerful yet – of course, nobody has dared call God weak either – but we know that the creation / organization of the cosmos required a power much greater than that we currently have access to.

Next are the children of God, and I’m not referring to what Sunday School teachers call everybody who goes to your church. These are the beings that have only been referred to by the plural pronoun “us” up to this point [1:26, etc.]. It would seem that these mysterious other divine figures are part of a heavenly court ruled by God. Without much to go on, it would make sense that these beings are similar to God insofar as they are spirit, possess knowledge of good and evil, and have eternal life. As God’s children, it would seem that they derive their power, in some way, from God. These eternal beings may be the gods of other tribes, seen as local governors under the supervision of YHWH. They may be the personified / deified concepts that God created: Day [1:5], Night [1:5], Sky [1:8], Earth [1:10], Sea [1:10], etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if these are the same beings that are later transformed into angels because of codes against idolatry / worshiping other gods. One quality that they seem to exhibit which we haven’t seen God get into yet is the power to take on the flesh and appear as human, because in Genesis 6:2 they begin to breed with the daughters of humankind.

What a great transition, because humankind is the next on our list. I know this just might #TroubletheWaters, but it is beginning to look like there are two different kinds of human on earth. Why don’t we call this a hypothesis? There are children of delight, the garden-born / garden-descended humans (Eden = “delight”) who have had direct experiences of God because they are, in some sense, God’s chosen, the high priests and priestesses chosen to intercede on behalf of humankind. They are composed of flesh, spirit, and knowledge of good and evil, and prior to Genesis 6 the spirit within them allowed them to live to very old age. According to Genesis 5:5, Adam lived to the ripe age of 930 before he died. The rest of the humans may not have been blessed with the spirit and may not have lived very long. The first we learn of the children of wandering is when Cain is cast out into the land of Nod (“wandering”) [4:16], and we must presume that they are present in Genesis 6 as God plans to destroy all of humanity. We could easily call these people others, outsiders, or foreigners. All we know is that they have flesh. Maybe they had knowledge of good and evil. Maybe not.

Finally, there are the Nephilim, a newly introduced race as of Genesis 6 comprised of the offspring resulting from the interbreeding of the children of God and humankind. Genesis 6:4 reads, “These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” Half-divine, half-human, we can assume that they are composed of both flesh and spirit, probably the knowledge of good and evil, but almost certainly not immortality. From my understanding of the heroes of old, the Nephilim appeared to be larger, more powerful versions of normal humans.

Now that the players have entered the field, I can mention that Genesis 6 appears to be yet another chapter emphasizing God’s desire for non-violence. This theme is so prevalent in #TroubletheWaters that you’d think I went into reading scripture with the hopes of converting some ancient words to my cause, but I think it is so obvious in the text that anyone who is willing to do an honest, unencumbered reading will see what I am talking about. If you look only as far as Genesis 6:11-13, it should be clear:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them…”

In an odd, yet strangely familiar, narrative the humans and the Nephilim have turned their ways to violence, probably engaging in war over land, humans against Nephilim, humans against humans, Nephilim against Nephilim, human / Nephilim armies against human / Nephilim armies. I’m sure that if you look into some of the secondary literature of the time, you’ll find every possible iteration of these combatants and possibly a whole slew of other challengers. God is not happy with this aggression. It is interesting that violence is described as corruption of the flesh, which I presume to mean infection, rot, puss, decay, and maybe even leprosy. If you imagine the weapons that would have been used in these early wars, slings, arrows, crude blades and blunt weapons, you know that there was probably a severe lack of “clean kills” on the battlefield. Rather, many warriors probably crawled into a corner and died hours, days, or weeks later as their wounds festered, their cause of death: sepsis, the corruption of flesh that shuts down a person’s organs. With this understanding we see corruption as not just a metaphor for violence, but also an effect that is brought about by violence.

The reason I think this whole story is familiar is because the comparisons to the Greek epic Homer’s Iliad, among other ancient stories, are screaming out to me. A parent god and pantheon of lesser gods / children of god / godlings interfere in mortal affairs – CHECK! Heroes of great strength who claim lineage from the gods themselves are the warriors of old that are sung about in our songs – CHECK! There are normal people there fighting but you’ll never know their names or sing their songs – CHECK!

In another way, this story is eerily similar to our own recent past. When God revokes the spirit, drastically reducing the lifespan of humankind, and decides to destroy humanity and creation, we see a story comparable to the one that unfolded in World War I. This is the war to end all war. During the first half of the 20th century, the idea was to end German militarism in order to end all war. In Genesis 6, it is to destroy all humanity, all flesh, for flesh leads to violence. The end result is the same: somebody thought that it would be possible to end all violence by enacting the biggest act of violence one could ever dream of.

The dramatic irony is astonishing at this point. If God’s destruction of humankind had been successful in getting rid of violence, would humanity have ever fought World War I, not to mention every war before that and every war since? Would people be talking about gun deaths, domestic violence, or the ever more pervasive problems of abject poverty (which people are not talking about enough!)? No. We know already, at the beginning of Noah’s arc that God fails miserably with his half-cocked plan to rid the world of violence.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of the narrative, but there is a lesson to be learned from God’s failure, and I’m sure we’ll come to it before too long. For now, I want to return to the second half of Genesis 6 where, similar to the genealogical story of Genesis 5, Noah is set up as the new Adam. What is interesting about understanding Noah as the new Adam is that we learn just how impossibly different the humankind that we interact with on a daily basis are from “the first human” with whom we tend to claim kinship. (Are any of us even descended from Adam and Eve, the children of delight, or are we wanderers too?) Adam is blessed with the spirit of God, making him much closer in composition to the Nephilim, the giants and heroes of old, than to us. But Noah is the first human to be denied the spirit of God and live to have a tale told about him, and it is with Noah that we should feel familiarity. Noah’s probably met ancestors of his that were hundreds of years old, and this is what his expectations had been for himself and his children as well, until God got angry, and now Noah would be a lucky man to live past his hundredth birthday. This short life is the doom we all face. The line of Adam ended with Lamech. We are the children of Noah, the children of an early death.

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus

Campaign Stories: Wiliken 19

With targets fastened to hay-bails and lines of men and women armed with mismatched bows and arrows, Wiliken spent most of his days just outside the time-displaced Shining City training the people of Felshore in archery. He’d pace behind an older peasant and correct his stance or offer tips to the son of an aristocrat looking to gain prestige in his social group.

“All must offer themselves up in defense of the city snatched from time,” the wizard Jenkins had said. “And all must earn their meals.”

Wiliken had originally hoped that he might be employed to fix up some of the dilapidated buildings, those uninhabitable and unsightly structures that couldn’t withstand the forces associated with jumping forty years into the future. It was Douglas who asked Wiliken to train the men and women to shoot and shoot well.

“I’ll need longbows just as I’ll need swords and scythes,” Douglas had said.

But to what end? Wiliken often wondered if it was Douglas’s army that had soured the relationship between the bard and Jean-Baptiste. The old man had disappeared into the wilderness a fortnight ago.

“It will do you good,” Douglas suggested, but Wiliken knew one thing for certain: as long as his services were needed in the field teaching archery, Douglas would have no problem keeping tabs on the githzerai.

On a particularly humid afternoon, a young boy reported to Wiliken. The githzerai recognized the boy immediately as one of the orphans his son had intended to sacrifice in order to give a repeat performance of the destruction Wiliken himself had caused four decades earlier.

“My next fletching class won’t be until tomorrow morning,” Wiliken said, dismissing the boy.

“I will learn to shoot,” said the boy, defiantly. The sacrifices had come from various parts of the world and from all walks of life. This boy had the entitlement of a noble’s child. The githzerai mused that Douglas must have been like this as a child if one were to judge only by the way he’d turned out.

“I don’t have any extra bows.”

The boy reached for Wiliken’s own bow, and the githzerai was surprised to find that he was willing to let the boy shoot with True Shot. “I will use your bow.”

If the boy can even draw back the string, I might have to just give it to him, Wiliken thought. Not only could the child pull back the string, but he quickly nocked and fired an arrow at the nearest target with the finesse of an athlete. The arrow found its home, a bullseye.

“You certainly have a knack for it,” Wiliken admitted. “But shouldn’t you choose a skill where your god might give you some advantage?”

The boy had been staying at an orphanage built by a Solaran acolyte named Morgan since they had arrived in the Shining City. Those with a magical inclination – a great many in number, which is unsurprising considering it was probably this particular aptitude for which they were chosen to be sacrificed – would be trained in the way of Solaris if they chose.

“Perhaps Solaris would have you become a paladin, a wizard, or even a monk,” Wiliken suggested.

“A god so weak he cannot guide an arrow?” said the boy. “I have no use for such things.”

Wiliken chuckled. It was like looking upon himself as a child. “What is your name, boy?”

“Alexander,” said the boy.

As Wiliken watched Alexander move on to targets further and further away, to moving targets at varying distances, and even a couple of tests the githzerai had devised himself. The boy had the same self-reliance that Wiliken had always benefited from but there was something else there as well. Everyone is at their best when they are young and their muscles work well, but this boy was simply better than the githzerai. There was no mistaking it.

One generation makes the previous obsolete, Wiliken reflected.

After the citizens had finished their archery practice for the day, Wiliken lagged behind, walking among the scattered stones at the city limits. There had once been an expertly crafted stone road that lead out from the Shining City, and when the area had been transported through time the perfectly hewn stone had broken and scattered about the perimeter of the town. This was the edge of the Shining City, the intersection of the new and the old, and the stones that should have been ruins were just as keen as the day they were laid. This whole city could have been reduced to ruins, had been reduced to ruins, or so Wiliken had once thought.

There was a rustling sound from behind the githzerai. Wiliken spun around and was frightened to see a half-orc towering over him. In his reflections he’d allowed a wall of a being sneak up behind him, and surely this would be his last mistake.

Wiliken shuddered, and the half-orc laughed.

“It’s been a good long time since someone’s been properly scared of me,” he said, chuckling. “It’s refreshing. Surely, you know the feeling, githzerai.”

“Not since the orphans took to the teachings of Solaris,” Wiliken responded.

The half-orc introduced himself as Ugarth. “I used to be an orc,” he said, and smiled. “But now I’m a citizen of the world.”

“Your sarcasm is refreshing,” Wiliken said, feeling his muscles un-tense. “It reminds me of a friend.”

Wiliken hoped to meet up with the deva named Jurgen once again, but as long as the people of the Felshore were suspicious of his ally’s motives the githzerai expected he would not see his friend. Perhaps he’d never see Jurgen again.

“What are you doing out here?” Ugarth asked.

“I’m trying to figure out a way to stop my son,” Wiliken said. “I think it is the only reason that they are keeping me alive.”

Wiliken knew this was a bit of an exaggeration. The wizard Jenkins had pardoned him with such fantastic exuberance that he’d thought all sins were forgiven. Douglas on the other hand…

“That explains why Douglas has his eye on you so often.”

“Oh, you noticed?”

“Some people are not so good with mixed morality,” Ugarth said. “Me, I have no problem with messy matters. When you grow up looking like me or you, you don’t really have a choice.”

Wiliken and Ugarth talked for a little longer before Ugarth returned to town to deal with some personal matters. Wiliken remained in the field until it grew dark. As the sun sunk below the horizon, a light rain began to fell. Clouds covered the bright shining stars, signaling that the githzerai ought to return to the barracks.

Wiliken was troubled at how few ideas he’d had in order to track his son down. When he’d served in the blackguard he was the one you went to in order to get something done. But he’d had no scruples back then, back when he was young. He’d had no family to temper him, no guilt to slow him down. The one called Iiuza was too powerful, too well-connected. He could stay hidden from Wiliken for as long as he wanted, and when he emerged he could put to shame any plan they might have of capturing or killing him. Wiliken supposed he should cancel the fletching workshop the next day and spend some time meditating. It was not enough to merely find his son in order to prove his loyalty to the people of the Felshore. Wiliken wanted to live long enough to see his son pay for his crimes.

Wiliken wanted to live.

The storm began to worsen. Thunder clapped and lightning illuminated the sky with no interval in-between. As he entered the city and walked between the buildings, he could have sworn that there was somebody behind him. It could have just been Ugarth, or someone who had just awoken to bring some laundry in from the rain. Wiliken’s mind was caught up in dark matters. It would not be surprising if he’d transformed ordinary occurrences into something quite disturbing just because of where his mind was dwelling at the moment.

Having calmed himself, Wiliken walked through the door to his barracks and closed himself into the small but comfortable shelter from the elements. He sat down on his bed in order to remove his muddy boots. He hadn’t even untied his second shoe when his door swung wide open. Wiliken stood upright and assumed a fighting position. Lightning sizzled from ground to cloud, making night seem like day and revealing a man standing in his doorway.

Wiliken dashed for his bow True Shot, but the man simply walked toward him and put a hand on his arm. The githzerai spun to see that the stranger in his room was Jean-Baptiste. He’d returned from his meditation in the wilderness.

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 20.

Genesis 5: Of Persons and Priests

When I was younger I used to skip chapters like Genesis 5 that were comprised only of genealogies of “patriarchs,” a bunch of men who lived to ridiculously old ages and had many children but only one worth noting. Someone coined a term for these chapters, the “begats” of the Bible, because so-and-so begat so-and-so, and so on and so forth. These chapters were really repetitive, listing a guy’s name, the age he was when he had his first child, the fact that he had many more children, and the age he died. They were full of unfamiliar names, like Mahalel and Methuselah. And more than anything I had a lot of trouble determining what the importance of these lists was. I guess I just didn’t have the imagination necessary – or the superior genius – to chart the age of the earth based on a series of tall tales about 900 year old men. To me, these genealogies were just something to skim over on the way to better stories.

For the most part there is no story to Genesis 5. I suppose you could make the argument that the chapter begins with Adam, the man who broke the rules in Eden resulting in humankind toiling away at the earth for hours on end, and ends with Noah, the man who apparently sussed some sort of relief out of the poisoned ground, and that this resembles a story. But the truth is that the genealogy has more of a philosophical significance. The idea of the image of God takes center stage here, forcing the question, “Who is created in the image of God? All of humankind or just a select few?” And if that is not enough, there is an added bonus concept of a son in the likeness or image of Adam as well. With this language abounding, the reader is required to consider what these image relationships mean and who they apply to.

The scope of the image of God is confounded by a funny quality of the Hebrew word “Adam,” which could be understood as a proper noun, referring to a particular person named Adam, or as a common noun meaning “humankind.” The same sentence can be rendered two different ways:

When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.

When God created Adam, he made him in the likeness of God. [Gen. 5:1 NRSV]

Depending on how you understand the wording, the group of people created in the image of God may include only Adam, Adam and Eve, Adam and his heirs, all humankind, or even only those humans descended from the original garden dwellers, excluding those people outside of and to the East of Eden who welcomed Cain into his life of wandering.

The scope of the image of Adam becomes similarly confusing. Adam fathered “a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth” [5:3]. If we flash back to the previous chapter, Seth was given to Adam and Eve as a replacement, as Eve says, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him” [4:25]. If there is continuity between these chapters, then Abel would have been the child created in Adam’s image. Perhaps the entire lineage of men in Chapter 5 are the children who share the image of Adam (which may or may not be different from the image of God). Noah seems especially to embody the image of Adam. After all, because of forthcoming events he becomes the second coming of the first man. Do all of the descendants of Adam share in his likeness, or only those selected and named? Was Cain a son created in his father’s image? If so, perhaps the likeness faded once Cain committed murder. If not, then I think we finally know why God chose the offering of Cain. Maybe it had more to do with the one making the offer than the product that was offered.

It is difficult to understand who is seen in an image relationship with whom without first postulating as to what being in the image of another means. This concept is worthy of further discussion, but for the sake of moving this particular discussion forward I want to suggest that the image of God is another way of talking about personhood and the image of Adam is another way of talking about priesthood.

Those created in the image of God are persons. Like God, who is a singularity, persons cannot be replaced. Their existence ought to be treated with reverence. Persons are co-creators, be they parents, artists, builders, farmers, or anything else, but also stewards of that which God created (the whole cosmos). Persons are to be treated with dignity, never killed, never lied to, never cheated on. There is no need for the Ten Commandments if persons only understand that they are created in the image of God. What God is in actuality, persons are in potential. This applies to all of humanity. Cain’s fault was not recognizing the personhood in Abel, and similarly we have enacted endless chains of violence because we dehumanize others. We image that we can remove their personhood, and with it their entitlement to life and liberation.

If I didn’t believe that the first several chapters of Genesis are thinly veiled discussions of the early Jewish priesthood (an idea that my buddy Rodney set me onto), I certainly would have after reading Genesis 5. If the origin story is about all of humankind, then why are those outside of the garden not even mentioned until after Cain is exiled? And why, when we reach the genealogies, do we only learn of one person each generation as opposed to the plethora of interesting and dynamic persons who must have populated the planet? This is because the story of Adam is the story of the first high priest. (Yes, this story is highly male-centered, but there is no reason to believe that Eve is not a high priest as well. Those humans that were created in the image of God were created as both male and female, after all. Not just male.) Abel would have inherited the role of high priest from Adam, but Cain put a stop to that, so the role passed to Seth. This explains how in irreplaceable child created in the image of God could be replaced by another – it is not the person who is being replaced, but the priest! After this, one male in each generation, along with, potentially, his wife, is made the high priest, and left to receive commandments from God, to teach humankind, to plea for humankind’s sake, to enter into covenants, and to generally act as a human-God relations associate.

Genesis 5 is much more than a simple genealogy. Of course, I’m probably not the only person who believes it impossible to call a genealogy “simple” when it includes a person (Enoch) who never died but who joined God at the end of his days. This chapter is certainly not a chapter to skip. It is the conclusion of the great creation epic in which all of humanity is created and granted the dignity that any irreplaceable entity deserves with one chosen each generation for the horrors of communicating between a fearful God and a violent animal called Adam, AKA humankind. But after creation comes destruction, and this destruction begins when first the name Noah is written.

To be continued…

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus

Genesis 4: Dis-Abel

I am notorious for setting conversational traps to end arguments with those who disagree with me. Here’s a classic: “If you are doing what things as you describe them, then things will certainly work out fine.” The person I am talking with will think that I am agreeing with them and the argument will come to a stop, because surely my interlocutor is doing everything as described. Why else would s/he describe things that way? In truth, we are still completely at odds. I believe that this person is NOT doing things in the described fashion, and the proof is there in the fact that things have not been working out fine. My soon-to-be-wife Amy has always had a keen ability to see through these traps I lay, and she hates when I try. That’s one of the many reasons I’m marrying her – she’s my equal (or my better, really) at the war of words, the Gilgamesh to my Enkidu.

I think it is a common human error to relate always with that which is good in a story, be it the protagonist, a good message, or anything else. In the gospels, there are several conversational traps meant to root out hypocrisy not only within the narratives but within the hearts of those reading the narratives. For example, most people reading of Jesus’s crucifixion relate with Jesus, the persecuted, when their own actions are often much more similar to those of Pontius Pilate, the dutiful Roman officers, Judas Iscariot, or even the many Jews who quickly turned on the “King of the Jews.” There are many who enjoy when Jesus takes the Socrates route and makes the Pharisees look like legalistic fools who don’t understand that “the law” was conceived in love and meant to serve humankind, only to make the same mistakes in our own interpretation. We relate with Jesus in these situations because we couldn’t imagine that we might be so incorrect, unaware, and capable of propagating violence, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Then we come to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.

Cain and Abel are a pair of brothers, the children of Adam and Eve, and at this point in the scriptural narrative, the only children who have ever lived. Cain farms crops from the earth and Abel tends to a flock of sheep. The two brothers both bring an offering of the best fruits of their labor to God. God holds Abel’s offering in high regard, but the best that Cain has to offer is simply not good enough for God. Jealous, Cain kills his brother Abel, but is unable to hide his crime because both the blood of Abel and the earth itself, two natural mechanisms of justice in Genesis, cry out against Cain. As a result, God punishes God by cursing him to walk the earth forever and ever with no relief, not even in death, for the one who kills Cain will be “avenged sevenfold.”

If we are to place ourselves anywhere in this story, we place ourselves naturally in Abel’s place. We can imagine doing our very best, and we imagine that we will be the ones who are rewarded. When there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the choice of Abel’s gift over Cain’s we are all-too-happy to provide a justification of God breaking the number one of parenting – NEVER CHOOSE A FAVORITE!. Abel must be more faithful than Cain. He must have given his best and Cain must have given his leftovers. God must have known that Cain had murder in his heart from the beginning. We add to this story because we want to defend the victim, this Abel fellow, who we feel so akin to. But, for the most part, none of us share anything in common with Abel. We are, honestly and truly, meant to relate with Cain.

Even if you are more faithful than the average bear, it should be clear that Cain is the son who is more obedient to both his God and his parents. He is the one who tills the earth. As part of the lease agreement for inhabiting the garden of Eden, Adam, for the sake of all humans and all the animals he held dominion over, promised to eat the fruits and vegetables of the garden, never tearing the flesh of an animal or destroying a plant in such a way that it can no longer be fruitful itself. Even when Adam eats of the one fruit in the garden that is not given freely to him, his curse is to labor long and hard, sweating while tilling the earth for sustenance. Cain obeys these, the only rules that appear to exist at this point in the narrative, a covenant and a punishment that both hold sway before even the ordinance against murder is put into place. Abel, by contrast, must look like some sort of aberrant Nazi mad scientist or torturer. He is the first carnivore in a world where without an established tradition of eating flesh. By any measure, Abel’s gift should be the one that is rejected, but the events of Genesis 4 stand in direct opposition to the nonviolent message of Genesis 1-3, depicting a capricious God with an inscrutable mind.

It is a hard change of perspective to think that readers of Genesis 4 are supposed to see themselves in the actions of Cain. I wonder if it is easier when we think of where we are in life when we first hear this story. Think back to that imaginary set of parents I keep referencing who are telling these origin stories while walking through the desert after having escaped slavery in Egypt. Do these people who have never known a home feel more like the first humans living in a paradise given by God? Or do they relate more to the rejected Cain, forever a stranger, dispossessed of land and title, forever a wanderer. (Cain is banished to live among the people in the land of Nod, but Nod means “wandering,” so this land seems to be no land at all, the lack of land, in fact.) The second audience I imagine for this story is a group of Jews who have gathered together after the fall of Jerusalem. They do not live among like-minded individuals, but have been married off to people of different nationalities, who speak different languages and worship different gods in their homes. Again, I wonder if they believe themselves akin to the purebred first children of God, delighting in creation in eternal providence, or if they feel scattered about in dangerous territory, sharing the lot of the first murderer.

These are my own imaginary perspectives from Jews thousands of years ago in what is now called the Middle East, but most of this blog’s readership is composed of Christians in the US. What could Christians possibly have in common with Cain? Well, most Christians believe that humans were burn under the curse of original sin. Just like with Cain, the inscrutable mind of God has decided to punish us for some unknown reason because of something done by our most distant human ancestors. We may follow the covenant, the law, or the gospel to the word, but we are still rejected. Most Christians also believe that God sent Jesus to absolve the mark of this first sin, to bridge the gap between God and the people of God. But our post-salvation experience of existence does not feel like a bridge. We are not all singing happy songs in the garden of Eden together. We are eternally East of Eden. When God gives the lesson of this story – “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 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” [Gen 4:6-7 NRSV] – it is meant to be received by Cain’s ears, but also by our own eyes.

I remember I attended a church service once that ended with the minister challenging the audience to “abandon yourself and take up your cross.” I was immediately hit by the gravity of this statement. Who could ever be so strong as to leave all remnants of ego behind? Certainly not me. I had tried and failed to do exactly that many times in my life. It seemed impossible that I could defeat my own ego, and I was terrified to my core of the sacrifices it would take to do so. To the same statement, many others were smiling, self-satisfied, saying “Amen,” and “yes,” as if  they’d had time between hot yoga and dinner at Louis Benton Steakhouse to drop off their ego at the pool and pick up a fashionable cross at Macy’s. I had to remind myself that I was nowhere nearer this lofty goal than any of these people, but I was irritated by the presumption that they were already at the finish line after doing nothing more than coming to church that very morning.

The point of seeing ourselves as Cain is that if we keep seeing ourselves as the persecuted and not the persecutors, the faithful as opposed to the screw-ups, as God’s only son rather than the plethora of people Jesus encountered who could not, for the life of them, understand his teachings, if we keep making these mistakes we are bound to do more harm than good in this world. You can keep posting pictures on Facebook of all of the Christians killed in the world, but you might be a better human being if you recognize that Christianity is also an unimaginably formidable power in the world responsible for the deaths of many non-Christians. Perhaps during thousands of years of wandering Cain has taken responsibility for his actions and committed himself to making the world a better place, or perhaps all he’s done is concoct an elaborate story in his head about how he is the victim. But who are we to judge when most of us claim to do the former while engaging in the latter?

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus
Did Abel Deserve to Die?: Mosala’s Postcolonial Reading of Genesis 4:1-16 
at Political Jesus

Since I’ve Been Loving You 360

I’m here to kick off the music portion of this blog, FM109.  I’ll leave you to figure out the title.  I’m going to christen FM109 with a series I’ve wanted to do for some time – a 360 degree analysis of every available recording of Led Zeppelin’s blues epic “Since I’ve Been Loving You”.  Set in C minor, the song is a generous 7+ minute non-radio friendly canvas on which Page and Plant unleash a fiery brand of blues unheard of before the 1970s- a blues that is uniquely Led Zeppelin.  While Led Zeppelin I and II both featured many great blues tracks (“You Shook Me”, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “The Lemon Song”, “Whole Lotta Love”), they were clearly just beefed up, “Zeppelin-ized” versions- dare I say even ripoffs- of Chicago Blues greats, the likes of which include Willie Dixon, Albert King, and Howlin’ Wolf.  It wasn’t until Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic, 1970) that the band truly came into their own, commercially and artistically.  Despite Led Zeppelin III being largely an acoustic folk record (it was brutally criticized for trying to capitalize off the recent success of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young), the band ironically spawned what is perhaps their greatest electric blues standard.

“Since I’ve Been Loving You” became a live staple for the band in the early 70’s.  I find this song so fascinating because it is easily one of the most dynamic, expressive, and interpretative of all of Zeppelin’s live songs.  I want to emphasize just how brilliantly Jones and Bonham provide an organic, sentient universe in which Page and Plant are free to expand the boundaries of their Chicago blues roots.  No two versions are ever alike.

It was December of 2009.  I was living alone in south Texas where I spent my days essentially doing three things: learning to fly planes for the Navy, playing video games, and learning to play rock ‘n roll on my guitar.  I had primarily been studying the guitarwork of a very select few players- Jonny Greenwood, Hendrix, Prince, John Frusciante, and David Gilmour.  I had grown up with only cursory exposure to Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, but I’d never really fallen in love with their music.  I was familiar with all their hits, but I’d always dismissed Zeppelin as being too popular, too flashy, and too gritty.  Growing up, you were either a Zeppelin guy or a Pink Floyd guy.  I was always the latter, preferring the soaring, majestic tear-jerking Stratocaster soul of the mighty David Gilmour.  My life changed forever when “Since I’ve Been Loving You” from The Song Remains the Same (Live at Madison Square Garden ’73) started playing on the Palladia music channel on my TV.

It was a side of Jimmy Page, let alone Led Zeppelin, I had never heard before.  It was dark, mysterious, flashy, and very heavy- yet strangely soft, calculated, sensual, and I never thought I’d say this of Page, but beneath those lightning fast chops he actually had soul.  Having primarily been a disciple of the David Gilmour school of rock, my mind was getting blown by how much I loved what Jimmy Page was doing on that sunburst ’59 Les Paul Custom (given to him as a gift from Joe Walsh).  I couldn’t quite make sense of it, but his explosive blues riffs (2:00) were so perfectly parsed between little moments of tranquility (0:28, 3:14).  The interplay between Plant’s crooning and Page’s sassy little blues stutters wrenched at my heart (1:33).  And then the chorus kicks in with an almost heavy metal level of explosion (2:10).  Page’s monstrous guitar solo begins with a tidal wave of pentatonic hammer-ons, followed brilliantly by these calculated little bluesy statements (4:20).  Watch at 3:55 when he’s nearly blown off balance by the sheer force of his own riff!  Page then ends the solo with one of the sassiest, most arrogant guitar riffs ever played in the history of rock (4:56).  My reaction was basically identical to that of the jaw-dropped cop (5:10).  Jimmy is wild and sloppy, his tone trashy, yet the solo so perfectly conveys the tortured desperation of Plant’s star-crossed protagonist.  The song reaches its darkest, most hopeless point exactly at 6:26 when it changes to the D minor.  This blue-collar lament tells a bleak story of romance strained by hard times.   Maybe it’s because I had gone through a few strained relationships?  Or maybe it was the stress of flight school?  Maybe it was simply because I was older and more world weary, but this song made perfect sense to me.  It was mine.  My exploration of Led Zeppelin had finally begun.

Rick Rubin once described Led Zeppelin as being one of the heaviest bands of all time.  The Song Remains the Same version of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” definitely makes me believe him.  Until my research proves otherwise, this version is the heaviest, loudest raunchiest, most explosive of them all- my longtime personal favorite.