Sunday, December 04, 2005

Exegesis of Genesis 16 and 21

Melissa Yosua

Exegesis Paper

November 28th, 2005

Isaac and Ishmael: Issues of Inheritance

The story of Abraham fascinates us; we see the story of a man God promises much to: a great nation that will be a blessing to all the nations of the world with land of their own. Establishing one’s family line and securing one’s rights to the land were essential components for survival in ancient Near Eastern culture, so God’s promise to Abraham carries the assurance of perpetual security and prosperity. Yet this seemingly simple story of the fulfillment of God’s promises involves a multitude of complications, two among which are Abraham’s wife Sarah and her Egyptian maidservant Hagar,[1] both of whom have sons by Abraham. Whose son will become the beneficiary of Abraham’s inheritance – of both his property and God’s promise? Though Ishmael is the first-born, God’s fulfills the promise through Isaac, meaning Ishmael will not receive his rightful inheritance.

The narrative begins by telling us that Sarah has borne Abraham no children, but desires a son for herself.[2] To solve this problem, she approaches Abraham saying,

‘Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.’ And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. So Sarai…gave [Hagar] to her husband as concubine.[3]

Sarah’s request is in line with common ancient Near Eastern practices; should there be no heir, the wife could produce one of her handmaids for her husband to consort with and the resulting child would belong to the wife.[4] Even so, Sarah’s proposal raises questions surrounding Hagar’s status as a result of her relationship with Abraham.[5] Once she discovers she is pregnant, she looks down upon Sarah. Sarah’s brilliant scheme has backfired, as Hagar’s pregnancy challenges Sarah’s status as the dominant woman in the household – a position she has held for many years.

When confronted with the situation, Abraham gives Sarah permission to deal with Hagar as she sees fit, apparently disregarding the fact that Hagar could bear him the promise-fulfilling child he has been awaiting. Abraham returns Hagar to Sarah’s jurisdiction, and Sarah uses her power over Hagar to abuse her.[6] Hagar flees from Sarah but a confrontation with a messenger of the Lord results in Hagar returning to her mistress. In this conversation between Hagar and the angel, God promises Hagar that she will have many children, much like the promise God gave Abraham.[7]

‘I will greatly increase your offspring,

And they shall be too many to count…

Behold, you are with child

And shall bear a son;

You shall call him Ishmael…

He shall be a wild ass of a man;

His hand against everyone,

And everyone’s hand against him;

He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.’[8]

While there is no mention of land or blessing (in fact, he will live in constant discord with his neighbors and dwell alongside them), Ishmael is a likely candidate for the fulfillment of God’s promise.[9] Abraham now has an heir, although Bruce Vawter points out that Ishmael doesn’t quite fit the ideal picture, being the son of an Egyptian – Abraham’s “surrogate wife.”[10] In addition, God’s pronouncement of Ishmael’s personality as a “wild ass of a man” does not bode well for the potential heir of promise.

Sarah eventually gives birth to Isaac. This poses more problems as to the rightful inheritor of Abraham’s property.

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’ The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.[11]

Certain translations portray Ishmael as “mocking” Isaac instead of “playing,” interpreting the Hebrew pun of Isaac’s name in a derogatory manner, attempting to justify Sarah’s desire to remove Ishmael from the household. [12] The Jewish Study Bible notes remark, “Ishmael was ‘Isaacing,’ or ‘taking Isaac’s place’,” which could provide incentive for Sarah’s behavior.[13] Even though Ishmael is the rightful first-born, Sarah wants her son to receive the inheritance.

Sarah makes no claim on Ishmael as her son, although Sarah’s desire for a family caused his birth in the first place. She refuses to accept responsibility for the situation,[14] and she rejects Ishmael himself, though he should have been treated as if he were her own son. In her eyes, Ishmael is merely the son of “that slave-woman,” and her denial serves to keep Hagar in her place. Although Hagar remains a slave, Ishmael is still in line to receive Abraham’s inheritance.

But while Sarah rejects Ishmael, Abraham accepts him as his own child. Abraham recognizes Ishmael as his legitimate first-born son and as such, Ishmael is entitled to the rights accompanied by that acknowledgment.[15] The code of Hammurabi justifies this acknowledgement, as the sons of a slave-woman and the master of the house are allowed their share of the inheritance, should they be legitimatized. Otherwise, the child and the slave are given their freedom in exchange for the claim to the inheritance.[16]

Ishmael’s position as the legitimate first-born son was threatening to Sarah. If Abraham were to die, the largest portion of the inheritance would fall to Ishmael, who was sixteen at the time while Isaac was only three.[17] Ishmael would assume the position of the head of the household. After seeing how Sarah treated his biological birth mother Hagar, Sarah might have feared how Ishmael would treat her. This potential role-reversal could have distressed Sarah enough to remove this risk from the picture. The inheritance would give both Ishmael and Hagar power that Sarah would not want them to have. [18]

Abraham, concerned because this issue pertains to his son Ishmael, heeds Sarah’s request at the Lord’s prompting. God says to Abraham,

‘Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.’[19]

Nahum Sarna writes that Abraham only sends away Hagar and Ishmael at God’s mandate.[20] God refers to Hagar as Abraham’s slave and attempts to distance the relationship between Abraham and Ishmael by referring to him as “the boy” rather than “your son.”[21] Sarna points out that Abraham has to wrestle with giving Hagar and Ishmael their freedom or letting Ishmael share in the inheritance with Isaac. He is “torn between conflicting loves and rent by the rival claims of what society and law permitted and what righteousness seemed to demand.”[22]

However, Abraham does not seem to be concerned about the economic inheritance, just the fulfillment of God’s promise. When speaking with Abraham, God does not address the rights of the first-born son. God is also silent about the moral implications of casting out this woman and her son. God sanctions this decision to put out Hagar and Ishmael, instead of what one might expect from a God of justice and mercy, and one of former slaves, especially![23] God supports Sarah’s position, and reveals to Abraham that God will fulfill the promise through Isaac. God also assures Abraham that a great nation will descend from Ishmael because he is Abraham’s son, although this promise pales in comparison to what Abraham was originally promised.[24]

Upon learning this, Abraham supplies Hagar and Ishmael with some bread and water and abandons them to the wilderness. This small provision from Abraham parallels the small portion of God’s promise that Ishmael will inherit; Ishmael will become a great nation without land or blessing, and he will receive nothing from Abraham except for these meager supplies for an unknown fate in the desert.

Perhaps another reason why Abraham so easily dismisses Hagar and Ishmael is because Hagar’s status is diminished after the birth of Isaac. As Phyllis Trible points out, the language used in reference to Hagar shifts between chapter 16 and chapter 21. “From being a maid (sipha) to Sarai in scene one, Hagar has become a slave (ama), serving the master of the house as his second wife.”[25] The connotation of the original Hebrew conveys the sense that Hagar, through the act of having his child, is now bonded to Abraham, enslaved as a second wife.[26] Despite Hagar’s giving birth to Abraham’s first-born son, she is not equal in status to Sarah. And by elevating Isaac over Ishmael, God’s intervention seals the fate of Hagar and that of her son. She becomes nothing more than a slave to be cast out.

In one sense, Ishmael’s status is dependent upon that of Hagar, as sons of slaves were slaves themselves, but his legitimacy as a son of Abraham has already clearly been established.[27] Because of this, he was entitled to his portion of the inheritance. Yet because it is through Isaac that God will fulfill the promise, Ishmael is cast aside, the land will be given to Isaac, and the promise will pass to the younger son.

These two inheritances – God’s original promise to Abraham and the inheritance of Abraham’s property – are inextricably linked together. Land is a key component in Abraham’s promise. If Ishmael received the inheritance due the first-born son, he would also receive the land. Ishmael had already been promised many offspring, and now he would have the land to go along with it. He would be the inheritor of Abraham’s name. As the leader of the family, he would be responsible for its security in the land and for managing Abraham’s great wealth. Ishmael would be the head of the household, the one accountable for Abraham’s entire legacy – including God’s promise to Abraham.

There is little to address this particular situation in Biblical law. Deuteronomy 21:15 – 17 sets up a scenario much like the 21st chapter of Genesis: a man has two wives who have both born him sons, and the son of the unloved wife is the first-born. The law states that in this case, the man may not give the first-born son less of the inheritance than he would normally be entitled to.[28] Other laws found in the Torah stipulate a legal obligation to care for slaves. For instance, Exodus 21:10 describes the situation of a woman being sold as a slave for the purpose of marriage. If the man takes another wife in addition to the woman sold into slavery, this law obligates the man to give her food, clothing, and shelter. Failure to do this would result in her freedom without compensation.[29] In this case, Abraham had a responsibility to at least provide for Hagar and Ishmael, even though Hagar’s status in the household is ambiguous. The hearers and authors of this story would have understood this, yet the text gives no critique of Abraham’s action or God’s demand.

Stories of the younger son receiving the inheritance instead of the first-born are evident in many of the patriarchal narratives, subverting this notion that the first-born is entitled to the inheritance. Jacob gets blessed instead of Esau, Isaac receives the inheritance instead of Ishmael, and Joseph is favored above his older brothers. Even in other places in the Hebrew Bible this is manifested, as David, the youngest of his brothers, is anointed king over Israel, and Abel’s offering is favored over Cain’s. Unique to this situation of Isaac and Ishmael, however, is the fact that the first-born son is of mixed heritage. Ishmael’s mother is Egyptian and his father is Abraham, the great ancestor of the Israelite nation. Ishmael as head of the household would mean that someone of Egyptian heritage would have ultimate responsibility for the continuation of Israel. Thus, as one might expect given the outcomes of other stories, Isaac gets the inheritance instead of Ishmael.

This narrative could have been useful in post-exilic times. After returning from exile, the Israelites faced foreign influences in their own land. Those remaining in the land had married foreign wives and produced children of mixed heritage. As a small community of people struggling to redefine their identity as God’s chosen people back in their own land, foreign cultures posed threats to their heritage. These returning exiles were a people with a specific legacy, language, and belief system. Those with foreign wives risked upsetting this delicate balance, as these women would teach their mixed children a different language and about their own gods rather than the God of Israel. The Israelites understanding of the exile was founded in the belief that their consorting with foreign gods led to God’s judgment upon them. The displacement of foreign wives and their children was seen as a preventative measure against God’s further displeasure. Additionally, if these children who had no knowledge of the God of Israel and who grew up learning different customs inherited the land, the whole identity of the Israelite people would be at stake.

The writers of the story of Abraham could have used the episode of Abraham sending away Hagar and Ishmael as an incentive for the post-exilic community to do the same to their foreign wives. Abraham set the precedent, and the story demonstrates that even though Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with minimal provisions and was distressed about doing so, God still took care of them. This could have been used to comfort men who loved these women and their children, proof that God will ultimately provide for them. These men would need to have faith that God’s promise to Abraham was a promise for them: they are the inheritors and their community together would have to trust that this promise would continue to be fulfilled despite great odds.

While this story can be used to exclude, it can also be used to include. As battles rage in churches over who is “in” and who is “out,” modern day readers of this story can see the actions of Sarah and Abraham as an invitation to self-reflection. Many in the church identify strongly with Abraham and Sarah while glossing over this story involving Hagar and Ishmael. The blindness this produces raises questions for us: should we strive to emulate Abraham and Sarah’s behavior, or should we seek out the people in our communities who are prevented from sharing in the inheritance God has to offer through the church? The modern church has become the arbiter of who can partake in this promise, pronouncing people undeserving of sharing in the inheritance like Sarah. Yet unlike the God of the Israelites, our God is no longer a God of one particular people, but of the entire world, entrusting to all nations the inheritance of God’s favor. We are all deserving; no one person is worthier than another. The church, rather than seeking to bar individuals from inheriting God’s promise made to them, should ensure that all can enjoy the inheritance that God provides for everyone.

Works Cited

The Jewish Study Bible featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. (Tanakh or JSB in the Class Schedule)

Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis. New York: Schocken, 1966. Pp. 127-29; 154-57.

E. A. Speiser, Genesis. Anchor Bible. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964/80. Pp. 116-21; 153-57

Phyllis Trible, "Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection." In Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984. Pp. 9-35.

Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.

Pp. 213-18; 246-50.

Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972 (rev. ed.). Pp. 190-97; 230-35.

[1] According to Phyllis Trible, the language of the original Hebrew used in reference to Hagar describes a woman serving as a personal servant to another woman.

[2] Translational differences affect how one might view the character of Sarah. For example, Sarah wanting children implies a certain sort of desperation to find some security in making sure Abraham’s family survived. Or one could infer that her desire for children was motivated by a searching for worth in a society where a woman having many children was highly valued. In either case, one may assume that she is ignorant of the promise God made to her husband Abraham and is acting solely for her own benefit.

[3] JSB, Genesis 16:2 – 4

[4] Von Rad, p. 191

[5] Translation differences document. Certain translations refer to Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham to be his wife, to be his concubine, or to be as a wife. This leads to ambiguities as to Hagar’s rightful position in the household.

[6] According to Vawter, it was Sarah who had the right to reduce Hagar’s status to that of an ordinary slave. But Sarah legally had to appeal to Abraham to regain control of Hagar.

[7] As Von Rad points out, “there is no clear distinction between the angel of the Lord and Yahweh himself” (193). However, the promise made to her is still from God.

[8] JSB, Genesis 16: 10 – 12

[9] However, according to Von Rad, “the reader understands that a child so conceived in defiance or in little faith cannot be the heir of promise” (196). He assumes that the reason Ishmael is not the heir is due to Abraham’s and Sarah’s lack of faith that God will provide.

[10] Vawter, p. 216

[11] JSB, Genesis 21: 9 – 10

[12] JSB, 44

[13] However, the two could be playing together in a perfectly innocent manner, or Ishmael may not be playing with Isaac at all!

[14] JSB, Genesis 16:5

[15] Sarna, p. 156

[16] Sarna p. 156

[17] Vawter points out the how the two chapters came from different sources, so Ishmael’s age is unclear. The addition of the Priestly author would have us believe Ishmael is 16. The Elohist portrays a child much younger. (Vawter, 248)

[18] As noted in precept discussion on October 5th, 2005

[19] JSB, Genesis 21:12 – 13

[20] Sarna, p. 157

[21] Trible, p. 21

[22] Sarna, p. 156

[23] In addition, putting out slaves was against ancient Near Eastern culture. E. A. Speiser mentions this by referencing both the Hammurabi Code and Deuteronomy 21:14 (Speiser, 121)

[24] Von Rad, p. 233

[25] Trible, p. 21

[26] Trible, p. 30

[27] Discussed in precept on October 19th, 2005

[28] JSB, Deuteronomy 21:15 – 17

[29] JSB, Exodus 21:10 – 11

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Philosophy Paper Number 2

Meh, blogger bothers me. I had this whole preamble to my paper written out and when I went to preview it and come back it disappeared. The general gist of it is this: I still have no clue what my professor is looking for, as he said about my last paper that I didn't stay clost to the text. So in this one...text. Lots of it. I fear now that it errs too much on the side of being a summary, but oh well. The conclusion is where it's starting to get interesting, though there are a few tidbits in the paper itself that would be really neat to delve into a little more, if I had the ability to do it in such a way that it connected back.

Where Can Truth Be Found?

Saint Augustine’s Confessions and On Christian Teaching demonstrate his attitude toward secular learning and suggests how one should go about searching for Truth. Augustine characterizes God as entirely good, unchanging and eternal, omnipresent, and as Truth itself, and this characterization of God allows for different approaches to Truth. In each book, he takes a different angle as to how one can relate to this Truth. Confessions recounts Augustine’s personal discovery of Truth and relates his story to how others can come into a similar relationship with God. On the other hand, On Christian Teaching is less personal and more abstract – about how one can find truth in secular learning and apply it to understanding the truth in Scripture.

Confessions outlines Augustine’s journey of how he came to a fuller understanding and acceptance of the Christian faith. He wrote this book to God as a confession of his life before becoming a Christian, and throughout the text he acknowledges God’s guidance even in the midst of his sinful ways. He recognized that throughout his life, God never forsook him and was continually striving to bring Augustine into a relationship with God. At one point he mentions, “But your mercy is unknown to sinners such as I was then, though step by step, unwittingly, I was coming closer to it” (Confessions 107). He constantly repeats how he was looking for God in all the wrong places outside himself, yet once he “entered into the depths of [his] soul” (Confessions 146), he discovered the Light of God.

According to Augustine, one must go beyond one’s memory in order to reach God. In Book X, he describes going past the power of the soul and the power of the senses, arguing that these features are not unique to human experience. He writes of the soul, “this is not the power by which I can find my God, for if it were, the horse and the mule, senseless creatures, could find him too, because they also have this same power which gives life to their bodies” (Confessions 213). Animals also have this ability to perceive the world through the senses, so Augustine concludes that he must go further than this in order to reach God. He also didn’t find God by the means which one experiences the outside world – through the senses. His desire for Truth led him to apply it to ideas and things other than God: a mistress and the teachings of the Manicheans. He searched for Truth in these different places, but did not find it.

It was only when he turned and looked inward did he find God. God was found in his memory, “since the time when [he] first learned of [God]” (Confessions 230). God had always been present in his memory, and for this reason, Augustine had never forgotten God. While he was searching for God out in the world, God was actually with him and within him (Confessions 231). He says to God, “You were there before my eyes, but I had deserted even my own self. I could not find myself, much less find you” (Confessions 92). Self-realization led him to a point where he could recognize that God was already inside of himself.

Though Augustine narrates his own personal journey of discovery, his asserts that every person is able to find God. While the wicked do not know Christ, the mediator between humanity and God, they have only to “turn back, and they will find [God] in their hearts” (Confessions 92). This assumes that everyone has a means by which they can personally connect with God without necessarily having any prior knowledge about God. At some basic level, we have a desire for God even if we are unable to figure out exactly what we desire. This seems reminiscent of Plato’s idea of a shared memory: we are all trying to rediscover the true forms that we caught glimpses of in our pre-existence. As noted in class discussion, in Plato’s Phaedrus there is a connection between knowledge and memory, and Augustine appears to be using that connection to argue that each individual has access to God without the individual necessarily being conscious of it. He asserts that all men have a desire for happiness, so at some level, they must know what happiness actually is. “Unless we had some sure knowledge of it, we should not desire it with such certainty” (Confessions 228). For Augustine, true happiness is God alone, and any other source of happiness cannot be true. “True happiness is to rejoice in the truth, for to rejoice in the truth is to rejoice in you, O God, who are the Truth” (Confessions 229).

He also mentions briefly in Confessions about how truth can be found outside of the Scriptures. His time with the Manicheans showed him that their calculations about the world were, in fact, true. This knowledge, however, did not bring him any closer to God. According to Augustine, the pursuit of knowledge shouldn’t be an end unto itself. For him, it only matters whether or not an individual knows God. “Even if he knows them all, he is not happy unless he knows you; but the man who knows you is happy, even if he knows none of these things. And the man who knows you…is happy only because he knows you” (Confessions 94 – 95). Yet Augustine understands that knowledge is not without its uses, which he shows in On Christian Teaching.

In On Christian Teaching, Augustine argues that certain aspects of secular knowledge are necessary to the understanding of Christian Scripture, and that truth can be found other places because all truth is rooted in God. Before this, all “pagan” knowledge was forbidden but Augustine recognized the value of learning and suggested a system of education that included particular elements of this culture. He argues for the knowledge of languages, specifically Greek and Hebrew, so that one could reference the original text for the resolution of discrepancies between the various Latin translations. One must have understanding of the characteristics of different plants and animals in order to understand expressions that shouldn’t be taken literally in the Scriptures. An understanding of numbers should also be had to understand the significance of the way they are used in relation to each other. Music is important as well. Essentially, Augustine believes “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities” (Teaching 47). While his conception of God as Truth isn’t as clearly spelled out here as it is in Confessions, the general idea is the same. These truths point to and are a part of a bigger Truth that is God, and these truths can appear in places outside of the Scripture.

However, Augustine cautions people not to get swept up by the pursuit of knowledge. “Do not venture without due care into any branches of learning which are pursued outside the church of Christ, as if they were a means to attaining the happy life, but discriminate sensibly and carefully between them” (Teaching 63). Augustine appears to be speaking from experience in this case, as his own quest for truth led him to pursue knowledge as a means of finding happiness. Yet he still recognizes its worth. He even compares the appropriation of secular knowledge for religious purposes to the Hebrew people leaving the land of Egypt with Egyptian goods. There, too, he warns the people that just like the Egyptians possessed idols and burdens alongside the useful goods, so too does pagan culture contain “false and superstitious fantasies and burdensome studies” in addition to “studies…more appropriate to the service of the truth” (Teaching 65).

Augustine also talks about how one should study the Scriptures in order to find truth. He has already established the importance of this outside knowledge in order to aid comprehension. He goes on to say that it is important to understand which passages are to be taken literally, and which passages should be taken metaphorically. Misinterpretation of a passage hinders one’s understanding and limits their relationship with the Truth. He calls it “spiritual slavery” (Teaching 72) – not being able to see beyond what is physically present to the Truth that exists beyond the literal.

Throughout both these texts, Augustine’s equating God with Truth allows him to use truths wherever they may be found as a connection with the Divine. God’s presence is not limited to what one can find in the Scriptures, but can be found in music, mathematics, logic, and even sciences. All of these truths about the world point to a larger Truth that we all have access to, whether we are aware of it or not.

Monday, October 03, 2005

God in Genesis - Who is this God, really?

Texts: Genesis 6 - 9; Genesis 18:16 - 19; Judges 19 - 21

The God portrayed in each of these stories subverts our image of the character of God. In the flood story, God destroys all flesh because of its corruptness and the evilness of men’s minds, and God regrets having created humanity. With the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah, God hears an outcry and has to descend to earth to investigate. God debates whether or not to clue Abraham in on the plan, and once God does, Abraham bargains God down to not destroying the city for the sake of the righteous within, and yet, God decides to wipe it out anyway. In the Judges text, God doesn’t even speak until the Israelites are battling Gibeah, and then it is only to reassure Israel that they will be victorious over the city, put the people are quick to attribute these actions as God-sanctioned.

This characterization of the divine raises questions about God’s ability to administer justice. God’s willingness to wipe out a whole city due to some injustice without a thought for the innocent in the city causes concern for us who picture a God who deals with sin on an individual basis. God gives little forethought to the destruction of the earth in the flood, saving only one individual, Noah, and his family and all the animals. God’s lack of restraint in curbing God’s violent tendencies is alarming; after the flood, God needs a reminder not to wipe out the earth ever again.

From these texts, it seems like God’s justice is like a WMD, as class discussion on Friday noted. Others suffer innocently at the hand of God’s justice. Furthermore, it’s not clear that those saved are more righteous than those destroyed, as each story is followed by an account of sexual sin. God’s judgment in these cases appears muddy.

Note: Class was great. There were two great comments, the first one being that God's justice is akin to our millitary tactics -- we decive ourselves with our "smart weapons" and while we think we target well, we really aren't that accurate, and innocents die.

Second was a side comment made by a fellow student about Lot and the story after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We were talking about who is really telling the story here. Are the girls heroes because they truly thought that they were the last people on earth? Or was Lot telling the story and instead of taking the blame for the incest, he blames it on his daughters. The student's reaction to this was...priceless.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Philosophy Paper Number 1

This is a less-than-perfect essay, but it's supposed to be more "reflection" from what I gather, so here it is...

Melissa Yosua

September 22, 2005

Six Questions of Socrates

The Value of Community in American Culture?

Philosophy, from the outside looking in, is an intimidating discipline. Popular misconception elevates this field to such a high level that when even the mere word is uttered, people shudder. Its supposed inaccessibility to the common human being wards off so many people from its study for fear that the secret knowledge contained therein is too abstract, too impractical, and too difficult to understand. Yet what Christopher Phillips demonstrates in The Six Questions of Socrates is quite the opposite. By holding dialogues with people, he shows that philosophy is something everyone can engage with. He goes on to suggest that the very success of a society depends on the degree to which individuals in that particular society work for its “collective excellence” (Phillips 299).

Phillips held dialogue sessions with people from many different kinds of groups: Muslim women, Japanese schoolchildren, Palestinian and Israeli university students, men in prison, and several more, all with varying ages and cultural backgrounds. Phillips related the essence of each question asked of a specific group of people to political events or challenges faced by that culture that either served as a good example of the quality of inquiry or served as an example of where that particular quality was lacking. These discussions highlighted several commonalities between different cultures in terms of how they viewed the concepts of virtue, justice, piety, courage, moderation, and goodness and what societies with these qualities should look like.

I found it surprising that many of these very different cultures shared many of the same ideas about what these different qualities meant and how carrying them out would impact the whole of society. One key idea that flowed through many of the dialogue sessions was the value of community. For example, one Navajo said, “The only success that matters is that of the tribe as a whole” (Phillips 26) when talking about virtue, and a Japanese schoolchild denounces the traditional courage of the Japanese warriors “because they don’t put country or family first” (Philips 230). Good becomes sharing the sufferings of other human beings as Buddha espoused (Phillips 175) and true justice, as one Mexican suggests, is “where the laws are such that we all are collectively stronger than any single individual, and where we are all protected from any person who’d try to trample on our collective and individual rights” (Phillips 107).

Yet a tension exists between valuing the group over the self and serving the needs of the self before serving the needs of the group, and the question becomes “should I serve myself so I can better serve the group or should I serve the group before serving myself?”

I think the words of Thomas Jefferson that Phillips quoted resonate true with many Americans today: “Before we can fulfill our obligations to others we must first achieve independence and learn to exercise responsibility, moderation, patience and self-control” (Phillips 299). The rationale being: of what good are we to society at large if we can’t even take care of ourselves? If we can’t act in a responsible manner, then how are we ever going to act responsibly towards others? However, Americans tend to take Jefferson’s words to the extreme.

There is no doubt that the United States is a highly individualistic society. The success of one individual is prized more highly than the success of a team or a community. Individual athletes on sports teams are idolized more than the team itself and in the business world, employees fight to get to the top at the risk of hurting others in the company. We reward the individuals who accomplish the most with money and recognition, regardless of how he or she got there. Filling our responsibilities to the community rarely comes into the picture, and if it does, it is a secondary afterthought where the motivations can be selfish in nature.

Phillips, by asking these six questions, hits on what is wrong with American culture today. There is little to no virtue, courage, justice, piety, moderation, or good. These qualities, which are fundamental to building a successful society, are misunderstood in terms of the self rather than interpreted as things for the community to aspire to. Everything is about seeing to our own interests, which has become the “good” in American society. The concept of “justice” has turned into “it’s not fair if my neighbor has a new car and I don’t.” Moderation has been swept away by our desire for instant gratification, and piety has become the worship of our own individual selves. Courage has been reduced to doing the right thing when people are looking and virtue has nearly disappeared all together.

We don’t ask ourselves these questions any more and if we do, our perspective is so selfish. What is good becomes what is good for me and what is justice becomes how am I being treated justly? One’s responsibility to society beyond “what would help me out the most” is such a foreign concept. We vote for leaders who will give us the tax breaks or who will institute policies that benefit us the most either ideologically or otherwise.

Despite all of this, I believe there is some hope for America. From time to time, we pull ourselves together and put the needs of the community above our own. The most recent example of this can be seen in the way the nation came together to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the gulf coast. In the aftermath of this disaster, we shared in the suffering of these displaced people, and we gave our time, money, and goods to help them start rebuilding their lives. We were acting justly, acting goodly, and being virtuous without questioning ourselves.

Yet without a crisis to bring out these qualities in us, we need to keep asking ourselves Socrates’ six questions in order to keep our minds focused on these concepts and how to act them out in the larger community. We need to find a way to live with the tension of the competing claims on our responsibilities. In order for this to happen, however, our attitude regarding our place in society needs to shift. We cannot meet the needs of the community if we are always looking out for ourselves. We cannot always be at the top of our priority list. The balance has strayed too far to the side of the individual, and the point of equilibrium needs to be reestablished: the idea that a society should work for the success of all its members, or the Navajo idea that if one member of the community succeeds, the whole community does as well (Phillips 26).

We can become a society of piety and moderation, of justice and goodness, of virtue and courage, just like the Greeks at the height of their civilization. Engaging with philosophy is not for the few – it is for everyone and by wrestling with these questions, society as a whole will reap the benefits. These questions challenge us to take a look at the world around us and truly see what is happening and think about it and how it affects everyone. By examining ourselves and current affairs in this way, we will not only become better individuals, but a better people.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Critical Reflections on Jonah and Esther

Brace yourselves -- this is worth a whole whopping...6 points. Out of 200.

Jonah addresses many issues on a variety of different levels. In the text, Jonah wrestles with the message he is charged to deliver to the Ninevites, knowing that if he follows through, God’s mercy will surely pour down on the city, which in his opinion is undeserving of such compassion. Jonah’s attitude towards the Ninevites embodies Israel’s hatred for Ninevah and for the Assyrian empire at large. This emotion clearly permeates the book of Nahum, where the author takes delight in prophesying the demise of Ninevah and the triumph of the Lord. So questions are raised surrounding the issue of God’s mercy, predominantly towards foreign nations, but also towards the nation of Israel itself. Who really deserves God’s mercy – or does anyone? Gunn and Fewell highlights another dimension of the story in which the relationship between God and Jonah is explored (Gunn and Fewell, 130). In addition, this book examines the role of a prophet in ancient Israel.

Esther, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as pointed as Jonah. The nature of the piece is more comedic, as it pokes fun of the lavish Persian courts (JSB 1623). Ahasuerus doesn’t seem to be able to keep control of affairs in his own court and Haman suffers from wild mood swings. Oddly enough, those who exercise true power in this story are the women: Vashti for refusing the king Zeresh for her influence over Haman, and Esther for saving her people. Several aspects of this story are odd: Esther can somehow conceal her Jewish identity and becomes queen over a foreign empire; all of Haman’s plots result in futility as Mordecai receives the king’s honor (not to mention that Haman is impaled on the stake reserved for Mordecai). This book encourages the Jewish people to be proud of their identity.

Saturday, July 30, 2005


This is my theological reflection on baptism. It do not believe it has any major gaps or holes in it, but it is an work-in-progress. However, a rather finished work-in-progress.

We are all sinful people in need of God’s saving grace. We are unable to save ourselves, not matter how much we try. The sacrament of baptism is a means for us of receiving that grace, a way of showing that God is actively working in our lives. It is not a prerequisite for salvation, but rather a sign of the new life within us and our death to our old selves. It is a gift from God available to all who accept it. It is not a testimony to our own profession of faith in Jesus Christ but rather a witness to God’s claim upon us as God’s people.

For infants, they obviously cannot speak for themselves and recognize their need for God. So the parents make that decision for the child, intending to raise the child so that he or she will eventually come to faith in Christ. Infant baptism shows the utter dependence on God and demonstrates God’s grace working in our lives before we are even aware of it – God’s prevenient grace.

Adults, however, are aware of the choice they are making to accept God’s grace and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over their lives. They recognize their need for God and desire to receive the gift of new life available to them in this sacrament.

In either case, baptism requires repentance from and the rejection of sin in all its forms. Through water, we are cleansed from our sins by the power of the Holy Spirit and we accept God’s forgiveness by professing our faith in Christ.

An important component of this sacrament is community. It is a covenant made between the individual, God, and the larger church community. It is an initiation and welcome into God’s larger family. The congregation promises to nurture and support the individual baptized in their walk with Christ, committing to pray for the person and support them in a loving and forgiving community of faith. It is through the sacrament of baptism that we are made one with each other and one with Christ as we open ourselves to God. Thus the community is an important aspect of baptism, and needs to be able to fulfill its end of the covenant after the baptism of an individual.

Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry on earth. Jesus did not need to be baptized in order to repent of his sins, but needed to be baptized in order to show God’s approval of him. After his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him demonstrating this. In a similar way, when we are baptized and united with Christ we are also commissioned for ministry – to go and make disciples.

There is a lot of disagreement among denominations as to how this sacrament should be carried out. There are arguments about how much water is to be used, or whether sprinkling or immersion is the proper means of administering baptism, to name a few. The important thing is that God is actor and initiator in the sacrament and everything else is merely a symbol of God’s action in the life of the individual.