Jesus’ relation to David

I had to preach the Sunday before last.  In preparation I came up against the problem of Mark 12:35-37.

While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he said, “How is it that the experts in the law say that the Christ is David’s son?  David himself, by the Holy Spirit, said,

‘The Lord said to my lord,

“Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet.”’

If David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight (NET Bible).

The quotation is the opening of Psalm 110.  The problem is that Jesus in Mark seems to completely misunderstand the Psalm.

Psalm 110 presents an oracle to David, not a statement by David.

A prophet appears before the king and says, “YHWH says to my lord [David] ….”

Mark’s Jesus interprets YHWH and lord as synonomous.  But this could hardly happen in Hebrew, where the first lord is YHWH and the second is adoni. Sometimes ADONAI replaces YHWH in Hebrew as a circumlocution, like the capitalized LORD in many English versions.  But people knew it stood for the unsayable NAME.  Adoni is always a human master or lord.

But in Greek there is only one word for lord, kurios.  So the confusion most likely arose in a Greek-speaking environment.  This calls into question that this was actually a saying from the historical Jesus.  Much more likely is the theory that this saying arose in debate between early Christians and diaspora rabbis.  This is especially true since we can’t find Palestinian evidence that Psalm 110 served as a Messianic Psalm.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, never use it that way (Eduard Schweizer’s commentary on Mark).

Jesus could still have made this point, just not by misconstruing Psalm 110.  Perhaps Mark does preserve a memory that Jesus claimed not to owe his authority to David.  Perhaps it also preserves a memory that Jesus spoke of the son of man at the right hand of God, bringing together an image from this Psalm and Daniel (see Mark 14:62).

The passage reflects a discussion between the early church and the synagogue about the nature of messiahship.  Was the messiah a military and political leader like David, only more powerful and exalted?   Or did the messiah take on characteristics of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53?

I see no good argument that Jesus was not actually a descendant of David.  But this may have seemed a problem to the early Christians arguing that Jesus was a messiah both unlike David, the war lord, and not dependent upon David for his authority.

Eventually Paul voiced the view that Jesus was both son of David and Son of God but on different levels.

“. . .his Son who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh,  who was appointed the Son-of-God-in-power according to the Holy Spirit by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord  (Romans 1:3-4 NET Bible).

Mark 12:35 ff. probably constitutes part of the discussion that led up to Paul’s formulation.

This is not the kind of thing you can get into in a sermon if you want people to stay awake. The point for me is to avoid saying something that is wrong, for example, that David speaks rather than is spoken to in Psalm 110.  So I just said that the passage meant that Jesus was a different kind of messiah than the scribes may have expected and that he did not owe his authority to David.

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Mary and Martha-hospitality

A website that enhances my life is Pray as You Go.  It has 10 minute devotional podcasts every day.  It is a Jesuit site that promotes Ignatian spirituality.  So it is a Catholic site, but I have found it usually very ecumenical.

Today the meditation was about the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42).  Martha welcomes Jesus into their home and gets busy with the usual tasks of hospitality.  Mary sits at Jesus feet and listens. Martha wants Jesus to rebuke her sister for not helping. Jesus, however, reframes the whole situation.  Mary, he says, has chosen the better part.

The Pray as You Go devotional asks which sister has shown Jesus real hospitality.

Evangelical witness often has the goal of getting people to “receive Jesus”.  But in the New Testament “receive” usually means to welcome in the sense of hospitality.  Early in Luke 10 Jesus gave instructions to his disciples to accept hospitality in homes as they went on their mission of healing and proclaiming that “The kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 10:5-11).  In this passage receiving Jesus or rejecting him is the same as welcoming his messengers or not.  Compare John 1:11-12.

The Mary and Martha story might be Luke’s way of saying that receiving Jesus is not quite that simple.  As crucial as hospitality is, there is a point where being overly scrupulous about it gets in the way.  Jesus told the disciples to eat and drink whatever was set before them.  So high quality accommodations were not the point.

Martha crossed a line when she found that she could not graciously permit her sister to listen to Jesus.

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(Image from

The American preacher from colonial times, George Whitefield, had a sermon on this text entitled “The Care of the Soul Urged as the One Thing Needful”.  The care of the soul or perhaps (thinking of Michael Fishbane and the book I just read) God-mindfulness should not get crowded out by well-intentioned busyness.  Paying attention to God really is the most important kind of hospitality.

Fishbane said that the default position of so many people is going through life on auto-pilot, not really paying attention.  It looks to me like Jesus was trying to shock Martha out of her default position and get her to pay attention.

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I must confess at the outset that I am handicapped by not having read very much of Michael Fishbane before I read this book, Sacred Attunement  (Link to his Amazon page).  In particular, I have not read his 1985 book, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Apparently that book fleshes out his dynamic view of how scripture developed through continuous scribal revision.

He also published in 2003 Biblical Myth and Mythmaking.

So I have to make do with just this one book of his, for now.  I may not read the others since, as you can see on the above link, they are expensive.

In America we are used to classifying theologies as either liberal or conservative. Fishbane’s work would be classified as liberal if that scheme were valid.  But, going by what he says and does not say in this book, I am reluctant to make this classification.  I read another review that puts him in the camp of process theologians and other “non-theistic” theologians.  Really?  We need to listen to what he does not say as well as what he says.

He never says the thing that would put him in the camp with the process theologians.  He certainly speaks of the divinity behind the processes going on or “pulsating” through the world.  But he does not identify process with God.  He uses the revelation to Moses of the divine name to say that there is much we cannot say about God.  God is the “Shall Be” who spoke out of fire to Moses and out of the whirlwind to Job to maintain an openness beyond precise formulation.

In other words, he seems to me to maintain the Jewish fear of taking God’s name in vain. You violate this command by saying too much.   But process theology’s formulations, such as calling the world the body of God, seem to me to say more than Fishbane is willing to say.  Certainly, he puts a strong emphasis on God’s immanence.  But that is not the same thing.

In any case, I found Fishbane’s emphasis on attunement or paying attention or mindfulness more profound than the consciousness raising of new age jargon and pop psychology.  Fishbane connects up with my experience that in nature, in silence, in art and music, and in worship there seeps through an undeniable reality of “something more.” There is so much unbelief today because indoor living, electronic media and city life make it easier for us to shut ourselves off from such experiences.

I will never forget the profound interpretation of the Jacob’s ladder passage and the universalizing of Genesis 28:17,

“He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” (NET Bible).

Theology is something to be lived more than to be thought.  In an epilogue, Fishbane speaks of the life of hishtavut.  This comes from a Jewish mystical tradition and means something like equilibrium or  balance.  In lived theology and ongoing attunement we need to attend to the rhythms of life.  He relates this to three concrete ways of engaging this God-infused world with balance.

First is the act of breathing.  Breathing puts the body in touch with its own rhythms. Fishbane particularly calls attention to our ability to monitor our breathing and become aware both that we are alive and that life is fragile.

Second is speaking and communicating.  This requires paying attention to the ones to whom we speak.  There is a back-and-forth of hearing and speaking.  In this balance we create and pass on values.

Third is action.  Action, when it responds to the Torah, effectuates the balance between justice and righteousness, thus “bringing God to a human presence through ourselves, just here in the midst of the vastness.”

I am a Christian and believe in the Incarnation, that God fully came into human presence in Jesus.  The concealment of God becomes less profound.  There is new light.  But I have appreciated the warning from Fishbane and from other Jewish sources that it is still possible to say too much, that we must respect the darkness in which God dwells (1 Kings 8:12) even as we point to the light he has given.

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In an old notebook I have some notes taken from a talk by the German existentialist, Karl Jaspers.  Jaspers was talking about Immanuel Kant.

He said Kant asked a new question and Kant’s new question was, “What is the source of the agreement between the representations that enter our minds and the objective world outside our minds?”  Maybe the outside world impresses itself upon our minds.  Maybe our minds produce the outside world.  Kant rejected both of these answers.  Kant said that, since our own minds are one of the things we know as an object, we can’t use what appears to the mind to understand the subject-object relationship.

Instead, Kant sought to get beyond the subject-object split by talking about the ground or condition of all objectivity.  Kant answered his question by saying that the mind seems to produce the outside world, not with respect to its existence, but with respect to its form.

We order the world according to the forms of space and time, which are not attributes of the things in themselves.  So, as best I understand, in Kant’s view space and time only exist in our minds as ways to organize our experience, but our experience is of real objects.  It is important to realize that Kant did not think the world is an illusion.  He thought that our access to the world was through mere appearances that suggested a reality beyond.

I was reading these old notes to try to understand the point of view of Michael Fishbane in Sacred Attunement. He understands reality from the neo-Kantian viewpoint of philosopher Herrman Cohen.  Cohen’s school taught that language as a symbol system fleshed out our limited experience of reality.

It is in this vein that I understand Fishbane’s use of the metaphor from Exodus 33:22 of the “crevice of the rock.”  He suggests that we humans all share the limitations of Moses in a hole in the rock only getting hints and impressions of reality.

This “finitude of the spirit” means that we cannot know reality directly, but only through paying attention to what we perceive and then transcending that by a kind of artistic and poetic intuition.

Kant’s theory of perception removes perception from pragmatic reality too much, in my opinion.  For instance, the recent events of landing on a comet or flying past Pluto are based on space and time being  part of the essence of reality.  It seems astrophysics would become uninteresting if it was only about the arrangement of objects in our minds.  The same would apply to baseball or mowing the lawn.  It seems to me we know the material world more directly than philosophical idealism allows.  But I recognize that just because accepting the world that presents itself works for me and makes life interesting, does not necessarily make it true.

Nevertheless, Fishbane’s belief that God extends himself to us through the things we perceive is even more useful, it seems to me, if we have more direct access to reality than he allows.  And his position has the advantage of showing strong epistemological humility (not claiming we know too much or know too easily).

He couples this “spiritual finitude” with “physical finitude”.  By this he just means our mortality.  Death sets a boundary.  He speaks of accepting our mortality and of death and life being one.  I do not really understand this last, since I see death as the negation of life.

In this discussion he does not mention the resurrection of the dead.  I find that interesting because he earlier strongly affirmed the pharisee’s belief in the oral Torah.  But he doesn’t seem to hold to the other famous teaching of the pharisees.

I found this interesting article online on “Hermann Cohen’s Secular Messianism and Liberal Cosmopolitanism.”  One explanation for some of the things that puzzle me about Fishbane may be that he has substituted for biblical eschatology a secular, idealistic, and somewhat political hope.  This would not surprise me.  A lot of people do that nowadays.

All in all, I am coming around to the view that Cohen is very important background for understanding Fishbane.

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New clay tablet adds 20 lines to Epic of Gilgamesh

Here is an important Ancient Near East archeology link.  We have several additional lines of poetry from the Gilgamesh saga.  The tablet was apparently looted during the recent troubles in Iraq, and then sold back to a museum if Kurdistan. Experts there recognized it as an important Neo-Babylonian artifact.

The new lines speak of the anger of the gods after Gilgamesh beheads a supernatural giant and cuts down the sacred forest he was guarding.



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Liberal guilt-why I don’t have it

I have finished Michael Fishbane’s Jewish theology book, Sacred Attunement.

There is left only to write a couple posts summarizing the end and evaluating the whole.  I am thinking about it.

In the meantime I had an insight yesterday that I want to share.

My denomination (Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), like a lot of Protestant Mainline denominations, has its strongest presence among upper-middle class people.  One of the beefs of clergy has been that clergy have not received upper-middle class level compensation.  My family, as long as we had children at home, always qualified for food stamps,  We never used the program, but always qualified.  Compensation levels are rising now even as the denomination is declining. But many seminary educated clergy are unable to find positions at all.  I do not know how to explain all of this.

What I do know is that what happened to me during the 1980s says something important about the religious landscape of America.  I spent half of that decade working in one of our few lower-middle class congregations.  The people were coal miners, factory workers, small farmers, seamstresses and so on.

I went from that congregation to a congregation where the people were lawyers, bankers, business owners, high school teachers/administrators, college professors, and federal employees.  They hired people to do work on the church that volunteer handymen from the congregation would have done at the other church.  They didn’t ever have pot-luck dinners.  All their fellowship dinners were catered.  This  was in spite of the fact that a downturn in the local economy meant that most of them were struggling because of taking on too much debt in the more prosperous years.

I did not really understand what was happening at the time.  I experienced major culture shock.  The people in the second church seemed like snobs to me.  One of the reasons they called me was that they could take pride in my new doctor’s degree.  They wanted to tout their highly educated pastor.  But I had a natural tendency to downplay my credentials.  That did not go over well.

How to motivate or inspire these people was a mystery to me.

The colleague who followed me at the working class church had the opposite problem.  He talked to me sometimes of his frustration that these people were not like the people in other churches he had served.  They did not respond to his leadership the way others had. We both eventually moved from those congregations after disappointing ministries.

The insight I had yesterday was that a kind of economic guilt motivates prosperous folks. Many upper-middle class people respond strongly to a social justice message based on guilt over their privilege.  Many mainline pastors are masters at playing on that guilt.  You can get people to give money, volunteer time, and become activists by playing on the notion that these things somehow make up for their privilege.

An article here quotes Nigel Nicholson, a psychologist at the London Business School as saying that the growing gap between rich and poor makes this motivational factor even more powerful today.

“We live surrounded by stories of people who’ve ‘made it’ and images of things to buy that leave everyone unsettled. . . .If you don’t have money you’ll feel envious. If you do you’ll feel guilty – and paranoid you’re a target for that envy.”

This is what I call liberal guilt.  In my experience, people in the lower-middle class or working class don’t feel it so much.  They often feel that they don’t have much privilege and that what they do have, they have earned.

America is moving from a manufacturing and materials based economy to a service and information based economy.  We still need manufacturing and materials, but many see a future where the trend puts these things even more in the developing world and in the realm of robotics.  But–and this may just be my off-the-wall opinion–I think professionals in the service and IT fields have a harder time conceiving that they have earned their prosperity.

Here is my perspective:  I grew up on a farm.  I could literally see how the work we were doing was feeding people.  I started participating in that work when I was in grade school. So I never felt I was a burden on my parents.   I contributed.  They shared in my education expenses. But I did not see that as a privilege that I had not earned.

Farm life did not give us much in the way of creature comforts to feel guilty about.  We lived without any more amenities than the Amerinds on the nearby reservation. Indoor plumbing and electricity came to us about the same time they did to them.

This perspective may have handicapped me in my ministry.  I never had a very high standard of living and I never felt liberal guilt.  So I never appealed to it in my work. Apparently I missed out on a powerful tool.

Mine is a strange enough perspective among colleagues that I sometimes feel (in the colorful language of a Texan friend) like the bastard at the family reunion.  But I am retired now and can afford a sense of humor about it all.

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Hiyyuv is a Hebrew word that means obligation.

I am surprised by how Michael Fishbane in Sacred Attunement uses this concept.  He says that obligation is given with creation.  He talks about how as humans become aware of their placement in creation, they awaken to their obligation.  They find their life-task.  He applies the concept, however, to all creation, not just humans.

Some of his language seems more poetic than discursive, so I will just quote a few sentences and let you consider it yourself.

“There are cells, and molecules, and proteins; and there are structures, and orbits and organisms, insofar as there is life, necessity and freedom are their attributes, in different orders of realization.  They all variously conjoin or disjoin, select or grope, or play host or guest, depending on who or what they are.  Already, molecular impulses have an inner hiyyuv, which strives for ongoing coherence and sustenance of their reality; and they are coupled by degrees of freedom, this being their capacity to seek out and select creative possibilities for ongoing existence, within the circuit of all that imposes claims on them.”

As a human being, I think I know what freedom and free will mean in my experience.  But I do not know what it means for a molecule or an orbit to have freedom.  Do these things have volition?  Or is this just a way of speaking?  When I read this kind of stuff in Teilhard de Chardin, I know that Bergson’s philosophy is behind it.  I am not so sure where Fishbane is coming from.

This much I understand:  Fishbane believes that in evolution and other natural processes God’s creation of the world continues.  In divinely guided processes, obligation or hiyyuv presses upon cells and structures as well as humans.

He does talk about how human will is of a different order.  In fact, humans have a unique ability to subvert and corrupt the “pulsing possibilities of life.” (But if other components of the world do not have this ability, what is the point of saying they have freedom?)  In spite of this, humans can read the signs of an all-encompassing good which is all around them. The Bible adds to this another sign, the gift of tradition.

The Bible specifies certain moral and religious obligations.  But these align with the obligations that are given with creation.  They are meant to further them.  They do not call for punctilious legalism, but for a conversion of consciousness.  They call attention to the givingness of God, and call on us to renounce self-serving and imitate the bestowing God in our own “acts of bestowal”.  So covenant theology is an ongoing human attunement to God within the field of scripture and tradition.

One of the things I appreciate about Fishbane is that just when I think he is going to get lost in a kind of theo-babble, he comes back to earth with an everyday example.  What he has been talking about, he says, is what we experience in the simple act of opening our eyes in the morning.  When we do that every day, we confront our tasks and our loves.

The woman in Song of Solomon 5:2 says,  “I am asleep, but my heart is awake” (NET Bible).  Her beloved then calls upon her to open her eyes to love.  Spiritually, we all experience this each day.  Opening our eyes, we see the hiyyuv given to us.

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