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Thanksgiving Gratitude for Biblical Artists

The_sacrifice_of_Abraham

“The Sacrifice of Isaac”, by Rembrandt (1635), The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Maybe you also have friends who are remarkable artists, talents that their families say began emerging from earliest childhood.   Then there are the rest of us who can appreciate art.   I long ago reconciled myself to being in the latter category, justifying that someone had to troop through all those galleries and museums oohing and aahing.

When I saw the first Biblically themed painting by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, however, my appreciation was lifted to a new category of reverence. Look at what this master of light and brush strokes glimpsed–often something of the very details I had imagined and pondered in the same Biblical account. We somehow met across the centuries–in New York, London, Paris– or wherever his work was gracing a museum. He, with his inspired insights, and me (joining millions of other viewers) with our gratitude of wonderment for his genius in capturing what before had been in the mind’s eye.

Slowly it began to dawn, after looking at his magnificent work over the past three decades, that he was interpreting the Scriptural text every bit as much as the person whose medium was the written word.

An example of this visual interpretation is Rembrandt’s depiction of that turning point in the book of Genesis when the angel stops Abraham just as he is about to obediently obey God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. While it is clear the painting is based on Genesis 22, there are certain decisions Rembrandt had to make in his visual retelling.

  • Did Isaac go along with the sacrifice or was the boy terrified?
  • What was Abraham’s attitude in all this: heartbreak, acquiescence, resolve?
  • Was the angel so close Abraham could almost ‘feel’ this symbol of God’s presence?
  • And where is God in all this?

The text doesn’t spell all this out so it is left to us – and the artist—to discern.

First, the focal point of the painting is the light on Isaac’s chest, which then takes the viewer up to Abraham’s startled face. Such a registering of surprise hints at how resolute this servant of God was in obediently carrying out the directive to sacrifice his son. Abraham’s shock at the angel’s interruption could communicate just how close the knife must have come to the boy’s exposed throat. And of course the angel’s left hand, literally restraining Abraham, is another way of seeing how the father had to be forcefully stopped, so single-minded was he to carry out God’s order.

How does Rembrandt interpret Isaac’s attitude at this dramatic turn of events, when he is suddenly bound and becomes aware he is the sacrifice instead of an animal?  Isaac’s legs are one clue that he was willing to give his life out of love for his father and/or his father’s desire to follow God’s directive. The boy’s body shows he is strong and yet the legs – which could resist – are not stiff and pushing back, especially with the right one open and bent on the ground.

The knife literally falling through the air is a third example of how Rembrandt silently but so powerfully communicates the sense of urgency with which the angel had to move to restrain this father so ready to fulfill a divine directive. Does this tell us how much Abraham loves this son  he is willing to kill?  Look at how tenderly Abraham shields the boy’s eyes from his imminent death so he doesn’t have to see his father’s final act that will end Isaac’s life.

Genesis 22:17 tells of the angel’s blessing on Abraham’s progeny, so movingly declared by the angelic messenger’s raised hand, with open palm pointing upward.  And what about the blue garment underlying Isaac’s body, and how the color is picked up on angel’s sleeve and again in the sky?  Is that to unify the major ‘actors’, including perhaps God, represented by the sky?

There is so much to discern and these ideas are only touching the surface. If you like this brief glimpse, you might enjoy a book by Dutch cultural theorist, Mieke Bal, Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition. Meanwhile, please share your insights on this painting in the comments section below.

Join me in offering a Thanksgiving prayer of thanks for Rembrandt’s commitment to interpret the Bible by bringing his enormous repertoire of artistic talents to the task.  One wonders if he suspected they were God-given.

 

 

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How Biblical Feasts Teach Lessons Today

Rembrandt_Emmaus supper

The Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt, 1629

Feasts and food play a surprising role in the Scriptures when you consider how many people went to bed hungry.  And maybe that’s the point.  While eating and drinking sustain human life, they also create the opportunity to celebrate God as the One who provides life. And they then become metaphors throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament of any kind of event where human needs are met.

Where so many were chronically hungry,  the power to control food was in the hands of the wealthy. That was one reason Israel created laws to protect their poorest citizens from starvation by giving permission to eat grain from a neighbor’s field, or leave some for the poor at harvest time (see Ruth 2).

Eating together provided social bonding, such as in families where everyone trusted the other. That Joseph’s brothers ate a meal after so callously tossing him into a pit to die has extra harsh rings through this ancient ‘food lens’ (Gen. 37:23).

Jesus told a parable about a rich man who wouldn’t provide even crumbs for poor Lazarus begging at his gate—only to have their roles dramatically reversed in the afterlife. As the poor are rich and the rich are poor, Lazarus is now in the place regarded as the highest bliss by Jews, the bosom of Abraham. When the rich man begs for mercy from Hades for drink, Abraham addresses him as ‘child’, implying that although he was a Jew by birth, there was no guarantee of his eventual place in paradise. The parable continues to have impact in a society divided by the well-fed and the hungry (see Luke 16:19-31).

Matthew 22 has another parable Jesus tells to explain the kingdom of heaven built around a banquet. The king prepares a dinner feast for his son’s wedding and since meat was eaten only at special festivals, the killing and preparation of ox and cattle was a special treat. Yet the guests ‘paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses’ (Matt. 22:5, Common English Bible). The servants went out to find those who would like to be guests and the lesson of hearing the Kingdom message instead of turning away was heard with extra amazement for those who would never turn down an invitation to such plenty.

In fact, Israelite faith was historically grounded in and forever celebrated around a meal. The Passover showed not only God’s provision for nourishment, but also the Almighty’s protecting power. Scholars believe the Passover began as a nomadic holiday to ensure the safe passage of sheep or goats to summer pastures, and centered on the sacrifice of a young lamb or goat.

Exodus 12 – 13 tells us that the night of the Exodus, however, the Israelites were to take the blood of the sacrificed animal and smear it on their doorposts. This would be the indication that the angel of death would ‘skip over’, i.e. ‘pass over’ (or protect) the Israelites’ homes and bring damage only to the Egyptians. These chapters direct the Israelites’ descendants to never forget this towering demonstration of God’s love and protection.

“In honor of the Lord your God, celebrate the Passover each year in the early spring, in the month of Abib, for that was the month in which the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night” (Deut. 16:1, New Living Translation).

And so the Jews continued this practice for the next 1300 years that led to the New Testament period in which the gospels explain the three occasions in which Christ Jesus kept the Passover tradition of his ancestors. The most famous is his final meal that has become a core worship practice for millions of Christians called the Eucharist or Last Supper.

While each Gospel tells its version of The Last Supper, only Luke has a verse that precedes the sharing of the bread and wine.  “For I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16, New Revised Standard Version). Then what happens at the end of Luke’s Gospel? The risen Christ shares meals.

The first is with the two men leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus, despondent over the crucifixion and not yet aware of the stone rolled away. Christ Jesus eventually reveals himself , and when? At the meal, where “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them (Luke 24:30, NRSV).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus appears as the disciples have returned to their earlier fishing profession. Catching nothing, they realize their Master is on the shore and has prepared a meal of fish and bread for them. In the centuries hence, we see that the meal that had celebrated God’s deliverance now points to the fulfillment of the Kingdom, here, now.

No wonder we continue to say a grace of thanks before partaking of a meal, remembering how much food is symbolic of God’s ever-providing love.

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Praying the Psalms

Laon_1562_Ps1

Psaume 1 extrait de l’édition des Psaumes de David de Jean de Laon (Genève, 1562)

The Psalms don’t teach us about God so much as move us into conversation with God. Structured in five parts–really a hymnal divided into five sections–they mirror the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses. While those first five books introduce us to the great Creator, God, and His children, you might think of Psalms as our answer to those extraordinary spiritual truths.

The Psalms are both prayers and teachers in how to pray. Think of the centuries in which Jews and Christians have gathered together to move through the Psalms together, month after month, year after year, letting their cries of praise, anguish (and every feeling between), flood their collective and individual lives.

The whole gamut of emotions, in every degree, is here–the spiritual footprints of Truth-seekers who yearned to answer God with their lives. The Biblical writer and translator, Eugene Peterson, describes the Psalms as ‘tools of faith’ that mature us spiritually by helping us grow out of spiritual adolescence. They do this if we consent to their transforming power that matures our prayer life.

Here’s a brief example from my prayers with Psalm 1,  a kind of set-up for the rest of the book, describing the erect and alert mental posture required to let their poetry take hold of us. The first verse (Psalm 1:1) delivers a startling promise that applies to a world that looks like it is running amok with evil in both its aggressive and subtle forms.

         Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1 KJV).

There is a kind of reverse progression in the verbs: walk, stand, sit. It spoke to me as a promise of the diminishing of evil’s activity, of evil’s ability to haunt us – whether in the distance of a foreign land or in our own home. And it’s a roadmap for each one’s spiritual path: that we are blessed, enriched, showered with the presence of the Great Giver when we refuse to give any action to evil in our actions (to walk); or in our mental perspective (to stand); or even what we might have stubbornly believed for years (to sit), such as a false assumption about ourselves or others.

Thinking and praying about this single verse has provided a confidence that no matter how ugly or daunting evil seems to be, the blessings — the power and presence of God — diminish its presence in action, thought and even motive.

And that’s only verse one of thousands of subsequent verses over the landscape of 150 Psalms. What a gift the Psalter gave us by organizing the poetry that cuts to that deepest place of desire to know our Lord more. Praise God.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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What does the Bible say about Aging?

AU Biking aug 2014

Adventure Unlimited Bike Camp

Are you one of the many who believe there is not a single subject today that the Bible hasn’t already addressed? Take a relatively new term like ageism, which along with racism and sexism,  are three areas that spark discrimination. What does the Bible say about aging? About being in a life stage where people used to take it easy but you don’t want to kick back.   If this interests you, where would you turn?

You can always look up Bible verses using the word “age”. However, a better result comes from knowing the Scriptures better, through regular Bible study over months and years.  You might think of characters, rather than single verses, that illustrate the ideas you want to understand more. And that’s what led me to a figure from the Old Testament on a recent adventure.

My husband and I took a glorious bike ride in the Colorado Rockies as part of our summer travel.   I was struck by our fellow cyclists on this 30-35 mile journey one morning at about 9000’. No one in the group was –let’s just say – in the beginning stages of their career. Yet we hooped and hollered our way up and down rolling hills and mountain passes like teenagers.

Somewhere between feeling the glorious air and taking in the brilliant blue sky, I had a “Caleb” moment. You probably recall.  Caleb was the young spy Moses asked, along with twelve others,  to check out the Promised Land to see how much resistance they’d meet when entering.  He came back with an unblinkingly courageous report that their military invasion could be successful — even though ten others recoiled from the challenge.

Forty years later Caleb approached Joshua to claim the land Moses had promised him for his faithfulness.

I am as strong this day as I was in the day that Moses sent me: as my strength was then, even so is my strength now, for war, both to go out, and to come in. (Josh. 14:11)

In pushing back barriers of ageism – one of the most vicious forms of stereotyping today —we prove our God-given strength, just like Caleb.

As in all Bible study, I find that even a small effort to find out something about a character yields up great results for life today. In Caleb’s case, a little research revealed that the root of his name is from klb, ‘dog’, and usually conveys a sense of self-abasement. But it can also refer to a faithful watchdog and is used in certain ancient letters and hymns to express a servant’s faithfulness.

Caleb’s name–and how he saw himself in relation to it — was the key to his continuing strength and courage.  He was not weak and self-effacing, but a faithful and obedient servant to God.   By glimpsing this long-ago figure’s courage and fidelity, I was able to scale a mountain pass and cheer on our fellow riders doing the same – and of course, hooping!

 

 

 

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Study the Book of Joshua? Really??

“I’m clueless how someone could get spiritual inspiration from The Book of Joshua since it’s all about blood and battles!” If that sounds familiar, you might be overlooking some of Joshua’s spiritual insights in this Old Testament gem which I’ve been recently discovering with a deeper reading.

Illustrators of the 1897 "Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us" by Charles Foster

The two Israelites letting themselves down from Rahab’s house when they spied in Jericho.  Illustrators of the 1897 “Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us” by Charles Foster.

First, Joshua is about claiming one’s inheritance from God, in this case the Israelites securing theirs. This bestowal goes back to Abraham when God tells the Patriarch: “For all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever (Gen. 13:15, NKJV).”

If you also have had a tough time, as I have, finding the inspirational message of Joshua, consider it a lesson in what is required to claim our spiritual inheritance. Does it require effort? Do you have to battle and destroy the demons—such as self-criticism, self-worth, self-doubt and all the other ‘self’ voices that would keep us from asserting claim to what God has already provided. Paul must have glimpsed this when he would centuries later write: “I (God) will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty (II Cor. 6:17, 18).”

There are marvelous insights in simply how the order of the story of Joshua and the Israelites unfolds.   Here are some that opened up for me and I’d love to hear yours.

Step 1: Prepare. Over a fifth of the Book of Joshua is about the careful preparation to go into battle.

Step 2: Be alert and aware of what the danger signs are. In Joshua’s case, he sent spies into Jericho to assess their opponents.

Step 3: Be prepared for the unexpected. What a surprise that the individual who offered the spies the most protection was from the lowest level of society, a female and prostitute to boot!   Rahab would both protect the men from her own king and be protected after the Israelites entered her city.

Step 4: Keep the Law squarely in front of you. The Israelites literally went through the enemy’s camp with the Ark of the Covenant before them, which contained the tablets of the Law—a great reminder to stay conscious of God’s law regardless of whatever is facing you.

There are more spiritual gems to glean as the chapters continue. Perhaps you and friends can form a Bible Study group and read the Book of Joshua together.  As you discover additional insights, demand to see how they have contemporary application.  We’re not just reading history but the Word of God and It is speaking to us continually.

Finally, although everyone else thought of Joshua as a great leader, he was very aware of who was really guiding his people. A heavenly figure shows up suddenly in chapter 5 and identifies himself as the Commander of the Lord’s heavenly army (see Josh. 6:13-15). Joshua fell immediately to his knees in awe and hears the same command made to Moses: “Take your sandals off your feet because the place where you are standing is holy (Josh. 6:15).”

The Book of Deuteronomy restates the covenant on which the Book of Joshua is built, and serves as an important reminder of what awaits each of us as we keep digging into the Scriptures:

            But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be His people, an inheritance, as you are this day (Deut. 4:20,   NKJV).

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