Monday, January 10, 2011

The Genesis of Forgiveness

This month I will be scanning the Bible to see how the theme of forgiveness manifests itself in the declarations of God and the stories of the people. Hoping to identify key passages and study them in detail appropriate to the level of importance, I will then utilize this in my analysis of Karl Barth's theology of forgiveness. In February and March my church in Aberdeen has also graciously leant me the pulpit to preach from three of the key passages. Having spent my first day in the book of Genesis I thought it might be helpful (to me) and interesting (to you) to post some of the things I noted as I perused the incredible first fifty chapters of the Bible. What follows is a cursory look at ways I see forgiveness cropping up either explicitly or implicitly in those pages.

Although I am hardly doing a word study here, it will be interesting to note when the two main Hebrew words that can be rendered in terms of forgiveness are used in Genesis. They are: כָּפַר kaphar, which commonly meant to cover, and נָשָׂא nasa', which meant to lift or bear up. From here on I will use their transliterations (the italics).

Fall-out from the Fall [Gen 3]:
Distinguishing forgiveness from the general grace of the Creator to do good for creatures as the offer of goodness despite badness, we first see something like it when the first humans have disobeyed God and in shame turned against each other. Though God has told them that disobeying him will mean their certain death, and follows up their disobedience with the information that "to dust you will return", the very next verse sees Adam naming his wife Eve, which designates her "the mother of all the living" [19-20]. God also provides clothes to cover their shame [21]. Despite the curse of creaturely fallenness and the promise of justice, life goes on. Though the conditions of earth have changed, God seems willing to work with them, and the discordant note struck against discord is a promising sign.

Cain's Protection [Gen 4]:
Cain is the child born from God despite creaturely disobedience [1]. After killing Abel, he is told his enmity with the ground will be worse, and because of the difficulty he will have farming he will be a "restless wanderer". When Cain calls this punishment too much for him to bear (nasa'), lamenting the danger of a fugitive nomad particularly [13-14], God marks him out (somehow) so that people know that vengeance will come 7 times over to anyone who kills Cain. Despite being a murderer, Cain goes "out from the presence of the Lord" protected, has a wife and kids, and even founds a city. Curiously, his triple-great grandson Lamech takes it upon himself to declare that vengeance will come 77 times over to anyone who so much as hurts him [24]. These numbers will be picked up by Jesus and flipped on their head in Matthew 18's teaching about forgiveness.

Noah's Rescue [Gen 6-9]:
Though God has allowed life to go on, things have gotten out of hand and God has declared: "My Spirit will not contend with humanity forever" [6:3]. Among the people of his time, Noah is found relatively blameless [6:8-9; 7:1], and so is told (in this order) to build a wooden boat and cover (kaphar) it with pitch inside and out [6:14] so that floodwaters will not destroy him [17]. Having done so, when the waters do come they lift up (nasa') and elevate the boat above the wicked earth, thus rescuing a remnant of persons and creatures for their continuation. Curiously, the boat's protective cover [kaphar] is different from the destructive cover [kacah] of the earth with floodwaters (and also in Exodus 15:5&10 the Egyptians), and also from the cover-up schemes that take place later in Genesis [see 9:23; 24:65; 37:26; 38:14f]. In conclusion, God reserves his wrath against people, "even though the inclination of their hearts is evil from childhood" [8:21]. The mark protecting Cain is replaced with a declaration that "each person" will be held accountable for the lives of each other person [9:5]. Life, as we know it, goes on.

Noah's Rescue, part 2 [Gen 9:18-27]:
Noah gets drunk and somehow ends up naked in his living room. Ham sees him and runs and tells his brothers. Shem and Japheth come and cover (kacah not kaphar) up his nakedness (as God had done in Eden, and later does for the priests in Ex 28:42) with their faces turned away. Noah saves some face, proceeding to curse Ham for his reaction to Noah's foolishness and to bless Shem and Japheth for theirs.

From Abram to Abraham [Gen 15-17]:
Abram is promised land and offspring despite his wife's barrenness. Believing this, Abram is credited as righteous [15]. However, he and Sarah act in disbelief by trying to conceive via their servant Hagar, and this results in nothing but trouble [16]. The child, Ishmael, is blessed, but is also promised a life of resultant hostility (which has only born true in history). It isn't until 13 years later that God's promise is fulfilled through Sarah, and here the promise is extended to make Abram into Abraham and call him the "father of many nations" [17:18]. In the process, when Abraham asks "what about Ishmael?", God implies that he will be a great nation himself but will still be blessed through this promised son, Isaac, and not vice versa [17:18-23; 21:18]. The blessing is not removed from other nations for the sake of one, but despite all this discord and disobedience, is ordered toward all nations in a certain way through this one.

Abraham Pleads for Sodom [Gen 18-19]:
A telling and important moment in all the above is when Abraham lifts up (nasa') his eyes and sees God in three persons on the road, and appeals to their good favour not to "pass your servant by" [18:3]. That they are gracious to him seems to be infectious in his own life, since before the chapter is out he will be pleading also for these divine visitors to have mercy on others as well. The three visitors decide not to cover (kacah not kaphar) up their plans with Sodom and tell Abram that the "outcry" of wickedness has reached them and they have come to check whether indeed the "outcry is so great" [18:20; 19:13]. (I think it interesting that in this infamous case of God's wrath against sin it is a response to victimization and not some supposed "self-righteousness" that motivates God's judgment here). Without being privy to the same outcry, but no doubt aware of the possibilities of evil, Abraham pleads for Sodom and asks that the whole city be spared on account of first 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally 10 righteous people who might be found there. What Abraham asks is whether God might nasa' the place if 50 righteous are found, and God promises that if 50 are found the city He will indeed nasa' (spare) them.

Thereafter the narrative takes an increasingly abbreviated form and the nasa' is implicit in the "not destroying" and "not doing it" that Abraham asks for. (Why Abraham stops at 10 we are not told and we can only assume that in God's eyes Lot's family did not exceed the requested 10). When the mob at Lot's door wishes to rape his houseguests (two of the divine persons!) and Lot offers them his daughters instead, we see that the divine visitors are quick to their conclusion: This city has not passed inspection.

Curiously, in flight from Sodom, Lot makes it clear that his version of being spared (chayah not nasa') is residence in a nearby village, and at this the divine visitors flex with his request and declare it nasa' (granted). Lot is hardly cooperative with these rescuers in this episode, showing a great slowness despite their urgings to safety, and one can only imagine him barely escaping the same fate as his wife, who is turned to salt for looking back. Whatever we might say about this whole ugly scene, we can say that the nasa' offered Lot manifests itself in a less-than legalistic and rigid but nonetheless urgent and demanding call for cooperation on the part of the divine visitors. And (as Kampen's comment on an early edition of this post made me notice), Lot is forgiven his part in Sodom's atrocities not at his own request, but Abraham's.

[to be continued]


Kampen said...

I started something like this last year, but it was much more brief. One of the things I initially noticed was an absence cases in which an offender directly appeals for forgiveness from the person/party they have offended. My question therefore was, can forgiveness be appealed/asked for? There are certainly ways in which this is an imperialist move. If you come across anything that speaks to this I'd love to hear about it.

Jon Coutts said...

That's an interesting observation. I will definitely watch for that in the future. I had intended to come back and extend my reflections on the Sodom episode, and you'll notice in the revisions to the post that you have already helped me to put words to something I had noticed there. Thanks.

Jon Coutts said...

By the way, this Sodom episode is astounding in its oft-overlooked complexity. For instance, Lot is probably saved because of his hospitality, not because he is a heterosexual or an altogether stand up individual. The visitors fully intend to stay in the city square, but Lot invites them in, and it is this which ends up being most fortuitous for him.

Lot's 'orientation' is irrelevant to the story. But he does offer his daughters to sexually appease the mob. The text gives us no reason to side with Lot in his preference for heterosexual rape over homosexual rape. In fact, the dishonour of not protecting one's houseguests is likely Lot's main concern actually. Regardless, the visitors keep Lots' daughters from being offered up in this way, and from the reader's standpoint it can really only be said that Lot is rescued because of (a) his history and relation to Abraham and (b) his hospitality to these visitors.

I should also mention that it is not all that clear where the "outcry" is coming from that allegedly reaches the Lord's ears. In chapter 18 we might assume it is the victims of abuse and so on, but in 19:13 the "outcry to the Lord against its people" is basically the conditions that these divine visitors have witnessed with their own two eyes. It is clearly an anthropomorphism meant to signify God's attentiveness not only to wickedness and abusiveness but to degrees of evil, and lines where it will be allowed to go no further.

Colin Toffelmire said...

So this is the point where I put on my "annoying biblical scholar" hat and give you a hard time. Particularly in your examination of the Noah episode, but also generally throughout here, you engage in some rather severe lexical fallacies.

The question of the meaning of a word like nasa' must be established by means of a broad lexical study of the entire OT (or at least of a significant corpus like the Torah) before you can legitimately speak about what it means or how it functions. For instance, bringing up the use of nasa' for the covering of the ark with pitch, and reading this as in some way significant with regard to forgiveness, is entirely tendentious. There is no particular reason to assume that the connotation of forgiveness is implied in what appears to be a very clear literal use of the word. You need to distinguish between the semantic kernel of the word (what it means at its very core) and the way that kernel is extended via metaphor.

All of this comes down to a long-standing irritation that biblical scholars have with the way that theologians use (and often abuse) the biblical languages. The classic book on this issues is Barr's The Semantics of Biblical Languages.

Sorry, have to go now, but there is probably more to be said on this front.

Jon Coutts said...

That's exactly what has to be said if one wishes to make use of that word for more than context allows. In my defense I'm just noting things here while doing that very broad study you are calling for. Perhaps I shouldn't publish such notes, but I do find something helpful in playing with texts, letting words ring off each other, and so on, even if the best help that can be had is a rebuke such as yours and a return to the clear statements as most important.

Having said that, one thing that will annoy theologians in return is when grammatical rules are too quickly used to squash such wordplay so that the text is no longer alive but is beholden to those who make the rules. There is a pretty longstanding tradition of allegorical interpretation and intertextual echo (even in Paul) to allow for some word-play, so long as the clear statements and beliefs are the ones lighting up and distinguishing the value of less-clear and less-credible notions.

So at this point I don't mean to put a lot of weight on tendentious curiousities, but I want to allow them some room to bounce around at least as I go along. When I come back to key texts and passages and do stricter exegetical analyses, the cream will rise to the top.

By all means keep the rebukes coming. I'd be curious to know where else you think I'm in danger of "sever lexical fallacies". I should have been more clear that at this point I don't want to pretend that every note is to be taken equally.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I must posted a massively long answer, and the blogger deleted it. Argh. I may try again later.

Tony Tanti said...

Interesting point about Lot's hospitality vs. the sexual implications there. I've always been disturbed by the offering of his daughters.

Jon Coutts said...

that blows Colin, sorry to hear it.
I look forward to your lambastings, should they be forthcoming, and appreciate the accountability of knowing someone out there might be reading who both gives a crap and knows his hebrew. I'll admit I'm going to be a hack at best in this regard.

Jon Coutts said...

In reflection on my own post, I confess that my distinctions between senses of "covering" (kacah and kaphar) comes off as overblown. If anything I'm trying to note distinctions in word use in order to keep from importing too much into kaphar. Were I to rewrite I would probably say that with the ark and the other "coverings" we have a theme that is picked up in some ways in later texts for fresh meaning which does not necessarily import itself all the way back into the old uses. That said, I still like there to be some room to play and explore within the canon.