While wonks, historians and constitutional lawyers are forever going on about “The Federalist Papers,” the rest of us, not so much. We heard about them briefly in U.S. History class, maybe more than briefly if you were smart enough to be in Advanced Placement, which I most certainly wasn’t. After high school, “The Federalist Papers” got pushed aside to make room for more important matters, like employment and beer bongs. Then along came the smash musical Hamilton, and suddenly an entire younger generation was talking, or more accurately singing along, about the founding of our nation. Not only do they know who wrote “The Federalist Papers,” they even know how many were written by those slackers, John Jay and James Madison, and how many were written by the ten-dollar Founding Father, the great Alexander Hamilton. What the musical doesn’t teach them, however, is that while three men contributed to the papers, they were all published under a single pseudonym, Publius.
We wrestle with scripture texts that use a false name, but a pen name isn’t exactly that. It isn’t so much fraud as it is secrecy. The practice of using a pen name continues to this day. The mystery writer Robert Galbraith is, for example and as most know, Joanne Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.
People write under false names for many reasons, sometimes, like Rowling, to try on a new genre. Women have often written under a male pen name to avoid discrimination. Sometimes a pseudonym is used to allow someone to play “Devil’s advocate,” a phrase that has always troubled me, not only because, you know, who wants to advocate for the Devil?, but also because it is almost always said just before someone tosses a grenade into an effort to find consensus. If your statement needs a disclaimer, maybe you should pause a moment and ask yourself if it should be said at all.
Playing the “devil’s advocate” may or may not have been the case with an 1843 work attributed to Johannes de Silentio, or John of the Silence. The work, “Fear and Trembling,” borrows a name from Philippians that is itself inspired by a line in the 55th psalm. The real author of the work was the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, a brilliant writer and thinker. The text tries to make sense of Abraham’s faith, a faith that drove him up the mountain with the full intention of killing his son. We don’t know for sure if Kierkegaard wrote the work under a pseudonym because he didn’t believe what he wrote, or because he did. In any case, it doesn’t matter to me. As far as I am concerned, it’s all poppycock.
I find slightly more meaning in the words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan:
Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61”
I find slightly more meaning in “Highway 61,” but not much. I’m not really interested in why Abraham would do such a thing. I want to know what sort of God would even ask. Here is this elderly man who has always wanted a son by his wife, because Ishmael, the son by the woman that wasn’t his wife, wasn’t good enough, but that’s another sermon. God makes real the impossible, a miracle, and the elderly Abraham and Sarah have a beloved son, Isaac. Then God threatens to take it all away. I don’t want to hear about testing. What sort of all-powerful and loving God would cause this fear and trembling? Certainly not a God I could worship.
And amazingly enough, it gets worse if you really study the text. Yes, I know, a conveniently placed ram, deus ex machina, Abraham proven faithful, Isaac lives, Jacob and Joseph and Egypt to Moses, one domino after another all the way to Jesus. But here’s the thing: Verse 19, “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beer-sheba.” Yeah? And where’s Isaac? And don’t say it is implied because going up it is made very clear that “the two of them walked on together.”
God gives the instruction, but it is a messenger of God who stays Abraham’s hand. What is this messenger? The language is unclear. Angel? Manifestation?
Some authors argue that in the original layer of text, Abraham sacrifices his son. They may well have a point.
The Torah is a mess, and Genesis is the messiest of the messy. To understand why, you have to know a little about how the first five books of Hebrew Scripture came together.
When King Solomon died, the kingdom his father David had created after he seized power from the warlord Saul fell apart. The Northern part of the kingdom, where ten of the original twelve tribes lived, was called Israel or Samaria, while the Southern portion was called Judah. They had a border, different kings, sometimes even went to war. Though they grew out of the same Hebrew tradition, they developed their own theologies and their own texts. Today, we call Israel’s scripture E, for the word Elohim, a Hebrew title for God, for the northern text does not use the name Yahweh until it is revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Judah’s text is referred to as J, but just to be super confusing, the J is not for Judah. J calls God Yahweh from its very first sentence, and Yahweh in German starts with a J. Because when it comes to the Bible, the Germans pretty much figure everything out.
In 722 BCE, the Assyrians crushed Israel. This is where we get the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes, though in truth, some of them made it to Judah, bringing along their text. Someone used both texts to create a single narrative. We call this person RJE, for “redactor,” which is a fancy way to say editor or repairer. Sometimes the job of weaving together the two separate text traditions was clumsy, leaving us with contradictory versions of the same event, most notably creation, but also some material around Noah. In other places, RJE didn’t like what was there, so he improved the story by adding stuff, stuff like a messenger of God and a conveniently located ram.
There would be other layers added, like P, when a group of priests got their hands on the text and added a whole lot of stuff about how really super cool and super important priests were, and D, for Deuteronomy, an entire book plus bits and pieces added during the reign of Josiah.
Picking apart the different sections isn’t precise, but word choice and grammar change over time, in ancient times just like today. Given two sermons, you could probably figure out which one I wrote and which was from the Rev. Jonathan Fisher. Based on all of the available evidence, including the use of Elohim for God, scholars believe that the first part of the Abraham and Isaac story is the oldest, and comes from Israel. And they believe that the angel and the ram were inserted by RJE.
Child sacrifice was a common practice in the Ancient Near East. Later Hebrew authors like RJE would go back and rewrite texts to make it appear that the Jewish people sprang forth as a fully formed culture of ethical monotheism, one good god, but they didn’t. The Hebrew people were like any other people. They borrowed from other faiths, adapted their own story to meet the needs of changing conditions, grew and learned in their experience of the world and in their encounter with divine mystery. When we read the Hebrew scripture, we are looking at a nice paint job, but in some spots, the old peaks through.
Abraham probably killed Isaac in the original myth. The angel and the ram are fake news. We now understand the stories of the patriarchs as a creative combination of disparate myth traditions, folktales written down, made to fit the way later Hebrews wanted to understand themselves. This is not comforting news if you need certainty and a consistent story, but scripture isn’t one single story, isn’t at all consistent.
The story they had no longer met their needs. It didn’t fit who they wanted to be. So they changed their story, created a story they could live into, one that didn’t involve human sacrifice.
A story in this week’s Economist about planets starts by claiming that science begins with collection, that once you have enough objects, enough data, you can start to see patterns. The same is true with human behavior, with history, with theology. The Hebrews told themselves a story about God’s blessing based on the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Moses, the covenant with David, this idea that they alone were chosen, privileged above all other humans on the earth, a kingdom that would rule forever. Then the data started coming in. Defeat after defeat and they needed a new story.
The early Christians would create a new story, one where God was not the vengeful deity of one tribe, but was a universal god of love.
You can change your story. Even history changes when we learn new ways to look at it.
As we gather as a worshipping community this morning, delegates from United Church of Christ congregations around the country gather in Baltimore for our 31st General Synod. Four years ago, when we gathered in Long Beach, California, UCC delegates adopted a Resolution of Witness renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery, asking local congregations to engage in prayerful study and discussion on the subject.
What is the Doctrine of Discovery? It is the paradigm that claims white Europeans discovered the Americas. Think about the word “discover.” It means to find or identify something no previous person has found or identified. The Doctrine of Discovery disregards the peoples that were already on these continents, devaluing their humanity and their cultures, and so set the stage for four centuries of racism and genocide, and we’re still counting. Even Jonathan Fisher wrote of the mistreatment of the “Red-man.”
Renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery is not going to undo history, and it certainly isn’t going to bring back those murdered at Sand Creek or infected with smallpox. But it might help us live into a future where we never do such despicable things again.
The Germans had a toxic national story, and we know where that led. They had to create a new national story that they could live into.
I’m not suggesting that the new story should be a fabrication, a lie. We have more than enough of that these days. I don’t care how many times Christian Gerhartsreiter called himself Clark Rockefeller, he still wasn’t a Rockefeller, and he was still a murderer. The data comes in and scripture tells us “you shall know them by their fruits,” which means to me that you should start with the assumption that people you have experienced as thoughtful and kind are probably doing thoughtful and kind things, and people you have experienced as bullies and liars are probably not pursuing a thoughtful and kind agenda.
You can choose which parts of your story to emphasize and which to put in the footnotes. The musical Hamilton says “you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” I disagree, but only in that I have no interest in the story that is told when I am gone. I am interested in the story into which I will live. Into which you will live.
The old story of Abraham, a story that celebrated his faith by making God into a monster, wasn’t working for the Hebrew people anymore. They created a story that ended not in death, but in life, though God still didn’t look so good. But we believe in more light and truth, in a God that is still speaking, in continuing testament, so we can learn to tell the story in new ways.
Creation was God’s new story. Jesus changed the story of the beautiful collision between the human and the divine. The Protestant Reformation told a new story of how people could gather as the body of Christ. The United Church of Christ is an ever-changing story of how the people of Christ can connect beyond the local community to help change the world. Our nation needs a new and better story. And this week, Disney announced that even the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was getting a new story, eliminating the scene where women are being auctioned off.
Now that’s results!
What story in your life needs change? What story in our life together needs change?
You may have no control over who tells your story, but you do have some control over the story you live. Get writing.