Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Wandering (Here Be Dragons!) (1/20/2008)

The Wandering
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 20, 2008

Numbers 13:1-14:35

The Lord said to Moses, 2‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.’

17 Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negeb, and go up into the hill country, 18and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, 19and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, 20and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.’ Now it was the season of the first ripe grapes.

21 So they went up and spied out the land

23And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27And they told him, ‘We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.’

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’ 31Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we are.’ 32So they brought to the Israelites an unfavourable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. 33There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.’

14Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ 4So they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.’

5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites. 6And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes 7and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, ‘The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. 8If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. 9Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.’ 10But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: 27How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me. 28Say to them, ‘As I live’, says the Lord, ‘I will do to you the very things I heard you say: 29your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upwards, who have complained against me, 30not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31But your little ones, who you said would become booty, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have despised. 32But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ 35I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.

Hic sunt dracones “Here be dragons” is a phrase from the world of cartography.   The phrase supposedly was written on old maps to designate uncharted territory.   Although this phrase has been popularized, it was rarely used.  

The only historical map that contains the phrase is The Lenox Globe that dates to 1510.  It is the second or third oldest known globe.  It is the only known historical map that contains the Latin phrase, “hic sunt dracones” or “here be dragons.”  The phrase appears on the Eastern Coast of Asia.   It may not be about dragons.  It may also be in reference to the Dagroians, a ghoulish people which Marco Polo described as feasting upon the dead.   In either case, it is a pretty scary place. 

The Borgia Map of the world around 1430 has a dragon figure across Asia with a Latin inscription that is rendered in English:  "Here also are men having large horns four feet long, and there are even serpents of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole."

This phrase “Here be dragons” has come to represent the dangers of the unknown.   “Here be dragons” can elicit the challenge within oneself to venture out into the danger on a hero’s quest.   Or it can make a person think twice and say, “There is no place like home.” 

The Lewis and Clark Caverns are near Whitehall, Montana.  I have probably been through the caverns ten times since I was a child.  It is a great place to take visitors from out of state.  You can take a tour of these caverns deep into the mountain.   Near the beginning of the tour after you descend a number of steps you come to this first landing.  In the middle of the landing is a huge rock. 

It is called “Decision Rock.”  This is the point in the tour when the tour guide becomes solemn and serious.   Every time I went on the tour the guide would say something like, “This is your last chance to turn back.  I can take anyone back who doesn’t want to go ahead.  But after we go ahead there is no turning back.”   Hence, decision rock.  The cave pilgrims need to make a choice.  Forge ahead or return to the entrance.   I never saw anyone turn back, although the guides would say that on occasion, some folks do.  After all, there be dragons or at least tight squeezes.

Our heroes in our biblical story have reached decision rock.    After their dramatic escape from Egypt, they go to Mount Sinai.  That is the place where Moses is given the Ten Commandments.  According to the saga, these commandments had a lot of footnotes.  The second half of Exodus and all of Leviticus are the extra laws that go along with the Big Ten.   Finally, when we reach the Book of Numbers, the narrative picks up. 

They haven’t been in the wilderness for very long.  After a few weeks, they arrive at the edge of the Land of Canaan and YHWH tells Moses to send out spies.  Moses picks one man from each of the twelve tribes to check out the land.   After a forty day reconnaissance mission, they come back with a report.    There are two reports.  A majority report and a minority report.   The majority report is given by ten of the spies.  They don’t like the looks of things.  They tell the people that there are big and strong, like the Hittites and the Jebusites.

According to the minority report, filed by Caleb and Joshua, the land is lush and filled with grapes, figs, and pomegranates.   It is a land of milk and honey.  There are people there but we can take them.   The Lord is with us!

But, then the other ten spies exaggerate their report a bit.  Not only do the Jebusites, and the Amalekites and so forth live there, also in the land of Canaan are the dreaded Nephilim.  We first heard of the Nephilim in the early chapters of Genesis.   These Nephilim were mythical figures, offspring of gods and women.  This is what is written about the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4:

“When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide* in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ 4The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”

According to Genesis, the sons of gods knowing the attractive human women in the biblical way is the last straw.  YHWH decides to wipe out all living things except Noah and two of every kind of animal with a big flood.   So, how then, do we still have Nephilim after the flood?  Either the Nephilim survive the flood, or the spies are lying, or there is a hole in the plot.  At any rate, the threat of the Nephilim is the argument that wins the day.  A little fear-mongering often does wonders. 

The congregation votes with the majority report.  No way are they going to go into the Land of Canaan.  There be dragons.  There be Nephilim.  So they decide to elect a new captain and go back to Egypt.  It was better in Egypt.   Better to be slaves. 

Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb plead with the people to trust YHWH.  But it is no use.  The congregation threatens to stone them. 

Then YHWH gets angry.  YHWH tells Moses that he has had enough of their whining and whimpering.  He is going to wipe them all out and start over with Moses.   But Moses, like Abraham before him, pleads with YHWH not to act rashly.   He gives an interesting argument. 

“But Moses said to YHWH….”Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 16“It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.”

Moses tells YHWH that it won’t look good on his resume.   Everyone will laugh at you YHWH.  You will be considered a failure.   So YHWH reconsiders.  He decides instead on an interesting solution.  The people will wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day the spies were in Canaan.  They will wander until everyone over the age of 20 dies.   Except for Caleb and Joshua none of the wicked congregation will go into the Promised Land.   That is why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.

How do we enter this story?   How does it become something other than a bizarre fable on one hand or something that literally happened on the other?   The theme of this saga repeats itself throughout the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament.   One of the main problems that YHWH has with his people is that they don’t trust him. 

Yet YHWH does not always come across as trustworthy.  Remember YHWH was the one who told Abraham to sacrifice his son, then at the last minute, said, “Just kidding.”  Literary critic Harold Bloom, has written a book I recommend, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.   In an interview about the book, Harold Bloom speaks about YHWH and what the name means.  The name comes from the story when Moses is told to go down to Egypt and speak to Pharoah.  Moses asks, “They will laugh at me.  Who shall I say sent me?”  Yahweh responds:   “Say that ehyeh asher ehyeh has sent you.”    Bloom says that phrase means “I will be who I will be” which really means, “I will be present when I choose to be present.”   Harold Bloom goes on to say:

“… that necessarily also means, "And I will be absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent." And there's a lot more evidence in the last 2,000 years for the absence of this personage than the presence.”

What do we make of YHWH?  Here is what Bloom says about him:

You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like him? He's very bad news…. There's a kind of scamp in there. But he also goes violently crazy as he leads the Israelite host in that ridiculous, mad 40 years [of] wandering through the wilderness, trekking back and forth. He gets crazier and crazier and the poor things get crazier and crazier…. Yahweh is not a theological God. Theology is Greek, as the word itself indicates. Yahweh is a human, all-too-human, much, much-too-human God, and very scary. He is irascible, he's difficult, he's unpredictable, and he himself doesn't seem to know what he is doing.

I don’t think we can enter these stories unless we allow ourselves to read them in the way that Bloom reads them.  YHWH is not the immovable mover.  He is not the god of the philosophers.  We cannot, unless we ignore the text itself, think of YHWH as unchanging, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good.   That is later theology put on the Bible.   YHWH as Bloom writes, is irascible, difficult, and unpredictable.   It doesn’t take long to read the Bible before you have issues with YHWH. 

So what kind of people conceive of a god like YHWH?  If the gods we tell stories about are windows into the way we see the world, what does YHWH show us about the world?   How did these authors of the Bible experience their world?  

The real world must have seemed to them to be irascible, difficult, and unpredictable--like the god they told stories about.  Wars happen.  Floods happen.  Crops don’t grow.  Good people suffer and the wicked seem to prosper.  People die in the wilderness never reaching their promise.  And yet life goes on.  Another generation is born.  People find time in the midst of their worries to dance, sing and tell stories about their troubles.  These ancient people found meaning by telling stories about their experience of life.   They did so by personifying life through a god who was as unpredictable, violent, and crazy as life itself.  

And yet, they said, trust anyway.  Rather than fight life, trust it.  What other options do we have?   We can trust or we can live in fear.  We can despair.  We can feel sorry for ourselves.  We can be bitter.  

As I read the stories in the Torah, I am reminded of the stories in the gospels, particularly, the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is also unpredictable and irascible.  The disciples never understand him.   Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells them not to be afraid.  Trust.  But what is to trust?  The guy is insane.  He goes off and gets himself crucified.    

One of the most challenging aspects of living is our fear of what could happen.  Here be dragons.  The Nephilim will devour us.  We might get crucified.  Other people won’t like what we decide to do.  We are not strong enough.  Disaster will befall us.  The crazy promise of the Bible is not that those things won’t happen.  They might.  

The message that the authors of the Torah and the Gospels leave us is “don’t fight it and don’t run from it.  Live through it.”  Neither YHWH nor Jesus will keep us safe.  Both of them are just the opposite.  They are not safe.   They are risky.  C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia depicted Christ as the lion, Aslan.  Aslan, according to the books, is not a tame lion.    I think that means that Life is not tame either. 

Jesus and YHWH are cut from the same cloth.   They are persistent.  Jesus and YHWH are parables for Life.  They are the invitation to seize the opportunity.   They are the invitation to live with integrity.   If we are going to live with some degree of inner peace and joy, we have to take life for what it is and not complain about what it is not.  

Our heroes, our traveling tribes, made a choice at decision rock.  They retreated and lost an opportunity.  They acted on fear rather than on trust.  They spent the next forty years moaning and complaining until they died.   They didn’t face the Nephilim.  They didn’t enjoy the milk and honey either.

Here be dragons.   Let us venture forth!

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