• Rev. Izzy Harbin

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” 15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” 19 God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” 22 And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

The story of Abram/Abraham is one of the most important stories of the Old Testament. God calls Abram to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeans to go to a place where God would show him, and in his new home, wherever that is, God will make him the father of nations.

It sounds like a pipe dream. The interaction between God and Abraham provides the backdrop for the Hebrew story, the Christian story, and the Muslim story. It is from this one man that God sets in motion three of the worlds most prominent religions. We call Abraham the “Father of Nations” because of this promise made between Abraham and God, a promise that would be the covenant between God and the Hebrew people for a possession of land and a home all their own.

In the story of creation, I pulled out the theme of separation, an act that God instituted at the moment of creation. Once again, God uses the tool of separation to create something wholly new. Asking Abram to leave his home land is an act of separation. The more I look at these passages with this particular lens, the more I see how God uses the act of separation to create something new. It is as if God cannot make possible what is new unless there is separation from the old. The shift from old to new makes space for the creation of the next thing. We see this pattern throughout scripture, but most assuredly in Genesis.

When God asks Abram to leave Ur, what made Abram say yes? In extra-biblical sources we are told that Abram, from the time of his youth, had a deep and abiding relationship with God. He clung to God in the way that others did not. Even after moving to Haran from Ur, he held close to the God of creation. He saw with his own eyes that the statues and figurines worshiped by other cultures were useless in providing direction or comfort. Abram even challenged his own father in possessing such trinkets and vowed to destroy them all if his father did not.

In our passage today, we are at a pivotal moment in the story of Abram. God has not only separated him out as being someone special but has chosen to change his name to reflect the enormity of his new role. 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” A father of a multitude of nations. In this moment it must have struck Abram funny because he knew that he was advanced in age, as was his wife, and knew that she was barren because she had never been able to have children. And yet, God is proclaiming over Abram, now renamed Abraham, that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.

This story comes immediately following the story of Abraham’s son Ishmael via Hagar, but God does not intend for Abraham to see Ishmael as his only heir. God, instead, proclaims that Sarai, who he renames Sarah, will have a son, and they are to name that child Isaac.

As for Ishmael, God blesses Hagar and Ishmael, and we are told in Genesis 16:10 that God will greatly multiply Hagar’s “offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” Ishmael becomes the father of 12 tribes, the 12 tribes of the Arab world and eventually the Muslim faith.

We have the benefit of knowing how this story ends. Indeed, Sarah does have a son and he is named Isaac. Isaac has a son named Jacob, and Jacob has 12 sons which become the namesakes of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob will wrestle with God and prevail, and his blessing, received at daybreak is also a name change, from Jacob to Israel.

The subtle way that God uses separation throughout the Book of Genesis makes me wonder why we ever thought we were irreparably separated from God. It is only through our separation that we are able to discern a need for God. Without that fundamental distance, God would be a given, a permanent fixture in our lives that would not require seeking, nor worship, or praise. It is only in our separation that we are able to identify the need for our creator.

I recently listened to a talk given by a Rabbi regarding the story of creation and the “fall of Adam and Eve.” He offered an alternative to our typical telling of the story. In the Christian world, we have always argued that it was the sin of Adam and Even that created the chasm between God and humanity. The Rabbi asked one important question, though, that changes the equation. Why would God place the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden and then instruct them not to eat it even though the “fruit was good for food and a delight for the eyes,” and also place the serpent in the garden to point to the tree that was “off-limits.” The Rabbi posits that God orchestrated this encounter and that the goal was to get Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit so that their eyes would be opened. They did not die after eating the fruit, instead they were brought into the fullness of life.

What we often think of as the fullness of life is that which is easy and without effort. God shows Adam and Eve; Noah, and Noah’s sons; and now Abraham and Sarah that the fullness of life is one which requires commitment. When we read about the idyllic circumstances in the Garden of Eden, God never intended for be trouble free and perfect. Trouble free and perfect doesn’t allow humanity to explore the depths of their humanness, to explore the depths of God, their creator, nor the depths of creation itself. Their commitment to God and to the process of growing in both faith and in understanding was the hallmark of God’s creation. As humans, we are uniquely positioned to experience these things.

We might ask why God would want us to experience these depths, why it is necessary for us to live with death and strife, even evil? If you think about the human experience from the beginning of time, it has been a series of steps forward, steps backwards, but always moments of self-discovery. It’s as if God set in motion the very foundation of the universe and then set humans in motion to explore and create in their own way. We are not only discovering more about ourselves, how our minds and body’s function, but also how the universe is knit together in this amazing tapestry of life.

God wants us to experience all of this and more. If the universe is alive, and I do believe that it is, if humans weren’t made to be curious beings who strive toward deeper knowledge, then why make something (i.e., the universe) that no one will discover?

For all that we say about God, the mystery that is God is our greatest quest. We search throughout the cosmos for a glimpse of the divine, a taste of that which we can never fully know. How the earliest writers of the Hebrew text describe this act of becoming may be the story that made sense to them, the story that explained the act of creation and the leaning into the fullness of life, but it also the ongoing story of all of creation. We continue to expand our knowledge, expand or depth and breadth of wisdom regarding the function and form of the universe, and at the center of all this activity is the God of Abraham, showing us one more layer of what it means to faithfully commit to the God of creation.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

14 June 2021 Genesis 1 and 2
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The Book of Genesis provides us with a variety of wonderful stories regarding the foundation of the world and of the people who will become known as the Israelites. In the coming weeks, we are going to journey through the Book of Genesis to discover some truths and insights that may be hiding in plain sight.

When we read the first account of creation in Genesis 1, we immediately recognize God’s activity as one who creates. God systematically and logically ordered the world we now know. Upon a closer look, though, we can also say that God, through his ordering, also created separation: night from day, land from water, vegetables from fruits, animals that dwell on the land from those that fly in the air, and finally the creation of humans, both male and female.

The universe swirled in chaos that God then ordered, but the act of separating out the various aspects of creation divided the chaos from itself. This separation is felt in humanity from the moment we are born, begging the question, “Does the separation within creation extend beyond what we see to what we cannot see? Does this separation naturally separate that which was created from that which created it?”

Is this a significant enough idea to play with? Theologically, separation at creation has huge implications for those who follow Augustine’s thoughts about the “fall of man” and the inherent sinful nature of humanity. By recognizing the separation built into creation, one must decide whether the separation, as orchestrated by God, was by design. We can certainly look at this passage and see the separation, but is there another option—not as unified or separated, but interconnected?

In Karen Armstrong’s book In the Beginning, she relates the separation created by God as a theme that evolves over time in the ancient world. She states:

Nearly all cultures have evolved a myth of a golden age at the dawn of time when men and women lived in close intimacy with the gods. Human beings, it was said, were in complete harmony with their environment, with one another, and with the divine. There was no sickness, no death, no discord. The myth represents a near-universal conviction that life was not meant to be so painful and fragmented. Much of the religious quest has been an attempt to recover this lost wholeness and integration.

The idea that at one time humanity communed with the gods, interacted with the gods on a daily basis, is widely written into our earliest literature. Over time, though, the gods become less involved with human activity. Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, we see God interacting with the in a variety of ways. What may not be obvious, though, is that God’s relationship with the Hebrew people, just like the gods and their interactions with other cultures, changes dramatically over time to include much of the same distancing and separation.

For those of us reading Genesis in the 21st century, we take the little we know about the writers of Genesis and extrapolate potential expectations of God from their writings. In truth, we have no idea how close God was to that which God created. All the written and oral accounts of creation from vast cultures around the glob were all considered myths used by those cultures to derive meaning and purpose for being created in the first place. It is only in the present era that we see folks attempting to use Chapter 1 of Genesis as actual recorded history. This was not true of the Hebrew, however, that first penned these pages.

For the writers of Genesis 1, creation had to begin at some point in history. Lacking all scientific knowledge, they wrote how they imagined God set about creating based on their visual observations of sky, land, water, animals of all kinds, plants and trees of all kinds, and human beings of all colors and cultures. The writers imagined a creator so deft at calling things into being, that God only had to say the word and it was so. But the writers of chapter 1 of Genesis also needed God to be bigger than and outside of creation. They set God at a distance from creation and made God to be a strategic planner who set things out in an orderly fashion. This actually says more about the individuals who wrote Genesis 1 than it does about God.

Still, there is something about the necessity of separation that speaks to me, especially as we continue to long for unity and to be reconnected with our creator. Brene’ Brown frequently speaks of being born “hardwired for connection.” On some level we believe this is true, but then we must ask the more difficult question, “Why are some folks so broken and disconnected?”

Many religious scholars would say that the fall of Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, which is what caused our separation from God. This sin is then passed on to generation upon generation. This would seem like a plausible idea except that we’ve already shown that God introduced separation into the world before Adam and Eve were created (at least in Chapter 1). This creates a dilemma for us as humans in that we cannot understand where evil comes from and why we do the things that only cause more separation. I would argue that it is precisely the struggle against right and wrong or good and evil as a result of inherent separation that makes us human, by God’s design.

In Genesis 2, we are struck by the change in focus and how God is characterized. This is no longer the God of Chapter 1 of Genesis; this God is not systemic or orderly about creation as a whole but is more concerned about the relationship between the divine and the created. We see man being created first, not last, and then moving on to the rest of creation, but not in the same creative order as in Chapter 1. Little care is taken by the authors to maintain symmetry or to be cohesive between the two stories.

There are so many divergent points in the text that we now believe that Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 were written by different sets of authors. We even see the use of place names and river names that were written into the account in Genesis 2 that did not exist at the time of its creation. Many of these myths and stories were penned when Israel was held in captivity in Babylon in the 5th century BCE. Still, there is an important distinction to be made between the God of Chapter 1 and the God of Chapter 2.

One huge distinction between the two; God in chapter 1 creates both male and female at the same time, and they are created in the image of their creator. In Chapter 2, they are made from the dust of the ground. This imagery will come into play repeated throughout the Old Testament and be resonant in how the Hebrew people view themselves in relation to God, “from the dust you were made, and to the dust you shall return.” This doesn’t promise an afterlife or eternal life, simply a beginning and an end. The theological supposition in being created from the earth is that we are and always have been separate and apart from the divine. There is little or no connection between the two worlds. And yet, it is in the Garden of Eden, this supposed paradise, where God will commune with Adam and Adam will feel the closeness of God.

We also see the institution of coupling in Chapter 2, which is not present in Chapter 1. God feels the need to ensure that Adam has a helpmate. What is so startling, though, is how quickly God forgets the kind of creature that Adam is, even though Adam was created unique among all other living things. God first creates all the animals of the field, bird of the air, and fish of the sea. Each is paraded in front of Adam to determine if any would be suitable as a helpmate, but none could be found.

It is important to note that God is also giving Adam some creative license by allowing Adam to name all the animals. This co-creator position is unique to Chapter 2 where God relinquishes some of his own need to do it all and to allow Adam to help with the overall process.

When no helpmate is found, Adam is put to sleep and a woman is formed from Adam. The creation of woman places another form of distance between all parties: God creates Adam; God creates woman from Adam. This distancing only furthers the idea of separation and brings the act of creation under more scrutiny. There is no way for God to create with also creating separation. The very act itself must allow for the molding of distinct things that can be known as distinct things; giving credence to our 20th century motto: unity through diversity.

As the story continues, we’ll see how that which God created quickly spirals out of control and takes on new meanings of who God is and how God shows up in the world. As we dig further into the Book of Genesis, we will see that separation is only one aspect of God that comes into sharper focus. The God that reveals himself in the early chapters of Genesis is a God that demands further examination. And, with any luck, we’ll be able to reconcile some of our discomfort with the God of Genesis as we navigate the difficult beginnings of a people in search of a God of promise and covenant.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

2 Then Joshua, son of Nun, sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So, they went and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and spent the night there. 2 The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” 3 Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” 4 But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. 5 And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went, I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” 6 She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. 7 So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.

When I was putting this series together on women, a friend of mine asked me why I chose to preach on Rahab, the prostitute, as if preaching about prostitutes are somehow a horrid thing to do. To inject a little humor, I told my friend about the TV show Lucifer, a show about the Devil retiring to LA, and being asked if prostitutes are in hell, and he said with a straight face, “No, actually, they aren’t because they are some of the most honest people you will meet.”

This passage challenges our thinking about who God can use and for what purpose. I think her profession is actually quite irrelevant to the discussion, but we must ask, why did the writers include that detail in the story? Does it matter that she was a prostitute?

In verse one of this passage, it tells us that the spies spent the night, but it doesn’t say anything about why they chose Rahab or how they knew. In this moment, I imagine they were trusting their instincts—or trusting God—on where to go and with whom to associate. What is made clear is that Rahab was willing to help protect them. She had heard of the Israelite God and found that God to be the true God, unlike the gods of Canaan.

When soldiers inquired about the men who had visited Rahab, she lied to protect them, and we are told later in the story that she was blessed by God for aiding them in their efforts. What we don’t know about Rahab, though, until the Book of Matthew, is that Rahab ends up marrying a Hebrew man who is in the line of David, who is also in the line of Jesus.

At the heart of this story is Rahab’s willingness to do the unexpected when faced with a difficult choice. She could have turned the spies away or turned them in, but instead, she protected them. In so doing, she changed the course of her life. According to the text and how the writers understood Rahab’s actions, God was able to use her in this moment to further God’s plans for Israel. Through the intel that the spies were able to provide, the Israeli army was able to conquer Canaan.

As a way to protect Rahab, the spies instructed Rahab to gather all of her family into her home and to tie a red piece of cloth to her exterior window. This piece of cloth would protect Rahab and her family from the invading Israelites.

When thinking about this series, I wanted to pair a modern example of a woman or icon with the ancient one, and for Rahab’s counterpart, I chose Rosie the Riveter, the iconic woman who represented all the women who utilized their skills during WWII to aid in the war effort.

I did not choose Rosie the Riveter because of the war connection (that bit just worked out on its own), but rather what she represented in the world of women. The campaign to get women out of the home and into the workforce was driven by the war effort, but what women found once they made that transition was that they could be appreciated for their skills beyond cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children.

At the end of the war, we see an interesting division created among women. Some women were grateful to be returning to their homes and resuming their “wifely” duties. Other women, however, did not want to give up their new-found freedom. They enjoyed making their own money, enjoyed participating in the overall success of the economy, and liked being challenged by the work in which they were engaged. Even though many women were relegated to more “female” oriented professions like teaching and nursing, there were many women who pursued careers in the sciences; careers such as physicists, welders, mechanics, military personnel, and the like.

During the Rosie the Riveter days, women were finding new ways to express themselves and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

I cannot say whether God was pleased with how women found their way into an everchanging workforce, or whether God was pleased with the help that women provided toward a war effort, but what I can say is that God is always pleased when we use the gifts that we have been given.

What stands out to me most in both the story of Rahab and that of the icon of Rosie the Riveter is that they represent the willingness to use the gifts God has provided for the betterment of the whole, however that is defined at the moment. Often, we are quick to dismiss our gifts as not being good enough, useless toward a particular effort, and having less value than others. What stands out, especially during WWII is that women had to step up and use what they had, there really wasn’t any other option.

Without the gifts that the women brought to the table, the American economy would have collapsed in the midst of war, and most likely the American troops would have suffered worse hardships than they already experienced. War is never something that we want to glorify. In fact, we pray that one day we can all know peace. But we can value the contributions of women and how their contributions changed the American landscape forever.

In our present day we are still called to be a part of God’s unfolding kingdom. We are being asked to continue to order chaos and to make things better for the whole of humanity. We can do this by sharing our gifts and talents. God has given to each of us a unique set of abilities that are to be shared. In the sharing of our gifts, we honor God and each other.

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