CNS Bible Blog: Sibling rivalry and reconciliation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The stories recounted throughout Genesis are all about relationships: God and humanity, husband and wife, parent and child, and brothers –- many brothers. It’s interesting to notice the movement from the first set of siblings to those at the end of Genesis. We move from the most violent at the beginning to reconciliation at the conclusion.

First, Cain kills his brother Abel. A son of Noah acts with disrespect to his father in front of his brothers. Ishmael and Isaac become permanently separated (but I like the touch where both of them come together to bury their father Abraham, Gen 25:9). Jacob and Esau compete to the point of threatening death, but become almost reconciled.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

Finally at the end, covering Chapters 37-50, longer than any other family story in Genesis, the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers is mostly about seeking reconciliation.

All because of a special place that Joseph had in his father’s heart, tremendous jealousy swelled up in the older brothers. Joseph received a special tunic from their father and he did not wear the special status well before his brothers or before his parents. The conflict in this family is one each generation must face. How do you treat those who are your equal but more gifted? How do you treat your equals who are less gifted than you? Joseph at seventeen does not yet know how to use the gifts he is given for the service of others. The brothers do not know how to recognize and foster the gifts in their younger brother.

The conflict reached a breaking point. The brothers stripped Joseph of his special tunic, threw him in a pit, sold him to a caravan heading to Egypt and returned the blood-smeared tunic to their father. “Here is a bloodied tunic, see if it is that of your son!”

Lost to his family, Joseph goes through test after test until he emerges as one who has learned to use his gifts for the benefit of others. For this reason he was placed in charge of Pharaoh’s government.

The story might have ended here except that we want to know how these brothers will act if they have to face each other once again. Sure enough, Jacob sends his 10 sons to Egypt in search of food during a famine while keeping the youngest son Benjamin at home. Joseph, who is not recognized by his brothers, forces them to undergo a trial to see whether they too have learned in their lives to care for those weaker than they.

Just as Joseph had undergone two tests (in the pit at the hands of his brothers and in the dungeon at the hand of Potiphar’s wife) so too do the brothers undergo two tests, first with Simeon then with Benjamin. Judah emerges as the one who offers himself to save the life of his youngest brother.

With this sacrifice, Joseph can contain himself no longer and reveals his identity to his brothers with great weeping and joy. As he sends them off to bring their families and their father Jacob to Egypt, Joseph gives to each brother a set of clothing. He gives to them that which they had long ago stripped from him.

The gift of clothing to each and five sets to his brother Benjamin, points to the concrete way Joseph wants to assure his brothers that they are all reconciled once and for all. But it is not easy. In the end, it will be the brothers who finally clothe Joseph after he dies in the clothing of embalmment with the promise to bring his bones back to the promised land.

CNS Bible Blog: Abraham and Isaac, surrender and salvation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

It may seem very strange to both casual and longtime readers of Scripture that after all God had done with Abraham, the Lord would need to test him yet again (Genesis Chapter 22). Has Abraham not done enough in proving trust and loyalty in the midst of doubt and anguish?

And this is not an ordinary test, but one that struck Abraham at the heart. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the one whom he loved, yes, Isaac. As you can well imagine, there have been a flurry of interpretations about this test. They range from it being a critique against child sacrifice, to the need for complete obedience, to a call for freedom, and to the challenge of passing the torch of faith on from one generation to the next.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

It is not an easy story to read. It has even been called a “text of terror.” And yet, like so many texts of Scripture, even the most difficult ones may uncover for us a powerful and liberating truth.

There are a few simple observations to be made about the story which can help uncover the meaning of its captivating gaze.

The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac needs to be compared and contrasted with the original call of Abram in Genesis Chapter 12. There God calls Abram to leave his land, his family and his country to go to another unknown land. God promises to Abram many descendants, land to be inherited by them, and all the nations of the earth will consider themselves blessed through Abram.

“Get up and go” is a unique phrase used there. Interestingly, also in our story that same rare phrase appears, “Take your son and get up and go to the land of Moriah to a mountain that I will tell you and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Moreover in the call of Abram we see God speaking to Abram for the first time. In our story, it is the last time God speaks to Abraham. And this is significant. Something in the life of Abraham has reached its zenith.

In the call of Abram, God asks him to leave his past, his familiar land, and even his father in order that something new may take place and be created. In the call, God asks Abram to die to his past so that a new future can be born.

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

In the end, God asks Abraham to die to his future so that the future, his son Isaac, may become the inheritor of the triple promises. In the sacrifice of Isaac, we can recognize the need for every parent to “let their children go” to follow their own path in life. This is my reading of the test of Abraham. God has begun something new in Abraham which required his unwavering faith at the beginning and now at the end requires his complete surrender. When God saw that Abraham had “surrendered” his son Isaac, both Abraham and his son Isaac were saved.

With Abraham’s successfully passing the test, the promises of descendants, land and blessing are made once again. Sarah his wife dies, and Abraham is left with the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Though Isaac is not even mentioned at the end of the story in Genesis 22, almost as if to say, “He really has died to Abraham,” the stories that follow concentrate on Isaac becoming the inheritor of the promises.

CNS Bible Blog: A rainbow and a covenant for Noah

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The story of the flood which destroyed almost all life on earth (Genesis Chapter 9) reminds us just how precarious life is even in the midst of a good and beautiful habitat. In the face of so much wickedness and violence, God is said to have regretted the creation of life.

The pattern that we have seen time and time again in Genesis — namely, how the stories present before us our deepest desires as well as our worst fears — is confirmed in the story of the flood. But the last word in this story is not destruction but the promise of life.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

At one point the story seems to end with Noah’s sacrifice and God’s acceptance of the pleasant fragrance of the offering with the promise, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…” (Gen 8:21).

But the same author who wrote the opening chapter of creation has transformed this divine promise to Noah into the most significant agreement which could be made among humans –- a covenant. God declares the promise to Noah in the form of a covenant. And this is the first of many covenants that we witness in the Torah.

Just as God had blessed humanity with the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, so too is Noah given the same blessing (Gen 9:1). Just as God had given vegetation as food to the animals and humans, so too God gives to humanity food; this time the food includes flesh. But there is a limit. “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen 9:4).

In this changed state of affairs where we live in disharmony between the animal and the human world, humans are commanded to treat life, even the life of animals, with respect. With the covenant of Noah we have a recreation, a new ordering of creation.

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

What is the function of this covenant with Noah? With this covenant a sign is given, the sign of the rainbow. The bow in the clouds is a sign of the covenant. We all know how after a rain storm, with the combination of light and darkness, a refraction of light often gives shape to a splendid display of colors. Every child can take delight in a rainbow. It is a reminder from nature that after the struggle for life there is the possibility of joy and beauty.

The flood story tells us that the rainbow will be a reminder to God never to forget the promise made to Noah, that “never again will all flesh be destroyed by a flood” (Gen 9:11). But the function of the sign of the covenant is to assure humanity that God’s intention in creation is to let life flourish even in the midst of storms.

The covenant with Noah with the sign of the rainbow is a reminder to us of this essential promise on the part of God. The intention of God behind all of creation, with its beauty and even with its storms, is to let life flourish.

CNS Bible Blog: The ‘death penalty’ of Adam and Eve

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

If the opening story of creation in Genesis elevates our minds to appreciate the beauty and dignity of all creation, the stories that follow very quickly point out the pitfalls and dangers belonging to human life.

In the first story, human beings were compared to the divine: “Let us make them in our image.” In the following story, humans are made from earth. But they have the breath of God in them and so they have become a living being.

Michael Kolarcik S.J.

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

After God generously grants to Adam all the trees in the garden as food, one particular tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) is forbidden. With its eating comes a serious warning, “for in the day you eat of it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Much has been made of trying to interpret the meaning of this tree and the actual punishment that follows from its eating. But I want to point out a few simple features of the story which are often overlooked.

The death that reads like a warning is a very technical term in Hebrew. It is the death penalty indicated by two words: you will “die the death.” Philo of Alexandria interpreted it as the second death or spiritual death. It does not necessarily mean mortal or physical death, but conveys more the meaning of “the most serious thing that can happen to you,” ­namely the death penalty.

In point of fact, when Adam and Eve do eat of the tree they do “die the death,” but it is not an immediate physical death. They have become afraid of their weakness, of their dependency on each other, of their sexuality. And so they hide because they were afraid. Notice, the very first comment about Adam and Eve after they eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree is “then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked … and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…” (Gen 3:7-8).

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve are depicted departing from Eden in a stained-glass window at St. Nicolas Church in Feldkirch, Austria. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

The punishments which follow all touch on relationships: the relationship between the animal world and human (the serpent and the woman), the relationship between the man and the woman (Adam and Eve) and the relationship between humans and the earth (Adam and the earth). Where there was once harmony, now we have tension, competition and resistance. Without a trusting relationship with God, humans have become frightfully afraid of their mortal humanity. But not everything is lost.

Even though Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden, God makes for them clothes of skin before sending them out, never to return to this place of paradise (Gen 3:21-24). Notice the first thing that happens to Adam and Eve once they are outside of the garden! “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the LORD'” (Gen 4:1).

This is nothing short of the blessing of man and woman in Genesis 1: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth'” (Gen 1:28).

The opening stories of Genesis continue to place before our imagination our deepest desires for unity and creativity as well as our worst fears of failure and death. This I believe is why they continue to speak to us even with all their implied difficulties.

CNS Bible Blog: Genesis, Chapter 1 – Is creation good?

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The first chapter of the Book of Genesis is more than likely quite clear in our imagination. In six days God creates, separates, names, commands, and blesses, and on the seventh day God rests.

As we read Genesis 1 or hear the story read at the Easter Vigil, God’s word majestically creates and displays the cosmos before our imagination. If there is one word which perhaps best describes the value placed on creation in this story, it would be the word, “good.”

Michael Kolarcik S.J.

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

And God saw that it was good! We hear this judgment altogether seven times in the story (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). You might think there is a judgment of goodness for each day of the week, including the seventh. But that is not the case. In fact it is quite interesting to notice where the judgment of goodness in God’s creation is made and where it is not.

We might then see that the judgment of the goodness of creation is not simply an idyllic affirmation of creation. Rather, even despite the chaos and instability of the universe and in human beings, the Genesis story affirms the goodness of the created world.

The unfolding of creation in six days is quite stylized. In the first three days God creates a habitat of spaciousness. In the following three days, God creates inhabitants who are to thrive in their corresponding habitats. Notice the balance of the six days of creation:

Day 1 – Light, darkness; day and night       Day 4 – Sun, moon, stars; day and night

Day 2 – The dome above, waters below                  Day 5 – Fish, birds; sea and sky

Day 3 – The earth, vegetation                        Day 6 – Animals, humans male/female

Day 7 – God rests; the sabbath is blessed

Notice how each day has a double creation involving one or two of the four various activities of God associated with creation (separating, naming, commanding, and blessing). It is also interesting to notice how vegetation in Day 3, the last created element of the habitats, is both an inhabitant of the earth and itself becomes a habitat for animals and humans on Day 6.

But this is all part of the artistic display of the story which highlights the value of goodness associated with creation.

Now let’s pay attention to the places where God’s judgment of goodness is not made.

On Day 2, we do not encounter the judgment of goodness for the dome. But we hardly notice this since on Day 3, as if to compensate for this lack, we have two judgments of goodness regarding “vegetation.” Why does the story not highlight the goodness of the dome?

The next rather surprising silence of the judgment of goodness occurs on Day 6 regarding human beings. Though human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, the story does not highlight the goodness of human beings.

Even after the animals were created we heard God’s judgment of goodness (Gen 1:24), but not for human beings. Again, as if to compensate for this lack, after the gift of food to animals and humans Day 6 concludes with a general judgment of goodness for all of God’s creation: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).

And so both Day 3 and Day 6 have a double judgment of goodness. Why is the narrative silent on the goodness of the dome and of human beings?

It is not as if they are evil, since both the dome and humans are included in the final judgment of goodness. Genesis 1 knows how the dome and humans are associated with chaos in the stories that follow. Adam and Eve introduce moral chaos and alienation from God in their act of disobedience. Moral chaos spreads to their own children as Cain kills his brother Abel.

Later, because the violence of human beings becomes unbearable to God, the forces of chaos in the flood are unleashed on all life precisely through the dome. Destructive water is unleashed from the portals above the dome and from the depths below.

The Book of Genesis

A page from the first Bible printed in America, produced in 1663 in the native Algonquin language. The edition is a holding of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The story of creation in Genesis could not quite bring itself to name the chaos in the cosmos and certainly the chaos of which human beings are capable as “good.” But notice that even with the instability of the cosmos, where chaos at any point may rise against life, and even with human potential for violence, the Genesis story affirms strongly the goodness of creation.

The silence of the judgment of goodness for the dome and for humans has the effect of inviting us to a stance of humility before the grandeur of creation. Yes, though creation is a good and beautiful habitat for such a variety of creatures, there remain within it forces of chaos.

Though human beings are the pinnacle of the created world, they are equally capable of great love and terrible violence. In fact, in the face of so much violence as that which we see in the flood story, it would be easy to have a view of creation that is dark, violent and miserable. There are such stories of origins in the ancient world. The Genesis story of creation affirms the opposite. It affirms the goodness of creation even with its instability and violence. This is perhaps its enduring value and appeal.

The Genesis story holds up before our imagination our deepest desire for a good habitat in relation to a loving God even as we face our fears of mortality and violence. In this story God is telling us that even with its instability, and even with our propensity for violence within it, creation is good indeed!