From time to time, I am invited to give a talk or to preach. If I do not completely embarrass myself, I'll post the "Sermonette" on the following Wednesday. This one's from last Sunday, 8/11; the reading was Genesis 15:1-6 (the text is in italics about halfway down).
I have a cat. Her name is Mrs. Peel. We live alone together, Mrs. Peel and I, and we talk to each other. I talk to her in my human language, and she, who can wake me out of a sound sleep with a silent stare and clearly does not need to use sound, talks to me in the cat language that research suggests is used only and specifically in order to talk with humans. Apparently, feral cats – i.e. cats living wild, without humans, don’t miaow . They vocalize, but not in the miaow tones. Those seem to be something they use on us because we are particularly dim and dense, compared to them. After all, they are of the species that has mastered temporary invisibility, and invented string theory.
I have had animals all my life, and so I have always been fond of the talking animals in scripture. Though some religion debunkers use these stories as fuel in their arguments against the Bible – talking animals? have you every heard anything so ridiculous? – they have never swayed me at all. What I really love about the stories is that the humans addressed by creatures show no surprise about it. When the snake says to Eve, “Did God say ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’”, Eve does not say, “Wow! A talking snake!”. No. She simply answers the question, perhaps because a talking snake was no big deal.
Likewise Balaam, in the book of Numbers – when the donkey he’s riding refuses to try to walk through an angel and scrapes Balaam against a wall, this so angers Balaam that he strikes it with his staff. “Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” says the text (does this mean that God at some point closed the mouths of the animals? perhaps after the Fall? Perhaps there is an apocryphal text somewhere ) “and it [the donkey] said, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three time?’. And does Balaam say, “Holy Angel-in-the-road! My donkey’s talking!”? No. He just answers the donkey’s question.
Now, God talks to us in and through Scripture, even after the Fall. But between Cain’s plea for protection, and the next time a human addresses God directly, many many generations pass. Though the text abounds with “And God said”, there is no human spoken response.
Hebrew scholar and biblical translater Robert Alter says that repetitions of “And God said” in a passage, “And God said” followed by another “And God said”, indicate that there was a silence, that the person addressed did not immediately respond. There was a silence, and then God spoke again. There are many “And God said to Noah” in the story of Noah, and not one “And Noah said to God”.
Likewise in the story of Abram. Abram has heard God tell him to get up and go, to leave his home and his birthright, his land, to go – where? To “A land I will show you.” Abram says nothing, gathers his clan, and hits the road. He travels. He goes to Egypt in a time of famine – how often help comes through Egypt in scripture! – and back. He fights battles. We are given three full chapters of Abram’s history before we get to this morning’s reading. Here, for the first time, Abram speaks back to God. This is a big deal. And not only talks back, but asks a question. Abram questions God. And this time, it is God who is at first silent. Listen again to the reading. Here is Alter’s translation:
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield. our reward shall be very great.” And Abram said, “O my master, LORD, what can You give me when I am going to my end childless, and the steward of my household is Dammasek Eliezer?”
And Abram said, “Look, to me you have given no seed, and here a member of my household is to be my heir.” And now the word of the LORD cam to him, saying, “This one will not be your heir, but he who issues from your loins will be your heir.” And he took him outside and He said, “Look up to the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them.” And He said, “So shall be your seed.” And he trusted in the LORD, and He reckoned it to his merit.
“And he trusted”. Of course, the very next day, he asks, when God says, “I give you this land to inherit ”, How shall I know that I shall inherit?”. At this I picture God rolling her eyes a bit.
Two weeks ago, Mother Jennifer spoke of prayer, and last week Deacon Teri expanded on it by speaking of listening, and I guess I am talking about talking. Few of us these days hear God talking to us in language. Those who do are often swiftly medicated. But I wonder – did the Lord actually stop talking, or did we stop believing that the Lord will talk to us? Were we taught that revelation has closed, and thereby lose the ability to hear?
If we were, and if we did, we have to retrieve it the talent for hearing; we have also to renew the habit of flinging our questions, even our most frightened furious faithless questions, into God’s lap. Perhaps it is like finding a lost pet. You call, "Where are you?" You call and call, you listen, you call again, you listen, you hear something, you follow that little voice, you call again, you are led, you follow, you find, you are found.
Milky Way Night Sky Black Rock Desert, Nevada, photo by Steve Jurvetson.