Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Reality of Atonement

A recent concert program included Lo, the full final sacrifice by Gerald Finzi. This accidental encounter reminded me of the metaphysical poets and how much I have loved them since my initial work with them in University and my lifelong singing of their texts.

Lo, the full, final Sacrifice
On which all figures fix't their eyes.
The ransomed Isaac, and his ram;
The Manna, and the Paschal Lamb.

The poem is full of metaphysical conceits which I leave the reader to ponder without my reproducing them here. Such depth of type and metaphor is a balm for our dry language, which when it hears story literally, loses its impact entirely. Language informs us and is thus our ear. How will we unstop ourselves?

Terms and meanings. Is the mercy seat simply an ark-cover? Mercy seat is a loaded term. Many terms are overloaded by us. The Greek translation already translates כפרת with τὸ ἱλαστήριον. This is already overloaded with the sense of propitiation. So the importance of the ark-cover is not to be down-played. I don't know how to polish this lens. For the moment my gloss is mercy-seat. Propitiate and related forms are not in my glossary at present (though appeasing is). Propitiate assumes an angry object. This is a form of human projection. God is not angry. We are. Appease is probably a poor choice - maybe I will change it [It is done!]. It is the root נוח, from which we get the name Noah. It means rest. Can one give rest to a God who is grieved or who is agitated because of love? (Yes, but it is not the word concerning the seventh day. That word is שׁבת, to cease from ones work.)

At the same time it appears that there is a tendency in our teachers to shy away from the reality of Genesis 22. It will not do to shy away from this story any more than it will do to shy away from the story of Job. Abraham has a problem. He is, he thinks, able to hear. But he seems to know that there will be an escape from the literal command. The words of the story are strikingly sparse. Do read it again. It is a marvel of limited language. We need to be careful how we read into the story. Our feelings may not be accurately projected onto either individual characters or story.

As I wrote in a too hastily writ comment here, the death of Jesus is my salvation and my rebirth. It is similar to this Akedah story of Abraham that we read. This story exhibits the Hebrew origins of the doctrines of Christian sacrifice. The Abraham-God relationship (and it is God not Yahweh) is the cornerstone for the cornerstone (for Christians). One only needs to hear the daily news to know that it is we who are angry, and addicted to power.

We all are part of a history of destruction, whether as perpetrators, or victims, or less than innocent bystanders. I.e. we are thorough 'sinners' (as is Abraham - and the story does not spare him). What then is the reality that he is exhibiting in this passage? It is not the literalness of the story, but rather its actuality or reality that we need to discover. What does the text say? (as opposed to what we think it should say).

I have been critical of punishment as a model for atonement, just as I am critical above of the projection of anger. Punishment is a brutal form of government. We need something to deal with our violence, but punish is the wrong metaphor for the solution. Absolutely wrong. The model of punishment leads directly to the holocaust, not just to the near holocaust of Isaac or Ishmael. It leads there because it fails to transform violence. We may have come to the cult of sacrifice in our history out of a recognition of this need. Now we need to apply the remedy: refusing, through the death of the sacrificial animal, to do these acts of sin against each other. The death of the animal is clearly a pointer, not the solution itself. The solution must take place within us. We must die, in a figure, so that we might live.

There must be such a power behind our lives or we will succumb to the state of sin we find ourselves in. That power for Abraham is in God's command and his hearing it. It is not a slavish obedience because he knows that God will see and show him some other end than the horror he knows himself to be trapped in. It may be that he/we would be better off entirely without God. But if God, out of the Hebrew tradition, is in our midst, then the impact of this story like that of Job cannot simply be removed from our religion without gutting the whole thing. There are powers, and we are subject to them, and generally they are stronger than we are (Psalm 18). What will guide us to life, to truth, and to the peaceable realm?

As I work through my ignorance of the cultic sacrificial system, I am searching for some way of discovering their thought, what it is that is from them via their portrayed characters and tales, rather than what I have been told from opinions formed by others in the reception history of their words.

But I am biased by my reception of the reality of the death of Jesus for me in my experience. I wouldn't be bothering with all this hard work otherwise. Though it is a good puzzle, puzzle alone is not an adequate motivator.

See also the recent related posts Assumptions and Genesis 50.

I am still wrestling with the problem of naming the cover-sacrifice, making a cover-price etc.