THE BLOG

Wrestling With God

04/21/2015 12:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

For the last couple of months, I've been studying the book of Genesis with a group of very bright young USC students.  I'm the adviser for our "Church of the Broken Bread" progressive Christian student fellowship here.  Our weekly gatherings are simple.  First, each of us takes a piece and says their piece around the circle: you tear off a piece of communion bread, dip it in grape juice, eat it, and then say what's on your heart and mind.

 Then we read the Bible together, working on understanding it from the historical/critical/mythological viewpoint.  We use the scripture as a screen upon which to project and reflect on our lives.  Then we spend 15 minutes in silent mindful meditation/prayer.

I have never had so much fun, nor so much fascination, reading Genesis before!  Our students find all sorts of surprising nuances in the text and bring such creative interpretations to it.  They're natural-born midrashic rabbinical scholars!  We use the New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version), which offers a non-doctrinal, academic viewpoint to the scripture.

A week ago, insight came to us about the meaning of Genesis as a whole.  Together, we conjectured that the book is about God's desperate need for human companionship, tangled by his jealous attitude toward his own divine status.  God creates humans as near-peers with whom he chats on walks around the Garden of Eden.  But the minute we gain the knowledge of good and evil -- a divine level of wisdom -- in a fit of pique he banishes us out of the Garden and into the cold, cruel world.  But of course the crown of his creation adjusts to the new circumstances quickly.

 God watches civilization develop, with its attendant corruptions, and in fury he floods the world almost to total death.  He repents of this mayhem, but freaks out again when people adjust once more, by building cities with towers that threaten to bring them up to his level.  He then afflicts humanity with a confusion of languages, to hold them back from getting too much like him.  Of course, people adapt with their God-given brainpower, and civilization continues.  God tries a new tactic to keep humanity close to him without letting us get too close.  He takes a subset of the humans he's created and gives this group a special role so that, through them, he can manage his relationship with humankind as a whole.  

But he's afraid that this subset of people -- the people of Israel -- will also get full of themselves and act too God-like.  He has a plan for them, but if he tells them exactly what it is, he's afraid they'll get cocky.  So he tells them he has a promise for them, but he hides the details.  He throws monkey-wrenches into their lives, over and over, to confuse them and keep them guessing.  He says their people will be great and many, but then makes their women barren until the last minute before giving birth to the patriarchs of Israel.  He sows discord between them - Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers.   Any of these conflicts had the potential to break the chain to the promise.  He gives Israel land, then takes it away.  

God's tangle with humanity gets up-in-your-face physical.  Jacob, on his way to reconcile with Esau, encounters the divine in a wrestling match.  Jacob is about to pin the divine being to the ground, but the angel throws Jacob's hip out of joint.  God cheats in order to prevent himself being one-upped by humanity again!  Jacob bargains for a divine blessing, and limps away with courage to face the brother he's wronged.  (One of our students speculated that the angel was really Esau.  He got that insight from the passage that follows, in which Jacob says that Esau's face looks like the face of God.)  Then Jacob is re-named as Israel, a Hebrew word that means "one who strives (fights, wrestles) with God".  (The Arabic equivalent is "jihad", by the way.)  

The God of Genesis was almost omnipotent.  But his extreme potency and his immortal nature prevented him from having the one ability he needed most in order to fully experience and enjoy the companionship of the human beings he had created: vulnerability.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a lecture at USC by Paul Woodruff, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.  His academic focus has been on the Greeks, particularly the philosophical implications in Greek theater.  (His book, "Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue", has been an important one for me.)  Paul made reference to the lack of compassion in the Greek gods.  Greek plays made reference to the problem.  The gods had no way of empathizing with the sufferings and fears of mortal people.  They weren't vulnerable.

Carl Jung, the depth psychologist, wrote "Answer to Job" (1958).  God tested Job's piety by inflicting terrible suffering on him.  Job bitterly complained to God for this injustice and indignity, and he did so in a manner that displayed that he was not only deeply pious, but had a higher level of moral integrity than God.  In the end, God restored Job's fortunes, but Jung suggested that God knew this was not a sufficient response.  God knew he had to change.  Consistent with the book of Genesis, in which God constantly tried to keep people in their place, and out of his place, God could not let Job be his moral superior.  Jung interprets the Christian gospel as the mythical story of God's decision to make amends for what he did to Job by becoming a human being and experiencing human suffering personally as Jesus Christ.  Jung described God's transformation through his relationship with humanity this way:  "... the despairing cry from the Cross: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'  Here his human nature attains divinity; at the moment God experiences what it means to be a mortal man and drinks to the dregs what he made his faithful servant Job suffer.  Here is given the answer to Job..." (Sec VII, 647) Through his difficult relationships with people, the God of the books of Genesis and Job evolved toward compassion.  One and the same with this evolution of God's consciousness was the elevation of humanity's capacity for kindness.  "To sum up: the immediate cause of the Incarnation lies in Job's elevation, and its purpose is the differentiation of Yahweh's consciousness." (Sec VI, 642)

After all his failed attempts in Genesis, after making a hash of it with Job, the only way God could one-up humanity, once and for all, was to one-down himself and become a human being.  In doing so, he had to give up being the big-guy-in-the-sky, and let himself be no more or less than Love itself.  In the Christian mythological context, Genesis is the first messy, tangled act in God's long story of becoming humane.  And Genesis is also the first part of the myth of how humans become humane, more reflective of the image of the God of compassion.  As the German Catholic bishop, Franz Kamphaus, once said, "Christmas: Do it like God. Become human."  Through our relationships with each other, evolving toward compassion, we become more humane, more human, and more divine.

JIM BURKLO

Website: JIMBURKLO.COM

Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo

Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

orl.usc.edu