The black trunks of the pines and bare hardwoods parse the dawn each morning outside my windows. Looking over my shoulder, I see a little more dawn out of the window on the right; it captures a slightly more easterly perspective where the sky is pale gold. Through the other window, the sky above and behind the trees is a pale, clear lavender that I know will brighten to blue.
I know because I watch dawn come through these windows every morning. And every morning, the story is slightly different: the angle of the light, the degree of overcast, which animals are wandering through, when I choose to look. The more I know of these woods, this place, the more thickly layered my seeing becomes.
These daily encounters with the text are like that; a story is getting told throughout the book, but what we see of it and what we think about it varies depending on when and where we look; what we take from that seeing depends, too, on what we know about the story.
In the reading from Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew bible, we catch sight of one of the overarching themes of scripture: “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision ….” God makes promises to Abram, who will be Abraham, that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of the sky. Abram believes God, and God reckons that belief as righteousness.
The teller of this story is timetraveling; he (likely a he) puts in prophetic terms what has by the time of writing already happened: the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, and conquest of the land of not just the Canaanites, but also the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.* God promises Abram a people and a land for that people, as a gift.
And here we come to a problem. Later books tell stories about the conquests and wars associated with Abraham’s people acquiring the land, which become part of the sacred narrative. Whole peoples are obliterated and enslaved. That’s bad enough.
But then later peoples use those same narratives as justification for their own conquests, wars and colonizations, again obliterating and enslaving whole peoples. In the United States, we called it Manifest Destiny. In the land where I grew up, what became the South Texas borderlands, that colonizing mindset has long held sway. First the Spaniards pushed the indigenous people out, and then Anglo peoples crossed into the Mexican state of Coahila y Texas as illegal immigrants and eventually triggered the War with Mexico, whereby great swaths of the American southwest — with rich mineral and other natural resources — came into U.S. possession. In the land where I live now, white settlers pushed out indigenous tribes — including the Occoneechee people, descendants of whom still live in this area — through expulsion and war.
* The problem is, the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan never really happened.
When archeologists began to look at the physical record of what happened in the land, they found evidence of peaceful existence in this location and timeframe. Jericho had been destroyed long before, probably 1000 years before. The conquest theory of how the Israelites came into central Palestine and became a people does not hold up.
Two other theories have developed. The immigration theory, developed about the same time as the first historical-critical readings of the Bible, explained entry into the land as a long and complicated process of infiltration, or even amalgamation with local people. People went into the land peacefully and slowly and made treaties with the people already living there, beginning to intermarry with local people.
Another idea, developed more recently, is the socio-revolution model. This model suggests Israel was composed in large part of native Canaanites who revolted against their old lords and joined with a group of wanderers who had come in from the desert. By this understanding, Israelites were not aliens, they were native to the land. But they were a marginalized, oppressed group among the Canaanites.
The ones who came from the desert may have been those who experienced the exodus, and their warrior god Yahweh was the catalyst needed by the oppressed peoples to become united in an attempt at a better life.
These critical understandings are important. When people who have been colonized read stories of conquest, the God they see in the story is not the liberative God of the Exodus but an oppressive God who justifies the treatment they’ve experienced.
The Bible’s stories of peoples’ relationships with God and each other are glimpses in time, told particular ways for particular reasons. We adopt and adapt these stories for our own purposes, using them to justify our beliefs and actions. These color who and what we think God is, and what God wants of us.
What kind of people would we be today if we our holy stories were of being a people who wandered in lonely exile, eventually finding a land where another scattered, oppressed, marginalized people welcomed us, letting us live among them until we were unable to tell each other apart, because we had loved each other into becoming a people together? What if — instead of telling each other apart — we told ourselves together?
Which brings us to the Matthew text, where Jesus is speaking prophetically of the power of word and story, and what the stories we tell say about us. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.”
Some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible became an evil treasure: an oppressed people’s dream of God as a conqueror became justification for later peoples to do evil in the name of that God.
Does that make God evil? Or have we recreated God in the image of evil desires?
The word of the Lord came to Abram. Life happened … peoples made their way, and told stories. Those stories have shaped history in life-giving and life-destroying ways. These ways have come out of our choices, our ongoing responses to God’s words in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live ….”
The word of the Lord came to Mary, too. An angel told her that she and God together would create life, almost unimaginable Life. She, like Abram, asked, “How can this be?” And the word of God’s messenger came back to her: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
And so Mary chose Life. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The Word of the Lord comes to us today, inviting us to speak out of what is abundant in our hearts.
Too often I speak out of an abundance of anger, or fear, or a passionate conviction that my way is right.
Today, for once — and then maybe more than once — let me speak out of an abundance of faith, and trust, and love. Let me have faith in the God of immigrant peoples … let me trust in the God of a people slowly coming together in love and not violence … let me love the God of a different story, for whom nothing is impossible.
Here we are, the servants of Love; let it be with us according to your Word.