Hold the Door

There is a scene is episode five, season six of the celebrated HBO series “Game of Thrones” when the very future of humanity hangs in the balance.  Bran Stark and his friends are being pursued by the White Walkers, who represent cold, calculating evil, and the undead, who represent the swarming power of chaos.  Bran, who is paralyzed, is carried on a litter by his massive but simple manservant, Hodor.  Hodor drags Bran away from their enemies down a long, narrow passageway with a pinpoint of light at its far end.  As they reach the light and rush through the doorway, the swarm of undead catch up with them.  With brute strength and raw power, Hodor slams the door behind him and braces it with his massive back.  Bran’s litter is taken up by another, and he continues to flee.  As he looks back at Hodor, the powers of chaos attempt to break through the door, bit by bit.  They claw at Hodor’s arms, his back, his face.  But Hodor is unmovable.  His love for Bran is unsurpassable.  His strength is unassailable.  His will is supreme.  Because he holds the door, because he holds back chaos and evil, Bran is saved.

Hold the Door

In Mark’s Gospel today, the disciples James and John earn their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder.”  They bluster and brag and ask of Jesus in a manner that is, in reality, the staking of a claim that Jesus place them—James and John—at his right and left hand.  They wish to be Lancelot and Galahad to Jesus’ King Arthur, and that image is not too far off the mark of who they think Jesus is and will be.  Glory swims in their eyes, and they want to be in its very center.  James and John can imagine the importance, the accolades, the prominence their central role will bring.  In the new world, the Camelot of sorts, the new kingdom of David they expect Jesus to inaugurate, things will revolve around them.

Overhearing the brothers’ bluster, the other disciples get angry, but notably Jesus does not.  His reaction is, I suspect, more like sadness.  He can predict what’s coming, and he knows that there is great irony in what James and John ask.  Jesus asks them if they can drink from the cup he must drink.  They brazenly say “Yes, of course we can,” but they don’t understand.  They’ll surely eventually drink from Jesus’ cup, but it will not be the nectar they imagine.


In Job today, the protagonist has suffered for thirty-eight long chapters, enduring friends who insist that Job’s trials must be the result of his own sin (which he knows is untrue) and wondering pleadingly how it can be that a man such as himself, who contributes to society, cares for his family, and tends to the poor finds himself on the receiving end of such pain.  Job has been the very center of his community, and, he believes, he deserves better.  Finally, Job has challenged God to make an appearance and justify Godself.  Today, God shows up.  And Job becomes the first person in history to say to himself, “Be careful what you ask for…”

God begins, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  And God’s soliloquy continues for four chapters.  God explains to Job that God causes rain to fall on parched places that have never entered Job’s concern or even consciousness, turning deserts to oases where human beings have never dwelled.  God explains to Job that God’s care, delight, and love are bestowed upon every creature of the earth, from the majestic lion to the ridiculous ostrich.  God explains that God is present at the birth of each lamb and each deer.

In a nutshell, God reveals to Job something more shattering than all the pains Job has experienced thus far, namely, that Job is not at the center of things, including the center of God’s own attention, at all.  It is not that God doesn’t love humanity—God surely does—but God loves humanity as part of God’s gracious whole, not over and above the rest of the good creation.

At the end of God’s long speech, beyond our reading today, God gives Job a vision of two terrifying creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan.  One is on land and the other is in the sea, but they both represent the stampeding, swarming, overwhelming power of evil and chaos that constantly threatens to overtake the world.  Job believes that God’s attention should have been on Job’s every and individual need, a nursemaid God who binds every scraped knee.  But the vision of Behemoth and Leviathan God offers Job corrects Job’s sight to see where God’s constant attention actually must lie.  Like Hodor bracing that door with his mighty back against the White Walkers, God, in every moment of the world’s long existence, labors mightily to keep Behemoth and Leviathan at bay.  God—with supreme will, unassailable strength, and unsurpassable love for us and for all the good world—holds the door closed against the evil and chaos that would otherwise overtake us.

Leviathan and Behemoth

William Blake’s Leviathan and Behemoth

As I have grown older and my own conception of God has evolved, God’s speech to Job has gone from being one of my least to most favorite passages of scripture.  Our removal from the center of things is a corrective to our human tendency toward arrogance and narcissism.  It refocuses our attention away from ourselves and toward the beauty and wonder of the created world.  And, the image of God binding Behemoth and Leviathan; the image of God, with outstretched arms and steely intention, holding back the chaos that would otherwise run roughshod over the world every moment of our existence; deepens my gratitude and even love for God.

But it also brings me soberly back to Jesus’ melancholy prediction in Mark today that James and John will indeed, eventually, drink from his cup.  The image of Jesus on the cross is, in the end, another version of God holding the door.  Jesus’ saving work on the cross is God’s ultimate act, God’s ultimate labor of love against chaos, evil, and death.  Jesus suffers on the cross to enact God’s redemption of the world.  And both James and John will (as today they ignorantly hope, not knowing what they ask) drink from Jesus’ cup.  They will be transformed to become agents of that redemption, too.  They will, in service to grace, also labor to hold back the chaos.  It will claw at them, and they will both eventually give their lives fending against it for grace’s sake.

This is the lesson today, from both Job and Mark’s Gospel: God gives humanity a role, a purpose, a sacred job to do, and that cup is not at all easy to drink.  Ours is not to cast ourselves as the center of attention, either the world’s attention or God’s.  Ours is to recognize both the goodness of God’s whole creation and its fragile contingency, with ruinous chaos constantly beating at the door.  God’s demonstrated promise is to hold that door, to bind Leviathan and Behemoth, to preserve this world with grace against being overcome by the forces that rail against it.  And our purpose; our co-operative role; our calling to, indeed, be the left and right hands of Jesus is to hold the smaller doors whenever evil and chaos claw their way through the gaps.  We are to drink the cup that Jesus drank and stand with courage and conviction against the forces that seek to mar God’s goodness and destroy God’s world.  As Job learns today and as James and John eventually learn, it is a humbling role, one that removes us from the center and places us in service.  It requires a reframing of who we are, relative to our own prior conceptions and relative to God.  It may require more of us than we thought we could give.

God holds the door and makes space for the lives of wonder, beauty, and goodness we enjoy.  And we are called to brace our backs with God, extending our own arms in love.

Adam, Eve, and Our Humanity

God looked down at Earth and saw all the ways humanity has been acting—the backbiting, the disregard and disdain, the willful hypocrisy—and God called one of the angels and sent the angel to earth to analyze the situation. When the angel returned, she told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 90% of people are acting horribly toward one another, and only 10% are not.”

God thought for a moment and then decided to send another angel to earth for a second opinion.  When that angel returned she went to God and said, “Unfortunately, it’s true.  The world is in trouble.  90% of people increasingly hold each another in utter contempt. Only 10% actively seek reconciliation and joy in one another.”

God was not pleased. So, God decided to e-mail the 10% that were sharing grace in the world, because God wanted to encourage them and give them a little something to help them keep going.  And do you know what that email said?… Yeah, I didn’t receive one either.[i]

Had it been real, I’m sure you all would have received God’s encouraging email, even as I’m sometimes doubtful that I would.  I think we’ll all acknowledge that in our world, it is difficult these days to maintain equanimity and goodwill, much less hope.  Increasingly, it seems, we scurry to the polar ends of the socio-political spectrum; we interpret all data about those at the other pole in the most suspicious and negative light; and we increasingly only constructively engage with those with whom we already agree.

You know me well, and you know that I don’t casually or recklessly preach politics from the pulpit.  When I do preach about things going on in our world, which sometimes unavoidably includes things that touch upon politics, I do so with trembling knees and in prayerful hope that I am preaching only the Gospel of Christ.

This morning I am not going to talk about the Supreme Court nomination hearing, its related saga, or yesterday’s confirmation vote.  There is most definitely a time and place to discuss in Church such pivotal national events, and it is very likely that the Faith & Society Seminar will do so in the spring.  And when we do, we will do so in a manner that seeks to offer an alternative to the suspicion and presumption of ulterior motives by our neighbors that I lamented at the outset this morning, because in the Church we are called always to presume goodwill of one another, not malice.  We are called to sow grace, not suspicion.

This morning, though, the entire set of lectionary readings does virtually insist that we commit our souls and minds to the broader topic that has been swirling around in our culture for some months now, namely, the relationship of men to women.

Adam and Eve mosaic

Our Old Testament reading takes this issue all the way back to its origin: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then God took one of the man’s ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’”

We know what happens next.  God walks with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, until the day that the serpent approaches Eve and convinces her to eat the forbidden fruit.  Adam follows suit and also eats.  Their disobedience brings expulsion from the Garden, lust, toil, and death.

At the dawn of the fifth century A.D., St. Augustine gave us the interpretation of these events that has remained normative throughout Christian religious and cultural history.  As Rosemary Radford Reuther explains, Augustine argues that “the male was created first and then the female from his side to indicate the relation of superiority of the male and the subordination of the female by which they are to relate to each other in the social order.  For Augustine, then, gender hierarchy was part of the original creation.”[ii]

And it gets worse for Eve when the serpent shows up.  Augustine says, again according to Reuther, that “Eve took the initiative in this choice to disobey God, because as a woman she had less rationality and was closer to the bodily lower self and so was easily deceived by the tempting serpent. Adam, in Augustine’s view, was not deceived but went along with Eve in an act of kindly companionship lest she be left alone outside of Paradise.”[iii]

A math of sorts emerges from St. Augustine’s interpretation: Eve is derivative and, thus, less than Adam + Eve’s identity is tied to the body, whereas Adam’s is tied to the mind + Eve gives in to her physical appetites by eating the succulent fruit = Eve and her descendants—that’s all women—are both lustful and objects of lust.  They are less than men, and they are to blame for all sins of the flesh.

Seghers, Gerard, 1591-1651; The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

St. Augustine

No single person has had greater influence on Western thought than St. Augustine.  His conclusions live in our cultural ether, both religious and secular.  They are unquestioned, assumed, and therefore unconscious.  Augustine’s interpretation of the Creation, Adam, Eve, and the Fall has informed the ways Western culture has viewed women to a depth of which we have been scarcely, and are only now becoming, aware.  The objectification of women, the demeaning of women, the disregard of women, and the abuse of women all find a source in St. Augustine and, thus, in the Church.

And, Augustine is wrong.  I don’t dispute the most influential doctor of the Church lightly, but here Augustine is wrong—flatly and plainly so—and I don’t mean that he is wrong simply by our twenty-first century standards (though that is also, obviously, true).  Augustine was wrong when he developed his argument sixteen hundred years ago, because he is wrong in his interpretation of the language of scripture.

You see, we are too footloose in the way we apply the name “Adam” to the man in the Genesis story.  The Hebrew word Adam—Ha’Adam—clearly and rightly means not “man” but “human.”  Even more accurately, Adam comes from the Hebrew “adamah,” which means earth or ground.  In the Hebrew text, Adam is the name used exclusively to refer to the first person in the second chapter of Genesis, prior to the creation of Eve.  At this point in the story, in other words, the first person is neither male nor female.  The first person is, rather, “human being,” a person of the earth.  The best translation of “Adam” is, actually, “the earthling.”

When Eve is created, when the earthling is separated into two beings, both receive a new name.  At that point in the Hebrew biblical text, the name Adam recedes, and the new names Genesis uses to refer to the two, differentiated people are “Ish” and “Ishshah,” which mean male and female.  Eve, it turns out, is not derivative of Adam at all.  Rather, from Adam—the earthling, neither male nor female—come both Ish and Ishshah, the man and the woman.  What was one whole becomes two new equal parts.  We miss this in English translation, but it is clear in Hebrew.

In a manner I take to be providential, today’s other readings speak with similar clarity.  The Psalmist today, along with the Letter to the Hebrews which borrows from the psalm, speaks of both men and women together, begging of God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory.”  Woman and man both, crowned with glory and honor, only a little lower than God, and created in God’s image.

Even today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, which on the face of it is about divorce, has at its root Jesus’ restoration of the status of women.  Whereas under Mosaic law a husband could simply turn his wife out, Jesus asserts a standard that puts wives and husbands on equal footing.

This is the biblical witness.  What does it mean today, for Christian people, both male and female?  The implications are monumental.  Pushing back against millennia of theology and cultural accretion that have insisted women are derivative, of the flesh, blameworthy, and culpable for men’s wrongs, we must teach our youth, enact in our world, and live our own lives in ways that affirm women as crowned with glory scarcely less than that of the angels.  The Church must be a leading, and not a lagging, indicator in our culture that women are, in every way, the right recipients of honor, integrity, merit, and, most importantly, respect for their bodies equal to men. Whatever the issue of the day; whether in the public sphere, the workplace, our educational institutions, or the family; whatever the circumstance, large or small, we are to speak these truths, remembering that only together—Ish and Ishshah as one Ha’Adam, man and woman as one humanity—do we reflect the very image of God.


[i] Adapted from a joke at http://www.ba-bamail.com/content.aspx?emailid=19941

[ii] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dba4/9fc272b7c40236a923caf6d12d89a06d208c.pdf

[iii] Ibid