Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Considering Rhetoric and Preaching the Gospel

At a point when I should be struggling with my thesis and a paper for my Hebrew class, I'm struggling with rhetoric.

I thought I had come to terms with rhetoric when it was one of the hot topics in the first year of Palm Beach Atlantic's honors program. We delved into Augustine and Cicero and took a diachronic look at Western rhetoric throughout the ages--from Gorgias and Demosthenes to Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Augustine was biased towards rhetoric, since he taught it for a good time before his conversion. After his conversion, he had to address the negative views of some Christians concerning rhetoric. They deemed it all sophistry, assuming Truth needed no human to dress it up. Truth sells itself. Truth is attractive without make-up and jewelry.

I remember Augustine agreeing to a point. He believed Truth is attractive, but he also believed people aren't always attracted to the correct things. And if Truth is already attractive, what would a little rhetoric hurt? If the Hebrew people could take gold from the Egyptians--gold used in their religious practices and gold made off the back of oppression--then Christians could also use rhetoric, even the practices elucidated by "pagan" men like Cicero and even the pre-Christian Augustine.

I wrote the above to re-convince myself about the benefits of rhetoric. I'm struggling with it as I'm preparing a sermon for Sunday, a sermon to be preached at a Baptist church I have never attended and will likely never attend again. A sermon on the sign of Jonah.

I think the sign of Jonah is not just about death--as Jonah was in the belly of a fish, so was Jesus in the belly of the grave (btw, Jonah's prayer from inside the fish is very reminiscent of descriptions of hell and the grave, at least in the Hebrew and my opinion). I think the sign is about Jonah's calling (I'll post my sermon at another time).

In preparation, I was reminded how much I think the story of Jonah is a dream dreamt on the way towards Tarshish. Perhaps Jonah went to Ninevah, perhaps he didn't. Perhaps God miraculously kept Jonah alive for three days and nights in a fish's stomach or perhaps that image is one of the nonsensical images prevalent in dreams--like three skinny cows eating three fat cows.

As I got excited about this interpretation, I began to wonder if I could preach it. I don't think you have to interpret Jonah as a dream to get out of it what I see in it, although some things are missed, because reading Jonah as a dream is reading a different Jonah.

I grew frustrated with the desire to censor myself and the desire to preach what is on my heart. I grew frustrated knowing people might stop listening to me if I implied Jonah was never in the belly of a fish or went to Ninevah or sat under a gourd. Actually, people would probably not even consider I was implying Jonah didn't go to Ninevah, because they would be more concerned with the miraculous fish-event; they would be concerned not with the thrust of the story of Jonah, but with the fish.

But if I have a message to deliver--and I believe I do--rhetoric dictates I form my message based on my audience. Just as I'm not going to use Hebrew words in my sermon, neither should I say something I know will stop my audience from listening to me or taking me seriously.

Rhetoric will change my message, but it will not take away the message.

But I hate to be censored. I hate to be someone else for people--to be fake. I hate that the rules of rhetoric dictate I should take out my earrings to preach in this church. In fact, I already agreed to take them out. It was a prerequisite.

The pastor did not ask me to wear a tie, but I imagine someone in that church will spend a few minutes being frustrated with my dress. Perhaps I should wear a tie. I hope they won't be able to see my shoes, because I do not own nice shoes and I refuse to buy any. My money can go to places much better than pretty shoes.

Actually, I'm incorrect. I do own one pair of nice shoes. Maybe I'll donate them to someone who needs them a little more than I do. Someone who needs nice shoes for a job. Why does anyone need nice shoes for a job? What do the appearance of your shoes matter in how you do your work?

I feel like I'm selling out and changing who I am to be a part of a group that is supposed to accept anyone and everyone. I feel like I am approving of judging a person by their style. But if I have a message, I need to convey it in such a way that those with ears can listen. And since I don't know the people in the church I'm preaching, I have absolutely no basis to accuse them of judgment, lest I, too, am asking for judgment.

I am going to preach about Jonah, but I am not going to show up at that church and preach Jonah's message. (Look it up.)

I think I have good motives. I'm not trying to conform, I'm trying to be a vessel of transformation--working with God to deliver a message for those in my hearing. I'm uncomfortable with the whole situation, but being right doesn't mean being comfortable. Sometimes being right will be comfortable, but the two are not the same. Never have been. Never will be.

Lord, you are overturning my heart like you tried with Jonah in his dream, like Jonah thought you would do to Ninevah, like the Ninevites did in response to Jonah's message. Please overturn me and my heart. Use my words to transform others and their hearts.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Did God Neglect Cain? And Why Was Cain Angry Enough to Kill?

Last night, some friends and I were talking about Cain and Abel. I said I thought Cain got the raw end of the deal. I just didn't understand what the big deal was. This morning, one of my friends asked me what light the Hebrew might shed on story.

It shed some light. It was a fun translation and I knew a lot of the words, which always excites me. The following gives an interpretation in light of the Hebrew from the BHS. Although I get a little technical with some of the Hebrew, you can easily pass over what I don't explain and I hope you can still understand the translation process. For example, it doesn't matter if you know what "waw consecutive" or "Qal" means. But, pay attention to what I say about "perfect" and "imperfect" verbs.


Genesis 4:3 opens with a very general term used in narratives. It is often left untranslated. I usually translate it something like, "and it came to pass" or "and it was." It is the conjoining waw and a form of the word "to be" (Qal imperfect, 3ms with the waw consecutive). Again, it starts lots of narratives and books of the Bible. Very popular, that word.

The next two words are something like "at the end of days." My dictionary says one of the words generally connotes "at the end of a definite time." But our "definite time" is the plural "days," which is not a very definite time. The word "day" can be ambiguous as well, sometimes meaning a day and sometimes meaning time in general, as expositors of Genesis 1 love to remind us. So, although we are unaware of how long, it sounds to me like the story's way of telling us, "so, the two boys grew up and we aren't going to talk about what happened then, let's just go on to this next part of the story." (It also gives me a sort of "at-the-end-of-the-season," as if it is time for harvest? But I am unsure if you would have animals birthing and grains and fruits harvesting at the same time.)

"And Cain caused to bring in an offering of fruit of the land to YHWH." "Caused to bring in" is a pretty rough translation ... the verb form has the sense of causation and agency and the word has the sense of bringing in, entering, and coming in. This verb in this form can connote gathering a harvest and simply bringing. So, perhaps, "And Cain brought an offering of fruit of the land to YHWH." Oh, but get this. It is in the imperfect, which often connotes an incomplete action. So, "And Cain was bringing an offering of the fruit of the land to YHWH." (Or, more simply "Cain brings ...", but we don't tell stories that way in English.)

Which brings us to verse 4 which could be translated to begin "And Abel" or "But Abel." Then same verb in a similar form is used, but in the perfect, which generally connotes a completed action. However, the difference in the two forms isn't so straight forward. The perfect doesn't always mean a completed action and the imperfect doesn't always mean an incomplete action. In fact, the "vav consecutive + imperfect" often connotes a completed action, which means the same verb form--imperfect--can connote the opposite of what it normally connotes simply by adding the word "and" on front of it.

Maybe the story is relating events of the past as if all are past, but with varying verb forms for novelty's sake (which is a practice not terribly dissimilar from English story-telling and writing habits). Or, it could be saying Cain went to offer his offering, but Abel was already offering his. In the following translation, I translated the imperfect and perfect sense of the verbs differently, in order to tell the story in this latter possible interpretation (Note, both offerings are in the singular, although "fruit" is a collective noun, I believe):

(4) But Abel, also he brought from a (female) first-born of his flock and her fat. And YHWH gazed on Abel and his offering. (5) But on Cain and his offering, YHWH was not gazing. And Cain was burning exceedingly [with anger], and his face was falling.

I translated "gaze" instead of "regard," like some translations, (although, my dictionary gives both options). Here we have the possibility that the younger sibling came before the older, perhaps reflecting a biblical tradition of preference for the younger. The younger in this case seems to earn the preference by offering his offering first. Then we have the possibility that Abel offered the first-born, whereas Cain offers fruit, not the first-fruit [see note 1].

Furthermore, Cain could feel ignored, because when he is ready to give his offering, God is busy paying attention to Abel and Cain cannot wait. Cain is the first-born, but God is gazing/regarding the first-born of some animals from the second born of Adam and Eve. Cain cannot wait his turn and thinks he deserves priority and, full of himself, gets angry. And his face or countenance falls

And you know the rest of the story.


My translation of Genesis 4:3-5:

[And an end of times came to pass. OR: And it was at an end of days that] Cain was bringing an offering of the fruit of the land to YHWH. But Abel, he also brought from a (female) first-born of his flock and her fat. And YHWH gazed on Abel and his offering. But on Cain and his offering, YHWH was not gazing. And Cain was burning exceedingly [with anger], and his countenance/face was falling.

Note 1: Deut. 26:2 says "first of all fruit" with the same word for fruit, but, well, also with the words for "first of all." In Deut. 18:4 the word translated "firstfruits" in the KJV is the word for "first."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Pleasant Dream of Learning French

I dreamt last night I was learning French.

In my dream, learning French consisted of singing "Alouette," the kid's song about plucking a bird. I remember singing it and interacting with a friend of mine from Friendship, ME. We were outside of HAPY and Suttle Hall on the Gardner-Webb quad. She was being mean to people and I didn't understand why. I don't remember if I asked her not to be mean, but I moved on to someone else. I can't place the next person in my dream as anyone specific in my life. We walked from the quad towards Royster. We saw guys laying out working on tans. Either they wanted us to join or my new friend wanted us to join. He did, I didn't. He started play fighting with another guy and tried to get me to hang out while I was wandering around. I don't think I wanted to be involved in play fighting, but I saw they were having fun and was glad to be wanted. I still had "Alouette" in my head, because I was learning French.

When I woke up, I was disturbed by the meanness of my childhood friend. I was disturbed by the fighting, even if it was playful. I was disturbed that I was alone. The dream itself didn't conjure any negative feelings, but I was bummed about it. I stayed in bed, thinking about it while waiting for my alarm to go off in 10 minutes. When it did, I hit the snooze button.

Another rough dream? This is getting old.

I never hit snooze.

Later, I thought about the dream again (because "Alouette" was still in my head). I didn't focus on the part of me that I left on the quad or the new part of me I shyly smiled at from a distance, unsure of how I feel about him. Instead, I focused on the consistent part of me in the dream, the me learning French.

I took that shy smile from my dream for myself. I did have a pleasant dream. I was learning something new, something to better myself. It may be hard to determine externally and internally how to learn, what to learn, and in which direction to go (I wandered a bit aimlessly after the dream friend started play fighting), but I can still make progress.

I'm journeying. I see an ultimate destination in the kingdom, in God through Christ. I don't know where the little destinations are, but I keep evaluating in light of God and that kingdom, as much as possible, since I'm not always sure where those things are.

But we continue in faith, not knowledge. Not confirmation and assurance per se, faith. Embracing new things when faith dictates, even if I don't understand why, even if I never thought faith would lead me here, even if I don't know where to go next.

Learning French.

VoilĂ .