Friday, January 25, 2008

Ancient Geography

Friday, January 25, 2008 -- Week of 2 Epiphany, Year 2
(Conversion of St. Paul)

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
EITHER (Friday of the week of 2 Epiphany, Prayer Book, p. 945)
Psalms 31 (morning) 35 (evening)
Genesis 11:27 - 12:8
Hebrews 7:1-17
John 4:16-26

OR (Conversion of St. Paul, Prayer Book, p. 996)
Morning Prayer: Psalm 19; Isaiah 45:18-25; Philippians 3:4b-11
Evening Prayer: Psalm 119:89-112; Ecclesiasticus 39:1-10; Acts 9:1-22

I read the lections for Friday of 2 Epiphany

I find myself drawn into the anthropology and geography of these stories today.

In Genesis we trace a great migration. Abraham's father Haran is living in Ur of the Chaldeans, a great, civilized city deep in the fertile crescent on the Euphrates in modern Iraq, south of Baghdad near the ancient shore of the Persian Gulf. Scholars speculate that there was some conflict or instability during the age in question (c. 2000-1800 BCE) that might have motivated Haran to leave Ur. South was the sea, west was desert, east were the feared Elamites. Haran traveled north along the Euphrates. In about a month he would have reached the city of Mari, a major trading center. It is another 250 miles to Haran, up the Euphrates and its tributary the Balikh, in modern Turkey north of Syria. Haran was settled by Amorites on a major trading highway. It had a moderate climate, fertile lands and vast cedar forests.

When Haran died, the clan leadership passed to Abram. He heard a stirring in his soul: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will b less you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing." Thus begins the migration south into Canaan (around 1850 BCE?). Canaan was a sliver of land squeezed between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It had fertile valleys and dry heights. For ages it was the connecting route for trade between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. Abram enters the promised land at Shechem (modern Nablus), and builds an altar to God at the oak of Moreh. He moves further south and settles between Ai and Bethel, a few miles north of Salem, which comes up in our second reading.

The writer of Hebrews wants to trace the lineage of the high priesthood of Jesus, who, he says, is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, picking up a messianic attribution from the psalms. Melchizedek was the king and high priest of Salem (Jerusalem?). He and Abraham defeated the five kings of the east in a fascinating account in Genesis 14, which comes from a source different from the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe (one tenth) of all of his possessions, and Melchizedek blessed Abraham.

The writer of Hebrews uses this event to make an argument about the priesthood of Jesus. Levi, the son of Abraham, is still in Abraham's loins, when Abraham is blessed by Melchizedek and Abraham gives to the priest/king the tithe. This is a transaction, and Melchizedek is the greater who blesses Abraham/Levi. Because there is no ancestry given for Melchizedek and no descendants, he is believed to be a mysterious, maybe divine character, without beginning and without end. It is from Melchizedek that Jesus' priesthood comes, says Hebrews. This is a priesthood far greater than the historical priesthood from Levi. This is an eternal priesthood.

In the final reading from John's gospel, we return to Shechem where Abram first entered the promised land. His descendent Jacob/Israel finally settled in Shechem after his many wanderings and exploits. In Jesus day, it was Samaria, the capital of the hostile relatives, the Samaritans. The Samaritan woman is drawing water from the well of Jacob. His ancestors had been drawing water from Jacob's well for nearly two millennia by that time.

Jesus and the woman are separated by a deep religious and cultural conflict that is five-hundred years old. Jesus invites her into the worship of God in spirit and in truth, and relates to her as her Messiah, not just the Messiah of the "orthodox."

Was it William Faulkner who said "The past is not dead. It's not even past." The roots of the relationships, faiths, and conflicts that engage us in the geography of Abraham, Melchizedek, Jacob, Jesus and a Samaritan woman have their roots in these stories that span four thousand years. What understanding, respect and compassion do we need to be able, like Jesus, to bring the reconciling water of eternal life to our relationship with these ancestors of ours?


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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

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