Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: Sour Grapes

Yesterday as I trundled along the Beltway on my way to church, I found myself meditating on one of my favorite passages from the major prophets. Beats the heck out of listening to kei$a or talk radio, let me tell you.

It's from Ezekiel. Yeah, I know, he's an odd one, what with the wheels within wheels, the nakedness and the bread cooked over burning poo. Ol' Zeke comes across as the most intense of the major prophets, a YHWH-touched performance artist/writer/priest who seems both DSM IV certifiable and authentically aware of God's presence. For all his intensity, there's a grace to his vision.

One of my favorite riffs in his mind-boggling theopoetics comes in Ezekiel 18, where he declares with typical God-fired ferocity that a saying being bandied about among the Israelites in diaspora annoys the bejabbers out of the creator of the universe. That saying is this:
The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.
Meaning, if your ancestors mess up, you'll pay the price. For an entire chapter of generational back and forth, Zeke expresses YHWH's total disapproval of this concept. Each soul is to be judged only on the basis of what it does. Sin is not something that automatically conveys from generation to generation. Zeke isn't the only one to express this concept, although he seriously goes to town on it. The prophet Jeremiah also lays in to the very same saying.

What struck me during my meditation was this: that idea seems rather at odds with the way that the concept of original sin is often articulated in Christian theology. Let's take, for instance, 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Women are to shut up and be submissive...because way back when a woman sinned in Eden. What we hear in Ezekiel and Jeremiah essentially says, no, that way of thinking has nothing to do with the way God works.

More significantly, what Ezekiel is saying also seems in rather significant tension with Romans 5, in which the Apostle Paul asserts that we are all condemned because of Adam's sin. As I view the story of the Fall as a non-literal and archetypal expression of our universal human resistance to God's grace and our calling to care for one another, this tension resolves for me. The sin of the adam is my sin, because the adam symbolically represents all humankind. Within a more progressive theology, Paul and Zeke aren't at odds.

But if you take the entirety of scripture mechanistically, this is more of a challenge. If a guy named Adam or a chica named Eve did something bad 6,000 years ago in some Mesopotamian garden spot, then Ezekiel and Jeremiah both proclaim that that thing cannot be held against us. Resolving that tension from a literalistic understanding of Paul and deutero-Paul is rather more difficult.

It would seem that from a literalist perspective, either one is true, or the other is true.