Birth pangs

15 November 2015
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28B (RCL)
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10 (The Song of Hannah)
Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Hannah’s predicament is not an uncommon one in biblical story. Probably official YHWHism’s suppression of the fertility cults left many women without choice but to resort to “magic.” The glee of the rival wife at her rival’s infertility would be a continuing reminder of one’s shame. The biblical story gives us several examples of the official cult resulting in a pregnancy. YHWH is not just a war god, but also handles cases of infertility. The births that come about through YHWH’s intervention always have a high significance for the ongoing story of G-d’s people (Isaac, Samuel).

New Testament writers use the metaphor of birth a number of times for God’s emerging purposes in the world. In Romans 8, Paul uses the image of the creation groaning in expectation of the revelation of the children of God, and we groan inwardly awaiting our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. And Mark uses that metaphor here for whatever will emerge after the destruction of the Temple.

The destruction of the Temple urgently raised the question of Jewish identity. As long as the Temple stood, it served in some form as the focus of Jewish identities. Even for Jews in the diaspora, Roman law allowed them the practice of their religion as long as they contributed to the cult of the Temple. Paul’s collection for the saints in Jerusalem might have been an attempt to position his new social formation as a legitimate Jewish identity.

When the Temple was gone, it obviously no longer served to tie the various identities together. What became known as Christianity was one of those Jewish identities that didn’t make the official cut. The author of the letter to the Hebrews seems to be anticipating that separation. It seems likely that the letter was written while the Temple still stood — scholars argue over that point, but if it had been destroyed, it seems unlikely that the author could have avoided an “I told you so.”

Hebrews suggests the replacement of the Temple cult with the person of Jesus. Jesus has entered into a tabernacle not made with hands, the real one, and not a copy. There he stands eternally making intercession for us through the gift of his blood, rather than the blood of a goat. We can now enter the holy of holies, not through a curtain, but through his flesh.

Sacrifice in the ancient cult established kinship. The blood on the lintel in the Passover established those inside the house as kin to YHWH. Abraham’s sacrifice of/with Isaac established Isaac (rather than Ishmael) as Abraham’s heir. Even Hannah makes her prayer during a sacrificial feast. Post-Temple Christianity constructed the community as a new kinship group, centered in the flesh and blood of Jesus. The coming-to-birth of this new identity will not be easy, and involve the total loss of the old identity.

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