13 February 2018

Jesus' Sister: Family First

Mark 3:31-35

Family first -
isn't that how it should be?
Then why
do you put this rabble
before us, your closest kin,
and call them mother, brother, sister
while your mother, brothers, sisters
are stuck outside the door?

Family first -
isn't that the law of God?
Then why this affront
right out in public?
Why this reaction
that feels like rejection?
Are you forgetting
all you were taught
about honouring father and mother?
Are you forgetting
your mother who gave life to you,
your brothers who look up to you,
are you forgetting

you were my own big brother,
always there for me.
You played with me,
you taught me all I know,
you carved me little toys from wood,
defended me
and guided me.
you were my own.

But now
I can't reach you
through the sweaty throng surrounding you,
the squirming, stinking masses
of hideous faces pressing you,
strangers, sick, unclean,
people who disgust and frighten me.
you say that I must share you
with the likes of these.
And it hurts me
that you prefer
this unsavoury company
over me.

you were my own big brother.
you were my own.
NO, brother:
I don't want to share you.
I don't want this privilege
of being your sister
given to anyone else.
For it feels like I must lose you.
It feels like, when you love them,
there's less love left for me.
Like when you honour them
you're shaming me.

I know this is stupid.
I know this is selfish.
But this is what I feel.
Am I forgetting
that nothing can change
that I am your sister
and you are my brother?
Why do I deny them
an honour that won't cost me mine?
Why do I deny them
a privilege I got for free?

Family first -
but you say all are family.
Family first -
yes, but
maybe I need to learn
your family is larger than ever I thought.


[12. - 13. February 2018]

Yes Jesus had sisters. 😁
I find this scene very interesting: Jesus' family coming to look for him and unable to reach him because he is so surrounded by a crowd of people. Reading the Gospel of Mark this time around has made me realise how completely overrun poor Jesus was... everyone just rushing to him to get healed, pressing him from all sides, hardly leaving him a minute's peace, making it so bad he had to get in a boat and preach to them from water because they were thronging around him so... People believed he had gone mad, letting all those people come to him like that (Mk 3:21).

So Jesus' own family wants to get to him, but can't. Jesus is surrounded by people who were probably not all savoury characters. I don't know how comfortable you'd feel in a crowd of sick people... especially considering in those days no one really knew what to do about contagion. Then there were the "sinners", people who were deemed unclean because of their illnesses or way of living (and coming too close to those would infect you with "uncleanness" too), ...

Jesus calling these people family would have been a very shocking pronouncement.. and might have felt like an insult and affront to his immediate family. He was bestowing a great honour on those gathered around him - but in a culture where family has top priority (as was the case in ancient Palestine), that would have sounded like dishonour towards his own direct family.

And it got me thinking about privilege. And how very often, sharing something or giving a privilege to others results in the privileged feeling like they are losing out on something. It is very odd because it makes absolutely no sense; just because someone else can  have the same privilege does not mean you lose it or that it has any less worth. But I see that happening e.g. in discussions about gay marriage (people talking as if they and their marriages are being attacked simply by others being allowed the same privilege they already have), or in discussions about welfare etc. With welfare often the arguments go along the lines of "we worked for our money and our privileges, why give them for free to people, that will just make them lazy" etc etc. But God's system of fairness works counter to that: in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, all the workers receive the exact same salary, no matter how many hours they worked. And those who worked more complain - but they do not receive any less than what was promised to them. Why do we want privilege, to be "better off" or treated better, rather than aiming for equal treatment for all, unity, sharing?

So anyway those were my thoughts behind this...  as well as: Jesus' family is way larger than we can imagine. We spend so much energy on thoughts about who is in and who is out, who is "saved" and who isn't, how to "save" those who aren't... but Jesus tells these dirty sick sinners around him that they are his family. A majority of them probably did not understand his message. There are a few stories of people who came, received healing, and left again without having really learnt anything, e.g. the 9 lepers who were healed and went home, with only one turning back to thank Jesus and follow him. But Jesus calls the whole crowd his family. Isn't that food for thought?

Picture by Etienne Dinet.

15 November 2017

Rizpa: I Am Mother

2. Samuel 21:1-14

I am grief,
My heart torn with loss,
an aching hole
where once you were.

I am loss,
alone now, forsaken,
robbed of my sons,
bereft in a cruel sacrifice
done in the name of god.

I am love,
pouring from a shattered heart
flowing in tears
that can't bring you to life,
enveloping arms
to shield you from the sun and rain.

I am fury,
fighting for my children
against all forces of nature,
if must be: against god,
spitting in the face of death,
battling down decay.

I am fidelity,
more powerful than hate,
sharper than a sword,
stronger than death,
enduring all storms,
ignoring my own pain,
your protectress
beyond the end.

I am Mother.
My love never dies.
I would kill death
if only I could.

Where now is God?
Delighting over human sacrifice,
or fighting death with me?


[15. November 2017]

I have been intrigued by the picture of Rizpa furiously fighting off the carrion birds to protect her dead family members.

Rizpa's story is a terrible one. After David's rule has been established, there is a famine, and David asks God why. The answer: there is "bloodguilt" on the family of Saul because Saul killed the Gibeonites, i.e. in the tribal system of those days, revenge was still pending. Now instead of asking God what to do, David asked the Gibeonites what they wanted - and they demanded human sacrifice. So David had all the remaining male descendants of Saul killed (except Jonathan's family).

Here's where Rizpa, Saul's concubine, comes in. She goes out to the corpses and defends them - throughout the harvest season! Rizpa remains mother even in death. I find that picture very impressive.

Interesting to note: the famine does not end after the men were sacrificed - but after they were given a decent burial. Not only they, but also Saul and Jonathan who had been dead for years. Which to me shows that God clearly did NOT accept the human sacrifice. There is a lot of ugly violence in the Old Testament, and this is one example of it. But God does not condone it. The hero in this story is Rizpa, who shows David what is to be done. The end of bloodguilt is not punishment and sacrifice but forgiveness and burial.

Rizpa fighting death made me think of how in Jesus God conquered death for us. I see God in her, in this story - not delighting over the murder of men innocemt of their forebearer's crimes.

17 October 2017

Sarai: Is This Love?

Genesis 12:10-20 | Genesis 20:1-18

So this is love:
to sacrifice myself,
my body,
my integrity
to protect you.
So this is love:
giving up myself,
endangering myself,
risking my own neck
so you can be safe.

I don't deny
that this is love:
to give, to risk, to sacrifice.
Yes, this is love:
to look for your best,
to want you to be safe.

is this love
when it is always me
always me
always me
paying the price,
always me
losing out
in the end?

You ask me to lie
out of love.
You ask me to endanger myself
out of love.
You ask me
to claim I'm your sister
to protect you, my husband.

And now here I am,
in the chambers of a mighty stranger,
unfaithful by force,
unfaithful out of love,
trading my body
for your safety.
Is this love?

Now here I am
a piece of flesh
thrown before a hungry man,
while my husband
cowers safe and cowardly
far away from me.
Now here I am
without you to protect me,
because this is how I protect you.

My love
you got it all wrong.

This is love:
when a husband gives his life,
risks himself,
for the sake of his wife.
This is love:
when you no longer need
to sell my integrity for the sake of your own.
This is love:
when my life and my body
are as valuable as yours.

This is love:
when it's no longer just me
giving, risking, sacrificing.
This is love:
when it's no longer just me
looking for your best,
wanting you to be safe,
but you
looking for my best,
wanting me to be safe,
standing by me
no matter the price.


[17. October 2017]

This story appears twice in Genesis - either it happened twice, or there's two traditions that came together in the Bible. The same story also appears with Rebecca, wife of Isaac.

The first version of this story (Gen 12) goes like this: Sarai and Abram go to Egypt - and Abram gets a bit nervous because of Sarai's beauty, so he makes her lie that she is his sister, so no one will want to kill him to get at his wife. Meaning: Abram is not going to risk his life for her protection. He'd rather risk her (making her more "accessible" for other men as an unmarried sister) than risk the eventuality of someone trying to murder him for the sake of getting her. What ends up happening is that the Pharaoh gets attracted to her and takes her for himself.

Abram doesn't do anything to stop that, does not defend his wife. Sarai is basically being grabbed against her will to become a fling or concubine or wife of the Pharaoh, and Abram would rather stay safe and does not intervene. Isn't this terrible?! (Plus, Abram benefits from Sarai being taken by Pharaoh: Pharaoh does a deal with him, pays him a lot in livestock for Sarai's sake. Abram is making a profit and practically selling his own wife!)

Abram does not stand up for his wife. God, however, does. God is the one who intervenes, warns Pharaoh, even brings a plague over him and his family. God defends Sarai.

Writing this I had to think of the description of marriage in Ephesians 5, in particular verse 25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." Abram's relationship with Sarai in this story is one of one-sided submission of the wife to the husband; the husband is worth more, his safety is more important, it's okay to risk her life, to sell her, to allow abuse to happen to her, as long as the man stays whole. But that is not the way of the Gospel. Ephesians 5 is often abused to uphold a "hierarchy" of men above women. But I believe what it is actually saying is that men and women are of equal worth, and that a relationship needs to be one of mutual giving - not just the wife serving her husband and giving everything for him, but the husband sacrificing for her as well.

A husband should never let his wife get abused for the sake of saving his own skin. (And vice versa.)

Picture: The Egyptians Admire Sarai's Beauty, James Tissot.

13 October 2017

Judith: Black Widow

"Bring to pass, O Lord, that his pride may be cut off with his own sword." (Judith 9:12)

You see me - you see flesh,
a thing to devour,
to use for your pleasure.
You are used to power,
getting all you desire.
Am I but a fly
caught in your web?

Is this how low
a woman must fall,
giving her all
to a ravenous brute,
submitting to your desire,
letting myself be used
by the oppressor of my people,
flirting with abuse?

Am I but a fly
caught in your web?

You wish.

Fall down, o predator,
for you are now prey.
Fall down, o power,
for you have been conquered
by the one you thought the weaker sex.
Fall down, o mighty one,
and face your death
at the hands of Woman,
at the hands of your prey.

I have turned your lust
into my own weapon,
I have used your desire
to ensnare you in my trap.
You are a fly
caught in your own web.
Fall down, o power
and face the Lord
who chooses the weak
to dominate the strong.


[13. October 2017]

I wrote this really quickly... I'm a very lazy poet.

The story of Judith is part of the Apocrypha, i.e. late Old Testament texts which the Catholic Bible has, but Protestants generally leave out due to the Reformers thinking they had less value than the others due to being written in Greek and not Hebrew (bad reason, seriously...). Martin Luther did say, though, that the Apocrypha were an excellent supplement to the rest of the Bible and worth reading, so any Protestants wanting to go "but..": follow his advice and read them first, they are quite okay! (And were part of the early church's Bible anyway.)

So, Judith: I mostly knew Judith from the gory paintings of her chopping off Holofernes' head, until finally reading her story last year. The story takes place in the time of the Exile (under Nebuchadnezzar). Basically Judith stands up for the Jewish people against Holofernes, one of Nebuchadnezzars generals, by tricking him into thinking she wants to spend the night with him. She gets him all tired with food and drink and conversation, then - off with his head!

Anyway I read the story ages ago and today just suddenly got a few lines and sentences popping up in my head, also related to the abuse scandals going around at the moment I suppose. The story of Judith has a strong aspect of "weak winning over strong", God standing with the underdog (shown strongly by the victory of a woman - in that culture deemed weak and inferior - over a man). I especially like the twist of Judith using what was Holofernes' instrument of power (coerced sex) against him.

When you read with an eye to the women's stories in the Bible, you realise (in my opinion / my experience) that the Bible is all about the "weak" overcoming the powerful, God taking the side of those who are expected to submit, and God using them to teach a lesson to the powerful ones (Tamar and Jael come to mind). :-)

Oh, and "Black Widow" is because a black widow spider kills her mates - and Judith was a widow.

Picture by Artemisia Gentileschi

18 July 2017

Cozbi: Pierced

Numbers 25

I am pierced
for my transgressions,
pierced by your spear
and your holy zeal.
I am your atonement sacrifice,
human blood to quell the wrath
of the angry deity.
My death buys an end
to suffering and plague,
my sinner's sinful death
in forbidden embrace,
in the midst of the act
that brought this disgrace.

I am pierced
for my transgressions,
your human sacrifice.
You have killed the sinner
to end the sin,
killed the guilty
to free from the curse.
Now your violence
bears the blessing of peace,
the seal of approval
from your god.
Now your line
is a line of promise:
eternal priesthood -
forever like this.

And they will wonder and speculate
that He Who Will Come will come from you,
that He Who Will Come will be like you,
eternal priest,
burning with zeal.
And they will wonder and speculate
and look for another Phinehas
who takes the spear
and with one good thrust
rids the world of godlessness,
cleans the world from sin at last.

Will they then look
upon the one they pierced,
for our transgressions?
The one who did not wield the spear
but had it thrust into his side
till blood and water came spilling out;
the one whose zeal
was not spelled out in violence
but in death and suffering;
the one whose victory over sin
was not won by killing sinners
but by self-sacrificing love?

Will they see
their God
at the hands of the Phinehas' of this world,
at the hands of holy zeal,
their God,
a sinner pierced for blasphemy?

for our transgressions,
pierced by our spear
of holy zeal.
God, our atonement sacrifice
to appease an angry humanity.
God, not an angry deity,
but love
by our hate,
a mirror to wake
a dreaming world,
break our spears
and forgive.


[18. July 2017]

Cozbi was a Midianite woman, likely a temple prostitute. Israel on the way through the desert encountered Moabites and Midianites and started worshipping their god/s (Baal Peor) and getting involved with their women (a big deal in a culture where religion is passed on through the mother). As a consequence, there was a plague, from which many people died.
Phinehas, a descendant of the high priest Aaron, killed Cozbi together with her Israelite husband / lover (apparently "in the act" so they were both pierced through - as in the picture above). The text describes this as "atonement". The plague ends after this.

It's a somewhat weird story - and not a very comfortable one, in my opinion. The killing of Cozbi and the man, Zimri, is like a "human sacrifice" appeasing God. Phinehas is lauded for what he did, his action receives a godly "stamp of approval", he receives blessing and promise, in fact a very similar promise to what David received. David was given a promise of "eternal kingship", Phinehas one of "eternal priesthood" (v.13).

While researching my Master thesis about the genealogy of Jesus, I came across all sorts of interesting Messiah theories from the centuries before Jesus. There was a strong tradition expecting the Messiah to come from the line of David, be another David or Solomon, a "King-Messiah". Another tradition believed in a Messiah from the line of Levi, a "Priest-Messiah" (either the same person or a second Messiah in addition to the Davidic one). Because of the promise to Phinehas in Numbers 25, there was a line of thought that expected a "Priest-Messiah" in the pattern of Phinehas. In general, Messiah expectations were not very unlike Phinehas. Especially during the time Israel was under the Greeks (and later the Romans), with foreign religions encroaching, there was a tendency to hope for a powerful "military" Messiah who would with force remove the "godless", non-believers, sinners etc.

So I find it very interesting that Jesus is very different from Phinehas - and Jesus' "atonement sacrifice" is very different from this "sacrifice" of Cozbi and Zimri. Jesus does not kill sinners with "holy zeal" - instead He actually ends up killed by the "holy zeal" of the religious leaders who name Him a blasphemer. Jesus is the one who ends up pierced with a spear (reference to John 19). I believe the concept of "penal substitution atonement" is wrong: God is not an angry god to be appeased. In Taiwan where I grew up, the ones needing appeasing were the ghosts and demons - and my God is not a demon. Jesus' death, the way I understand it when I read the Bible, is not to "appease God" because Jesus is God, as part of the trinity. Jesus is God showing us that God is different, that God is not an angry god needing appeasement. In fact Jesus' death shows us that it is us human beings who are looking for blood and violent solutions. I believe Jesus' death shows us the dangers of "holy zeal" going so far as to kill God Himself. Jesus did not die to appease God - we killed Him to appease our own lust for violent solutions. And the power in Jesus' death is that God does not react with revenge and punishment to the greatest sin of all (the murder of God), but with forgiveness - and that is the point from which we can change, from which we can forgive and reconcile and become more like Him.

Read Numbers how you will - I choose to read it through the lens of the Gospels, through the story of Jesus. I don't want to "sanctify" Cozbi here; we really don't know enough of her story. But what I did realise last time I read this story was that we have someone pierced by a spear here - and we have someone pierced by a spear in the Gospels. And it was expected that the Messiah would be the one wielding the spear and piercing sinners - like Phinehas. But what really happened was that the Messiah took the position of Cozbi and Zimri, the "sinners", and let Himself be pierced. And that made me think and I hope it makes you think too. :-) I find such things very fascinating to think about.

Quick word about my "hermeneutic" here: I believe the Bible is given to us by God and is inspired, that it is full of wonderful and important things to learn. At the same time, I believe that God chose to reveal Himself and all these truths through human beings who were tied to their own time and culture. This does not mean we shouldn't take the Bible seriously, or that we can't ever hope to understand the Bible. My answer to this issue is to on the one hand try to understand the original culture at least a little bit - I read into background culture things a lot while doing this challenge, because especially women's issues in the Bible are very hard to understand without some idea of the patriarchal culture the Bible was written in - on the other hand, to have a place to read the Bible from. For me, that is Jesus and the Gospels - I read the whole Bible through that lens. Which means that if something - like this story of Cozbi and Phinehas - does not fit with the idea of God given to us by Jesus, then I don't throw it out the window but ask myself what God shows me through this difference. Which is what I did in this poem... If we read this without Jesus, we could conclude that religious violence is okay - and it has been read like this in the past, to horrid effect. I believe we need to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus, if we want to understand it properly.

(Feel free to ask and challenge me on this bit. This has been my hermeneutic for the past few years. It has meant taking seriously the fact that there are problematic texts in the Bible, that there are texts that have been used in a very problematic way in the past, while at the same time loving and respecting the Bible as given to us by God.)

04 July 2017

Cozbi: Goddess

Numbers 25

NB this is about sacred prostitution (sexual rites as part of worship in Ancient Near Eastern religion).
WARNING: Sexual content.

In this moment
I am the Goddess,
and what we do is holy.
In this moment
we enact spring,
the eternal dance of life and death,
as you rain your seed
into my dry earth.
In this moment
our bodies are prayers;
I am a sacred vessel,
a sacrifice.

As you kiss these lips,
are you aware
you are kissing the lips of the Goddess?
When you touch my breasts,
do you know
you are touching the breasts of the Goddess?
In this moment
I incorporate her,
I am a sacred vessel,
I am a sacrifice.

Our bodies are prayers -
is this a prayer, to you,
as you kiss these lips,
as you touch these breasts?
What we do is holy,
the eternal dance of life and death.
Is this a prayer, to you?

Or are you
conquering, dominating,
what you want as yours?
Is this a heavenly intimacy,
making love
so love may birth life and fertility?
Or is this
just another show of power and control?

As you kiss these lips,
are you aware
you are kissing the lips of the Goddess?
When you touch my breasts,
do you know
you are touching the breasts of the Goddess?
As you take and conquer me,
does it feel
like you have conquered the Goddess?

Is this prayer
or rape?

the Goddess is as unfree as me.


[4. July 2017]

Sacred prostitution was a phenomenon in the Ancient Near East - one decried in the Bible. The Israelites were warned against taking part in the rites of neighbouring nations - including sexual rites.

I know more about ancient Chinese sexual rites than Ancient Near Eastern ones, but from some quick research I gathered they're pretty similar... basically the "temple prostitute" represents the goddess, the man sometimes representing the god. The rite is meant to be for fertility. You can read more here.

On the way through the desert, the Israelites got involved with Moabite idol worship and sacred prostitution (Num 25). Cozbi is a Midianite woman who most likely is this type of "sacred prostitute". Her story is pretty gruesome: she is killed together with the Israelite man who was together with her. It's a pretty problematic story, and I want to write a second poem about her violent end. But here I wanted to look a bit at the phenomenon of sacred prostitution.

To be honest the idea of sex as prayer is kind of beautiful, I think. Though the one of embodying a deity in this act is pretty freaky.
What inspired and influenced me a bit was reading a bit about the connection between sex and power in Margeret Farley's Just Love: A Framework of Christian Sexual Ethics. Towhat extent is "being the Goddess" liberating and powerful, to what extent is the Goddess herself being degraded and treated as an object here?

It made me think about prayer - how we pray to God. We don't do sexual rites; God clearly said no (which makes sense because I believe it would involve a lot of abuse). But where do our prayers become abusive? Where do we turn our prayers into take-take-take, instead of sharing intimacy with God?

10 June 2017

Maacah Mother of Tamar: Mother Lioness

2 Samuel 13

Tear my clothes,
throw ash upon my head.
Today my daughter is dead.

Why do we bear daughters
only to watch them be consumed
by the fires of the lust of a man
eating them alive?
Today my daughter is dead,
alive but dead,
an empty shell,
a rejected husk,
a ghost condemned
for another's lust.
Why do we bear daughters
only to watch them be destroyed
by a world that blames the helpless
and lets evil win the day?

They say a snake corrupted Eve -
today, it speaks to Adam
for it lives between his legs.
Why do we bear daughters
only to watch them be devoured
by merciless greed,
then cast away shamed,
a broken reed?

I want to tear him apart,
I want to rip his throat,
I want to bite off his manhood,
show no mercy to this merciless brute
who had no mercy for her.
Why do we bear daughters
only to watch them be regarded as objects,
playthings to be used and cast aside?
Why do we bear sons
if this is what they become?

I want to devour him
and leave nothing left,
I want him destroyed
the way he destroyed her.
I want to wail to the skies
forty days and forty nights,
tear my clothes,
throw ashes on my head
for today my daughter is dead.

Why did you create us
only to watch us like this,
tearing at each other
like wild beasts?
O God, like me you bore children
and you watched them fall apart.
Does your Mother-heart
break like mine?
O God, do you mourn
every day and every night
for your degenerate children
who wander as though dead?
O God, do you long, like me,
to go out in fury
like a mother lioness,
tearing evil limb from limb?

Or do you, like me,
tear your clothes,
throw ash upon your head,
and mourn your broken children,
alive but dead?


[10. June 2017]

Thought I'd write from the point of view of Maacah, mother of Tamar. Tamar, daughter of David, was raped by her half-brother Amnon. With "alive but dead" I try to refer to how in a shame culture, being shamed in this way (by rape) can make a woman completely lose her worth in society. Tamar would have been made unmarriagable, all her chances for a future destroyed. To society, she was as good as dead.

Victims of rape generally reap more consequences than the perpetrators. Perpetrators get away; punishments are all too often not at all proportionate to the crime. A raped woman is innocent of what happened, but all too often is treated like a sinner. She suffers because of the sin of another.

When the Bible talks about justice and punishment and judgement, I believe it talks about things like this... about God standing in for the suffering and abused.

I decided to play with female imagery of God again here... not everyone's cup of tea, but it is a fact that God as God is "genderless", i.e. definitely not male, and that the Bible uses a lot of feminine imagery for God. I think the mother lioness fits to God... mother animals can be extremely ferocious when their children are attacked. While I am certain that God loves both perpetrators and victims, and salvation is about restoration and healing for both, I also believe (also from some of the pretty gory imagery that we read e.g. in the prophets) that God can be as ferocious as a worried mother animal when it comes to defending those who are wronged. The hard part is that we are all His children (tried to touch on that a bit in the last two stanzas which talk about all the children, not just the daughters), perpetrators and victims alike. God wants all to be saved; at the same time He does not stand for injustice. God's mourning over us must be all the greater, then... a combination of Maacah here, and Ahinoam, Amnon's mother.

Other poems about Tamar and Amnon here.