Blog Action Day ’09

Poets of sacrifice and sacred spaces

Dead Sea area
Dead Sea area

Psalm 24

The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.
For He has founded it upon the seas
And established it upon the rivers.

In the ancient world of the Near East, Israel’s neighbors believed that all of nature was filled with gods. No; that’s not quite the way to say it. Rather, we should say that they made no difference at all between the natural and the divine realms. The sun had a name; the sun-god had a name: they were the same name. To say “sun” was to say “god”. Same with the moon. Same with the sea. Same with the river. Nature had a capital N. The gods of sun, moon, rain and storm could like you and help you, hate you and kill you – it was little matter to them – what mattered was that they get their pound of flesh from you; sacrifice; meat cooked into the form they could consume: smoke. The ancient language of sacrificial smoke feeding the gods through aromatic enjoyment finds its way into biblical poetic imagery. The Lord speaks to Moses and says:

“Command the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be careful to present My offering, My food for My offerings by fire, of a soothing aroma to Me, at their appointed time.’ -Num. 28:2

An Israelite sits uneasily with this imagery. There is a story so fundamental to Israel that it must be told first; in fact it is the story of the first moments of the world, the time “when God began to create the heavens and the earth”, the Genesis story. Hearing the story of the God who spoke creation into existence cannot help but subvert the metaphors of sacrifice – images of a hungry God, looking for human help towards a satisfying meal. It’s hard to square with a God whose creative action is the reason every meal exists to be cooked and eaten. And so the poet of Psalm 50 reflects on sacrifice with an eye towards Creation and says, as if speaking for God:

“For every beast of the forest is Mine,
The cattle on a thousand hills.
“I know every bird of the mountains,
And everything that moves in the field is Mine.
“If I were hungry I would not tell you,
For the world is Mine, and all it contains.
“Shall I eat the flesh of bulls
Or drink the blood of male goats?
“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
And pay your vows to the Most High;

There is a better way to give to God what God wants than to catch it, cut its throat, lay it out on an alter over a fire and turn it into smoke. The poet shows us that there is a way to offer to God something God wants but cannot have without humans: un-coerced love, becoming visible on lips moving in the motion of gratitude, of praise; a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

“Consider,” says Jesus, another poet of creation, “the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. – Luke 12:27

It took courage to compare the national hero to a field flower and have him come up the lesser; Solomon – bested by a budding field-flower. But who could dispute it? Silk and tapestry in the most opulent monarchical wardrobe pale next to colored canyon walls, desert shadow symmetry and leaf veins.

We come back to Psalm 24 again:

The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.

We are the subjects of the second line: we are “those who dwell in it.” We are the inhabiters of space that belongs to Another. We are the campers at the park who gather the circle of rocks, build the fire, and leave in the morning. Our sojourn in this land that-is-not-ours is brief – but not insignificant. We have learned to bang rocks into sparks, kindle sparks into flames, boil water into steam, power cities that never sleep and machines that need no rest. We have become like gods to the world that we dwell in, capable of changing it beyond un-changing. But “it” is not ours. The earth is the Lord’s. “Consider the lilies” that used to grow where our feet now stand. Consider whose land we stand upon. “Bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving” while we still may.

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