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MARCH 4, 2012: SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Romans 8:31b-34
Mark 9:2-10

I had a lousy seminary course in mythology. Our teacher actually began his first lecture by telling us a myth was a fictional story made up by people who didn't know the truth. He assured us that we had to learn these myths only because next year we were to study the classic British poets like Milton and Shakespeare, and if we didn't know the myths they employed, we wouldn't understand their works.

No wonder we have problems when scholars talk about biblical myths.

In a recent Commonweal article, John Garvey shared an interesting insight into this biblical genre. "Myth does not mean 'things that aren't true.' Rather, the 'language' of myth has to do with what is truly timeless. Myth is not bound by the limits of historical thinking, which deals with time-bound and passing phenomena. Myth is a witness to the fact that some things are true forever. Jesus told stories that are not historically true (the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example) but point us to enduring truths."

Given that insight, today's first and second readings could easily fall into the category of myth.

Unless we put our sacrifice of Isaac narrative into that genre, the story paints an extremely sadistic picture of Yahweh; someone who plays a horrible trick on two faithful disciples. Taken literally, this passage presumes Isaac's parents believe Abraham will return from Moriah without their beloved son.

A prophet probably composed this passage more than 2,700 years ago in the northern section of Israel. Part of Genesis' "Elohistic source," its author must constantly deal with readers who are giving into customs which draw them away from their interpersonal relationship with Yahweh. One of the major issues they confront is child sacrifice. We know from II Kings that even some Jewish kings made their children "pass through the fire" - a polite way of saying they sacrificed them to the pagan fertility gods.

No doubt, faithful Jews heard the taunts of their pagan neighbors: "We love our gods more than you love yours. We sacrifice our children to them." This is the background against which to hear today's Isaac story. In a mythic way, the author is saying we love Yahweh so much that we'd sacrifice our children if we were asked to do so. Just look at Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Yet the narrative eventually teaches Yahweh's a God of life, not death. That's what Garvey calls an "enduring truth." The author would be amazed that anyone would take this story literally.

Most scholars also believe Mark's transfiguration narrative is a biblical myth. Employing classic imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures, Mark presents Jesus as fulfilling the Chosen Peoples' dreams and hopes. In his transfigured mode, Jesus stands between Moses and Elijah - the law and the prophets: the phrase used in the Bible for the Bible. Peter's request to set up tents is an obvious reference to the feast of Tabernacles - a celebration looking forward to the day Yahweh will return in the midst of the people, just as Yahweh was present when they lived in tents during their Exodus wandering. Mark is telling us in a mythical way, "Jesus is the special person Israelites have been expecting for centuries. He's God-among-us."

Except for picturing Jesus at the right hand of God, Paul doesn't employ mythical language in our Romans passage. Calling a spade a spade, the Apostle graphically talks about God's concern for those who follow Jesus. "If God is for us, who can be against us, he who did not spare his own Son ...? Who will bring a charge against God's chosen ones?" It's nice to know God's constantly on our side.

On one hand, it's good to have such to the point biblical statements. But on the other hand, myths do make our faith more interesting, and certainly more memorable.