I’ve been thinking this week about how religious traditions build on the customs and sites of those who have gone before – even when those who have gone before are of different faiths.  Christmas trees are derived from non-Christian traditions in Germany, I’m told, and Halloween is derived from Celtic druidic practices – though they have been “baptized.”  A Christmas tree is not used by Christians to worship a different deity.  All Saints’ (or all Hallow’s) Eve remembers those who have died in the faith (even with all the spooky stuff about death and spirits) and who are now alive in Christ.  For that matter, Christians take the Jewish holy writings and look at them through a new lens, and Muslins take both Jewish and Christian holy writings and look at them through a lens of their own.

And it’s not like this is something new.

In chapter 12 of Genesis, when Abram first comes into the land of Canaan, he arrives at the sacred place at Shechem and comes to the oak grove of Moreh.  It is very likely that this oak grove was already a site of worship for Canaanite deities.  Now, I think of Abram (later Abraham) as a person born into a polytheistic religious world who is coming to know and be in relationship with a deity the Hebrew people will come to understand as the one true God.  Just where he is in this pilgrimage at this point in the story could be debated, I guess.  But I’m clear he was worshiping his God, not the Canaanite deities, in the worship he offered at what had been their sacred site.

The other thing I’ve been seeing more clearly as I reread the story of Abram this week is the clear sense that this story is being written long after these things happened.  (Yes, I know, in broad terms whatever legendary events these stories were based on probably happened about 2000 BCE and were not written down before somewhere around 1000 BCE.  That’s not my point.)  The writer has to explain in 12:6 and again in 13:7 that the Canaanites occupied this land back then (because they don’t occupy that land now).  And in the middle of the surprising story of Abram as a military leader in chapter 14 (which is inconsistent with how Abram is portrayed in the rest of Genesis) we are introduced (out of nowhere, for the one and only time) to Melchizedek, who is ruler of Salem and priest of the Most High God.  There is a Canaanite deity who has been called the Most High God.  But that is also a term used to describe God in the Hebrew holy writings – possibly because Abram explicitly identifies this as his God in 14:22.

Why is Melchizedek even mentioned?  It interrupts the flow of the narrative and Melchizedek is never mentioned again in Genesis.  It’s interesting that Abram tithes a tenth of the spoils of the war to Melchizedek (the first religious tithe recorded in our scriptures).  But the reason may well be that Salem is thought to have been the city that eventually became Jerusalem.  Looking back from the time of David, this story could be seen as a way to legitimize David’s line and the worship of his God in the city that once was Salem.  David’s ancestor was recognized and blessed by their ruler and priest in the name of their deity.

And that is something that would only be of interest to someone writing in the time of David, or later, long after Moses and the giving of the law.  Mind you, I’m not saying there’s not some kind of historical basis for these stories of Abram.  But the writers, who I believe were inspired by God, are shaping their most fundamental myths and legends (in this case, legends) some thousand years after whatever happened took place, on the basis of oral tradition.

Who are we as a people?  Where do we come from?  Why do we worship God?  What is our place in the world?  These are the questions that are being addressed.  As well as questions about more current events like is David a legitimate ruler and is Solomon his legitimate successor?

There is no way to get back to the facts of what happened.

But the writers are giving shape to their most sacred traditions.  And in doing so, they are addressing the most fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of life.  They are searching for what is true and real and they find their answer in the story of their relationship with their God.

Advertisements