Sunday, January 11, 2009

My Brother's Challenge

A few weeks ago as my older brother and I were finishing a holiday lunch together, he took a corner of the restaurant bill and wrote something on it. He then handed it to me and said, "Write me a sermon on that." I looked down and the scribbled words were "2 Kings 6:29." Well, a little sister, no matter how old, cannot resist a gauntlet when it is thrown to the ground! And, at that moment, I had no idea what the verse was about, so that made it easier to say that I would get back to him with it.
When I got home and opened my Bible, these were the words: "So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, 'Give up your son and we will eat him.' But she has hidden her son." Needless to say, this is a lesson in NOT pulling a single verse out of context! But I had to send him something. Here is what happened in my mind and prayers:
In the Episcopal tradition, we read lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms the letters (epistles) from the New Testament, and a Gospel reading each day. It is very rare than in any of these readings there would be one sentence pulled out from a story. Rather, entire passages are read in context so that the people have a fuller understanding of the circumstances of the story and the meaning of the passage.
That said, I believe it is important to look at this entire story and to at least get a feel for what surrounded this woman's story of cannibalizing her own child. It was a time of siege in the capitol city of Samaria, and people were starving. We have all heard stories of cannibals, usually in the early exploration days of South America and deepest Africa. In Bible days, and even up into the 16th century, pagan cultures sacrificed their children to the gods.
We must recall as a part of this tory, the place of children in the society of the time. Women generally gave birth on an almost annual basis from the age of 13 or 14 until they died, or reached the age of menopause. Babies were sold to those who were infertile, or if the family was destitute and couldn't find anyone to take the child, infants were "exposed to the elements" -- left outside to die, when the family knew they couldn't care for the child. However, it must be stated that the Hebrew national has always treasured its children, and considered it a "mitzvah" -- a blessed requirement -- to bear children and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It may be that this small aside in the story was put there to explain how dire the circumstances were in the city during the siege.
The Donner Party is a 19th century example of survival by cannibalism, and in our own lifetime is the South American soccer team whose plan crashed in the Andes. In these cases, they ate the flesh of their friends who had died. A different, and perhaps less gruesome story than this one we find in 2 Kings.
Although we would like to believe that every mother adores and would die for her children, this is a high standard that our particular society has developed from our knowledge of the teachings of Jesus. Our most fundamental and strongest instinct is for survival: after survival comes preservation of the species, which means taking care of our offspring.
When everyone around us is dying, and our children are withering away before our eyes, it is hard to believe that God will provide. This woman may have dearly loved her baby but realized that if she died, her baby most assuredly would also die. If she herself survived, she could have other children. We can't know what torment this woman was in or how her mind was working.
We can only look at the entire story and see that God was working it. Had she only kept her faith for a few more days, both mother and baby might have survived. Surely in times of war and famine, not all do survive. It is our faith and hope that as we live through horrors such as these, that a remnant will survive to carry on our beliefs. God is always present, and in that knowledge we can only say that this is a lesson about living in hope. No matter how dire the circumstances, as people of God we continue to strive to live in faith and hope, follow the teachings of Christ.

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