Zipporah (Numbers 12)

Zipporah_art

Zipporah by Alan Jones

I’ve never heard a sermon preached on Zipporah. She never got mentioned in Sunday School, and is often airbrushed out of the Exodus story. But Zipporah is someone we need to pay more attention to, especially in a world full of racial tensions and an emboldened KKK. Because on the few times I heard her mentioned, no-one pointed out that she was black.

The daughter of a priest of Midian, Zipporah became Moses’ wife during his forty-year exile from Egypt, eventually accompanying him and the rest of Israel into the wilderness. But in Numbers 12 we encounter an uncomfortable story: Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron confront their brother – he’s married a Cushite woman, an African, and they’re not pleased. They may be the spiritual leaders of a fledgling nation, but that doesn’t mean family dinners aren’t uncomfortable.

What happens next is dramatic – God himself descends, rebukes Miriam and Aaron, and curses Miriam with leprosy.

Knowing that Zipporah is African casts a new light on this punishment – leprosy turns Miriam’s skin “as white as snow”. It’s a form of poetic justice, made all the more shocking and heart-breaking because it’s Miriam, the prophet who danced through the Red Sea singing of liberation and freedom and God’s justice has a problem with her sister-in-law because she’s black. Two women who saved Moses’s life were at each other’s throats. Doesn’t matter how much of an ally someone might see themselves as, there are still underlying prejudices to confront, systems to dismantle. Black lives matter, and Zipporah matters as much as Moses, as Aaron, as Miriam.

(Note that God agrees with this, by the way: it’s the racism that earns a punishment, not the inter-racial marriage.)

But let’s not limit Zipporah to being the victim of racism and injustice; she’s also a hero in her own right. Either intellectually or intuitively she seems to grasp whatever the heck is going on in Exodus 4:24-26. She gets between her husband and the Wrath of God, saving Moses and getting things done; while Moses saved the Children of Israel from Egypt, Zipporah first had to save Moses. In that sense this woman of colour can be seen as a Christ figure. That’s not an image we see portrayed that often; maybe we should ask why not.

This would be a fascinating story in itself, but it speaks to us today. As long as Sunday services remain the most racially segregated time of the week, Zipporah’s story, and the reactions of her in-laws, remain relevant. As long as people of colour face prejudice and injustice, as long as the white church remains silent about its complicity in structures that enable that, Zipporah remains a woman whose story needs to be retold and reclaimed; this obscure story tucked away in Numbers becomes a story for our times.

Two New Blog Projects

Oil-On-Canvas-Abstract-ArtI’ve been writing this blog for just over five years now, and if I say so myself, I’ve covered a fair bit of ground: what started off as a way of exploring some of the more obscure corners of the Bible has started to encompass thoughts on disability and arts and politics and justice and current affairs and the environment and mental health and goodness knows what else. I’m a writer at heart, and this is how I process stuff, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. However, it means that the blog has been subject to a bit of mission creep lately, and I wanted to address that.

So, I’m pleased to say that I’m launching two sister blogs. Bezalel’s Legacy is going to be an exploration of faith, creativity and the arts, with reflections on how we create and the ways in which the Spirit uses that to bring healing, justice, worship and beauty to the world. This is something I’ve always been interested in, and I hope Bezalel’s Legacy will be an encouragement for those who want to use their creativity to make a difference in the world and in their churches.

CSR_AU_Environment-HEROThe other is Out of the Waves, Out of the Dust. This will be based around faith reflections on climate change and the environment. I don’t intend this to be a scientific apologetic for the subject; rather its focus will be on how climate change is happening now, and how it affects some of our most vulnerable communities. In that sense, the environment is a justice issue, one that disproportionately affects the inhabitants of poorer communities. It’s also affecting Christians throughout the world in a number of ways, and as the Body of Christ we need to acknowledge that. Out of the Waves will be a space to explore what all this means for the Church.

Thinking about it, both creativity and climate change are often underappreciated in our churches; at worst, they’re viewed with suspicion and disdain. So maybe there’s another reason for these blogs – to remind those of us with an interest in these subjects that we’re not alone, that God whispers through our art and blesses us when we cry out for justice.

The Left Hand of Ehud will continue as well, capturing general reflections on faith and the Bible; I just felt that creativity and climate change were deserving of a more targeted forum.

Thanks for following me over the years, and I hope you’ll join me over at Bezalel’s Legacy and Out of the Waves.

Thanks,

Matt

Why We Need Young People To Be Theologians

In a recent post, James Ballantyne makes the case for treating young people in our churches as theologians – people who can think about faith, interpret it, contextualise it. And that’s an important point, because we need young people to do this. We want to see them grow in faith, we want to see them reflect something of the beauty of Christ in their lives. But we also need to listen to them and learn from them. Because they’re not just visiting Mars Hill, they grew up there. Most of us didn’t.

I can sit here and think about how much the world has changed in my lifetime: personal computers, the end of the Cold War, the internet, shrinking congregations, fewer pipe organs, more guitars, ten different Doctors. But to my kids, this isn’t some transformed environment, it’s just life. I don’t have their perspective on things; I don’t navigate this shifted world like a native.

That means we have to support young people with tools to think theologically about their world, because that’s where new insights and creative thinking will emerge. The Church body will be stronger if it can empower people to look at the spiritual implications of the questions that face us:

How do we respond to climate change?

What are the consequences of increased automation and jobs in industrial areas?

What does talking about faith look like when you play video games with friends from around the world?

What does hope and trust mean when you’re being cyber-bullied, when a leading cause of death among young people is suicide?

What does it mean to be a peacemaker in a world of decentralised, unpredictable terrorism?

What do church gatherings need to look like when everything is increasingly indivisualised and wagged by the long tail?

These are just some of the questions that will shape our faith and practice in the decades to come, that inform society as young people come of age, the problems caused by previous generations that will have to be fixed by the next. We do our young people a disservice if we expect them to just rely on what we have to say, on what we were taught by our parents. Because while the bedrock and heartbeat of Christ persist eternally, many other things will shift, mutate and change.

Part of this will involve having answers to questions we’ve never worried about before. Some of it will involve having the grace to admit we don’t have all the answers. We’ll need the wisdom to teach young people how to think theologically for themselves; we’ll need the humility to learn from them. And we’ll need the Spirit to bring all this together with truth and love, and to bring change where that’s needed.

Young people aren’t just the future of the Church, they’re its present. That’s a cliché, but we need to embrace their gifts, their passion, their insights and yes, their leadership. We need to hand them the future.

Spreadsheets are Spiritual: A Post for Grenfell Tower (Deuteronomy 22:8)

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is still raw, a cacophony of anger and grief and heroism and apathy played out in the shadow of a highrise, a beacon for a country struggling with inequality and terrorist outrages and an inconclusive election, drawing the focus to the very real testimonies of those who have lost everything: first their safety, then their voice, then homes, possessions, loved ones.

Stories of those loved ones are emerging: a Syrian man, Mohammed, who fled the civil war and who was studying civil engineering; an artist, Khalifa, whose work is currently on display in Venice; Isaac, a five year old boy. Firefighters wrote their names on their helmets as they walked into the fire; communities pulled together to provide shelter, supplies, support. All this took place in the face of a murderous injustice; while full details haven’t yet emerged, it seems that Grenfell Tower wasn’t safe, built with unsafe materials and no sprinklers and no answers. This tragedy shouldn’t have happened.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” St. Paul once wrote, and profit margins and unit costs often show us where our hearts lie. The cost of a sprinkler system, or £2 extra per metre of cladding becomes a stake, a gamble that a fire won’t break out, with odds that apparently made it worth playing. I doubt anyone wanted these deaths to happen, but there’s a risk register somewhere that’s now exposed as a moral, even a spiritual document.

Millenia ago, and ancient law was handed down on top of a mountain. And among the commandments and liturgies and rituals, there’s a simple piece of construction advice – if you build a house, make sure the roof’s safe so that no-one falls, no-one dies. Elsewhere, there’s provision for priests to get involved in an environmental health situation. And yes, that’s a Bronze Age culture and I don’t think health and safety should be ecclesiastical, but justice persists, and the safety of the places we live and work is a justice issue. Lives are at stake, lives have been lost, and spreadsheets sometimes triumph over humanity.

But spreadsheets are spiritual. Building regulations are spiritual. Our homes should be safe and Grenfell shouldn’t have burned. We pray and mourn with the survivors, we honour the heroes. But let’s always remember that how we build and what we spend are moral decisions; humanity triumphs over portfolios.

Climate Refugees in the Bible

One day the rains didn’t come, and the next day, and the next. Then the herds began to thirst and die, crops crumbled into the dry ground, skies still parched and empty and bearing down on a family nearing starvation.

Salvation was at hand; one brother had found their way into Egypt, and through a series of misadventures he had the ear of Pharaoh. Joseph, blessed with insight as to how to distribute the Nile’s bounty during a time of famine, saved his family from the worst a changing climate had to offer.

But in times of crisis, opportunists will arise, and so Joseph became powerful and exploited the vulnerable, in the way that you can when you’ve got something everyone else needs. A couple of hundred years later his descendants found themselves slaves of the Egyptians. When the climate turns against you it can cast a long shadow.

Centuries later, another famine swept through Israel, forcing a particular family to flee to Moab, an ancient land now in modern Jordan. Soil turning to dust underfoot, Elimelek and his family took a look back at the Promised Land and made their way towards a new life. Only one of them would return, accompanied by a widowed daughter-in-law, and yet in the face of starvation and natural disaster, those poverty-scarred survivors would go on to become the line of King David, the ancestors of the Messiah. And throughout the narrative, names conjure images of emptiness and fulfillment, famine and harvest. The dust of a vicious climate coats the whole story.

There are other examples; a famine striking the Romans Empire in Acts 11, prompting the infant Church to pool together resources and distribute aid; the climatic conditions that drive Abraham into conflict with PharaohJoel’s locust swarm that forms the backdrop to his great prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The environment is Scripture’s silent backdrop that nevertheless shapes events and people and the work of God. We can’t ignore it.

Nor can we ignore the 20 million climate refugees thought to be on the move today. We can’t ignore those whose water supplies are polluted, or whose food sources are dying, whose homes have tides lapping at their door, whose churches are facing a Noah’s Ark scenario of their own. We argue about how and why these things happen, but we forget the people. When it comes to theology we seem to spend more time debating the eschatology of the Anthropocene, its mechanisms and its imagined idolatries, than we do in serving those most affected by a changing climate. Faith and history will both judge us for that.

In his latest book, Rob Bell highlights the danger of reading the Bible as if it’s about the past or the future but not the present. We can’t ignore how the stories we read throughout the Bible intersect with what’s going on in the world around us. That’said why we need public theology. That’said why we need to speak with grace and mercy and love rather than treating vulnerable people as problems to be confronted by our dogmatism

And that’s why your church needs an environmental policy, and see the footprints in the dust and in the mud, and to know they could be our own.