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Monday, March 20, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Effort: The Seven of Wands

Studying folklore and living in the Third World both helped me to see the Bible with new eyes.

One thing you see is the effort.

People are constantly trying really hard for things, putting themselves on the line, going to the limit of their abilities.

That's evident right from the start.

Abraham and Sarah try hard for a son. Abraham tries to save Sodom and Gomorrah from God's vengeance. Jacob tried to get Rachel as a wife and puts forth Herculean effort for her hand.

Use of the word "Herculean" reminds me that the Greeks told stories with effort, too. In Greek stories, it is often semi-divine heroes who put forth effort, like Achilles.

In the Bible, average people try very hard and accomplish things.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the lives of Biblical women, who have names and personalities.

I don't think I know the name of any non-Greek female servants from Greek stories.

In the Bible, though, we know the names, and the dreams, of outsider, non-Jewish women, like Hagar and Ruth, and of barren, old women like Sarah and Elizabeth. These are low status people, and yet they are allowed, in Biblical texts, to have dreams and goals and ambitions.

That's remarkable. The women I know from Native American stories are not named individuals but are rather archetypes, like Corn Maiden or The Girl Who Married a Star.

That they are individuals is remarkable, and it's also remarkable that they put forth effort to achieve their own personal, idiosyncratic goals. I didn't see a lot of that in Hindu stories I encountered when I lived in the Indian subcontinent. In those stories, blind luck or mindless devotion to a deity were often the drivers of the plot.

VS Naipaul talked about this lack of emphasis on personal initiative in his book "India: A Wounded Civilization." TE Lawrence talked about fatalism among Arab Muslims. There is the Arabic phrase "It is written" that implies predestination in all areas of life, and, therefore, fatalism. There's a really good, brief discussion of Muslim fatalism here.

In the New Testament, there are instances of characters jumping very far from their expected roles, and behaving in ways that would be so strange and foreign as to be open to ridicule, condemnation, and even punishment. They do this because they want to get next to Jesus, and Jesus rewards them. In a couple of cases, he says, "Your faith has saved you." Mind – he's not saying, "I, God, saved you," he's saying, "Your faith saved you."

A woman with a bad reputation interrupts a high-status dinner party to wash Jesus' feet with her tears, dry his feet with her hair, and anoint his head with expensive perfume. That's pretty wild behavior. Jesus responds by saying, "Your faith has saved you."

A short tax collector, Zacchaeus, climbs a tree so that he can see Jesus beyond the heads of people taller than he is. Jesus singles him out for praise.

A Roman centurion – one of those who have been crucifying and tormenting Jews for decades – begs Jesus to heal his beloved servant. Jesus immediately offers to travel to the centurion's home to heal the servant. The centurion then goes even further beyond the bounds of normal behavior and says, no, don't come to my house. I know that if you just say the word, from here, my servant will be healed. Jesus is astounded on this level of faith, and he heals the servant.

Personal initiative pays off. That's a very big message for a body of stories to convey. 

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