The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. -Albert Einstein
Christianity: The First 3,000 Years by Diarmaid McCulloch is a beast of a book, and I don't recommend reading it unless you're prepared to put yourself through a self-taught History/Theology class.
But that's exactly what I was looking to do, so here I am, wrapping my mind around page 55 of 1,112.
Let's get right to it.
Today, I read this excerpt. It's about the birth of a new nation, Israel, by way of Jacob. Yep, we're starting all the way back there:
Around Abraham's rackety grandson Jacob are woven several engaging tales of outrageous cheating and deceit, and they culminate in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger who overcomes Jacob and is able to give him another new name, Israel, meaning 'He who strives with God'. Out of that fight in the darkness, with one who revealed the power of God and was God, began the generations of the Children of Israel.
Few peoples united by a religion have proclaimed by their very name that they struggle against the one whom they worship. The relationship of God with Israel is intense, personal, and conflicted.
The god of Israel comes up from the ground of wrestling; is birthed in conflict and struggle. I mean, we have an unrighteous dude named Jacob who wrestles with a mysterious force and is given a new name which means to strive with god and out of that, a new nation; a new faith, is born.
To which I say YES.
When it comes to American Christianity on the whole, the posture of wrestling is fearfully silenced. We prize answers and certainty. We praise anyone who seems to have it all figured out. We value a faith that never wavers, always remains, never changes.
But the name Israel means to 'strive' with God, which is also to contend, to rival, to struggle with vigorously in opposition or resistance.
This grinds up pretty hard against things I was told at church. I mean, if the foundation of early Christianity was built upon wrestling, what I see in today's American Christian church is generally so very far from that.
There's a slippery thing I've encountered in the western church. It's this idea that says it's okay to wrestle and doubt, but at the end of the day, you need to come back to the Lord the way you always have before.
So in other words, it's not really okay to wrestle and doubt. Not really.
I'll continue with my reading. On a later page, McCulloch writes:
Victorian archaeologists discovered the first known non-biblical mention of 'Israel' in an inscription on a stone victory monument created for the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah in 1216 BCE. [...] Significantly the Pharaoh's inscription uses a different set of hieroglyphic conventions for 'Israel' from those which describe specific cities in Canaan and this suggests that 'Israel' is not conceived of as a places but as a people.
Basically, Israelites weren't united based on geography. They were a people scattered throughout the wider territory of Canaan, but already held a common name.
So I ask, how? How does a random group of people unite under a common name without having a common government, ethnicity, or even a common land? Who the heck are the Israelites?
Israel's identity stemmed from their religion: maybe religion is all they had to unite them, rather than ethnicity or common origins.
From an early period, Israelites were also called 'Hebrews' (usually by those who didn't think much of them). In early documents, these are the kinds of people they are:
...A social rather than an ethnic grouping, and their context invariably suggests people who were uprooted and on the edges of other societies, people of little account except for their nuisance value. [...] They were those who had been marginalized: nomads, semi-nomads, the dispossessed who now began to find ways of settling down and beginning new lives. [...] They constructed a new identity, sealed by a God who was not necessarily to be associated with older establishments or older shrines. [...] Perhaps the Habiru felt that God was giving them a new identity.
And this is where it starts to get really good. Listen. to. this.
And who was this God?
Here's my favorite part. At first, early references to this new, unifying religion of the Hebrews/Israelites references multiple gods associated with different Patriarchs. Let me explain.
In the lineup of gods at this time, we've got: The god of Isaac (Fear of Isaac), the god of Jacob (Mighty One of Jacob), and the god of Abraham (Shield of Abraham). At this point, there's no unifying name for this 'new' god of the Hebrews. That is, until we are with Moses in the desert and he stumbles upon a curiously burning bush.
Moses found that a bush burning in the desert gave him a revelation about these personal gods. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, speaking in the bush, called himself by a single name that is not a name, 'I will be who I will be', which is an explanation of a name used thousands of times throughout the Hebrew scripture, Yahweh. [...] The story tells of a recognition of a new god, and that point is underlined on a further occasion when God says to Moses about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that 'by my name (Yahweh) I did not make myself known to them'.
Are you getting this?
The God of Israel is basically like, "Hey I am uniting people around the idea that you can't know me. I am without a name, I am who I am. Stop trying to put labels on this, because you can't. I'm calling you, not by region or ethnicity or any other kind of commonality. I am calling you into mystery, into the unknown, into the sacred wrestling."
This is the foundation. Many of us have drifted so far from this, but this is the foundation.
We are to ask questions, wrestle them down, be overcome by them, and be transformed in the process.
Wrestling with and against god is not a side-dish. It's the whole damn thing.