Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Elihu blew a fuse?

Elihu was a patientl listener to the arguments back and forth between Job and his friends. However, it came to a point were he blew his top! ‘Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God. He burned with anger also at Job's three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong’ (Job 32:2-3).
It is not an acceptable behaviour in ancient societies for young people to speak in the presence of the elders, leave alone criticise them. Elihu had reserved the most disrespectful, caustic comments about the whole thing. The reason for his frustration is not that the debate between Job and his friends has been the poorest show on earth but they proved themselves to be fools, though they were widely accepted wisemen! He burst out, ‘I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. I said, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom”’ (Job 32:6-7).
That is only a rather gentle introduction to sharp criticism of wisdom of aged that is to come. He said, ‘It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right’ (Job 32:9). That statement flies at the face of the values that the ancient world cherished. There was no Google those days to consult. Wisdom was oral, passed on from one generation to another. The older the person, the wiser he would be, because wisdom is accumulated by age. This is what the young man Elihu is dares to deny.
What is important here is that, Elihu is not denying the wisdom of the wisemen or the old. He points out to another source of wisdom which neither Job nor his friends have realized. That is the Spirit of the Almighty God which dwells in human beings. He argues, ‘But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand’ (32:8). Before we take a closer look at Elihu’s statement we need to do see why Elihu blew a fuse!
The secret of Elihu’s outburst is evident in the structure of the book itself. Job has lost everything: his wealth, his children and his health. He has moved from the honourable place he had at the city gate to the trash dump in the city. His friends wise in every way (the three came from the major seats of learning in the ancient world) comes to visit him. They argued only one thing: Job is a sinner and that is the reason for his suffering. Ask God’s forgiveness and he will be fine. That is exactly what Job could not accept. He didn’t hear the conversation between Satan and Yahweh in the heavenly court where Yahweh swore that Job is righteous in every way. But he had the inner conviction that he is not a sinner as his friends tries to argue. There are three rounds of arguments between Job and his friends. They will speak one after another and Job replies to each of them in each round. They used their wisdom and reasoning to convince Job but he kept justifying himself.
The friends were tired. Their arguments became shorter and shorter as they move from one round of arguments to another. The friends speak in the order as Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. However, by the second round Zophar seems to have given up. He has no speech in the third round. By the end of the third round the other two also gave up. The three friends ‘had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.’ (Job 32:3). Now, did Job win the argument? Not at all. Because the rebuttal to his positions comes from God who speaks ‘out of the whirlwind’ in chapter 38. Elihu is only a transitional figure between human wisdom (of the three friends and Job) and divine wisdom. God then unleashes a barrage of questions at Job in his speech. Questions that have no answer. What is God trying to tell him? Its simple: there are hundreds of questions for which human minds have no answer! Suffering of the innocent is just one the myriad of such questions. Keep quiet!
Then finally, God condemned Job’s friends and gives Job the privilege to pray for them. The verdict is out now. The friend who were experts in traditional wisdom are wrong, Job who justified himself is wrong. All of them except Elihu who thought they can find answers to all the mysteries of life are wrong. The friends were wrong because they depended on the wisdom that they gathered over the years. They could not think outside the box of traditional wisdom. Job was wrong, though he is righteous in God’s eyes he had no right to justify himself. It is God who justifies.
Elihu is right! Because he did not depend on the traditional wisdom nor one’s own self-confidence of being right but on God’s wisdom. That wisdom was available to him not from Google or encyclopedias but by the indwelling of God’s Spirit in him. Before he set forth this argument he disclosed that secret when he said: ‘But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand’ (32:8). The Spirit of God that dwells in him makes him restless. He said: ‘For I am full of words; the spirit within me constrains me. Behold, my belly is like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins ready to burst. I must speak, that I may find relief; I must open my lips and answer’ (Job 32:18-20). The nearest parallel to this restlessness is in Jeremiah. The prophet is filled with the Word of God that he is so restless until he get it out of his chest! Jeremiah laments: ‘If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot’ (Job 20:9).
Then after Elihu has spoken and relieved himself of the great burden that the Spirit of God has placed in his heart, be breaks into one of the great doxologies we find in the Bible, the great praise of God almighty in Job 36-37 at the end of which God takes his place on the stage to speak out of the whirl wind and take the debate to its conclusion.
We just learn one lesson. Human wisdom has its limits. Even those who are righteous in God’s own eyes have no right to justify themselves. The source of wisdom is God and God imparts this to human beings through indwelling of his Spirit. All other wisdom and reasoning is an endless merry-go-round going round and round in vain and comes to an end when we are tired of speaking/thinking! The real source of wisdom is the Spirit of God which dwells in everyone who believes.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sibling Rivalry

‘Hebron’ means ‘league’, ‘confederation’ or by extension ‘friendship.’ This is the place where Patriarch Abraham bought a small patch of land to bury his wife Sara. Later it turned out to be the place where all the patriarchs and matriarchs except Rachel had their resting place. Today there stands the Ibrahami Mosque (as the Muslims calls it) or the Cave of the Patriarchs as the Jews would like to call it. Sibling rivalry begins with names!
Abraham was a landless wanderer when his wife died in this area. Though God had promised him the land to his offspring he had none yet. Genesis 23 tells us the story of how patriarch Abraham came to own the place called Hebron. The Hittites who owned the land offered a burial space free but Abraham politely turned their offer down. He wanted the burial cave owned by Ephron the son of Zohar who also was so kind to offer the cave of Macpelah free of cost. However, Abraham had to persuade him with the help of the elders of the Hittites to sell it to him. Finally after turning down the generosity of the Hittites, Abraham the sojourner bought the burial caves along with the field and treess around for 400 shekels of silver. Thus it legally the grave yard of the patriarchs and matriachs. But which of their children have claim on this. The siblings could not agree.
Ibrahami Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs

The story of cordiality and friendship between two distinct group of people is remarkable. It also is a story of kindness shown to a stranger by the owners of the land. The story of Hebron doesn’t stop there. It is from around this area that the spies that Moses sent brought the produce of the land. It is the land that was occupied by the giants called Anakim whom Caleb challenged.
Hebron which begins its history in the Bible with friendship, cordiality and kindness had already turned in to a place of violent confrontations and conflicts in the Bible times itself. In modern times, it is symbolic of the tension between the two races who trace their history back to Father Abraham—Arabs and Jews. Sometimes in the fourth century AD, Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor identified the caves under the structure that King Herod built as the caves where the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried. It became a ‘Holy Place’ for the Christians. Then to cut the long story shot during the days of the Islamic invaders a mosque was built on the site. Thus it became the place of worship for Muslims.
Among many violent incidents that might have hurt the memory of Father Abraham is known in history as the 1929 Hebron Massacre and the Ibrahami mosque massacre of 1994. On August 24, 1928, sixty seven Jews including 23 college students were massacred in Hebron by Arabs acting on false rumours that Jews were killing Arabs in Jerusalem. The land what is now called Israel and Palestine was under British mandate then. On the fateful day of February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish medical doctor who was also member of a Jewish extremist group called Kach movement opened fire on unarmed Muslims in prayer in this mosque. It was the holiday of Purim for the Jews and Ramdan for the Muslims. The attack killed 29 worshippers and 125 injured by the time Goldstein had emptied his revolver. He was beaten to death by the survivors!
Following this incident, the mosque was closed for years and when it was opened part of it was turned into a synagogue separated with a bullet proof wall from the mosque. In between these two major incidents were many violent actions from both sides until the streets of Hebron witnessed more violence in the second intifada or Oslo War.
The story of Gadi and Dina

During the second intifada the streets of Hebron saw violence on a major scale. The Jewish settlers in Hebron had to use Suhada Street that passed by the tombs of Patriarchs populated by Arabs who were in uprise. The Jews blame that hundreds of Jews were slaughtered by the Arabs in this street. Walking along the street I spotted a sign where they tell the story of Gadi and Dina a couple who were expecting their first child killed by an Arab suicide bomber when they were on their way to pray at the tomb of the Patriarchs.
The Israeli government’s response to the alleged violence was severe. They closed Suhada street. Suhada Street was in fact a row of shops which was the only means of living for the Arabs who lived behind or above their own shops. Tourists who came to Macpelah (Tomb of Patriarchs) shopped there. Israeli military not only closed the street for the Arabs but also closed the shops. They welded the doors; many Arab families have no ground level access to the street. They have to climb over their roofs to visit their neighbours or to send their children to school. The street has a deserted look. There are military check posts at the entrance. Only Jews and foreign tourists are allowed to walk along the streets. There are no children playing on the streets. At the entrance of the street from the Tombs of the Patriarchs Israeli soldier verified my passport however, he was so light-hearted young man who even allowed me to take a picture with him.
Deserted Suhada Street, Hebron

The city of Hebron comes under the Palestinian Authority. However, the Israeli Military controls the area. There is propoganda everywhere. Flex banners explaining the Jewish position and graffitti on Arab homes and closed doors to counter the Jewish propaganda.
There is suspicion everywhere. As we walked through Suhada Street with a guide who explained to us the human right violations in Hebron and how closing of Suhada Street a Jewish settler followed as recording us on his iPhone. It was a way of intimidating our guide: don’t say anything against us, you are on record.
Closed shops with sealed doors

Hebron around the Tombs of Patriarchs is now a ghost city. It seems it is only for the dead and not for the living. The friendship and cordiality that the patriarch Abraham received is gone and is given way to suspicion, hatred and violence. Who is to be blamed?

Walls, stones and bullets!

We were figuring out our way to lunch. The lunch menu is the Arab speciality Makluth, something similar to the Biryani but much less spicier. However, our group was stopped by a person who said we should take another route avoiding the main road. The Israeli military who entered the Palestinian territory has tear-gassed the street against a bunch of youth who were protesting against the death of a Jordanian on the Allenby bridge the previous day.
A wall that separates Bethlehem from Israeli territories.

Just a few feet away from Jacir Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem.

Here on the streets stones are returned by bullets and tear gas
It has become the routine of the day for the Palestinian youth in Bethlehem. They throw stones at the tower built on the walls that separate the Palestinian areas from Israeli areas. The Israelis call it 'security wall' and the Palestinians condemn it as 'separation wall.' You can see them all around. The truth is that only 3% of the border between Israel and the Palestinian areas (designated as area A) have walls. Some areas have barbed wired fences and some are simply open. In spite of the walls still about 10,000 Palestinians still enter Israel illegally.

However, the walls are provocative. There are checkpoints everywhere. Those who enter the Palestinian areas are not checked, but when coming out even tourists are checked. Your passports be handy all the time. Hundreds of Palestinians have to cross the checkpoints every day in the morning and return in the evening if they have to work in Israeli areas. You may be turned down without any reasons. So there is great anxiety, fear and sense of loss of dignity as the young Israeli soldiers check your documents and person for weapons etc.

Youth vent their grudge against the walls by graffiti. On Fridays almost invariably they they throw stones at the towers where the Israeli soldiers are posted. The soldiers retaliate with tear gas and if that doesn't deter the mask wearing youth, fire in the air, rubber bullets or even aim at them.
There is denial! Or it is hope?

Stone throwing youth are rounded up at night. Even children under 14 serve in Israeli jails, thousands of them.
In our last day in Bethlehem we tried to walk back to our hotel. But there was drama on the street. It was Friday evening and the youth had a holiday. So, they decided to spend the evening throwing stones at the Israeli posts on the walls in Bethlehem. The youth were wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas. The Israeli soldiers opened the gates on the walls and entered the streets and they started firing. We were caught between the two warring groups--stones and bullets. We requested the hotel staff to stop a taxi for us. And as we jumped in to the taxi, the Israeli soldiers were firing into the air and the youth were running away. The taxi driver was cool. The hotel security staff was duty-bound. For them it is a daily scene.
Will this walls come down one day?
Will Abraham's children embrace each other one day?

Back in my hotel room I told my wife. Both these parties lack one thing--a Gandhi! Every stone that is pelted will be returned by a bullet unless one more Gandhi's are born, may be two one on each side of the wall.

Some thoughts on suffering

Suffering happens when we lose control over the people and circumstances that cause our suffering. If we had control it would not have happe...