History of the Devil

My earliest experience with the devil and hell comes from attending our neighborhood United Methodist Church with a friend when I was about 5 years old and coming home crying and saying that I was “going to hell.” Somewhere between there and seminary I stopped believing in hell and the devil. However, it’s only been in the last 5 years or so that I’ve taken an interest in the history of how the concepts of the devil and hell have evolved. My research has helped to substantiate my belief that these are mythological concepts used to control and demonize.

In brief what I found is that the figure of the Devil or Satan has grown and changed significantly through the centuries. The root of the Hebrew word satan actually means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary.” In the Hebrew Bible and in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan was NOT the leader of an “evil empire” nor did he run an army of hostile spirits who made war on God and humanity.  In fact, Satan was not necessarily evil or opposed to God at all. In the book of Numbers, written in the 10th or 9th century BCE, the satan is an angel who obstructs the way of a man named Balaam, who was going somewhere God didn’t want him to go (Numbers 22:22-35). In the book of Job, written in the 6th or 5th century BCE, Satan is now a character whose role is adversarial, almost like a prosecutor. Still, Satan can not act without God’s permission.

The book of Zechariah, written about 520 BCE, Satan takes a more sinister role and acts independently of God by inciting factions among the people of Israel (Zech. 3:1-2).

But it is during intertestamental times (420 BCE – 30 CE) when the Essenes, a radical Jewish sect, elevate Satan to a cosmic being with super powers warring against God. For the Essenes, who were fighting against the Hellenization of Jerusalem and the Jewish people, the world was polarized. You were either a traditional Jew, or you were against the Jews. You were either on God’s side or the Devil’s. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, scribed by the Essenes, we find that they  essentially rewritten the entire history of Israel in terms of cosmic war. They called themselves the “sons of light” and indicted the majority as “sons of darkness.”

This theology and cosmology was prevalent at the time the Gospels were written. With the oppression of the Romans, and then the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, it made sense for first century Jews and Jewish-Christians to see their political struggles in terms of cosmic war. So, in the Gospels we find that the character of Satan continues to develop into a being who promises worldly power and authority in turn for denying God. The Pharisees and the Sadducees are cast as a “brood of vipers” who have already sold out to the powers of Rome and Satan.

From early Christianity until today, through Biblical tradition, literature, art, movies, theater and music, even much of secular society has come to interpret events in the world as between the forces of good and evil. This battle cry has been wielded in the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials and even in current day wars. The myth of the devil has successfully been used to vilify, not only our enemies, but all those who may be different. It’s time humans take responsibility for their own actions, prejudices, anger and hatred, stop hiding behind myths and fear based theology and evolve to the next level of spirituality where we recognize that we are all ONE.

Sexism – it’s time to balance power

Did you know that before Old Testament times there were peaceful, egalitarian societies where the Goddess was worshiped? Then, about 6,000 years ago, nomadic tribes from the north migrated to the region of the Mediterranean Sea bringing their male god and patriarchal culture with them. Slowly, but surely, the male god took over and so did the men.

The Old Testament is very clear about women. Women are property. They were worth nothing unless associated with a husband or father. They usually called their husbands “master” or “lord.” Daughters could be sold into slavery. Husbands could divorce wives, but wives could not seek a divorce from their husbands. And, if they were divorced, women received nothing. Women did not inherit from their husbands, nor daughters from their fathers (unless there were no sons). Women obviously were not to be educated, run businesses, or become rabbis.

And let’s not forget how the story of Adam and Eve has helped script women as second-class citizens. In the second creation story in Genesis 2, Eve is fashioned out of the rib of Adam. She is not created in the image of God, but is taken out of man. Paul reminds everyone of this in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 where he writes: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

Jesus certainly did his part to try to break down the gender barriers by treating women with respect and  care, speaking to them even though that was forbidden by Jewish law, and even allowing women to join the men in listening to him teach and preach. Remember the story of Mary and Martha? Mary (most likely Mary Magdalene) is sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus, the posture of a learner, student, even rabbinic student of the time. When her sister, Martha, gets angry and wants her to come help her in the kitchen, Jesus defends Mary’s right to be there.

Despite some of the things Paul says in his letters, there were many women leaders in the early Christian church. However, the farther and farther we got away from Jesus’ life and death, the more the culture weighed on the religion and took it back down the road of patriarchalism.

The notion that men are superior, that women are help-mates designed specifically for baby-making and housekeeping, and are not intelligent enough to be part of the decision-making process, or community-changing process, or world-leading process has been literally bred into humanity for thousands of years. It has only been within the last 150 that women have really started to take a stand.

Some folks would like to believe that we’ve moved beyond the issue of sexism. Sadly the statistics, and women’s experiences, show that this is not the case. What I see and hear is that sexism has become normalized. Women expect to have to work harder to receive the same promotions, recognition or acceptance as men. Women often let derogatory comments slide rather than point out how offensive something is (“that was a great sermon for a woman” is NOT a compliment). And I’m probably as guilty as any for not wanting to rock the boat or be thought of as a b***h. But until we raise our own awareness and that of others, and risk being the scratchy voice, nothing will change.

Now, I recognize that those of you attending Sacred Journeys with me are an exceptional group who believe in social justice and equality. So, let’s talk about what it might look like to balance power. So often the concept of power means “power over” someone or something else. What if we had power with others? What if we empowered others by valuing their opinions and ideas? What if we used power cooperatively for the betterment of our community and world?

One way to do this comes from a talk by Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18uDutylDa4). For men and women to begin to share power and work together, women need to “sit at the table.” Women need to be in the circles helping to make decisions and enact change. Women, with their distinctive voices, need to be heard and valued. Do not ask us to come to the table and try to be like men. Different perspectives bring more creative energy to any problem solving process.

Here’s an interesting statistic: in comparing Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their Boards to those with the lowest representation of women on their boards, it was found that the companies with the highest representation of women had:

  • 53% higher return on equity
  • 42% higher return on sales
  • 66% higher return on invested capital
  • contributed more in charitable funds.

Balancing power. This is something we can each do in our homes, our communities, our schools and our workplaces. The world is out of kilter right now and bringing us back to center, to shared power, to mutual respect and value, is part of our deepest spiritual path.


Finding Female Role Models in the Bible

Where does a woman in the Christian religion find female role models? Did you know that there are only 188 women mentioned in the Bible, and many of those are unnamed? This, compared to almost 2,000 men who are actually named! And of those women, how many of their stories do we actually know? Much emphasis seems to be placed on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and how wonderfully obedient she was to God. And on Eve, who messed up humanity for all time by listening to that darned snake. Or Mary Magdalene, the possessed woman turned devoted follower of Jesus. Or maybe even Sarai who laughed at God when she heard she was going to be a mother for the first time at 90 (seriously, I’d laugh, too). What messages have we heard from these stories? Be good, obedient women and you will be blessed?

Now, I may be a bit cynical, but I happen to know that there are other stories of women in the Bible that we aren’t hearing. Stories of women who were strong, intelligent, creative, courageous and clever. There were women who, despite the fact that they were considered property at that time, found ways to stand up for themselves and others. Consider the story of Shiprah and Puah, the two Egyptian midwives whom Pharoah instructed to kill the Hebrew women’s boy babies when they were born, and how they lied to Pharoah and let the boys live (Exodus 1:8-21). Or what about Tamar, the twice widowed daughter-in-law of Judah who takes matters into her own hands when Judah refuses to let her marry his third son (Genesis 38)? That story has all the makings of a great reality-tv show. And then there is the story of Jephthah’s daughter, whose father makes a stupid vow to sacrifice her for winning a war, and she has the wherewithal to at least ask for a mourning period with her friends before her death (Judges 11). What about Queen Vashti who refuses to show off her naked body in front of her husband-king’s friends and gets dethroned (Esther 1)? Or Ruth, or Esther or Deborah or Jael?

The stories aren’t always pretty, or fair, but I take heart, strength and courage from the women who displayed integrity, dignity and honor. They did not always acquiesce to the “obedience card” played by the men in their lives.  They broke tradition, they used unconventional methods, they valued their lives and the lives of others. I believe, even (and perhaps especially) in this day and age, women need to have these types of female examples. We need to know that we are the next generation in a long sisterhood of women who sought justice for themselves and for others. We are not alone… their spirit is with us.

Understanding Grace

We use the word “grace” in a number of different ways. To be in someone’s “good graces.” “There but by the grace of God go I.” “Saved by grace through faith” (that’s quoting Paul). And we define grace in many ways: love, forgiveness, help, acceptance and mercy. All of these different understandings make it challenging to discuss and analyze the concept of grace.

In Old Testament times, the Hebrew root of the word translated as grace was “favor.” If you received God’s grace, you received God’s favor or God’s help.But you only received God’s grace if you were one of God’s elect. There were certain requirements of faith and action which were to be met in order for God to bestow grace upon you.  Following the many laws required by Jewish tradition was really the key.

In New Testament times, Jesus constantly tried to move people beyond the rigid, confining words of the law. He argued that they may have followed the letter of the law, but they had forgotten the spirit of the law which is love. This was a hot topic when it came to salvation. Some ardent Jewish-Christians insisted that one must follow the letter of the Jewish law, in addition to being baptized and recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, in order to be saved. Paul, Peter and others, argued that people were “saved by grace through faith.” The intent was to put the emphasis back on God’s gift of love, but conservatives and evangelicals have turned this into another instance of meeting a requirement to get to heaven. They would say that you have to accept God’s grace, which will manifest itself in faith and then you will be saved.

I have issues with this whole concept of not accepting God’s grace. That seems to make us bigger than God. It suggests that we have the final word. Haven’t you ever had your kid yell at you and say, “I hate you”? And you responded that it was fine if they wanted to hate you, you loved them anyway.  God’s love for us is not affected by anything we say or do. In my humble opinion, God has the trump card in this play.

In seminary I was taught that grace is God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Marcus Borg talks about radical grace ad God’s unconditional acceptance of everyone. And Philip Gulley defines grace as God’s unfailing commitment to love. Unconditional means that any statement including an “if” in it is no longer unconditional. God’s grace is for you… if you accept it… if you go to the right church… if you believe the right thing… if you got the right baptism… if you are not gay… if you asked forgiveness. That is conditional, which is not the essence of God’s love and grace.

The best definition I’ve heard lately is from the book Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership which defines grace as “a direct personal experience with the power and love of the Divine.” Yes! I love the use of the word “power.” Experiencing God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance is powerful because it can be transformative in our lives.  Why is it transformative, you want to know? Because when we know we are loved no matter what, we can stop worrying about messing up and start living into our authentic selves. We can risk and question and search without fear of God withdrawing grace.

Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, sums it up beautifully. He says, “Taking the God of love and justice and the God of grace seriously has immediate implications for the Christian message… it’s about seeing what is already true – that God loves us already – and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”

Let me conclude by drawing a few pieces together. If we put our reframing of “salvation” as “healing and wholeness” together with this discussion of grace, then the formula of “saved by grace” now becomes “healing and being made whole through a direct personal experience with the power and love of the Divine.” That makes sense.

Peace, Kaye