Monday, December 29, 2008

A Coptic Monk Reflects on Genesis

Abuna Elia was one of the disciples of the monastic reformer, Abuna Mina el Muttawahad, who rejuvinated monasticism in Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s. Abuna Mina later became the Coptic Patriarch, Pope Kyrillos VI. 

Abuna Elia was the only one of Abuna Mina's original disciples who didn't become a bishop, an abbot, or a pope. He lived for about a decade as a solitary in a cave in the desert. Concerned monks of St. Bishoi (Pishoy) brought him to their monastery when he was no longer able to care for himself in the harsh desert environment. As the monks were carrying the aged monk into the monastery, Abuna Elia saw Mark Gruber, an American Benedictine monk and Catholic priest. Fr. Gruber was staying with the monks to conduct a year-long anthropological study. At the gate of the monastery, the aged monk turned to Fr. Gruber and said, "You are a Roman... You will want to see me; you will want to have some opportunity to talk with me." 

Fr. Gruber reponded, "Yes, Abuna. I would be very happy to see you." 

This fateful encounter led to numerous conversations between Abuna Elia and Fr. Gruber, and some of Abuna Elia's thoughts are presented in Fr. Gruber's books: Journey Back to Eden and Sacrifice in the Desert (Orbis Books). Journey Back to Eden is available to read online here.

In discussing Abuna Elia's understanding of Abraham's relationship to Sarah and Keturah, Fr. Gruber explains, "Abuna Elia was keen on preserving a sense of the unique character of Sarah, the 'princess' whose personality had no peerage for Abraham. The monogamy he bore to her was a reflex of the monotheism to which his faithfulness to Sarah predisposed him. So for Keturah, Abuna Elia supplied a commentary of remarkably modern ringing vintage: Keturah was the apical maternal ancestor of a Semitic people 'grandmothered' into Hebrew stock at the time after Joshua. They eventually embraced monotheism and so posthumously Abraham embraced them by the marital reference to her in Genesis. Analogously Abuna Elia observed that the dozen or so ethnic pilgrimage groups in Jerusalem recorded by St. Luke in the Pentecost narrative of the Acts of the Apostles are so included to give a kind of map of Christian missionary expansion when the Acts were written; as if they too were there at the Church’s birthday because they too shared the same Spirit… This is part of the economy of grace whereby Jews today share the Passover Night of Moses or Christians are present in the Upper Room, Calvary, the Empty Tomb and at the Ascension’s Trinitarian Embrace when they receive Communion. Abuna Elia also observed that if we take the marriage to Keturah on literal face value we have the oddity of trivializing the conception of Isaac regarded as so marvelous for Abraham’s (and Sarah’s) advanced age… 'After… my husband is so old, shall I have with him the pleasures of marriage?' (Gen. 19). But the children accorded to Abraham almost casually and offhandedly are born many years after Isaac without any sense of wonder noted. Indeed, a certain Keturah may well have received Abraham after the disaster at Moriah and she may be the ancestor of whom these peoples are descendents so named in Genesis. But their inclusion into the paternity of Abraham owes to her or her descendents accepting the seed of his faith rather than his natural procreative powers. Genesis is a book of the Table of the Nations where apical ancestry is a crucial element… And by faith and faith’s acceptance Genesis previews for us how Abraham becomes a father of many nations. Kinship and national formation through ancestry re-interpretation is rather lost on the atomized citizenry of contemporary western folk. But Egyptians (Hamites) and Semites retain a taste for this kind of meditation." 

There is difficulty in reconciling the apical view of Keturah with the kinship pattern revealed in Genesis king lists of Genesis 4, 5, 10, 11, 25 and 36. Analysis of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of the early Hebrew ruler-priests reveals that they had two wives. The first wife is the bride of the man's youth and usually a half-sister, as was Sarah to Abraham. The second wife is necessary to establish a kingdom, and is usually a patrilineal cousin, as was Keturah to Abraham. The wives resided in separate households on a north-south axis. Sarah resided in Hebron, and Keturah resided in Beersheba. These settlements marked the northern and southern boundaries of Abraham's territory in ancient Edom (called Idumea by the Greeks, meaning "Land of Red People.")

Abuna Elia's reflections on the Genesis narratives lift up a theological point or teach a spiritual lesson. They are midrash of a Coptic flavor. Midrash is beneficial only to the degree that it stays close to the biblical text. Problems arise when interpretation is layered on interpretation so that meaning strays rather far from the details of the text. This is when midrash becomes tangential to the overall picture of Genesis. (The Noahide interpretation of Nimrod is an example.) 

Most midrashim are based on the teachings of the Tannaim and can be dated to between 2 B.C. and 200 A.D. This means that the Rabbis were interpreting the Hebrew Bible at the same time that the early Church Fathers were expounding on the same Bible from a Christian perspective. The divergence of interpretation concerning Messianic passages is explained by the polemic of those centuries. 

In recent centuries Bible commentators relied more on Jewish interpretation and became less acquainted with the Patristic writings. Midrashic notions have influenced Christian interpretation. This seems to be changing as more commentators return to the biblical texts for closer observation. 
Fr. Mark Gruber recognized layers of midrash in his conversations with the Coptic monks. He asked them about an ostrich egg that hung between the ceiling oil lamps in the monastery chapel. He wanted to know of its significance and he was given different interpretations. One monk said that the egg was there to remind monks to keep their spiritual eyes fixed on God. Another explained that the ostrich warms its egg by gazing on it and that this reminds us that God’s gaze is always on us. 

Fr. Gruber decided on an experiment that involved empirical observation. While sitting in the chapel one night, Fr. Gruber "saw a scrawny desert rat crawling along a groove in the wall, creeping very slowly and with great stealth. It proceeded to slide down the wire till it came to the egg. However, when it tried to navigate the large smooth surface, it couldn’t get a grip. Its little claws had been so tightly closed around the wire that when it came to the egg, it couldn’t open them wide enough to hold onto it. So it slipped off the egg and fell to the ground. The rat seemed to be injured by the fall. It scurried away… So it turns out that the eggs actually have a practical purpose. They keep the rats away from the lamps, away from the oil reserve which they might otherwise try to drink, desert rats being omnivorous” (p. 171). 

This story illustrates the importance of observation in situ. An empirical approach to the Bible requires that we observe the fine details of the biblical narrative. We must not ignore details because they don't seem to align with our interpretations. Fr. Gruber reports that Abuna Elia still lives and has achieved a very ripe age. He tells me that "these monks have been known to live a long time."

No comments: