Tuesday, April 1, 2014

King David, the angel Mouriel, and Ninja Hideouts

Several weeks ago, I taught the Good Samaritan story to my second- and third-grade Sunday School class.1  Whenever I'm done telling a story, the kids get to work with materials of their choice to "play through" what they've learned.  I'm usually suspicious about how much of the story the kids are taking into their hearts and minds, but then I'm vibrantly reminded that my worries are completely baseless.  After the Good Samaritan story, "Billy" re-created, in Play-Doh, the perilous road between Jerusalem and Jericho -- but this road wasn't merely the haunt of a couple of mean thieves.  "Billy's" road to Jericho featured an obstacle course, booby traps, and a secret hideout for ninjas.

All this was on my mind weeks ago when I made it my Lenten Resolution to start "doing" this blog.  Yeah, I'm late, but I still want to get into the habit of posting.  Going to church every Sunday usually puts enough ideas into my head to warrant my adding to the bottomless blogosphere.  There tend to be things in either of the Readings, or in the Gospel, or -- more likely yet -- in the hidden threads between them, that get my inner apologist/theologist cookin'.  Those "hidden threads" are invariably never what the Homily is about.  But, like my Sunday School student taught me, not everyone knows where those secret ninja hideouts are, so you'd better mark them on the map when you find them.

My insights this week were summarized in the Second Lesson, Ephesians 5:8-14:
Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light... Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."  (emphasis mine; the quote within the quote seems to be a combination of Isaiah 26:19 and 60:1.2)
There's a dichotomy between something dark and something light, and it involves death.  To explain, I want to go back to the First Lesson, where we find a parade of Jesse's sons being presented to Samuel.  Long story short, in 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Samuel knew that one of Jesse's sons was to be made the King of Israel -- he just wasn't sure which one.
When they came, [Samuel] looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is before the Lord."  But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him"... Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel.  He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one."...
Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these."  Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?"  And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep."
The youngest, the eighth of the eight brothers, was David.  God said "Rise and anoint him, for this is the one."

This reminded me instantly of another story that involves the "eighth of a set of eight."  The story isn't in the Bible; in Rabbinic terminology it'd be a midrash, a memorable moral that inserts itself into empty spaces in the Bible's narrative.  It's found in an early Coptic Christian homily called "Discourse on Abbaton," written by one Timothy of Alexandria sometime before 385.3

The story steps in between Genesis 2:6, where God causes streams "to come up from the earth and water the ground," and Genesis 2:7, where God "formed a man from the dust of the ground."

The author Timothy reasoned that there must be a story to be told in the way that God procured that "dust of the ground" to make a man.  As the story goes, the angel Mouriel was dispatched by God to get Him a clod of earth for just that task.   But when Mouriel found the perfect patch of virgin earth, the dirt itself screamed at him:
"I swear in God's name, if you take me, He'll mold me into man!  Countless sins will come forth from my body, and the blood of man's murders will come forth from his hand.  I'll be cast out onto ground, to be devoured by beasts, and finally cast into punishment, day and night... Let me stay in the ground in peace!"
Mouriel wasn't fazed by the dirt's screams and its use of God's name.  He obediently struck his hand into the ground, silenced the voice, and brought the clod to God.

When the angel Mouriel returned with his delivery in hand, God was taken aback.  You see, Mouriel wasn't aware of it, but God had already sent seven angels with the same task.  Each of the seven was so unnerved by the dirt's voice that he came back empty-handed.4

So, here, as in 1 Samuel, we have the "eighth of a set of eight" brought into narrative focus.  To recap and make definitions, in the outline I propose from the reading in Ephesians, David, the eighth son, is the character in the Lord's light.  Mouriel, the eighth angel, is the character of darkness.  Why do I cast this shadow on Mouriel's character?  We have to follow Timothy's story to its conclusion to see why.

Very soon in the Genesis story, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banished from the Garden.  Genesis itself, fascinatingly enough, doesn't exactly spell out what Christian tradition infers; it's left to Paul, in his letter to the Romans (5:12), to say "sin entered the world through" Adam, and death entered through sin.

Now that "death" was a concept that had entered human consciousness, God needed an angel to tend to that function.  Whether it was Mouriel's unflappable obedience in the face of bizarre circumstances, or his involvement in the scenario in the first place, God transformed the golden angel Mouriel into Abbaton, the Angel of Death.

(As an aside: I hadn't re-read the Abbaton story in a while before this.  While the text does describe Mouriel's transformation into a being of horror, it never mentioned Mouriel being especially beautiful or handsome to begin with.  For some reason I must have imagined him as being "golden."  I had also completely imagined the idea that Mouriel was given a black bag to carry the dirt back to God; as soon as he became Abbaton, he ripped apart the bag by the seams and used it as the material to sew his black, hooded cloak.  Nothing even remotely like this is actually in the text, but I "remember" it vividly.)

I'm not sure if there's anything symbolic in and of itself -- maybe numerologically -- about the "eighth of a set of eight," but for me the concept simply connects David at his anointing with the Angel of Death in this week's Readings and Gospel.  What the hidden thread here shows, at least for me, is that the Anointed One is being put up against Death.  Maybe competitively.

Because, check this out: Messiah, in Hebrew, simply means "anointed one."  King David is a messiah, clearly spelled out in the First Reading:
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed [David] in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
But, from a Christian perspective, I suppose we're all supposed to know who the Messiah is.  Interestingly, in this week's Gospel (John 9:1-41), the word "Messiah" isn't used of Jesus.
Jesus... said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
He answered, "And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him."
Jesus said to him, You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."
Jesus may not have been too comfortable with the term "Messiah," but he loved, loved, loved Daniel 7, where we find his oft-used "Son of Man" language.
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will never be destroyed.  (Daniel 7:13-14)
The language is different, but the imagery is clear: the Son of Man is the ultimate "anointed one," the king -- of which David was the supreme historical example -- on a cosmic scale.  Jesus is saying that he is this.

I mentioned that there may be a foreshadowing of competition here, because very soon on the church calendar we will have the Anointed One, Jesus, going up against Death itself.  Hey, it's March Madness, who's your pick?  Paul's choice is clear from the Second Reading:
Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.
To close, I just want to tell one more story -- the only story I know that specifically, and clearly, involves both David and the Angel of Death.

In the Talmud (b. Shabbat 30b)5, it's told that King David spent his Sabbaths studying all day.  When it was David's time to depart this world, the Angel of Death came to him, but couldn't take his soul -- apparently, the Angel is forbidden to take someone while he or she is studying.
"What shall I do to him?" said the Angel of Death.  Now, there was a garden before David's house, so the Angel of Death went, ascended, and coughed in the trees.  David went out to see: as he was ascending the ladder, it broke under him.  Thereupon he became silent from his studies and his soul had repose.
The moral of the story: don't stop learning!

1. Saint Mark's has recently adopted the Godly Play curriculum.  I can't overestimate the positive change it's made in my personal spiritual ecology.  As my wife put it, Godly Play seems to "fill my cup."

2. Topic "H" under http://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/brown_john/Eph/Eph_5v_1-18.cfm?a=1102014 

3. Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans.  Coptic Martyrdoms.  London: British Museum, 1914.  The text "Discourse on Abbaton by Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria" retrieved from http://www.thinlyveiled.com/Abbaton2.2MB.pdf on August 10, 2010.

4. Timothy apparently follows the tradition that names seven archangels, not four, most likely influenced by Zechariah 4:10.  Among sources that have seven, the Book of Enoch lists them as Suruel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Saraqael, Gabriel, and Remiel; the Third Book of Enoch names Michael, Gabriel, Shatqiel, Shachaqiel, Baradiel, Baraqiel, and Sidriel as the seven angelic princes.

5. http://www.halakhah.com/shabbath/shabbath_30.html

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