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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent Meditation, 2016

I don’t normally make much of a to-do about Advent, Christmas, or other holidays in the so-called “Christian Year”.  My Reformed tradition (commonly called “Calvinistic”) seeks to limit its cultic observances to what can be found or deduced by “good and necessary consequence” from Scripture.  However, I’ll nod away from the Puritan branch of the family towards the Swiss, and note with the Second Helvetic Confession (1564), that those holidays focused on the events of Christ’s life, are in themselves indifferent, if not made binding on the consciences of believers. 

The Advent tradition calls on Christians to focus on prophecy, both that related to his first coming as Messiah of Israel, and his second, in which he will judge the living and the dead.  Hence, after an adult Sunday School class that went through Samuel and Kings, books which the Jewish tradition sees as the Former Prophets, the Advent text on which I am now meditating  is  Matthew One, with all of its begats and Old Testament names (given according to the Greek Septuagint, for those who don’t recognize King James’ Ezekias and Hezekiah as the same man).  It’s a reminder that all of God’s actions in human history, including how he became man, worked redemption, and conquered death itself, were for the sake of flesh-and-blood, living and breathing, ordinary human beings.

First, individuals matter.  The genealogies tell us that humanity is not some abstraction called “society”, or “mankind”, or, in this anti-sexist world, “humankind”.  Names point to individuals, each of whom has his own little story and needs.  Maybe this is confusing to an age, overwhelmed by the vastness of space, wonders how God can worry about little specks such as us.  If that describes you and me, we’re in good company:  the Psalmist David himself wondered along similar lines when he wrote:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?  And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:3-4)

Second, history matters.  Part of everyone’s humanity—including that of Jesus, whom I confess to be God the Word incarnate as man—belongs to a community and has a history.  We didn’t choose to be born Americans in the 20th and 21st centuries; Abraham didn’t choose to be born in Ur of the Chaldees four thousand years before our time.  Even if, as biblical prophecy teaches us, we look forward to a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (II Pet. 3:13), we cannot forget where we’ve been, and biblical religion tells us that if we do, we’ll lose sight of where we ought to be going.  We’re called not only to hope, but also to remember.

Third, damaged and derailed as individuals and their histories may be, Jesus came to save sinners.  “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as wool.” How, Brother Isaiah?  Matthew One tells us.

Jesus came and freely owned himself kinsman to Abraham and Isaac, who prevaricated with the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Philistine Abimelech out of cowardice and thus compromised their wives; with Jacob who defrauded his brother Esau; with Judah who committed incest with his daughter-in-law Tamar while thinking he was just finding a prostitute; with the fallen woman Rahab and proselyte Ruth; with adulterous, scheming King David who abused his power to put an innocent man to death; with backsliding Solomon, who despite all his God-given wisdom, allowed his foreign wives to lead him into coldness towards his own God; and all those unworthy descendants of David who ignored or persecuted the prophets, provoked God to righteous wrath, and thus got their people conquered and exiled to Babylon.  No, I cannot find the model of a holy and upright kingship or living image of the Messiah or an earthly picture of the divine throne in heaven as I read the Bible; only a dreary list of men who “waked in the way of Jeroboam the Son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.”

Yet, the letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brethren—despite all their issues, failures, and baggage.  It is for them, and us, that he became man, worked righteousness, suffered death on the cross, and rose from the dead on the Third Day.  So, if the sinless Son of God is not ashamed to call the likes of Judah, Rahab, Manasseh, and Amon kinsmen, there may be hope for issues-ridden people like you and me.

I was oh-so-subtly raised to justify myself against the accusations leveled by biblical prophecy.  If I would’ve called myself a Christian, I was at best an American Moralistic Deist.  Had I known more than bowdlerized versions of the Biblical stories way back when, I’d have thought, surely, had someone like me been around, Jeremiah wouldn’t have been dragged off unwillingly to Egypt by the rebellious people, and Zechariah the priest would not have been murdered before the altar by King Jehoash.  Of course, we’re more advanced than “those people” were (Bronze Age savages, after all—even if, for the sake of covering myself with my fellow pedants, the use of iron seems to have found its way into Israel around the time of Saul).  And, yes, had I known the story then, I’d have reacted like Clovis of the Franks, who said Jesus would never have been crucified had he and his men been around.   Oh, of course: I’d never have been a Caiaphas, a member of the mob that cried, “crucify him!”, and certainly not a Pontius Pilate, cynically asking “what is truth?” when the Truth itself was literally under his very nose.   Fat chance.

That incarnation, death on the cross, and resurrection happened for our sinful sakes precisely because we’re not our idealized, truth-loving, [self-] righteous selves.  We are indeed Judah and Tamar, Rahab with her scarlet past and fear of the invading Israelites, backsliding Solomon, and Amon and Manasseh.  We’re Caiphas and Pilate, too (think of that the next time you use the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed).   This season, let us not justify ourselves when challenged by what we read; but recognize ourselves for what we are in humble repentance and accept the gift of redemption which God offers in the Messiah.

Have a joyful Advent and Christmas season!

Seen your Bathsheba today, brothers?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Are the Chinese Children of Heth? 华人是否赫族的后裔?

    For better or worse, every Christian people likes to read its own name into the Bible.  Sometimes this theological pastime is harmless; sometimes, as in certain forms of Anglo-Israelism, dangerous. Having both studied theology from a very conservative standpoint and lived among the heirs of the great Hua-Xia culture,I have encountered some intriguing variations on this theme. From such encounters, I would urge Christian writers and thinkers to be very cautious in finding associations between their own peoples and times and those of the Bible.  While I accept that the Bible is basically historical, its very historicity should warn us against reading some of our own perceptions and predilections back into it.
    With the remarkable spread of the Gospel in Sinitic Asia, well-meaning Christians both Western and Chinese have taken up the game of finding their roots in the Bible. In Taiwan, in a town inhabited mostly by Hakka-speaking people, a good friend who was a minister of the Gospel held that perhaps his people were anciently Hebrew, for they were a migratory folk who had long ago moved into southern China from the North China Plain, while the red strips of calligraphy framing the doors of their homes recalled the blood of the passover lamb marking the doors of the Israelites in Egypt.Others insisted that their people were no closer to the Jews other than being descendants of Shem, since "Shem is the ancestor of all the Asians, just as Japheth was father of the Europeans and Ham the father of the Africans."
    Later, after leaving an international student ministry in the Midwest, someone passed around a handout identifying how various parts of the world related to the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.  I noted that this paper linked the Chinese to Heth, the son of Canaan.This shocked me, since it is commonly known to most students of Scripture that the Canaanites were a cursed people.  There is a tradition in American folk Protestantism that this curse devolved on the African, and explains his servitude down to 1865; while in a much older and more respectable tradition of exegesis, it is understood that this curse on Canaan in Genesis 9:25 met its fulfillment first in Joshua's subjection of the Gileadites who had  tricked Israel into making a covenant with them (Joshua 9) and later in Rome's conquest of the last independent Canaanite people in Carthage.
    As far as I can tell, this linkage of the Chinese to Heth goes back to The Doorway Papers by Arthur Custance (1910-1985), a British-born Canadian Christian scholar with wide-ranging interests, including the development of a comprehensive anthropological doctrine from the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.  In a nutshell, Custance notes an apparent etymological correspondence between the name Heth (in which the initial letter is pronounced something like the German "ch" in "Ach!") and the native name of the Khitan people (Qidan 契丹) who bequeathed the names "Cathay" or "Cathaya", by which China (or, more properly, northern China) was known to Westerners between the times of Marco Polo to the 19th century.  To be fair to Custance, his attempt to trace all of the "colored peoples" to Ham was not racist; for he interpreted the "servant of servants" not as indicating a lowly status for Canaan, the Son of Ham, but that many of the fundamental technological innovations of mankind were originally found among the non-white peoples of the world--hence this prophecy of Genesis 9:25 speaks of important services rendered to mankind as a whole rather than subjection. Yet it is also noteworthy that this connection of the Chinese to Heth has since then taken root among Chinese-speaking believers themselves.
    This posting is an objection and a refutation.  While Custance and exegetes like him meant and mean well in connecting the Chinese to Heth, their method ignores China's own millennia-long recorded history, which itself reveals how peoples migrated and dynasties rose and fell, no less than the histories of the various Western and Middle Eastern peoples.  Further, the China-Heth connection ignores the wider growth of Scripture and the expansion of the Hebrews' geographic and historical horizons in the centuries between the tales that came to be part of Genesis and the time of the Davidic kingdom. Indeed, it places a burden on the Table of Nations which that section of Scripture was not intended to bear.
    To start, I do not doubt that the Chinese descend from Noah via his three sons. All of us do.   But exactly how and through which migrations and intermixings, I do not pretend to know, and doubt that this can be known after so many millennia.
    First of all, it is not difficult to locate the children of Heth, or Hittites, who are mentioned in the Old Testament.  From roughly 1400-1000 B.C., an Indo-European people who called themselves Nes established an empire over central Anatolia, ruling an earlier, non-Indo-European people called the Hatti, from whom the Indo-European conqueror adopted a number of cultural features, including a logographic or hieroglyphic written language and the name for the land they inhabited. The Hittites of the Old Testament 'Eretz Yisroel, from the Ephron who sold Abraham a burial plot for his family to the ill-fated Uriah, whose wife Bathsheba tempted King David, were most likely a diaspora people who had settled in various parts of the Middle East, including Canaan, which lying along an important trade route linking the richer lands of Mesopotamia and Egypt, might be expected to attract a dispersed people. In this, they were not unlike their latter-day linguistic relatives the Armenians, who prior to the horrors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were an important dispersed and trading people of the Middle East.
   A second issue is that China was not known as Cathay or Cathaya from time immemorial. Throughout their long history, the Chinese have often referred to themselves by the dynasties that ruled them.  The most ancient of these were the Xia (夏), which lasted from 2070-1600 B.C; the Shang (商), which lasted from 1600-1040 B.C.; and the Zhou (周), which lasted from 1046-771 B.C.  As the last degenerated into a collection of contending states, which was China's condition in the times of such sages as Confucius, Lao Zi,and Zhuang Zi, there arose the coneption of Tian Xia (天下), or "Under Heaven", denoting the area of a common Hua-Xia --what we Westerners would call "Chinese"-- civilization, as opposed to outsiders who were denoted by terms usually translated as "barbarian". While some see the Xia as legendary, by Shang times a clearly identifiable Chinese culture had arisen, including not only cultural features that would last to modern times, but also a writing system and language that is identifiable as the ancestor of the modern Sinitic languages just as Latin is identifiable as the ancestor of modern French, Spanish, and Italian.
   Most noteworthy, the Shang Empire was partly synchronous with the Hittite Empire of Anatolia and the Hittite presence elsewhere in the Middle East.  Yet there is no evidence at all that the ancient ancestors of today's Chinese referred to themselves by any name at all cognate to the Hatti of the non-Indo-European common people of the ancient Anatolian empire or the Nes of their Indo-European overlords.
   As a cultural and ethnic unit, the Chinese often refer to themselves as the Hua-Xia (华夏) culture or the Han (汉) people, the last referring also to the Han dynasty that ruled roughly from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. None of these are cognate to the name of Heth or Hatti.Significantly, the name Han as an ethnonym for the majority people of the Huang He basin and North China Plain long predated the arrival of the Khitan.
     Indeed, the Khitan, who gave us the name Cathay, first appeared in Chinese history in the early 10th century A.D., following the collapse of the Tang Empire (618-904 A.D.). They saw themselves as heirs of an earlier tribe of northern invaders, the Xianbei (鲜卑), who were known as early as the third century B.C.  Scholars see the Xianbei and their Khitan descendants as forerunners of the Mongols.  Despite the long association of China and Mongolia, the Mongol and Chinese languages derive from very different roots; the linguistic relatives of China lying to the south while those of Mongol lie to the north and west. The Khitan left behind two distinct scripts imitative of but not identical to the Chinese logographic script, which can be deciphered just enough to identify their language as proto-Mongol; perhaps closer to the Dahur of China's Northeast than to the Halh of Mongolia or the Buryat of Siberia; but certainly not kin to either Hatti or Nes-Hittite. .
  The Khitan established a dynasty in northern China and Mongolia that is called Liao (辽), which lasted from 907-1125 A.D.  It was conquered by another non-Han people called the Jurchen, a people from what would later be called Manchuria, who established the Jin (金) dynasty, which lasted from 1115-1234 A.D., when it was conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan. Both of these dynasties were in conflict with the Song (宋), a series of native Han Chinese dynasties ruling central and southern China.  It is said that the last speaker of the Khitan language was an official by the name of Yelu Chucai (耶律楚材) who served the last of the Jin emperors and went on to serve Genghis Khan, organizing a civilian administration for the northern Chinese regions conquered by the Mongols.It appears that most of the Khitan and Jurchen people who settled in the lands south of the Great Wall were absorbed by the Han, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the peasant and urban populations.
    Therefore, very great temporal, geographic, linguistic, and cultural differences separate the Khitan in the northern China of the 12th century A.D. and the Hittites of central Anatolia in the 12th century B.C. No historic, linguistic or other cultural data support a connection between the Hua-Xia or Han peoples who form the overwhelming majority of the Chinese nation and the Hittites.A chance, superficial relationship between the ethnonyms of an ancient Anatolian tribe and that of a much later northeast Asian tribe is too little on which to base a historical connection between Heth and Khitan. To do so is analogous to fanciful derivations of "British" from the Hebrew word b'rit, or "covenant", or "Saxon" from "Isaac's Sons".
   Of course a common humanity links the various peoples of eastern Asia, those of the Middle East, and all of the rest of us.  As a Bible-believer, I have no doubt that offspring of Noah and his three sons moved eastward to populate Asia, Australia, the Pacific, and the Americas. As a student of both biblical and secular history, I have no doubt at all that there were ancient contacts between the Middle East and Far East.  But I find it very doubtful that the Sinitic peoples have any other connection to the Hittites of the Bible. 
    This might, however, lead us to some considerations about how to read the Table of Nations itself, a subject for a different post.