Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?"

Few questions possess more mystery within Christianity than how could the invulnerable God have hung vulnerably from a cross.  While I realize that early church fathers and early church councils mulled over this question so that we would not have to do so, I am going to border on the heretical and break from tradition.  I do so out of a desire to examine Jesus' resounding cry of, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" found in Mk 15:34 and Mt 27:46.

To begin,  Dr. Donald Hagner (in Word Biblical Commentary for the Gospel of Matthew), says that Jesus cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" on the cross "is one of the most impenetrable mysteries of the entire gospel narrative." (Hagner, 845).  If a renowned scholar cannot provide an answer to the question posited in this post, I will not be as presumptuous to believe that I could do any better.  I will, however, attempt to place Jesus' cry on the cross within a possible context of first-century and second-century Roman Palestine.

One last item to consider before entering our discussion is, "Did Jesus really say these words upon the cross?"  For the purposes of this post, we will answer that Jesus in fact did cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  The reason being that we will examine Jesus' cry as "insiders" within the gospel narratives as presented by the authors of Mark and of Matthew.  It is a very real possibility that Jesus never said this and that the gospel writers attributed this phrase to Jesus in order to offer Psalm 22 as an interpretive lens through which to understand Jesus' crucifixion.  We will approach Jesus' cry upon the cross as authentic, for the authors of Mark and Matthew likely intended this hermeneutic construct.

So, here we are.  Three paragraphs in and ready to breach the topic of what Jesus may have intended when crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Two main streams of thought exist on this topic (there are likely more, but I am only aware of two).  First, that Jesus saw himself as personifying the deep, personal lament as exists within the first half of Psalm 22; and second, that though Jesus uttered the first verse of Psalm 22, Jesus was actually expressing the praise and thanksgiving that conclude Psalm 22.  In other words, in the first view, Jesus expressed a true feeling of abandonment by God; and in the second view, Jesus expressed hope.  Each view could make sense depending with whom you were speaking.  I wish to remove our discussion from merely the realm of Psalm 22 as it exists today, however, and move it to the realm of Psalm 22 as it may have existed in the first and second centuries of Roman Palestine.

With the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile, the Hebrew Bible became a central focus in certain circles of Jewish life.  The interpretation of what the Hebrew Bible contained then became of great interest.  By the first century CE, circles of interpretation had likely arisen which later developed into a body of literature known as midrash (which derives from a Hebrew word meaning, "to inquire").  In midrash, a Rabbi reads a passage in order to expose the story as it exists plainly and also as it exists "behind-the-scenes."  Rabbis often play a wonderfully imaginative game when compiling midrashim (plural form) for a verse.  One verse will often lead a Rabbi to another verse, which will then lead to another verse, which will then drawn the Rabbi back to the original verse.

For the midrash concerning Ps 22:1, the Rabbis read, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as first referring to Isa 10:17:  "The light of Israel shall be for a fire, and His holy one for a flame; and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day."  What we read in Isaiah as historical prophecy referencing the Assyrian invasion of Israel and Judah, the Rabbis read as referring to characters in the book of Esther.  The Rabbis say, "The light of Israel means Mordecai; His holy one means Esther; and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers means that Haman and his sons shall be devoured."(Nemoy, 298-299).  (Note that the written midrash for the book of Psalms is relatively late, but evidence suggests that the oral tradition originated in antiquity.)  In this brief characterization of Esther's key characters through the perspective if Isa 10:17, the Rabbis create an interpretive lens through which we are able to view Psalm 22 and even possibly Jesus' cry upon the cross in Mk 15:34 and Mt 27:46.

Each character above is representative of Jesus on the cross in some way.  In the book of Esther, Mordecai greatly laments; Esther's very name in Hebrew means "the hidden one" (as the Rabbis note in the midrash and could possibly reflect Jesus' secretive nature in Mark); and Haman is hanged from a tree.

If Jesus did in fact have Esther in mind (even if only partially), then what other parallels might we draw between Jesus' crucifixion in Mark and Matthew and the book of Esther?  One interesting parallel to consider is that the book of Esther lacks the name "God."  If this parallel is intentional, then the lament portion of Psalm 22 and the book of Esther reach a similar objective but on two separate paths.  The psalmist expresses God's absence through declaring God's abandonment of the psalmist in the first verse of Psalm 22.  The author of Esther likewise expresses God's absence but through the omission of God's name in the book of Esther.  In this light, we might interpret Jesus' cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" in a very real and actual sense.  Jesus did not utter these words in order to convey the praise and thanksgiving that conclude Psalm 22, but Jesus uttered these words in order to express a true sense of separation and depravity.

The goal of this post was to explore the question of what Jesus could have meant when crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  I admit that our viewing of Jesus on the cross as a type of live-action exegesis of Esther is not likely and possibly flat-out wrong.  I maintain, however, that it is an important exercise to approach biblical studies with an imaginative mindset, for it is through imagination that we are able to relate to the sages of the past with whom provide us texts born out of an imaginative spirit.

Sources Cited:

Hagner, Donald.  World Biblical Commentary:  Matthew 14-28.  Dallas, World Books, 1995.

Nemoy, Leon, ed.  The Midrash on Psalms.  New Haven:  Yale U, 1959.