Last week I had the opportunity to go on our Diocesan clergy silent retreat. This is only my second time participating in this particular retreat and I’ve enjoyed both gatherings very much.
One of the key points made early in the series of five reflections (delivered this year by our Bishop, John Bauerschmidt) was the way in which memory breaks in during times of silence and we may find ourselves enjoying pleasant memories, or confronting awkward or even negative ones. Silence allows things to bubble to the surface that often don’t have the opportunity. Part of this means that we might be surprised by the memories that come to the fore.
One of the memories that came to mind for me was only partial, and it wasn’t particularly positive or negative–though it was humorous. It came to mind during Morning Prayer on Wednesday, when the first lesson was from Genesis (I’ll share the reference later). the reading brought to mind the vague memory of an event I attended at some point–maybe a youth retreat, or some other function. I don’t recall much, but I do recall the ending of our time together. One of the leaders spent a fair amount of time–and maybe there was a prayer or a song related to the same theme–talking about how the Lord would protect us when we were absent from one another, and quoting the passage from Genesis, that is rendered in the King James version, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (Genesis 31:49).By the time I heard this I’d been doing morning prayer long enough that the reference tickled my awareness and I looked it up. In context I couldn’t imagine why this phrase would ever acquire the use and meaning it had. “How in the world could someone use this in a positive way at the end of an event.” What is recounted is Jacob’s surreptitious departure, at God’s command, from the territory of his father-in-law Laban, and their subsequent meeting after Laban follows.The meeting is not a positive one, but while bitter, it does not fall into violence. Nevertheless, one of the few things that Laban and Jacob agree on, is that they do not trust each other, and therefore they asking God to keep watch because the people aren’t trustworthy to each other after a bitter argument. As Robert Alter pointed out in his commentary, this exchange even stands in the background of the establishment of an international border. That is, a boundary between people groups:
Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other. If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”
Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the God of their father—“judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country (Genesis 31:48-54).
Of course, I thought this was hilarious at the time, but I’d forgotten it. The combination of reading the passage at Morning Prayer (Gen. 31:25-50) and thinking about past experiences brought it back to mind. Because I happen to be reading Robert Alter’s newly published translation of the Hebrew Bible now, I looked over the passage in his translation which makes the conflict even more clear in some ways. For example, Alter translates part of the exchange as “May the Lord look out between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. Should you abuse my daughters, and should you take wives besides my daughters though no one else is present, see, God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:49-50, Alter’s translation). Alter’s version highlights the loss of trust between the two men, and how God is being called on to keep each of them on the straight and narrow, and to bear witness should either of them violate their agreement.
This background makes the presence of paired pendants with this phrase on it, marketed to friends, family members, and sweethearts all the more ironic. It’s about separation, and God’s attention, of that there’s no doubt. But it’s a divine attention prayed for–and threatened–because there’s no trust between the two people in question. And I have to wonder–is this the sentiment you really want to invoke when you’re going to be separated from a loved one for some period of time?
Here’s a sample of Alter’s book and the notes on part of this section. I can’t recommend it highly enough: