There are many interesting and helpful ways to read the Bible. I always find it fascinating when a word, or phrase, or image repeats across texts. Sea, mountain, shepherd, wilderness- are all words the can clue us into the larger story of God.
So also, the words,”tear open” or “rend”. In Isaiah 64, we read, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” Then in Mark 1:10, the story of Jesus baptism we read, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And in Mark 15:38 (and also the other gospels) at the crucifixion, “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”
It is helpful to remember as we contemplate the rending of the heavens that ancient people believed the sky was a dome. They inhabited a three storied universe. There were waters above and below, and a dome over the earth.
By Ralph V. Chamberlin (?) – Ralph V. Chamberlin. “The Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe”. The White and Blue. Vol XIII no. 11, Dec. 24 1909. pp. 84-88, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39116402
The understanding of the ancient world was that the heavens could actually be torn apart. This sort of cosmic disruption of nature imagery is fairly common in the Bible. Often God’s appearing is described as mountains quaking, stars falling from the sky, fire and smoke. Ancient people expected the world to be dramatically changed when God came near. Mt Sinai is covered in smoke with thunder and lightning, and the mountain shakes as Moses goes up to receive Torah.
So God rends the heavens-
When Isaiah writes about God coming to God’s people, the heavens are torn open,and the mountains quake. When Jesus is baptized, Mark tells us the heavens are torn apart. And when Jesus dies, all the gospels tell us the curtain around the Holy of Holies is torn.
It is a powerful image, God tearing the roof off the world to come to us. God tearing open the division between the holiest place in the Temple and humankind. Every barrier between God and humanity is disrupted, Nothing stops God. Nothing will keep God from us.
And yet… God loves a paradox. So Jesus’ birth is a quiet event. His is born to poor parents in backwater Judea. The only people, in any telling of the nativity, who experience divine drama are a few shepherds who see the heavenly host, the heavenly army who come, paradoxically, singing of peace.
These are, of course, not the only times, nor the only ways “tear open” are used in the Bible. Most often tearing and rending refer to the practice of tearing garments in grief or despair. Ultimately though, rending and tearing are not the result of despair but the result of God coming to us, a theophany, the appearing of God. Tears changed to joy. Despair to hope.
O that you would rend the heavens and come down!