Dec
2014

Hope

At our faculty meeting yesterday, my Orthodox colleague opened our meeting with a litany and prayer from the Eastern Christian tradition.  The Scripture reading was this passage, from the book 0f Joel:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves.

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.  But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved (Joel 2:28-32).

In contrast to many prophets–and particularly, to Amos and Micah–we know nothing at all about Joel apart from his name: no dates, no historical references, no places, no background.  Reference is made to an agricultural crisis, a locust plague, but we have no clues about which plague, when; further, as the book unfolds, the locusts become a metaphor for invading armies (see Joel 2:1-11), and finally for cosmic destruction (see the passage above).

Yet the book is not about impending doom.  In the face of tragedy, Joel calls upon the community to fast and pray, assuring them that God will respond to their repentance with deliverance.  They have not been abandoned to their fates: the prophet promises that “everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved” (Joel 2:32).  Joel is the prophet of hope.

The passage from Joel with which we began was quoted by Peter (Acts 2:14-21), who found in Joel’s words a way to understand the outpouring of God’s Spirit he and his fellow Christ-followers had just experienced (see Acts 2:1-12).  God’s future had broken into the world in Jesus, but he had been taken from them: first crucified, then miraculously raised from the dead, but finally ascended into divine glory.  The outpouring of God’s Spirit made plain that Jesus was still at work, in and through his church, and that far from being abandoned, they were called, empowered, and sent forth in the confidence that God’s future was still breaking in.

Similarly, Jesus himself alluded to Joel’s vision of the day of the LORD:

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken.  Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.  Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven (Mark 13:24-27).

Jesus, like Joel, is no Pollyanna optimist.  Everything is not all right; indeed, times are hard, and will get harder.  But the end is in the hands of God, who will not abandon God’s own.  God’s angels will lead us all home, to share in Christ’s just and joyous reign.  We can therefore live our lives confidently, not in despair, but in hope.

Having grown up in a non-liturgical church (I don’t believe I knew about the seasons of the church year, apart from Easter and Christmas, until college), I always wondered why, in some traditions, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink, not purple.  I assumed that it had something to do with the veneration of Mary–but, as happens far more often than I care to admit, I was wrong.

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent  is Gaudete Sunday, so called for the first word in the Latin introit for this day, “Gaudete in Domino semper“–from Philippians 4:4-5:  “Be glad (Greek chairete; the Latin gaudete actually means “rejoice,” which is the reading followed in the KJV and NRSV) in the Lord always.”

The website “About Catholicism” explains the rose-colored candle, and vestments, for this day:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The change in color provides us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation—especially prayer and fasting—for Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ–is on the way!  The message of the rose-colored candle, then, like the message of Joel, is hope.  Hold on.

AFTERWORD:

I am very proud of the PTS students who have been standing in the cold and mist along Highland Avenue to call attention to racial injustice, in our nation and in our city.  They have heard the word of the prophets, and responded by standing with the wounded and oppressed.  God bless them.
Dec
2014

Humility

This past week the Senate at last released its long-awaited report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in secret prisons in the wake of 9/11.  The report was damning in its detail, spelling out these horrific practices that amount, to use a more honest and straightforward expression, to torture.

The Senate’s investigation revealed something that skilled interrogators, as well as unfortunate victims of torture such as Senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain have always known. As Senator McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor supporting the release of this report,

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.

That is the point.  The argument over whether or not actionable intelligence was gained, or might be gained, through torture is fundamentally wrong-headed.  Torture degrades and debases us.  It is an evil, morally indefensible act.

Jesuit blogger Sam Sawyer  rightly recognizes the source of the impulse to torture: not only in shameful, fearful pursuit of the illusion of safety, but in the colossal arrogance and self-idolatry that makes us think our own ends to be justified whatever the cost to others.  He writes:

We have to reject not only the use of torture, but also the self-worship that led us to think our safety could be paid for with the blood and pain of our enemies. We have to answer for the violence and control that led us to keep torturing people, even when it was clear our security didn’t depend on it.

What is required of us, as a nation and as individuals, is humility.

The book of Micah is all about humility.   Micah was a rough contemporary of Hosea and Amos, prophesying in Judah to the south while they prophesied in Israel to the north.  But he proclaimed his message, not in the urban streets of Jerusalem, but in his own tiny village of Morasheth-Gath, located on the edge of contested Philistine territory–about as far from the big city as you could get.  Perhaps it is this distant perspective that enables the prophet to see through the arrogance of Jerusalem’s leaders,

who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight,
         who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!
 Her officials give justice for a bribe,
        and her priests teach for hire.
Her prophets offer divination for silver,
        yet they rely on the Lord, saying,
            “Isn’t the Lord in our midst?
                Evil won’t come upon us!” (Micah 3:9-11).

Micah’s vision of right living and right worship cuts through the extravagance and self-aggrandizement of Jerusalem’s temple liturgy as it had come to be practiced:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Micah’s answer to the question “What does the LORD want?” cuts through to the essence of the life of faith.  Indeed, Rabbi Simlai said that in Micah 6:8, the prophet pared the 613 commandments in Torah down to three (Talmud, b. Makkoth 23b-24a [pp. 100-103]): doing justice, embracing God’s committed, steadfast love, and living humbly before God.

Micah’s vision of kingship is also humble. Recalling David’s mean birth in a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own, this prophet declares that if Judah is to survive the onslaught of Assyria, what will be needed is a return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needs, Micah asserts, is another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, he says,

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5).

This passage, of course, is quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Herod’s palace looking for a new-born king, Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him and to his guests from the east Micah’s ancient prophecy.  Jesus, like David, was born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.

As the celebration of Christ’s birth draws near, we must not allow ourselves any delusions about who Jesus was, and is, or about what following Jesus means.  Jesus was born among the poor–he was not a man of wealth, power, or influence.  He surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  And at the last, Jesus was tortured–he was not a torturer.  This Advent, we need to decide whose side we are on.

 

Dec
2014

Love

 

Love sculpture

Recently, my wife read me an anonymous post from the humor site Tickld that several people had shared on Facebook, labeled: “The Entire Bible Explained In One Facebook Post. This Guy Nails It.”

In case you haven’t seen this, it reads:

Holy Bible: the TL;DR version (too long; didnt read)

GENESIS

God: All right, you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

Satan: You should do the thing.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

God: What happened!?

Adam & Eve: We did the thing.

God: Guys

THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.

People: We won’t do the things.

God: Good.

People: We did the things.

God: Guys

THE GOSPELS

Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don’t do the things anymore.

Healed people: Okay! Thank you!

Other people: We’ve never seen him do the things, but he probably does the things when no one is looking.

Jesus: I have never done the things.

Other people: We’re going to put you on trial for doing the things.

Pilate: Did you do the things?

Jesus: No.

Pilate: He didn’t do the things.

Other people: Kill him anyway.

Pilate: Okay.

Jesus: Guys

PAUL’S LETTERS

People: We did the things.

Paul: Jesus still loves you, and because you love Him, you have to stop doing the things.

People: Okay.

PAUL’S LETTERS PART II

People: We did the things again.

Paul: Guys

REVELATION

John: When Jesus comes back, there will be no more people who do the things. In the meantime, stop doing the things.

I laughed, a lot, when I heard this–it is very clever.  But then I discovered that many folks sharing this post actually seem to think that it really is an apt, if humorous, summary of the Scriptures: for example, Right Wing News appreciatively and approvingly copied this post from Young Conservatives, saying “The Bible summed up in about 200 clever words? It has been done, in a hilarious but amazingly accurate description.”

Do we really believe that the Bible consists entirely–or even mostly–of rules?  Do we really believe that right relationship with God consists in following those rules: in “not doing the things,” whatever those things might be?  If so, then no wonder we find the actual Bible so bewildering. No wonder so many people want nothing to do with our churches or our Scriptures, if such a shallow view of life and of faith is all that we have to offer.

homer

By this reading, God must be either the exasperated sitcom Dad this humorous post portrays (“Guys!“)–and hence innocuous and irrelevant–or else a grim punisher of rule infractions, determined to impose the deserved penalty unless someone else takes the penalty for us (the only way that this reading can make sense of Jesus’ incarnation).

prison

Further, if righteousness is rule-following, then justice becomes retribution for rule-breaking.  Our societal obsession with retributive justice has resulted in one of the largest per capita rates of incarceration in the world.  This mass imprisonment, disproportionately aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable, bodes to become a crisis far outstripping any other threat to public health.

ferguson

As the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and its aftermath tragically demonstrates, retributive justice sets police forces against the communities that they are sworn to protect.  When, as is all too often the case, the divide between police and community is also a racial divide, this hostility and suspicion is heightened all the more.  For example, in my own city of Pittsburgh, “25 percent of city residents are black, but only 12 percent of the police force is, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. The police force is 85 percent white, even though whites make up only 65 percent of the city’s population.”  No wonder the National Bar Association, America’s “oldest and largest national network of predominantly African-American attorneys and judges,” is calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene following the failure of a Missouri grand jury to indict Officer  Darren Wilson.

hosea

Could it be that this is all that biblical faith has to offer: regulative righteousness and retributive justice?  I certainly don’t think so.   Within the Book of the Twelve, Hosea offers a very different perspective on God and on our relationship with God.  For this eighth-century Israelite prophet, the relationship between God and humanity is not imagined politically (king-subject) or economically (master-slave), but in homely, familial terms.  For Hosea, the primary metaphor is marriage.

marriage

God’s judgment and forgiveness are expressed through a symbolic act: the LORD commands Hosea to wed Gomer, a woman that Hosea knows will be unfaithful (Hosea 1:2-3; the Hebrew word zonah doesn’t necessarily mean “prostitute,” though it does designate a women unlikely to be bound by traditional sexual relationships). Their tortured marriage becomes a lived metaphor for God’s relationship to Israel. Just as Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea, so Israel has been unfaithful, turning from the Lord to worship other gods. Certainly, there are legitimate grounds for divorce. Yet God desires reconciliation.

desert

In a graphic, brutal depiction of judgment (Hosea 2:1-13), the LORD declares that because of Israel’s faithlessness,

I will make her like a desert,
        and turn her into a dry land,
        and make her die of thirst (Hosea 2:3).

But then, the message shifts. The image of the wilderness appears again—but this time, as the wilderness through which Israel wandered after the exodus from Egypt (Hosea 2:14-15). Hosea remembers the years in the wilderness as a honeymoon: a time when the love between Israel and the LORD was new, and Israel was totally devoted to God (compare Jer. 2:1-3).

From first to last, the language of intimacy permeates this passage. In Hosea 2:14, the Lord says of Israel,

Therefore, I will charm her,
        and bring her into the desert,
        and speak tenderly to her heart.

The declaration “you will call me, ‘My husband’ [Hebrew ishi], and no longer will you call me, ‘My lord’ [Hebrew ba’li]’” (Hosea 2:16) also speaks to the intimate character of the relationship that God desires.  Both ‘ishi and ba’li mean “my husband” in Hebrew. But the latter term refers to ownership and power, while the former “is the more intimate and personal term” (James Luther Mays, “Introduction and Footnotes to Hosea,” in The HarperCollins Study Bible, 1st edition; ed. Wayne Meeks [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993], 1333).

baal

Baal, of course, was also the name of the Canaanite fertility god, so to say that the LORD is not Baal means rejecting idolatry. However, to say that the LORD is, rather, ishi (“my husband”) means discovering a new relationship with God, grounded not in fear, but in love.

At my Mom and Dad’s fiftieth anniversary, it was my great honor and joy to celebrate with them a worship service renewing their marriage vows.  Hosea 2:16-20 reminds me of that day. Like a couple repeating their vows, the LORD and Israel begin anew:

I will take you for my wife forever;
    I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice,
        in devoted love, and in mercy.

 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness;
        and you will know the LORD.

Just as, in the ancient world, a husband paid to the bride’s family a bride price, so the LORD brings to this renewed relationship a gift: not of gold, but of righteousness, justice, devoted love, mercy and faithfulness (Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I; New International Bible Commentary [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996], 28-29). Israel, transformed, empowered and enabled by this gift, can at last be the LORD’s steadfast and committed spouse.

There are very good reasons that the scribes of ancient Israel chose to begin the Book of the Twelve not with the zealous and angry Amos, though he was likely the first writing prophet, but with Hosea.  The two have a great deal in common.  Like Amos, Hosea delivers a message of unstinting condemnation and judgment: because of its faithlessness and immorality, the northern kingdom is doomed (compare Hosea 4:1-19 and Amos 2:6-16).  But unlike his near contemporary, Hosea looks beyond that inevitable destruction, to hope and restoration.   Justice in founded in love.

aDVENT

In this Advent season, it is good to be reminded why God came to us as one of us: not in angry retribution or puzzled exasperation, but in love:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

God calls us into a relationship of love that sets our own hearts aflame with love for God and for one another.  That is what the Bible is about.


Nov
2014

Justice

On August  28, 1963, during the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered  one of the most famous speeches of modern times at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.  One of many high points in this human rights milestone was Dr. King’s powerful rebuttal of his detractors:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The majestic words that conclude this paragraph, engraved into the wall at the Civil Rights Memorial outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, are sometimes attributed to Dr. King.  But of course, he knew that he was quoting from the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

Amos powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Oddly, we often think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos–and indeed, for Jesus–there is no separating the two.

Recently Arnold Abbott, who is 90 years old, was arrested together with Pastor Dwayne Black of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, for feeding the homeless in defiance of a new ordinance in Fort Lauderdale (click here to sign a petition protesting this outrage).  Perhaps some feel that this act of civil disobedience was inappropriate: Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  But Amos would celebrate this act of defiance.  Indeed, Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
     They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7)

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons, Amos’ words have a renewed appropriateness.  Today, when the rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 

Oct
2014

Who ARE Those Guys?

In one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Butch and Sundance are being pursued by bounty hunters, led by renowned Native American tracker Sir Lord Baltimore, who follow them unerringly despite every trick the two outlaws attempt to throw them off their trail.  Again and again, Butch asks his partner, “Who are those guys?

Fans of the 1972 Dolphins (who would win the Super Bowl after a perfect season) would chant this line whenever their “No-Name Defense” (so called because of their comparative anonymity, given the team’s stellar offense) took the field: “Who ARE those guys?  Who ARE those guys?”

I have just finished a commentary on the last six books in the Old Testament: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  When I have taught Bible studies on these books, I have sometimes used this phrase as my title: “Who Are Those Guys?”

Sadly, for most Christian readers, this is a good question.  Not only those six books, but all twelve of the short prophetic books usually called the “minor” prophets, form one of the most ignored sections of Christian Scripture.  Very few readings from these books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, and some (Obadiah and Nahum) do not feature at all.  Little wonder that students in my course on the Prophets – seminarians, most of whom have grown up in the church – have often told me that they had never before that class read from, or heard a sermon preached on, the “Minor” Prophets, let alone studied them.

 

In his City of God (18:29), Augustine writes of  “the book of the twelve prophets, who are called the minor from the brevity of their writings, as compared with those who are called the greater [maiores] prophets because they published larger volumes.”  For Augustine, the distinction of the “Minor” Prophets from the “Major” ones was a matter of length only, not of significance.  Still, in our culture, “minor” commonly means less important, if not insignificant.  For that reason, I prefer the call these books by the name used in the early church and in the synagogue: the Book of the Twelve.

Next term, I am teaching a course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on the Book of the Twelve.  One of my students, Rebecca Dix, asked me on Facebook, “I have a challenge for you that I hope you’ll accept: Give me three (but not four!) reasons to take book of the twelve next term.”  The first reason I gave her was the one given above: the sad avoidance of these books in the church.

A second reason that the Twelve particularly deserve study is their outsized significance for Christian interpretation of Scripture.  The Gospel writers draw heavily upon Zechariah 9-14, particularly in their accounts of Jesus’ last days and Passion. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5; John 12:15; see Zech 9:9), Judas’ thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:15; 27:9-10; see Zech 11:12-13), Jesus’ prediction of the disciples’ betrayal (“I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions;” Matt 26:31//Mark 14:27; see Zech 13:7), and the piercing of Jesus’ side on the cross (John 19:37; Rev 1:7; see Zech 12:10) all draw on these chapters of Zechariah (cf. also Matt 9:36//Mark 6:34 which may allude to Zech 10:2).

Finally, the Twelve are particularly significant today, in our day of unparalleled income inequality, for their passionate witness to social justice. It was with good reason that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned to Amos 5:24 to express God’s dream for our world:

But let justice roll down like waters,

        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
With All-Saints Day only a few short days away, it is particularly fitting to reflect upon these Old Testament saints.  The great Jewish sage Jesus ben Sirach said of the Twelve,

May the bones of the twelve prophets

    sprout new life from their
    burial places,
    because they comforted Jacob
    and rescued them
    with hopeful confidence (Sirach 49:10).

For the next several posts, I will be reflecting on the Book of the Twelve.  I look forward to sharing with you what I am learning from these ancient witnesses to the faith.

AFTERWORD
The day before All-Saints Day–All-Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en–is also the birthday of my father, Bernard Earl Tuell, who turns 80 this weekend.  Dad was my first Bible teacher, and my best–everything I know about the Bible that matters I learned from my father.  God bless you, Daddy–Happy Birthday!
Oct
2014

(Mis)reading Prophecy

It was not that long ago that billboards like this one were sprouting all over the Midwest.  Radio preacher Harold Camping had announced that, based upon his interpretations of biblical prophecies contained particularly in Daniel and Revelation, judgment day would come on May 21, 2011, and the world would end that October.  Last time, we discussed the “Left Behind” phenomenon, and specifically, the film starring Nicholas Cage that had premiered on October 3–my birthday.  Evidently, there is something about October that elicits end-time fever.  Mr. Camping had earlier, in 1994, announced that that was the year the world would end.  I remember this clearly, because Armageddon was scheduled for October 3, 1994!

Mr. Camping was far from the first person who believed that he had “cracked the code” of biblical prophecy to unveil future history.  He will certainly not be the last.  We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for this particular way of misreading Scripture.

Let me be very blunt.  Mr. Camping’s predictions were not wrong because his sums were off–so that, while his dates were wrong, his reading of the prophets was still valid.  The problem, not only with this prediction, but with all those who claim to read a future history in the Bible is that the Bible does not present a future history.  Period.

The difference between the prophets of the Bible and modern charlatans who confidently claim to see the future is a difference not of degree, but of kind.  The prophets of Israel were not accurate fortune-tellers.  Rather, they were not fortune-tellers at all.  The prophets were the obedient messengers of God, faithfully passing on to us what God had shown to them.

For example, Jeremiah spoke clearly of Judah’s future: Jerusalem would fall the Babylon.  But he also delivered to his people God’s challenge:

No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly;  if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin,  only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time (Jer 7:5-7).

Although their present course would lead them into exile and destruction, the possibility of a different future lay before them, if they would only claim it (though Jeremiah doubted that they could or would do so; see Jer 13:23).  Rather than presenting an infallible vision of a fixed and unchangeable future, Jeremiah’s predictions are conditional, depending upon whether Jerusalem repents, or not.

This may come as a surprise.  Ask nine out of ten people on the street what a prophet does, and they will say “foretell the future.”  This seems to be the stance of some biblical texts as well.  Deuteronomy 18:22 certainly seems clear: “The prophet who speaks in the LORD’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about—that’s the word the LORD hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.”  Accurate prediction is the sure test of the true prophet.

The prophets themselves, however, seem untroubled by this assessment.  It is not at all difficult to find unfulfilled prophecies in Scripture. For example, the prophet Huldah, the woman Josiah consulted to confirm that the scroll of the Law found in the temple was indeed God’s word (2 Kgs 22:11-17), also promised that because of Josiah’s righteousness and humility, God “will gather you to your ancestors, and you will go to your grave in peace. You won’t experience the disaster I am about to bring on this place and its citizens” (2 Chr 34:28//2 Kgs 22:20).  But Josiah did not go down to his grave in peace!  In fact, he died tragically, in battle against Pharaoh Necho (2 Kgs 23:29-30; 2 Chr 35:20-27)–a fact which the authors of Israel’s history surely knew, and yet they let Huldah’s “false” prophecy stand in the text.

 

In Jonah 3:4, the prophet (after a fishy detour!) at last arrives at Nineveh to deliver the message the Lord has given him: “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  But it does not happen. The people (and animals; Jonah 3:7) of Nineveh repent in sackcloth, and God changes God’s mind (Jonah 3:10).

This is deeply disturbing to Jonah, but not surprising.  To explain his earlier flight from God’s presence, which had resulted in his sojourn in the fish’s belly, the prophet declares:

Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy (Jonah 4:2).

Jonah had not wanted to deliver the message of judgment against Nineveh he had been given because he knew that God was likely to show mercy,  leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions had not come true (as, remember, Deut 18:22 declares) —which was, of course, exactly what had happened. No wonder Jonah is angry!

We might consider as well the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mk 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20), which, taking them at face value, clearly did not come true, either.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen as a sign of God’s grace: “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

It is finally Jesus himself who puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32).  If Jesus does not know, brothers and sisters, then certainly we do not, and cannot, know.  The Bible is not tomorrow’s newspaper.  It is word of God for the people of God, yesterday, today, and forever.

Oct
2014

Leaving “Left Behind” Behind

Left bEHIND

Last Friday saw the premiere of “Left Behind,” a new cinematic adaptation of the best-selling series of novels by Jerry B. Jenkins,  based on the notes of  Tim LeHaye.  Over the weekend, the film opened in 1,825 theaters, and made $6.8 million–not bad, but surely not as good as Cloud Ten Pictures hoped.  Most of those who saw the film were Evangelical Christians who already embraced Jenkins and LeHaye’s grim vision of the future.  The mass audience that the film’s backers had hoped Nicholas Cage’s name would draw mostly stayed away.

It might be assumed that, as a Bible Guy, I would want to see this movie–after all, isn’t it based on the Bible?  But I have not seen it, and do not intend to, because Tim LeHaye’s nightmare vision of the future is not biblical.

Search any concordance for the term “Rapture;”  you will not find it.  Neither Matthew 24:40-41 nor 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the two passages commonly alleged to describe the Rapture, use the term.  In context, Matthew’s statement “One will be taken and the other left” more likely describes sudden death or arrest by Roman officials than a supernatural rescue. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks of Christ’s return, when both the resurrected dead and also “we who are living and still around” (note the present tense; Paul fully expected the end to come in his own lifetime) will meet the Lord as he descends to earth to rule.  This isn’t an escape plan–it’s a welcome back party.

The “Left Behind” franchise is based, not on Scripture, but on one particular reading of Scripture: the premillennial ideology of Darbyite Dispensationalism.  Let’s unpack that claim step by step.  Revelation 20:1-15 speaks of a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth–the millennium.  From early on, different Christians understood this in different ways.  While many, such as Tertullian, insisted that John referred to a literal thousand-year earthly reign of Jesus following his return to earth–hence, premillennial (Against Marcion, 3:25), others,  such as Origen, considered John’s visions a metaphor for Christ’s spiritual reign rather than a literal description of future history–hence, amillennial (De Principiis 2.11.2-7).  Augustine advocated a mediating position that for generations dominated Christian interpretation: he read the thousand years as a metaphorical depiction of the age of the church, after which God’s kingdom would be ushered in (City of God 20.7).

In contemporary American Christianity, the  literalism of Tertullian’s premillennial reading dominates.  According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.

So how did premillennialism come so thoroughly to win the day?  In the 1830s John Nelson Darby, an Irish preacher in the Plymouth Brethren church, resolved the Bible’s conflicts and contradictions by dividing history into distinct periods called “Dispensations.”  For example, the ritual laws and Sabbath laws of the Old Testament could be discounted as belonging to a previous dispensation, and hence no longer applying to Christians.  This chain of dispensations extended into the future as well, culminating in a period of wrathful divine judgment from which true Christians would be spared by a supernatural rescue operation: the “secret Rapture.”

In the late 17th century, long before Darby, Increase and Cotton Mather had preached that the faithful would be delivered before the day of God’s wrath.  But Darby placed that deliverance into a detailed description of future history, and transformed it into a miraculous, supernatural escape plan: the Rapture.

This idea was broadly disseminated by Cyrus Scofield through the detailed notes and charts in his extremely popular reference Bible, first published in 1909.

But it was Hal Lindsey‘s application of Darby’s ideas in the wake of the Six Day War that led to the cultural phenomenon described in the Pew study, as well as to the Left Behind franchise.  In his 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth, Lindsey gave premillennialism a distinctive, tantalizing twist.   With the re-establishment of the state of Israel, sealed by its “miraculous” victory in the Six-Day War, God’s “prophetic clock” had started ticking.  We are now in the last days.  The countdown to the Rapture has begun.

The damage done by this unbiblical ideology is far reaching.  It has caused us to forsake our God-given responsibility to care for the earth (Genesis 1:26-28) because we are leaving this world anyway.  It has caused us to reject Palestinian cries for justice, despite the Bible’s admonitions (Exod 22:21-24Lev 19:33-34Deut 10:18-19), because Israel must be re-established out to its ancient borders so that Jesus can come back.  It has made us ignore the plain teaching of Scripture that Christ’s church is called to be one (John 17:20-23) because the One World Church will be the tool of the Antichrist.  It is long past time for us to get back to the Bible, and to leave “Left Behind” behind.

Sep
2014

Violence in the Old Testament

Christian readers often complain that the Old Testament is full of violence and wrath–and for good reason.  After all, the Old Testament ends with a stern warning:

Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you,
        before the great and terrifying day of the Lord arrives.
Turn the hearts of the parents to the children
    and the hearts of the children to their parents.
            Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6 [in Hebrew, 3:23-24]).

The Hebrew word rendered “curse” in the Common English Bible (as in many other English translations) is kherem—a word connected elsewhere in Scripture, especially in the book of Joshua, with holy war.  An enemy “reserved for the LORD” (as kherem is elsewhere translated in CEB) becomes a kind of whole offering to God, with the entire population slaughtered with their animals, and typically, no spoil taken.

The description of the conquest of Palestine in Joshua is brutal and unsparing.  Two summary statements describe the conquest as total war, with no prisoner taken and no enemy surviving. First, in the south:

So Joshua struck at the whole land: the highlands, the arid southern plains, the lowlands, the slopes, and all their kings. He left no survivors. He wiped out everything that breathed as something reserved for God [the Hebrew is the verb form of kherem], exactly as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded (Josh 10:40).

Then the tribes move to the north to finish the job:

So Joshua took this whole land: the highlands, the whole arid southern plain, the whole land of Goshen, the lowlands, the desert plain, and both the highlands and the lowlands of Israel. He took land stretching from Mount Halak, which goes up toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad at the foot of Mount Hermon in the Lebanon Valley. He captured all their kings. He struck them down and killed them. Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time.  There wasn’t one city that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites who lived in Gibeon. They captured every single one in battle. Their stubborn resistance came from the Lord and led them to wage war against Israel. Israel was then able to wipe them out as something reserved for God, without showing them any mercy. This was exactly what the Lord had commanded Moses (Josh 11:16-20).

 

These passages are not rare exceptions.  The oldest images of God in Scripture are of God as a warrior.  The ancient Song of the Sea, the oldest poem in the Bible, opens

I will sing to the LORD, for an overflowing victory!
    Horse and rider he threw into the sea!
The LORD is my strength and my power;
    he has become my salvation.
This is my God, whom I will praise,
    the God of my ancestors, whom I will acclaim.

 The LORD is a warrior;
    the LORD is his name (Exod 15:1-3)

How can we read these passages as Scripture today?

Sadly, for some of us, superimposing this worldview onto our own is no problem.  Some Christians hold that it is the mission of  Christianity, not merely to win the world by proclaiming Christ’s gospel, but to subdue the world.  Rev. George Grant has written,

Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ-to have dominion in the civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.

But it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice.

It is dominion we are after. Not just influence.

It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time.

It is dominion we are after.

World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less.

If Jesus Christ is indeed Lord, as the Bible says, and if our commission is to bring the land into subjection to His Lordship, as the Bible says, then all our activities, all our witnessing, all our preaching, all our craftsmanship, all our stewardship, and all our political action will aim at nothing short of that sacred purpose.

Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land – of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ. It is to reinstitute the authority of God’s Word as supreme over all judgments, over all legislation, over all declarations, constitutions, and confederations (see the context here, Changing of the Guard, pp. 50-51).

This perspective, sometimes called Dominionism or Reconstructionism, is powerfully influential in some Evangelical circles.  Frank Schaeffer, son of noted Evangelical theologians and teachers Francis and Edith Schaeffer, was in a sense present at the birth of this movement–a role that he now deeply regrets.

What the Christian Reconstructionists do not recognize is that the biblical confessions of God as warrior, and the call to holy war in Joshua, do not come from or speak to people of power and influence, but rather address situations of vulnerability and threat, when survival itself was in question.  The archaeological record simply does not support the depiction in Joshua, of a powerful, triumphant Israel sweeping aside the people in the land through military conquest.

Indeed, the biblical record is itself conflicted on Joshua’s conquest.  In Joshua 13:1—just a chapter or two later than the bold declaration of Joshua’s total victory–we read, “Now Joshua had reached old age. The LORD said to him, “You have reached old age, but much of the land remains to be taken over.”  Similarly, the opening chapter of Judges depicts a far more complicated situation than that implied by the conquest model.  Particularly in Judges 1:19 and following, “successes” of the tribes are juxtaposed with “failures:”

Thus the Lord was with the tribe of Judah, and they took possession of the highlands. However, they didn’t drive out those who lived in the plain because they had iron chariots.

But the people of Benjamin didn’t drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem. So the Jebusites still live with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem today.

The tribe of Manasseh didn’t drive out the people in Beth-shean, Taanach, Dor, Ibleam, Megiddo, or any of their villages. The Canaanites were determined to live in that land.

The tribe of Zebulun didn’t drive out the people living in Kitron or Nahalol. These Canaanites lived with them but were forced to work for them. 

 The tribe of Asher didn’t drive out the people living in Acco, Sidon, Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, or Rehob. The people of Asher settled among the Canaanites in the land because they couldn’t drive them out.

The tribe of Naphtali didn’t drive out the people living in Beth-shemesh or Beth-anath but settled among the Canaanites in the land. The people living in Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath were forced to work for them.

The Amorites pushed the people of Dan back into the highlands because they wouldn’t allow them to come down to the plain.

In the end, the picture–supported by the archaeological evidence–is of tribes and clans living in the hill country, unable to move into the valleys where the technologically and militarily superior Canaanites held sway.

In short: the promise of land is given to landless people.   The image of God as a warrior is upheld by a people living under the threat of war, holding on by their fingernails.  To read these passages uncritically in a context of wealth, security, and military adventurism is to misread them.

To return to kherem: even biblical passages that enforce this idea are not always clear as to what the ban means.  For example, Deuteronomy 7:1-5 orders concerning the inhabitants of the land, “you must strike them down, placing them under the ban” (Deut 7:2).  Yet this same passage forbids intermarriage with these peoples (7:3)—difficult to understand, if the intent of the text is genocide.

The early Christian teacher Origen taught an allegorical reading of kherem as depicting the believer’s spiritual struggle with sin: “within us are the Canaanites; within us are the Perizzites; here [within] are the Jebusites” (Homilies on Joshua, 340.

My friend and colleague Jerome F.D. Creach argues that Origen’s reading seems also the best way to understand the use of kherem in biblical passages such as Deuteronomy 7: what had once been a “reprehensible practice. . . close to ‘ethnic cleansing,’ was transformed into a metaphor of spiritual purity” (Jerome Creach, Violence in Scripture; Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013], 108).

Something similar happens in Quran with the Arabic word jihad.  The bloodthirsty claims of ISIS and Boko Haram to the contrary, most of the world’s Muslims would echo Origen’s understanding of kherem in their reading of jihad.  Holy war is not about violence to others: it is about victory over the violence and hatred within.  

 

Jewish Bible scholar Ehud ben Zvi notes that in Jewish liturgy, when Malachi is read, 3:23 (4:5 in Christian Bibles) is repeated at the end of the book, “so as to conclude the public reading on a strong, hopeful note, rather than the threat of the final phrase” (Ehud ben Zvi, “Introduction and Footnotes to Malachi,” in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler [New York: Oxford University, 2004], 1274).  I am persuaded that this reading is consonant with the intention of the book of Malachi, which earlier understands the fires of God’s judgment not as destructive, but as purifying and renewing (see Malachi 3:1-3).

As I noted in an earlier blog, this idea finds expression in surprising places.  So, in Zechariah 14:16-19 the nations that had seemed to be utterly destroyed somehow turn up in the world to come as guests at the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem.  Similarly in the book of Revelation, even after the last judgment sees all the enemies of God’s people (including Death and the Grave) “thrown into the fiery lake” (Revelation 20:11-15), John can still somehow say of the New Jerusalem,

 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.  They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it (Revelation 21:24-26).

 

God’s ultimate purpose is not destruction, but transformation; not violence, but reconciliation; not curse, but blessing.

 

 

Sep
2014

Spare the Rod. . .

 The quote above was tweeted by Adrian Peterson, running back for the Minnesota Vikings, after a warrant was issued Friday for his arrest on charges of child abuse.  Mr. Peterson is alluding to Isaiah 54:17 in the King James Version:

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD.

According to an article in the New York Times, Mr. Peterson said that he had given his four-year-old son a “whooping” for pushing another child, using for the purpose a stick cut from a tree.  His attorney Rusty Hardin defended his client: “Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son. . . Adrian has never hidden from what happened.”  According to Mr. Hardin, Mr. Peterson was disciplining his child the way that he himself had been disciplined growing up in East Texas.

There has been no trial as yet, and Mr. Peterson is free on bond.  But since Mr. Peterson is a highly public figure–in the view of many, one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game–and in view of the indefinite suspension given by the NFL to Ray Rice for domestic violence, much has already been said, and written, about the case.

Given the biblical allusion he tweeted, I am certain that Mr. Peterson regards his use of corporal punishment to be consistent with Christian practice.  Many supporters of Mr. Peterson will cite the “biblical” teaching, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”–although in truth those words do not come from the Bible, but from a mock-heroic epic poem written in the late seventeenth century by Samuel Butler, called “Hudibras.”  Mr. Butler may have been thinking as he wrote of Proverbs 13:24:

Those who withhold the rod [the KJV reads "He that spareth his rod"] hate their children,
        but the one who loves them applies discipline.

In the ancient world, children had no rights or legal protection (something to consider when we read Jesus’ admonition for us to become like children).  Many passages about childrearing in Scripture urge stern disciplinary measures, even to the point of capital punishment for rebellious children (Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-21).   But they are countered by other passages, urging moderation.  Proverbs 19:18 reads, “Discipline your children while there is hope, but don’t plan to kill them”!  The household code in Colossians 4:18–5:1 cautions, “Parents, don’t provoke your children in a way that ends up discouraging them” (Col 3:21).  It is intriguing that earlier in the chapter from Isaiah that Mr. Peterson tweeted, suggesting that he was relying upon God to defend him, we read, “All your children will be disciples of the LORD—I will make peace abound for your children” (Isa 54:13).

As a nation,we are divided on the subject of corporal punishment in schools.  On the map above, the 19 states in red still allow this practice; the others do not.  In the home, parents too are divided on whether, when, or how often spanking should be administered to young children.  But if, as the Times and other news outlets report, the discipline Mr. Peterson exacted on his four year old son left “cuts and bruises in several areas of the boy’s body, including his back, ankles and legs,” that would surely be seen by any of us as extreme.

I am concerned when Christians read Scripture as a rule book, a manual for civil law, or a child rearing guide.  Such readings are of necessity selective, naive, and often involve uncritically applying the practices of ancient times to our own context.  I am also concerned when believers assume that God will protect them from the consequences of their own actions.  The passage cited in Mr. Peterson’s tweet is a promise to Israel in exile that its people will be brought home, and an assurance to ruined, abandoned Zion that it will be rebuilt and repopulated.  It also makes clear that this promise of restoration is joined to a call to live rightly and justly:

You will be firmly founded in righteousness.
    You will stay far from oppression because you won’t fear,
    far from terror because it won’t come near you (Isa 54:14).

The Bible is often a violent book, reflecting the violence of its times.  But the God of Scripture consistently stands with the powerless against the powerful, and with the oppressed against the oppressor.  Jesus himself deliberately identified and associated with women and children, and far from claiming a position of power, said of himself, “the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people” (Mark 10:45).  We need to be very careful that we do not use Scripture to sanction or legitimate our own violence.

AFTERWORD

This past week, my dear friend, colleague, and Christian brother Dr. Johannes Swart died suddenly and unexpectedly while tossing a frisbee with his students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Please hold his family in your prayers, and pray as well for our school, as we wrestle with how to move on.  Janni, who fought for racial equality in his native South Africa, was a consistent voice among us for inclusion and peace.  We miss him.  At his memorial sevice, we sang a Zulu hymn from South Africa:  Siyahamba ekukhanyeni kwenkos’–“We are marching in the light of God.”  May light perpetual shine upon you, my brother!

Aug
2014

Does Learning Weaken Faith?

Not long ago, a friend shared with me this quote from Peter Cartwright, Methodist circuit rider and both friend and adversary to Abraham Lincoln:

Educated preachers remind me of lettuce growing under the shade of a peach-tree, they make me turn away sick and faint.  

Cartwright believed that education robbed a preacher’s faith and passion, leaving that preacher as weak and faded as wilted lettuce grown in the shade!

Peter Cartwright is not the only one to question the value of education for the life of faith.  In the popular film “God’s Not Dead,” an atheistic professor threatens to fail a godly young man because he will not deny God’s existence.  The two debate, and of course the student’s simple faith triumphs over his professor’s skeptical reason.  Still, the lesson is clear: school is a dangerous place for believers!

Perhaps when you went off to college or seminary, your well-meaning friends told you what mine told me: “Be careful that you don’t lose your faith in that place.”  But is it true that education threatens faith?  A new study by Philip Schwadel, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, found that for children of the 1920s up through the Baby Boom generation, those with a college education were more likely to abandon their religion than those without. But, Schwadel discovered,

. . . for the generation born in the 1960s, there’s no difference between those who did and those who did not go to college in their likelihood of religious affiliation. Now, for America’s middle-aged adults who were born in the 1970s, “those without a college education are the most likely to drop out.” 

Schwadel proposes that one reason for this shift may be that today’s campuses offer “a lot of room and opportunity for religious connection.”  Indeed, many of my seminary students came to Christ in college.

I believe that study is not a threat to faith, but a biblical imperative. Scripture does not call us to mindless obedience!  The prophets, poets, and sages of ancient Israel wrestled with God, challenging God’s justice and struggling to understand how ancient tradition fit with their contemporary experience.  

For example, in Habakkuk 3, the prophet recites an ancient poem of God the Divine Warrior triumphant over his enemies.  But this poem only underlines for Habakkuk the disconnect between the traditional language of his faith, which affirms God’s victory, and his own experience of Babylonian oppression (Hab 3:16; compare Ps 3:7 and Jer 11:20). 

Significantly, Habakkuk does not succumb to despair.  He resolves to worship God despite his questions:

Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
            and there’s no produce on the vine;
        though the olive crop withers,
            and the fields don’t provide food;
        though the sheep is cut off from the pen,
            and there is no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
        I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance (Hab 3:17-18).

Habakkuk found God, not in the certitude of “simple faith,” but in the midst of questioning and doubt.  So, I am persuaded, will we all.