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.

 

Aug
2014

Does the Bible Contradict Itself? Part Two.

When I was reflecting on what title to give to these posts, I initially thought about calling them, “Can the Bible Contradict Itself?”  Certainly, many Christians would say, “no.”  If the Bible is God’s Word, then surely it must be true, and if it is true, then it must also be perfectly consistent, without flaw or error.

The problem with this approach is that it compels us to read the Bible, not in a spirit of openness and discovery, but cautiously and circumspectly, ever alert for apparent contradictions which we must at all costs explain away.  So, for example, we must find a way to fold the creation story in Genesis 2 into Genesis 1, or to shoehorn the shepherds (mentioned only in Luke) and the wise men (mentioned only in Matthew) into one Christmas narrative.  The result may well be that we are no longer reading the Bible, but the web of rationalizations we have spun over the Bible. How can we be ready for the Holy Spirit to show us something we have never seen before if we already know the answers, and are only open to hearing what we already know to be true?

Early this year, scientists around the world watched through their telescopes as, in another galaxy, a star exploded in a supernova (the bright dot marked with the arrow in the photograph above).  Astronomers labelled this particular stellar explosion SN2014J. They had thought that they understood this process fairly well:

One expected result of this stellar explosion, their models predicted, should have been the production of X-rays: the same radiation that doctors use to examine our bones beneath our skin.  But when the telescope on NASA’s orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory was trained on SN2014J, it saw this:

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing!  They were wrong. But rather than trying to cover up this evidence, or explain it away, astronomers were thrilled and delighted by this opportunity to learn something new about the universe.  It is my hope and prayer that we can read the Bible with that same spirit of openness, excitement, and discovery.  God has something new to say to us in Scripture, this day and every day.

Last time, we began considering some of the alleged and actual contradictions in Scripture cited by Daniel G. Taylor at his website, bibviz.com. Following David O’Dell’s classification of those contradictions into three groups, we looked first at apparent contradictions that aren’t really contradictions at all, and second at contradictions concerning matters of fact such as names and places.  Most troubling, however, is David’s third group:

I know that verses often don’t stand alone very well; that we have to read a fair amount to get the context. But even then, I have a tough time comparing, for instance, Mat 26:51 with Mat 10:34 and Luke 12:51 and Luke 22:36. To sword or not to sword? There are similar verses regarding judging — do I judge or not judge?

When the Bible’s teaching regarding faith and morality seems conflicted, what are we to do?

Let’s look at the passages concerning judging first. Both Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37 warn that we should expect to be treated no differently than we treat others.  So, Luke says, “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

In both Matthew and Luke, this saying leads into a famous parable of Jesus:

Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye?  You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye (Matt 7:3-5).

The point, then, is not that we cannot exercise moral judgments–we must do this.  However, we ought not hold others to a standard that we are not willing or able to meet ourselves.  If we want to be treated mercifully (and anyone with any self -knowledge at all knows that we need this, desperately!), we must show mercy in our treatment of others.  With this insight, we can see that there is no conflict with other passages concerning the exercise of proper moral judgment.  There is, however, a stern warning against self-righteousness, which pumps us up while belittling and abusing others.

The sword sayings present a different problem.  Matthew 26:51-54Mark 14:47-49, and Luke 22:49-51  all describe one of the people with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane drawing a sword against those who came for Jesus, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave; John 18:10-11 says that the assailant was Peter, and that the slave’s name was Malchus. In all of these passages, Jesus opposes this violence.  Indeed, in Matthew 26:52, Jesus says, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Yet, in Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”  Luke’s version of this saying reads, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division“–apparently an interpretation of what “the sword” means in this context.  In both gospels, Jesus goes on to describe how families will be torn apart by his message, as some accept it and others vehemently reject it–as well as their own kin.  Luke’s interpretation seems correct, then: the sword in Matthew is a metaphor for the violence and opposition Jesus’ message will stir up, even within families.  Jesus is not calling for his followers to take up the sword against their opponents.

But then, there is Luke 22:35-37:

Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?” [see Luke 9:3]

They said, “Nothing.”

Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a wallet must take it, and likewise a bag. And those who don’t own a sword must sell their clothes and buy one.  I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in relation to me: And he was counted among criminals [Isaiah 53:12Indeed, what’s written about me is nearing completion.”

This saying, found only in Luke, conflicts with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere–as Jesus himself acknowledges.  The following verse does not make interpreting this passage any easier.  The disciples run a quick inventory, and tell Jesus that they have two swords.  Jesus replies, Hikanon esti: “It is enough.”  But what does that mean?  Is Jesus saying that two swords will be sufficient?  Or, as the CEB has it, is he calling an end to the discussion, indicating that the disciples have understood him too literally: “Enough of that!”  Either way, later in this chapter comes the encounter in the garden of Gethsemane: in Luke, the disciples ask, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” (Luke 22:49). When they do so, Jesus rebukes them (see the discussion above)–in fact, in Luke, Jesus heals the slave’s wounded ear (Luke 22:51).

What is going on here?  Could Luke 22:36 be a fragment of an old tradition remembering that Jesus did call for his followers to take up the sword against Rome?   Reza Aslan’s book Zealot makes this claim.  On the other hand, the reference to Isaiah 53:12 in this passage, where the Servant of the LORD is “numbered with rebels,” could lead us to Luke’s point: Jesus needs to be taken from among armed resisters in accordance with this Scripture–though their resistance is only a token, meant symbolically to fulfill the prophecy.  Or, it may be that the message about laying up food and money and buying weapons concerns the difficult days ahead, when the Jewish resistance to Rome will erupt into a disastrously failed rebellion.  In any case, whatever Luke 22:35-38 may mean, it is clear that Jesus opposes the use of the sword even here.

This raises a question for believers: can the use of the sword–that is, of military force–be justified? Paul, for one, legitimates the use of force by the state (Romans 13:4). Some in Christian tradition have upheld the idea of just war: that while war for conquest is always wrong, defensive war aimed at protecting the innocent is justified.  Recently, when Pope Francis was asked about military action (specifically, bombing) directed against the terrorists slaughtering Christians in Iraq, he said, “In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.”  The question “to sword or not to sword” is not an easy one.

The Bible is a big and complicated book–as it must be.  After all, life is complicated, and truth too is complex.  Those who ask, “Do you believe the Bible, or not?” deny this complexity: as though truth was always straightforward, either/or rather than both/and.

In an earlier blog, I argued that truth of Scripture is not propositional, but relational:

I propose that the Bible is a love letter from God–an invitation to relationship calling for our commitment, not a list of propositions requiring our assent.  This reading of Scripture has its problems, too–in particular, one might argue that if the Bible is not a rule book, then we have no basis for any rules: the only alternative is an “anything-goes” morality.  I do not accept that conclusion.  As we come into relationship with the God revealed in Scripture, we grow into God’s love, and desire more and more to live in accordance with that love: that is, to love what God loves, and as God loves.

The conflicts and contradictions in Scripture are not distractions to ignore, or problems to be explained away.  They are part and parcel of the Bible’s complex message.  They point us toward the  history of the many communities of faith that have, over generations, come into contact with God.  The meaning of Scripture is found when we too come into relationship with the living God.

AFTERWORD:

Thank you for your patience, and for your prayers.  My recuperation is coming along nicely!  From here on out, I will endeavor to keep up with you faithfully, ever week or every other week

Aug
2014

Does the Bible Contradict Itself?

In his splendid book The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep, Still Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), Dale Allison refers to “the omni-present allusions in Scripture” (p. 105).  The Bible indeed is a web of allusions; nearly every verse in Scripture is linked to other verses, whether explicitly through quotation and shared language (for example, Matthew 2:13-15 quotes Hosea 11:1), or implicitly through shared images and ideas (for example, the idea of the LORD as a shepherd in Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23; and Zechariah 10:1–11:3).  That complex interweaving is beautifully illustrated by the chart above, prepared by Chris Harrison, Assistant Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, and Lutheran pastor Christoph Roemhild. This colorful chart uses rainbow-colored arcs to link Bible passages that quote or allude to ideas and images in other texts to one another.

In his blog The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta refers to this chart, and particularly to a refinement of the chart by Andy Marlow focused on cross-references that demonstrate alleged contradictions within Scripture.  That chart has in turn been refined and made interactive by Daniel G. Taylor at his own site, bibviz.com.

It is at once apparent that this site is certainly not friendly toward the Bible, or even neutral: for instance, another chart on the site depicting “Scientific Absurdities and Historical Inaccuracies” in the Bible seems ignorant of poetry and metaphor, insisting on a literal reading of every passage.  Still, this chart provides a quick and dirty way to discover that the Bible is not a monolith, perfectly consistent and all of a piece.  Anyone with time and an open mind can quickly discover that the Bible does indeed contradict itself.  The question is, what does this mean for people of faith?

My friend Dr. J. David O’Dell of Glenville State College in West Virginia, organic chemist and folk musician extraordinaire, directed me to this site and to this topic.  He wrote:

Been doing some pondering, thanks to a new web site that makes it easy to compare parts of the Bible and observe contradictory verses. After looking at a few, I can put them into three categories:
 
1. Contradictions that arise from verses that are written in a style that I have a difficult time understanding, so I can’t really tell if they’re contradictory or not.
To be sure, one problem with this site is its reliance on The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which in turn bases its notes on the King James Bible of 1611–a beautiful, but obviously dated English translation–rather than on a more recent translation, or better still, on the original languages.  This results in the identification of some contradictions that actually do not exist.
For example, Judges 1:19 (“And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron”) is said to conflict with Genesis 18:14 (“Is any thing too hard for the LORD?”).  However, a careful reading of the Judges passage in context makes plain that it is the tribe of Judah that was successful in supplanting the people in the hill country, but unable to displace the Canaanite chariot lords in the valleys–not the LORD (as the CEB translation makes clear).
David’s second category of contradictions listed at the bibviz site is more straightforward:
 
2. Contradictions of simple facts, such as whether Moses received the commandments at Sinai or Horeb. 
Once more, this is actually not a contradiction, strictly speaking.  Horeb and Sinai are two different names for the same place: the mountain of God, where Moses was given God’s law.  However, the use of two names for one mountain does indicate one source of contradictions in Scripture.  Rather than a single work by a single author, the Bible is a series of conversations, over millennia, with generation talking to generation about their encounters with God.  In the collected conversations that make up this complex work, contradictions and tensions  provide clues to identify particular voices or traditions.  The names “Horeb” and “Sinai” provide one such clue.
“Horeb” does not appear at all in the New Testament.  It is found 17 times in the Hebrew Bible, in an intriguing distribution.  By far the majority of references (nine) come from Deuteronomy, a book couched as Moses’ last words to the people before their entry into the land, which emphasizes Moses over Aaron, and the priestly calling of “the whole tribe of Levi” over the claims of Aaron’s line (see Deut 18:1).  Another two come from the history built on Deuteronomy’s idea of covenant in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (1 Kgs 8:9 [quoted in 2 Chronicles 5:10] and 19:8).  The remaining five references also seem related, either to Deuteronomy, or to the northern Levitical perspective Deuteronomy represents.  So, Psalm 106 (see Ps 106:19 for Horeb) is a retelling of the Exodus story very similar to Deuteronomy 1–4, while Malachi (see Mal 4:4) emphasizes Levitical priesthood (see Mal 2:4-9).  The final three are Exodus traditions likely associated with the north, also emphasizing Moses over Aaron (see Exod 3:1; 17:6; 33:6).  The “Horeb” traditions, in short, seem to reflect northern Levitical ideas of Israel and God.
Sinai, of course, is the dominant term for the mountain where Moses received the Law.  It appears 40 times in Christian Scripture, including four references in the New Testament (Acts 7:30, 38Galatians 4:24-25). In the Old Testament, Sinai is mentioned 30 times in Exodus (13 times), Leviticus (five times) and Numbers (12 times), all in material associated with old southern priestly traditions, emphasizing Aaron–a different tradition from that reflected in Deuteronomy and its related texts.  The references to Sinai in Deuteronomy 33:2, 16 and Judges 5:5 are the exceptions that prove the rule: both Deuteronomy 33 (Moses’ final blessing on the tribes) and Judges 5 (the Song of Deborah, one of the oldest poems in Scripture) are ancient poems celebrating the LORD as the Divine Warrior that have been incorporated into the books in which they appear.

 

Similar observations could be made about other contradictions in Scripture.  From the two versions of the creation in Genesis 1:1–2:4a and 2:4b-25 and the two versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22 to the two Christmas stories in Matthew 1:18–2:12 and Luke 2:1-20, the Bible gives us, not a single perspective, but multiple perspectives on God and the world.  This should pose no problem for the believer who recognizes that Scripture is at one and the same time human word, reflecting the concrete historical circumstances that produced it, and Divine Word, pointing to the presence and will of God–although it is a serious obstacle for those committed to a view of Scripture as inerrant: that is, perfectly accurate on matters of history and science as well as matters of faith.  A more difficult problem, however, is posed by other contradictions, which do seem to pertain, not to history or memory, but to the fundamentals of faith (David’s third category).  We will turn to some of those next time.
 
Jul
2014

He Shall Command Peace

On Wednesday, June 18, I had ankle replacement surgery.  On Monday, July 14, the cast came off.  In between, I was largely immobile, spending most of my hours in a recliner with my right leg elevated above my heart.  Wendy, Sean and Anthony took extraordinarily good care of me.  Still, it was difficult–especially in the early days.

Soon after I returned home from the hospital, I awoke one morning and realized that my leg was itching inside the cast.  It was driving me crazy.  I twisted my leg inside the cast, got up, stomped around on the walker–and then I realized that I would be trapped in that cast for another three weeks.

I began to have trouble breathing, my heart was racing, I was disoriented–then, I thought, “I am having a panic attack.  This must be what a panic attack feels like.”  Ice packs on my face and forehead got my breathing and racing heart under control, and I calmed down, but only for a while.

I sat in my chair, trying to think, to pray, to read–trying desperately to think about something, anything, other than my leg.  To no avail.  Then I thought about my son Sean.  Sean has wrestled since childhood with Tourette Syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and attendant depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder.  Along the way, he has learned not only to cope with these conditions, but to thrive.  So, when Sean got home from work, I asked him if he could teach me how to fight my obsession with my leg’s discomfort.

Sean’s answer astonished me.  He said that he had learned that you can’t fight obsessive thoughts: “They just come.”  What you can do is rob those thoughts of the emotions and anxiety associated with them.  To do that, Sean taught me, you first relax your body and your mind.  Then, you let the forbidden thought come: you deliberately think about what you do not want to think about.  As you do so, you keep breathing slowly, you deliberately relax, and so replace the anxiety with calm.  Sean suggested that I think, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter!”

It worked.  That afternoon, when my leg itched, or when I thought about my leg itching or aching, I didn’t fight it.  I breathed slowly, in and out, praying the Jesus Prayer in time with my breathing: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  I thanked God for my healing.  I thought about the hundreds of others who had had this surgery, and had come through this period of recovery just fine.  I told myself, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter.”  And I fell asleep–the most restful sleep I had had since coming home from the hospital.

Over the next few days, I continued to practice my prayer and meditation, and bit by bit, my leg stopped bothering me.  It didn’t become magically more comfortable, or less prone to itching, but I stopped worrying about it.  I “won” when I stopped trying to win–when I stopped fighting.

Since I tend to think biblically–in terms of texts and images from Scripture–this extraordinary experience got me to thinking about martial metaphors in Scripture.  Working as I have been recently with the so-called “Minor” Prophets (a far better designation, used by Jewish readers and early Christians, is the Book of the Twelve), I thought of the poems celebrating God as Divine Warrior in  Nahum 1:2-11, Habakkuk 3:1-19, and particularly Zechariah 9:13-17.  Such images are very old, and very common in Scripture.  It is little wonder, perhaps, that our default is to think in terms of combat.  Resistance to any evil becomes a war: the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror.  As theologian Walter Wink observed, “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world.”

Yet there are other texts in Scripture, which call the martial metaphor into question.  One is Zechariah 9:9-12, the only reading from Zechariah in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Zechariah 9:9 is quoted in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, in their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and may be assumed in Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-40 as well (both use the word polon, “colt,” found in the LXX of Zech 9:9):

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
        Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
        He is righteous and victorious.
        He is humble and riding on an ass,
            on a colt, the offspring of a donkey (Zech 9:9).

The Hebrew words translated “righteous and victorious” are tsaddiq wenosha’.  The first term means “righteous,” perhaps defending “the royal legitimacy of the king” (see Carol and Eric Meyers, Zechariah 9-14; Anchor Bible 25C [Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1993], 127), though it may also refer to his morality (the Aramaic translation, or Targum, has zaqay: “innocent”).  The second means literally “one who is saved,”  though most English translations (including the CEB) follow the Greek LXX, which renders this as sozon, meaning “one who saves.”  Carol and Eric Meyers, however, stay with the plain sense of the Hebrew: God, they say, is the one who “is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127).  This is a very different idea of kingship, grounded not in the king’s victories in battle, but in God’s own action (compare Zech 4:6).

The distinctions between this king and other, previous kings continue to be drawn as this passage continues.  Although the humble mount in Zechariah 9:9 derives from a long tradition in the ancient Middle East of kingly processions where the king rode an ass (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129), this passage surely catches the point of that tradition: by riding an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility, and declares that he comes in peace.

Yet this time, the prophet declares, this is no pretense: this king truly is humble, and not only comes in peace, but comes to bring peace:

 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
        and from the river to the ends of the earth (9:10).

Another surprising passage is Zechariah 14:13-19, which at first seems to be yet another depiction of God as warrior, and of God’s victory as accomplished through violent struggle. In the last day, this vision declares, Jerusalem’s people will plunder those who had come to plunder them (a common biblical theme; see Exod 12:33-36; Ezek 39:9-10; 2 Chr 20:25).  So that the enemy will never again be able to mount an attack on Jerusalem, a plague will strike “the horses, mules, camels, donkeys, and any cattle in those camps” (Zech 14:15), destroying their military capability entirely.

Yet despite the sweeping devastation of plague and war, the enemies of Jerusalem are not utterly destroyed: “All those left from all the nations who attacked Jerusalem will go up annually to pay homage to the king, the Lord of heavenly forces, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths” (Zech 14:16).

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 lake of fire (Rev 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” (Rev 21:24-26).  God’s ultimate purpose is not destruction after all, but transformation and renewal.

In Zechariah 14:6, the nations do not necessarily come to Jerusalem willingly—their participation, and particularly the participation of Egypt (Zech 14:18-19; for Egypt as a symbol of foreign oppression, see Hos 11:5; Zech 10:10-11), is coerced by the threat of plague!  Still come they do, every year, at Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.

This autumn pilgrim feast, the most important of the festivals according to many biblical traditions (for example, 1 Kgs 8:2; Isa 30:29; Ezek 45:25; Neh 8:14; John 7:2, which refer the Sukkot as “the festival”), is an appropriate time for the nations to observe fealty to the Lord, as it is also the time set for the reading and remembrance of the Law of Moses (Deut 31:10-11; Neh 8:13-18).  The nations join the faithful of Israel in proclaiming fealty to the Lord, and faithfulness to God’s commandments.

Reading these passages, I find myself thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s response to a fiery old woman, who took issue with him for speaking of Southerners as people in error, rather than enemies to be destroyed: “Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Without doubt, the imagery of warfare and struggle is part of the biblical witness.  But Scripture also, in many places, subverts that imagery, transforming it unexpectedly into imagery of peace.  What would happen if we listened to those texts, rather than focusing on the others?  How might that change the way we confront our struggles, whether internal, interpersonal, or international?  What might happen if we stopped fighting, let our anger, fear, and anxiety go, and opened ourselves to God’s peace?

AFTERWORD:

Thank you for your thoughts and prayers!  I am well on the way to wholeness, but I appreciate your continued prayers as I move into the next phase of my recovery.

Jun
2014

Biblical Disobedience, and Hezekiah’s Passover

At this year’s session of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, I was honored to be asked to co-teach a lay academy class with Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor whose credentials were revoked by the Eastern PA Conference after he performed a wedding for his son, who had married another man.

As I wrestled and prayed over what to do for this class, I thought about all the conversation going on in my church about obedience: on the one side, obedience to the “clear teaching” of Scripture and tradition regarding marriage and obedience to the United Methodist Discipline (a topic on which I have blogged before (go here and read the succeeding blogs to here), on the other the call to a “biblical obedience” higher than church law.  In the end, I decided to talk about biblical disobedience: passages of Scripture where laws were broken in service to the Spirit of God and “the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith.”  As part of that study, we worked with one of my favorite stories from one of my favorite, frequently ignored, biblical books, 1 and 2 Chronicles.

This week, I am sharing with you part of my commentary on this book, dealing with Hezekiah’s Passover (2 Chronicles 30:15-22).  I hope that you will see the relevance of this ancient story to our contemporary context.  The Bible quotes are from the NRSV, but I have provided links to the Common English version for comparison. The portion begins with the response to a letter from King Hezekiah of Judah, inviting refugees from Israel, who had escaped the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria (722 B.C.), to come to Jerusalem for Passover.

“Sadly, Hezekiah’s invitation is rejected by many in the north, who laugh at and scorn his messengers (2 Chr 30:10).  The reader may be reminded of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14; compare Lk 14:15-20), where the messengers are also scorned and ill-treated.  However, as in Jesus’ parable, the failure of those invited to respond does not mean that feast is not held, or that it is a failure.  Some, “from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun,” do humble themselves and come to the feast (on the importance of humbling oneself, see the discussion on 2 Chr 7:14, above).  In Judah, meanwhile, the response is once more overwhelming.  The people respond with “one heart:” that is, in unity, dedication, and singleness of purpose (2 Chr 30:12; see 1 Chr 12:38, where those who come to make David king are likewise said to be of “one heart”).  In the end, as had been anticipated, it is “a very large assembly” that gathers in Jerusalem for the feast (2 Chr 30:13).

. . . With the city as well as the temple cleansed, the festival begins on time, on the fourteenth day of the second month (see Num 9:9-11).  The priests and Levites, shamed by their failure to be prepared in the first month as well as by the example of the laity, have sanctified themselves in  sufficient numbers, and stand ready to serve (2 Chr 30:15).  They conduct themselves “according to the law of Moses the man of God” (2 Chr 30:16); as elsewhere in Chronicles, Scripture provides direction for right worship.

It is fortunate that the priests and Levites are ready, for a great number of those attending are ritually unclean, and so cannot kill their own sacrifices; the Levites must do this for them (2 Chr 30:17; for the killing of the sacrifice by Levites, see also Ezr 6:20; Ezek 44:11).  Nothing is said of the reasons for their defilement; however, since many of those said to be defiled come from the north (2 Chr 30:18), we may find here competing ideas about what constitutes ritual purity, or about the requirements for the observance of Passover.  From the Chronicler’s perspective, however, this means that “they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, in violation of God’s word in Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5).

But rather than barring these persons from participation, Hezekiah prays for them: “The good LORD pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the LORD the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” (2 Chr 30:18-19).  The Lord hears the king’s prayer, and the community is healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Hezekiah’s prayer, and the Lord’s favorable response, strike a blow against rigid legalism.  Clearly, it is more important to set one’s heart to seek God than it is to be in a state of scrupulous ritual purity.  Similarly, Micah asks, “[W]hat does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).

In his teaching, Jesus as well placed “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” above ritual law (Matt 23:23).  So, for Jesus, meeting human need by healing on the sabbath was more important than strict adherence to the regulations of the rabbis (so, for example, Mk 3:1-6).

Particularly instructive in this regard is Paul’s treatment of the question of eating food offered to idols, an issue which divided the early church.  According to Acts 15:20, abstaining “from things polluted by idols” was part of that bare minimum of Jewish law which all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, were bound to follow.  Similarly, the John of Revelation held that those who ate food sacrificed to idols separated themselves from Christ (Rev 2:14, 20).  Other Christians, however, reasoned that since there was only one true God, the idols were mere statues; food sacrificed to them was no different than any other kind of food (see 1 Cor 8:1-6).  Paul refused to settle the matter legalistically, either way.  He argued that the food itself was not the issue; what really mattered was sensitivity to one another in the body of Christ.  If the faith of “weaker” Christians is threatened when they see other believers eating food sacrificed to idols, then the “stronger” Christians need to abstain (1 Cor 8:7-13).

Today, the church is divided by other questions and controversies.  Yet, we still are tempted to appeal to legalism, whether in our reading of Scripture or in our application of community standards, to resolve our differences–even though such an appeal rarely resolves anything.  We need to remember that Scripture itself rejects this narrow, rigid standard.  How much better, like Hezekiah, to trust in God’s grace to cover our lack of scrupulosity, and to recall that devotion to the Lord is our first, and highest, calling.”

AFTERWORD

This will be my last blog for awhile, as I am going into the hospital for ankle replacement surgery.  Your prayers are greatly appreciated!  The recovery will be long, but after physical therapy, I should be up walking and leaping and praising God by the fall.  You can call me the bionic Bible Guy!

 

May
2014

Why the Bible Matters

This Thursday is Ascension Day–a day sadly not much celebrated in Protestant churches.  On this day, we remember when, as the followers of Jesus watched, Jesus was taken out of their sight, and into heaven (Luke 24:50-51).  The response of the community was significant:

They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy.  And they were continuously in the temple praising God (Luke 24:52-53).

Too often, we draw a line between worship and service, or evangelism and liturgy, or Bible study and social action.  Clearly, for the earliest church, formed by the experience of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, these were unthinkable distinctions.  If they were to be the community of proclamation and service, they needed also to be the community of Scripture, prayer and praise—as do we.

The lectionary readings for Ascension Day (Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11) bridge two books in our New Testament, Luke and Acts.  Although separated by the gospel of John in our Bibles, Luke and Acts belong together, as two parts of a single work. The two books have a similar literary style and share common themes, particularly a concern for women and the poor.  But as this week’s readings demonstrate, they are particularly joined by their emphasis upon the risen, victorious, ascended Christ, and his promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4).

The structure of Luke moves inexorably toward Jerusalem.  After a prologue describing Jesus’ birth and childhood (Luke 1:1—2:52), the gospel is arranged geographically, starting in Galilee (3:1—9:50), then moving to the way to Jerusalem (9:51—19:44, often called Luke’s “special section” as it contains a wealth of material unique to this gospel), and finally reaching its climax in Jerusalem itself (19:45—24:53).  This pattern is reversed in Acts, where Jerusalem becomes the center out from which the gospel is carried to the entire world; as Jesus tells his followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem throughout Luke’s gospel.  When he at last arrives at Jerusalem, we expect great things–but he is betrayed, captured, tried, condemned and crucified!  That, however, is by no means the end.  Jesus is raised from the dead.  Faithful women see his empty tomb, but the eleven reject their report as nonsense (Luke 24:1-12).

Even when Jesus at last appears to the eleven in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-43), they have trouble accepting and understanding what has happened. Jesus shows them the wounds of crucifixion, still visible (Luke 24:38-40), and even eats some broiled fish with them to prove that he is really, physically there (Luke 24:41-43).

In the Gospel reading for Ascension Day, Jesus then teaches his followers what his resurrection means:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures (Luke 24:44-45).  

This description, emphasizing the whole of Scripture, calls to mind the division of the Jewish Bible into Torah (the Law, or the books of Moses), Nebi’im (the Prophets), and Kethubim (the Writings, including the Psalms).  The Jewish canon—that is, the collection of books deemed sacred by the community—was fixed by the end of the first century, but long before that official closure, this threefold division of the canon was in place.

In his prologue to the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, a book of the Apocrypha dating to the early second century B.C. sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, ben Sirach’s grandson tells us of his grandfather’s work:

Numerous and wonderful things have been given to us through the Law, the Prophets, and the other writings that followed them.  For this reason, it is necessary to praise Israel for education and wisdom.  It is also necessary not only for those who read them to gain understanding  but also for those who love learning to be of service to strangers  when they speak and write.  Because of this, my grandfather, Jesus, who had devoted himself more and more to the reading of the Law,  the Prophets, and the other ancestral scrolls, and had gained enough experience with them, was himself led to compose a work dealing with education and wisdom. His goal was that lovers of learning who were committed to education and wisdom should gain much more by living according to the Law.

Throughout his own two-volume work, Luke uses Scripture in a very distinctive way.  Unlike Matthew, who quotes and cites biblical passages (for example, Matt 2:17-18), Luke alludes to texts, writing in the style of the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint.  For example, the famous Song of Mary, often called the Magnificat after its opening word in Latin (Luke 1:46-55; the new Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage) draws freely in style and imagery on the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10).  According to New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall, Luke’s “use of a [Septuagint] style must raise the question whether he thought of himself as writing a work of the same kind and thus continuing the ‘salvation history’ which he found in it” (I. Howard Marshall, “An Assessment of Recent Developments,” in It Is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture [ed. D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988], 9).

The degree to which Luke values Scripture is shown, not only in his Septuagintal style, but also in the content of his gospel.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found only in Luke, the rich man’s plea that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers is answered by Abraham, “They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them” (Luke 16:29).  When the rich man says that if someone came back from the dead, his brothers would be sure to listen, Abraham says, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

This proves an effective foreshadowing of Luke 24, where Jesus’ resurrection continually prompts doubt and disbelief (with the sterling exception of the women at the tomb!), until he dispels doubt by turning to the Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 44-45).  Of course, reading the Scriptures alone is not enough.  Only when Jesus himself has “interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27) and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45) does their meaning become powerful and apparent.  As the two friends in Emmaus say after their encounter with Jesus, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (Luke 24:32).

It is difficult to know precisely what Luke has in mind when he writes,

This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)

It seems unlikely that he is thinking of a specific text for each claim Jesus makes here about himself.  Rather it seems that the whole of Scripture extends into, and finds its fulfillment in, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  This is the point of Luke’s gospel, and the reason he writes as he does, in the style of the Septuagint, echoing its language and themes.  Luke believes that he is writing Scripture, and that Scripture bears witness to God in Christ Jesus. 

When I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, I met a Korean-born Christian named Peter Chang.  Peter, like me, had done his Ph. D. in Hebrew Bible at Union/PSCE in Richmond, and for a time he worked as an adjunct in our college Religious Studies department.  We talked often, about common friends at Union, about our discipline of biblical studies, about teaching, but also about faith.

Peter told me how he had become a Christian in South Korea.  He was a university student, he said.  At this time, he knew no Christians: his family was not Christian; he had no Christian friends.  Together with a group of other students, none of whom was Christian, Peter began a study of the gospel of Mark.  In the course of that study, they became convinced of the truth of what they were reading.  Unguided by missionaries or tracts, unproselytized by Protestants or Catholics, without an evangelist or an altar rail in sight, they gave their lives to the Jesus they met in the pages of Scripture.

I found Peter’s story amazing, but not surprising.  In my years of teaching Bible to undergraduates, many of whom had never opened a Bible before, I had many times seen similar evidence of the power of Scripture to change lives.  Many times, students have written a note on the last page of their final exams, telling me that they have started going to church, or that they have started listening to their pastor’s sermons.  One student wrote, “I think I know now what I need to do to be saved.”  Scripture has this power, not because the Bible is a magic book, but because in its pages, God comes to meet us.  Through the words of Scripture, we encounter the Word made flesh, our living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is why the Bible matters.

AFTERWORD:

The Bible Guy is thankful for Pope Francis’ powerful call for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet with him and pray for peace.  Let us join this faithful Christian leader in prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, and for justice for Palestinians.