Dec
2020

A Child He Was

My favorite poem for this glorious season is “A Child He Was,” by Giles Fletcher (1588-1623).  I have never found any other expression that so fully captures the wonder, awe, terror and glory of the incarnation of our Lord.  May God richly bless us all–Merry Christmas, friends!

Who can forget – never to be forgot –

         The time, that all the world in slumber lies,

When like the stars the singing angels shot

         To earth, and heaven awaked all his eyes,

To see another sun at midnight rise

         On earth? Was ever sight of pareil fame

         For God before, man like Himself did frame,

But God Himself now like a mortal was become.

A Child He was, and had not learnt to speak,

         That with His word the world before did make.

His mother’s arms Him bore, He was so weak,

         That with one hand the vaults of heaven could shake.

See how small room my infant Lord doth take

         Whom all the world is not enough to hold,

         Who of His years, as of His age hath told?

Never such age so young, never a child so old.

And yet but newly He was infanted,

         And yet already He was sought to die;

Yet scarcely born, already banishëd.

         Not able yet to go, and forced to fly:

But scarcely fled away, when by and by,

         The tyran’s sword with blood is all defiled,

         And Rachel, her sons, with fury wild,

Cries, “O thou cruel king!”, and “O my sweetest child!”

Egypt His nurse became, where Nilus springs,

         Who, straight to entertain the rising sun,

The hasty harvest in his bosom brings;

         But now for drought the fields were all undone,

And now with waters all is overrun:

         So fast the Cynthian mountains poured their snow,

         When once they felt the sun so near them flow,

That Nilus Egypt lost, and to sea did grow.

The angels carolled loud their song of peace;

         The cursed oracles were strucken dumb;

To see their Shepherd the poor shepherds press;

         To see their king the kingly sophies come;

And them to guide unto his Master’s home,

         A star comes dancing up the Orient,

         That springs for joy over the strawy tent,

Where gold to make their prince a crown, they all present.

Source: Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), pp. 273-4.

 

 

Dec
2020

Judas Maccabeus, Daniel–and the Grinch

Hanukkah 2020 - Stories, Traditions & Origins - HISTORYAs I write this, we are midway through the celebration of Hanukkah: a Jewish holiday eight nights long (this year, December 11-18).  Each night of this festival, observant Jews light another candle on their Hanukkah menorah (these have nine branches, as one holds the light from which the others are lit).  A minor festival in the Jewish religious year, the significance of Hanukkah as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to its December neighbor, the Christian celebration of Christmas.  This year, both winter holidays are butting up against the necessary restrictions posed by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing Jewish and Christian families to think differently about their celebrations.

The story back of Hanukkah is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in the Apocrypha, in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61.  Intriguingly, that story is also related, albeit cryptically, in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  This may surprise us: the Maccabean revolt, after all, was in the second century BCE, while Daniel is set nearly 400 years earlier, in the time of the Babylonian exile.  However, most scholars agree that in its final form, Daniel must actually have been written down in the mid-second century: in fact, between 167 and 164 BCE.  For example, the writer of Daniel doesn’t know the name of the Judean king under whom the first exile took place–it was Jehoiachin (see 2 Kgs 24:8-17; Ezekiel 1:1-3), not Jehoiakim, as Daniel 1:1-4 claims–and says that the city of Babylon was conquered, not by Cyrus the Persian (see 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 45:1-4), but by an otherwise unknown Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30–6:3). These statements couldn’t have been made by an eyewitness to the events.

On the other hand, Daniel accurately describes the events of the Greek period, which also set the stage for the events recalled at Hanukkah. In around 332 BCE, most of the known world was conquered by a young Macedonian called Alexander the Great. When Alexander died ten years later, leaving behind no heir, his generals divided the empire among them. For the Jews in Palestine, two of these rulers would prove especially significant.  To their south, Egypt was claimed by Ptolemy, while to their north, Seleucus ruled in Syria. Through the following generations, the descendants of these two Greek generals, called the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, squabbled for control of Palestine. As long as the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control, the Jews of Palestine were left alone. However, in 200 BCE Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid, conquered Palestine. At first, little changed. But when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in 175 BCE, he began to intervene drastically in Jewish life (1 Maccabees 1:20-64; Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39): perhaps as part of a campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion, perhaps in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury–or perhaps as an act of anti-Semitic hatred.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion | Reading Acts

Antiochus IV appointed a high priest of his own choosing in Jerusalem, and gave his support to those in the Jerusalem aristocracy who favored the new Greek ways. When pious Jews resisted, he used cruder methods. In 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus, chief god of the Greeks, was set up in the Jerusalem temple. On this altar was sacrificed an animal sacred to Zeus: the pig. This terrible sacrilege–the sacrifice of an unclean anmal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” see also Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14). Similar altars, and similar sacrifices, were ordered established throughout the land. It became illegal to circumcise male children, to observe the Sabbath or any of the other festivals, to teach or even to read the Law, and those who resisted were horrifically persecuted.  The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” (here adapted and set to music by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers) retells the story.

All of this is accurately (if symbolically) related in Daniel’s vision of the future (Dan 10:1–11:39). But at this point, historical events and the course of the vision no longer coincide. Daniel 11:40-43 predicts steadily greater victories for Antiochus–until suddenly “reports from the east and north will alarm him, and in a great rage he will set off to devastate and destroy many” (Dan 11:44). Then, preparing to return to Syria, Antiochus will camp in Palestine, where the archangel Michael will fall upon him with the heavenly armies and destroy him, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (Dan 12:1-3)–which, of course, did not happen.  Antiochus actually died in the course of his campaign against Persia, in 164 BCE. Earlier that same year, Jerusalem was liberated by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  Daniel does not describe these events, likely because the book was written before they happened: sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live ScienceSo, why the eight nights of Hanukkah, with their eight lights?  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, Judas Maccabeus summoned faithful priests to reconsecrate the temple and its altar, defiled by the idolatrous rites that had been performed there under Antiochus’ rule.  But, according to the tradition, they hit a snag.  Talmud says:

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest,  but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel  and thanksgiving [b. Shabbat 21b].

Image may contain: ‎text that says '‎חנוכה שמח ה ג נ HANUKKAH! HAPPY Hillel International‎'‎

The dreidel game traditionally played during Hanukkah becomes another way of recalling the miracle of the lamps:

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (gimel), ה‎ (hei), ש‎ (shin). These letters are translated in Yiddish to a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shtel arayn, “put in”). However, according to folk etymology, they represent the Hebrew phrase נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם‎ (nes gadól hayá sham, “a great miracle happened there”).

Michelangelo Buonarroti: The Prophet Daniel

While Hanukkah rightly celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over their Greek oppressors, the book of Daniel models a different path, of passive, peaceful  resistance.  Although written long after the Babylonian exile, Daniel 1 likely preserves authentic memories from the era of the Babylonian exile. We know from Babylonian records that Jewish exiles did become part of the imperial bureaucracy, so Daniel and his friends being singled out for special training as palace officials (Dan 1:3-7) may reflect a memory of Babylon. The king’s provision of “daily allotments from his own food and from the royal wine” (Dan 1:5) is reminiscent of 2 Kings 25:27-30, where Jehoiachin, after thirty-seven years as a prisoner, was released and permitted to live in the palace, receiving “a regular food allowance” from the king, “every day.” However, the term used for this portion in Daniel is pat-bag (found only here and in Dan 11:26), a loanword from the Persian patibaga, meaning “delicacy”—showing that while this passage may recall experiences in the Babylonian exile, it was written down much later.

Accepting the king’s pat-bag would have meant violating the Jewish dietary laws, since no attempt could have been made to slaughter animals, or to select and prepare dishes, in accordance with those strict requirements (see Lev 11:1-47; 17:1-16; compare Deut 12:20-27; 14:1-21). The palace master was unwilling to let his Jewish charges eat anything other than what the king had provided.  But Daniel persuaded their guard to agree to a contest. For ten days, Daniel and his friends would eat only fruits and vegetables (the Hebrew zero’im and zero’nim, found only in Dan 1:12, 16, apparently mean “seed-bearing plants”) and drink only water–a diet that involves no violation of kosher laws. At the end of that time, Daniel invited the guard to “compare our appearance to the appearance of the young men who eat the king’s food. Then deal with your servants according to what you see” (Dan 1:13).   Sure enough, Daniel and his friends thrived: “At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food” (Dan 1:15). The guard, therefore, was pleased to continue giving them vegetables and water. Without any violence, indeed with scarcely a disturbance, Daniel had won his first victory over his captors, contriving to live for his faith, rather than to die for it!

Book Of Daniel Art | Fine Art America

Perhaps the most famous story in this book is Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan 6:1-28), set in the reign of Darius–evidently the Persian Darius I (522-486 BCE), although according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Hist. 3.89-94), Darius divided his empire into twenty satrapies, not the 120 that the Aramaic text of Daniel 6:1 claims.  In form, this story is reminiscent of the book of Esther, also set in the Persian period (in Esther 1:1, Ahasuerus [Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE] is said to rule “from India to Cush—one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all;” note that the Greek text of Daniel 6:1 also counts 127 satrapies). In Esther as in Daniel, a good and just councilor (Mordecai in Esther, Daniel here) is victimized by jealous enemies in the court (Haman in Esther; in Daniel, all the other councilors). In both books, the Persian king is tricked into signing an irrevocable edict: in Esther, ordering the deaths of all the Jewish people; in Daniel, directing that “for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions” (Est 3:9-15; Dan 6:8, 12, 15).  We should note that “the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be annulled” (Dan 6:8, 12) is a bit of folklore, rather than a genuine feature of Persian law.  But while in Esther Ahasuerus’ irrevocable command is matched by a new law arming the Jews and empowering them to resist (Est 8:8-13), in Daniel Darius is forced to carry out his edict. Daniel, who had continued his practice of daily prayer in defiance of the law, is hurled into the lions’ den.  The story records how, after a sleepless night, King Darius breathlessly ran to the lions’ den, to learn how his friend had fared:

At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.  As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”  Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”  The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God (Dan 6:19-23).

No photo description available.

Today, the Asiatic lion is extinct, and lions are restricted to a few African regions.  But in the ancient times, these fierce predators ranged across the Near East, and were understandably feared and respected–even regarded as symbols of royalty in Israel (for example, Gen 49:9; 1 Kgs 10:18-20//2 Chron 9:17-19; Ezek 19:1-9) and Mesopotamia. Yet for all the vividness of Daniel’s story, we have no evidence from the Persian period of lions as a mode of execution. Daniel Smith-Christopher (“The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 91) proposes that the lions’ den serves as “a symbol of the exile itself,” and of God’s promise of deliverance to God’s people.

Mahatma Gandhi | Biography, Accomplishments, & Facts | Britannica

Mahatma Gandhi, who called Daniel “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” said specifically of the lion’s den story:

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha [nonviolent resistance; a term coined by Gandhi] in its purest form.

The book of Daniel models and affirms the passive, nonviolent resistance practiced by its own faithful community: a different way than the path of violent revolution followed by the Maccabean rebels.  Today, some Christians regard the COVID-19 restrictions on religious and social gatherings advised by medical professionals as an assault upon their freedom of worship, and call upon the church to resist, like Judas Maccabeus taking up the sword against what they see as an oppressive regime.  But I would argue that that model is fundamentally flawed.  People of faith are being inconvenienced by these necessary regulations, not persecuted.  We may not be able to gather in public, but nothing and no one is restricting our freedom to worship.  The faithful response in our day is not the militance of the Maccabees, but the peaceful acquiescence in pursuit of a higher goal modeled by Daniel.

Amazon.com: How The Grinch Stole Christmas! - Dr. Seuss: Appstore for AndroidSo–what about the Grinch?  What is this inspired invention of Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Suess) doing in the same blog as Judas Maccabeus and Daniel?  In a wonderful Twitter thread, Sandra Tayler sees in this now-classic Christmas story a model of and a lesson for holiday observance in this season of pandemic:

The entire genre of Christmas stories with the formula Protagonist Saves Christmas is doing us a disservice this pandemic year by teaching that the holiday is “saved” by massive efforts to restore the status quo Santa-Delivers-Presents and accompanying traditions. These stories say that Christmas can’t be Christmas w/o a specific set of events & trappings, that it will be ruined if there is any disruption to those events & trappings. This primes people to panic and feel huge loss if they can’t celebrate in the ways they are accustomed to.
 

This year, more than ever, we need the story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where all the trappings are stripped away and Christmas saves the Grinch. . . . Yes the Grinch story does end with the restoration of the traditions and trappings, but it didn’t have to. Christmas would have been fine even if the sled had gone off Mount Crumpit. That was the point. That’s WHY it saved the Grinch.

In the end, Tayler argues, it is far more true to the spirit of Christmas not to fight for our “right” to celebrate Christ’s birth in the way to which we are accustomed, but to submit to the straightened circumstances necessary to combat the spread of this virus.  She concludes:
All of our traditions, gatherings, decorations, etc are merely a frame for something larger than ourselves to arrive into. We can change the frame without harming the holiday. 

If Christmas is holy to you (as it is to me,) that holiness exists with or without the tinsel and trappings. Trust that no matter what form your holiday must take this year, the holiness will show up to fill the space you create.
Chanukkah sameach and a Merry Christmas to you and yours, friends–God bless us every one!
Dec
2020

Faith and Politics

US election 2020: Meeting Donald Trump's evangelical Christian voters - Reporters

Eric Metaxas, the author of acclaimed biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is regarded in many circles as an important Evangelical thinker and public intellectual.  That influence makes his reaction to the 2020 election all the more troubling.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Mr. Metaxas says that Donald Trump won re-election “in a landslide.”  He predicts that many will be imprisoned for the fraud resulting in Joe Biden’s apparent victory, calling the attempt to steal the election from Mr. Trump “the most horrible thing that ever happened in the history of our nation.” Thankfully, Mr. Metaxas declares, “Jesus is with us in this fight.”

More recently, Mr. Metaxas told Evangelical supporters of Mr. Trump that God is on Trump’s side, and their side.  To those who say that no evidence of election fraud has been presented, and that indeed numerous lawsuits in multiple states have failed to persuade any court that such evidence exists, Mr. Metaxas says,

It’s like somebody saying, “Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.” We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it.’

During a call with Mr. Trump broadcast on Mr. Metaxas’ television show,  he told the president, “I’d be happy to die in this fight.” . . . “This is a fight for everything. God is with us.”

It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that Mr. Metaxas and I differ strongly in our politics.  But these statements, coming from a man of considerable influence to many Evangelicals, are disturbing for reasons that have nothing to do with partisan politics.  Mr. Metaxas easily equates faith in Jesus with believing Mr. Trump’s unsupported claims of election fraud, and unambiguously declares that God is on his side.

 

This is nothing new, of course.  Sadly, the rhetoric of adversarial politics often seeks to enlist God on our side–whatever that side might be.  Allegedly, Abraham Lincoln, asked during the Civil War if he believed that God was on the Union’s side, answered, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

President Lincoln certainly expressed this wise reserve in his second inaugural address.  Looking back in sadness to the beginning of the Civil War, he wryly observed:

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

More troubling, however, is the way that Mr. Metaxas blithely equates faith in Christ with belief in a stolen election.  You believe in Jesus without evidence, he seems to say, because you know in your heart that Jesus is real–why then do you need evidence to believe this other thing you feel in your heart to be true?  This false equation not only belittles reason, it cheapens faith.

In C. S. Lewis’ famous Christian satire The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil, the senior devil Screwtape writes letters of advice to his nephew Wormwood, on how Wormwood can tempt his “patient” into hell.  Screwtape advises Wormwood to get his client thinking obsessively about politics–whether conservative or liberal (“Patriotism or Pacifism,” in Lewis’ World War II English context):

Let him begin by treating Patriotism or Pacifism as a part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part,  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “cause” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 7).

I fear that this is the fate to which Mr. Metaxas, who unambiguously identifies Mr. Trump’s re-election as God’s will and Christian faith with commitment to Mr. Trump’s political fortunes, has succumbed–and into which he may lead others under his influence.

 

Reflecting on Mr. Metaxas, I was reminded of the closing verses of Haggai (Haggai 2:20-23)–a cautionary tale about the dangers of identifying our faith too closely with any political figure or movement. In his final oracle, Haggai addresses the political leader of restored Judah, the governor Zerubbabel:

On that day, says the Lord of heavenly forces:
I will take you, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, my servant, says the Lord;
        I will make you like a signet ring
            because I have chosen you, says the Lord of heavenly forces  (Hag 2:23).

King Hezekiah in the Bible: Royal Seal of Hezekiah Comes to Light - Biblical Archaeology Society

The word translated “signet ring” in the CEB (Hebrew khotam) is not common in the Hebrew Bible. Still, the use of the term in Genesis 38:18 and 1 Kings 21:8, together with archaeological evidence (numerous clay document seals and jar handles bearing seal impressions have survived), demonstrate the importance and use of the signet.  The impression of a signet ring indicated that the document or item so sealed came from, belonged to, or bore the authority of the signet’s owner.

Particularly significant for understanding Haggai 2:20-23 is Jeremiah 22:24:

As surely as I live, declares the LORD, even if Coniah [also called “Jehoiachin”], King Jehoiakim’s son from Judah were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still remove you from there.

Haggai, like Jeremiah, is using royal imagery: to be the king is to represent divine authority; to be, as it were, God’s signet ring. For Jeremiah, the image demonstrates both God’s authority and the irrelevance of Jehoiachin, who was taken into exile in Babylon after surrendering Jerusalem to save it from siege (his sole kingly act; see 2 Kings 24:8-17).  Even if Jehoiachin had been God’s signet ring, Jeremiah says, God had removed him, just as one takes a ring from one’s finger.

Haggai’s choice of this image for Zerubbabel is tremendously significant, and potentially dangerous. Jehoiachin had at least been a king, for a little while. Zerubbabel was a descendant of David (see the Davidic lineage in 1 Chronicles 3:19), but he is explicitly called pekhah (“governor,” see Haggai 2:21): he is the governor of the Persian province of Judah, not the king of an independent kingdom. For Zerubbabel openly to claim the title “king” would be to rebel against Persian rule.

Haggai does not propose a rebellion. Instead, he is confident that God is at work in the tumultuous political events of his day to bring about Zerubbabel’s rise.

Speak to Judah’s governor Zerubbabel:
I am about to make the heavens and the earth quake.
        I will overthrow the thrones of the kingdoms;
            I will destroy the strength of the nations.
        I will overthrow chariot and rider;
            horses and riders will fall.
        Each one will fall by the sword of his companion.
On that day, says the Lord of heavenly forces:
I will take you, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, my servant, says the Lord;
        I will make you like a signet ring
            because I have chosen you, says the Lord of heavenly forces (Hag 2:21-23).

 

The CEB has “the thrones of kingdoms” in Haggai 2:22, following the Greek of the Septuagint.  The Hebrew, however, is kisse’ mamlakot, “the throne of kingdoms.”  The Aramaic of the Targum and the Latin Vulgate also have the singular “throne,” as does the NRSV.   It is easy to see why a Greek translator would have thought that the two terms should agree in number, but it is difficult to see how the opposite move could occur. The Hebrew has the original here: God is about “to overthrow the throne of kingdoms.”  The singular throne over multiple kingdoms must surely refer to imperial power: in context, to Persia.  Haggai was convinced that the rebellions of Egypt and Babylon against Darius I (522-486 BCE) would lead to the fall of Persia, to independence for Judah, and to kingship for Zerubbabel, who would then be revealed to all as the LORD’s signet ring.

But Haggai was wrong. Darius did not fall—thankfully, since according to Ezra it was largely through his intervention that the temple was at last rebuilt (see Ezra 5–6). Zerubbabel did not rise to kingship; instead, he faded into obscurity. This is but one of many examples, from across Scripture, of prophecies that did not come to pass: to name but a few, Huldah’s promise that Josiah would die in peace (2 Chr 34:28//2 Kgs 22:20; cf. 2 Kgs 23:29-30; 2 Chr 35:20-27), Ezekiel’s prediction that Tyre would fall to Nebuchadressar (26:1-14; cf. Ezek 29:17-21), Jonah’s declaration of Nineveh’s fall (Jonah 3:4; cf. 3:10), and the many New Testament predictions of the imminent end of the world (for example, Mark 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20). “Unfulfilled” prophecy is only a problem if we believe the prophets to be fortune-tellers. But instead, the Bible presents the prophets as God’s messengers, communicating what God has revealed as best they can. God remains free to act as God chooses, in response to God’s people (see Jonah 4:1-2, 11).   So we need not root Haggai from the canon because he misread his times!  But we can find, in his last mistaken oracle, a warning not to identify our faith too closely with any political figure.

 

This does not, by the way, mean that Christians should not be politically involved.  Lewis published The Screwtape Letters in book form in 1943, but it began as a wartime serial in the British newspaper The Guardian between May and November of 1941.  This was just after the Blitz, a terrible period during which England was under almost continual aerial attack from Nazi Germany.   Indeed, Wormwood’s “patient” is killed by a German bomb:

One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream. . . Did you mark how naturally–as if he’d been born for it–the earth-born vermin entered the new life? (The Screwtape Letters, letter 31).

Lewis warned his readers against their faith becoming just an aspect of their politics–“merely part of the ’cause.'”  However, he was well aware of the dangers posed by systemic, political evil, and of the responsibility owed by citizens to work for the common good.  Christian faith does not call us to quietism–indeed, loving what God loves will engage us positively and passionately with what God is doing in the world.  But our faith also reminds us that, together with all the saints who have gone before us, we are part of something larger than this or any other political season: the Church of Jesus Christ, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 2).

 

Nov
2020

The Lord is My Shepherd?

Greek orthodox icon of Christ the Good Shepherd – orthodoxmonasteryicons.com

This Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, marks the end of the Christian year; next Sunday, with Advent, a new year begins. The last day of the Christian year is called the Reign of Christ, or the feast of Christ the King. The Gospel reading for the day is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ famous parable of the last judgment, when the Son of Man judges the world:

All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:32).

We often think of the shepherd as a humble, comforting image, expressing nurture and care. But the metaphor of the king as shepherd was common in the ancient Near East and is very old, going back to the ancient Sumerian king lists. Hammurabi, founder of the first great Babylonian empire in the eighteenth century BCE, had written, “Hammurabi, the shepherd, called by Enlil am I; the one who makes affluence and plenty abound.” The title was used by the Assyrian kings as well: Adad-nirari III (810–723 BCE) is described as “(a king) whose shepherding they [i.e., the gods] made as agreeable to the people of Assyria as (is the smell of ) the Plant of Life,” and Esarhaddon (680–669 BCE) is called “the true shepherd, favorite of the gods.” The expression was still in use at the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire—both Nabopolassar (626–605 BCE) and Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 BCE) were called “shepherds.”

The Hebrew Bible amply attests to the use of the shepherd metaphor for Israel’s rulers (for example, 2 Sam 5:2; Jer 3:15; Ezek 34:1-10; Mic 5:1-5a; Zech 10:2-3). By analogy, the LORD as king of the universe is also called a shepherd (see Ps 23; Ezek 34:11-16), an idea that lies back of the New Testament image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John 10, as well as here in Matthew 25. But the specific source back of Matthew’s judgment scene is the lesson from the Hebrew Bible for Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.

This prophetic text from the Babylonian exile is reminiscent of the far better-known Psalm 23. Here as there, the LORD causes the flock to lie down in good pasture, beside streams of waters. But the mention of the settlements in the land (“inhabited places” in the CEB; 34:13) breaks up this pastoral imagery to remind the reader that this is about Israel after all, not about sheep: God will bring the exiles home, and repopulate desolated Judah.

Divided Kingdom, Exile and Return - Ascension Press Media

The last verse of this section begins as a summary of 34:11-16, reiterating God’s determination to seek out and care for the scattered sheep. But then, abruptly, the image shifts: “I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16). This statement, like the mention of settlements in 34:13, explodes the metaphor: it makes no sense for any shepherd to destroy the strong and healthy sheep!

No wonder the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Syriac, and the Vulgate all read “I will watch over” instead, assuming an original Hebrew ‘eshmor instead of ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”). The two words are nearly identical in Hebrew, where vowels are not written, and the consonants d and r look a great deal alike. It is easy to understand a scribe mistaking one for the other. The reading followed by the LXX certainly seems a better fit with the context of 34:11-16, which stresses God’s care for the flock, in striking contrast to the cruelty of the false shepherds: that is, Israel’s kings. Numerous commentators on Ezekiel (for example, Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 208; Daniel Block, Ezekiel 25—48, 287; Leslie Allen, Ezekiel 20—48, 157) therefore follow the LXX here.

On the other hand, not only the CEB, but also NIV, NRSV, and even the KJV all stay with the Hebrew Bible here, which reads ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”)– and they are right to do so. The next phrase in Ezekiel 34:16 makes the prophet’s meaning clear: “But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.” God’s justice was seen in 34:1-10 with the punishment of the false shepherds, Israel’s past kings. But while the shepherds had certainly been guilty, the sheep are not therefore innocent! Throughout this book, Ezekiel rejects the exilic community’s claim that they are innocent victims (see, for example, 18:1-4).

All Sheep Matter CARTOON | Etsy

In the next section, 34:17-24, God’s justice is visited on the sheep, just as it had been visited on the shepherds. Once more good theology trumps good animal husbandry, as God sides with the weak and injured over against the fat and strong (Christian readers may be reminded of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine unguarded in the fold to seek out the one lost lamb; Matt 18:10-14//Luke 15:3-7)! The startling introduction of this idea in 34:16 is in keeping with Ezekiel’s style elsewhere: this prophet loves to shock his audience.

God’s judgment upon the flock falls into two parts, the accusation (34:17-19, unaccountably left out of the lectionary reading), and the pronouncement of judgment (34:20-24). The accusation opens, “As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats” (34:17)–words that directly call to mind the judgment scene in Matthew 25 (compare 25:32).

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

In Matthew as in Ezekiel, the basis of the judgment is regard for the least (Matt 25:40, 45). So, in Ezekiel, the strong sheep are taken to task for selfishly and greedily trampling the pasture and muddying the water so that others cannot eat or drink (34:18-19). The point is expanded in 34:21: the strong are condemned for thrusting the weak aside.

Hurricane Iota Makes Landfall in Nicaragua

In our own day, the gap between rich and poor is wider than it has ever been, as the lion’s share of the world’s resources is claimed by a diminishing minority of its people. The trampling of our earth and fouling of our water, through irresponsible use of this world’s resources, now threatens the entire planet through climate change, even as it robs opportunity from the most vulnerable. Ezekiel plainly states God’s place in this: on the side of the poor, and on the side of the abused land. God declares, “I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey” (34:22). Perhaps, friends, before piously invoking Psalm 23, we should remember what kind of shepherd our LORD is, and what being faithful members of his flock may ask of us. The image may prove not so much comforting as challenging.

Oct
2020

For All the Saints

 

SPOOKY SEASON IS UPON US - MyLibraryCardWoreOut

I had never heard the expression “Spooky Season” until this segment from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight“–but apparently it is a thing, at least among television newscasters!  However, the Jack o’ lanterns and other holiday decorations in lawns and department store windows, the heaps of candy in grocery stores, and the perennial return of pumpkin-spice-EVERYTHING (I had pumpkin spice Cheerios for breakfast this morning!) all presage the approach of Halloween–after Christmas, the biggest commercial holiday of the year.

In the church, however, this season is leading us up to an important, although little celebrated or even recognized, day in the Christian year.  It is especially sad that United Methodists may let this day pass unheralded, as it was a particular favorite of John Wesley!  Joe Iovino writes:

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley calls it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he writes, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he calls it “a day that I peculiarly love.”

On All Saints Day we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. "All-Saints" 15th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Halloween  is called “Hallow E’en”  for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast day of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.

Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America Magazine

So, why do we celebrate All-Saint’s Day on November 1?  The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en;” called El Dia de Los Muertos [the Day of the Dead] in Spain), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic culture, Samhain was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) were set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms, that

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death.

Still, because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

In fact, in this year of pandemic, when conventional trick-or-treating has become dangerous, Hallowe’en has become a window of opportunity for our churches to minister to our neighbors.  Many churches had already begun the practice of “trunk or treat” in their parking lots.  This year, when little children cannot come to the doors of our homes to receive our offerings of sweets, perhaps our churches can fill that role, sweetly sharing the love of Jesus and the promise of his resurrection!

AFTERWORD:

This is my favorite All-Saint’s Day hymn, composed by William Walsham How, Bishop of Wakefield, and usually sung to a stirring tune by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

October 31 is also the birthday of the best saint I know: my Dad, Bernard Tuell.  Happy birthday, Daddy!

Oct
2020

Happy Birthday to Me!

Every year on or around my birthday, October 3, I try to find as many opportunities as I can to share this bit of wonderful nonsense from Theodore Geisel–better known as Dr. Suess.  Under the silliness, it carries a deep affirmation of self-worth, which reminds me of the fundamental philosophy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s best-known alumnus, Mr. Fred Rogers.  Every day on his television program, Mr. Rogers told every little child watching, “You are special, just for being you.”

faithful-in-christ | Lamentations, Inspirational scripture, New every  morning

Both Mr. Rogers, and Dr. Suess’ birthday poem, remind me, curiously, of Lamentations 3:19-26:

The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.


The hope in Dr. Suess’ poem seems to echo the hope in this passage of Scripture–but does it?  After all, Lamentations (found just after Jeremiah in our Old Testament) is a grim collection of five poems mourning the fall of Judah, written in the ruins of Jerusalem’s temple.  There is only one hopeful word in this entire book, and this is it!  Therefore, some would say that to single out this passage is dishonest, as it is not representative of the book as a whole.  In fact,  since this passage is swallowed up by the poems of despair surrounding it, the point could be that these words proved ineffectual–that they provided no lasting healing or hope.

Certainly, Mr. Rogers took some flack for his message of self-affirmation.  One television panel claimed that this message was “ruining kids”:

Well here’s the problem [that] gets lost in that whole self business, and the idea that being hard and having high issues for yourself, discounted. Mr. Rogers’ message was, “You’re special because you’re you.” He didn’t say, “If you want to be special, you’re going to have to work hard,” and now all these kids are growing up and they’re realizing, “Hey wait a minute, Mr. Rogers lied to me, I’m not special”

The panel decried the damage Mr. Rogers may have done to this whole crop of kids who now feel entitled just for being them. And what he says that instead of telling them, “You’re special, you’re great,” why didn’t he just say, “You know what, there’s a lot of improvement, keep working on yourself.”

The television panel’s critique may seem to some more reflective of Christian faith (and certainly more true to the overall tone of Lamentations) than Mr. Rogers’ or Dr. Suess’ message of affirmation.  I grew up in the sawdust-trail revivalist tradition of Christianity, in which the point of preaching often seems to be bringing its hearers to such a state of fear and guilt and self-loathing that they will run to the altar to be saved from judgment, hell, sin, and themselves: repentance as the child of despair.

But this is not the only way that Christian tradition has spoken about humanity, or about our relationship with God.  In his Ladder of Divine Ascent, 5, Christian mystic St. John Climacus writes,  “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair.”  Repentance is not born out of despair, but is the child of hope, and indeed the denial of despair!

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (The Inner Kingdom [St. Vladimir Press, 2000], 45) unpacks St. John’s teaching on repentance:

It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.

I think that it is no accident that those words of hope in Lamentations have been placed in the center of the book, in the middle of its longest poem. The point is that, yes, for this community devastated by Babylonian armies, things are bad–as bad as they could possible be. In these days, when after 200,000 deaths, the pandemic still rages; when climate change has turned our West Coast into a tinderbox, and wildfires rage; when racial justice often seems as distant a dream to us as it did to Dr. Martin Luther King, or indeed to Frederick Douglass; when political differences readily harden into hatred; we may well think the same of our times. But what saved them–and saves us–from despair is knowing that we are loved, and that God is faithful:

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness (Lam 3:22-23).

The point is not optimism, but rather hope.  Optimism says it will all be okay; that nothing really bad is going to happen.   However, hope affirms that no matter what happens, all will be well.  It was that hope that caused Jews being marched to the gas chambers in the Nazi holocaust to recite, from the creed of Moses Maimonides, “I believe, I believe, with a perfect faith, I believe that Messiah will come, and though he tarry, I will expect him daily.”

Friends, I believe that it is consistent with the heart of the Gospel to claim our created goodness, and our standing as people God loves, and for whom Christ died.  Looking upward to God’s love, forward with trust, we may go forth by God’s grace, transformed by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, to be the people we were created to be.

I can shout with Dr. Suess, and invite you to shout with me: “I am what I am!  That’s a great thing to be.  If I say so myself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!”

AFTERWORD:

October is also the birth month of my father.  That’s my Dad, Bernard Tuell, sitting next to me in this photo.  I got my laugh and my hairline from my Dad–but also, my love for the Bible and for the Lord.  So–happy, happy birthday, Daddy.  God bless you, as God has blessed so many through you.

Sep
2020

When the Worst Thing that Can Happen, Happens

Like many of you, I have found myself returning in my mind today to the days following September 11, 2001.  On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk 3.16-19.  Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, Habakkuk knew well.

I am once again reprinting the sermon I preached on that day.  It is heartbreaking to realize how fully the fears I had then were realized; that today, nineteen years later, we have in our fear and mistrust given so much voice and power to racism and xenophobia.  But I remain hopeful–perhaps more hopeful than any time this past decade–that we are at last ready to confront our national sins, to repent, and to allow God’s spirit of justice to move us, following what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.

 

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Aug
2020

Nasty Women

Rosie the Riveter | The Saturday Evening Post

Today, August 18th, marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It was a victory that had been a long time coming, following decades of protests, civil disobedience, and “unladylike” behavior.

Pamphlet by the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage Part 1

This pamphlet from the time illustrates the attitudes of those opposing the amendment. Inside were household cleaning tips, interspersed with caustic anti-suffrage rhetoric:

Pamphlet by the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage Part 2

Sadly, the Nineteenth Amendment was not an unalloyed victory: women of color continue to face obstacles to their voting rights a hundred years on. All of which makes Vice-President Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate of historic importance.

How the historic nomination of Senator Kamala Harris will impact ...

The nomination of Ms. Harris as a candidate for the vice-presidency has been greeted by sadly predictable questions, concerning her citizenship and her character, that clearly have far more to do with her gender and her race. In an interview with Fox Business network anchor Maria Bartiromo, Mr. Trump said:

“And now, you have — a sort of — a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and — such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump told Bartiromo. “I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group and they were all angry. … These are seriously ill people.” He was referring to Harris’ pointed questioning toward Brett Kavanaugh during his 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, after sexual assault allegations from a professor, Christine Blasey Ford, surfaced.

The “mad woman” remarks followed comments Trump made to White House pool reporters the day before. Trump called Harris a “nasty” woman and said she was “probably nastier than even Pocahontas to Joe Biden” during the Democratic debates, referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

When then-candidate Trump referred to his opponent Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” in 2016, female activists across America took up that insult as a badge of honor, proud to be known as “nasty women”!

This brings us to the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, Exodus 1:8–2:10! Strong, confident, “nasty women” play an extraordinary, central role in the story of Moses and of Israel’s deliverance. From the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, to Moses’ here-unnamed mother and sister, to the daughter of Pharaoh and her handmaids, women act boldly to undo the hateful plans of Pharaoh, and to carry out the will of God.

Ominously, the passage begins with the emergence of a new pharaoh, “who didn’t know Joseph.” This new monarch not only casts aside the memory of Joseph’s preservation of Egypt in lean times, but actively turns on Joseph’s people:

“The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work  (Exod 1:9-10).

It is important for us to call this what it is. Pharaoh’s fears, and the Egyptians’ dread, were not in any way realistic. There was no indication that the Israelites had any intention to side with Egypt’s enemies in a conflict. The Israelites posed no threat: indeed, Joseph—an Israelite!—had recently been Egypt’s savior (see Genesis 41). But this Pharaoh has no memory: he “did not know Joseph.” His cruelty and oppression toward an ethnic minority in his kingdom responds to an imaginary crisis. This is racism, pure and simple.

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people [pictured above] attending a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In his statement taken following this horrific crime, Mr. Roof said that he had to do this, in retaliation for black-on-white crime. This is another imaginary crisis, based on fake news from the internet rather than actual crime statistics. Sadly, the escalation of hate crimes in the last four years demonstrates that many others who “feel threatened” by African-Americans, by Latinos and Latinas, by Arabs and Muslims, now feel empowered to express these feelings openly by their words and actions. We must have the courage to call this too what it is: racism pure and simple. We must oppose it wherever we encounter it, and let ethnic and religious minorities know that the church is with them.

Harsh servitude did not succeed in reducing the Hebrew population; indeed, “the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread” (Exod 1:12). So Pharaoh decides upon a slow genocide. He enlists Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, in his obscene plot, ordering them to kill every Hebrew boy at birth. The midwives at first agree—but then, they disobey Pharaoh’s command because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17, NRSV; a better translation of the Hebrew than the CEB “respected God”)–the first mention of God in this book!

Pharaoh of course realizes this—there are still lots of Hebrew boys toddling about, after all—and calls the midwives in to explain themselves. What follows is a masterpiece of subversion. Playing on Pharaoh’s racist beliefs and fears, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie he will be likely to believe: the Hebrew women, they say, aren’t delicate and civilized like Egyptian women; they are strong and vigorous, like animals, and give birth before we can arrive! Their plan works.

Pharaoh does not give up on his genocidal designs; ultimately, he will enlist his entire population, ordering all Egyptians to drown Hebrew baby boys (Exodus 1:22). But for a while at least, the courage and ingenuity of Shiphrah and Puah have saved their people. Israel continues to prosper, even in bondage.

As for Shiphrah and Puah, the NRSV reads, “because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Exod 1:21). This, however, is far too weak a translation, and the CEB “God gave them households of their own” is only a little better. The Hebrew is wayya’as lahem battim: God “made for them houses”—that is, God established them as clans. This passage claims that there were families in ancient Israel that traced their descent, not from a man, but from a woman: from Shiphrah or Puah.

One of the little boys who lived because of the midwives’ courage was the child of a man and women of the priestly tribe of Levi. Neither is named here (although later, in Exodus 6:20, we learn that they are Amram and Jochebed); nor, as Liddy Barlow observes (“Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary, ” Christian Century 137 [August 12, 2020]: 20), are we told the child’s birth name–although he will come to be called Moses. His birth was a great risk. Pharaoh had sentenced all Hebrew baby boys to death by drowning in the Nile. His parents hide him as long as they can, but when he is three months old, they surrender to the inevitable, and Moses’ mother and sister take him to the river themselves. But instead of drowning the baby, they place him in a tebat (rendered in the CEB as “reed basket”) and set him afloat—hoping against hope that someone will find him and raise him in safety.

The word tebat is not, strictly speaking, a Hebrew word: it is a loanword from the Egyptian tbt, meaning “chest.”  It appears in only two places in the Hebrew Bible: twice in Exodus 2: 3, 5 to describe the reed basket in which baby Moses was placed, and 26 times in Genesis 6—8 to describe the boxy structure Noah built.  Both Moses’ little tebat and Noah’s enormous tebat are coated inside and out with pitch (Genesis 6:14; Exodus 2:3) in order to make them water-tight.  When they read of Moses’ ark, then, careful readers of Scripture recall God’s deliverance of Noah, his family, and the world’s creatures in their ark, and know that as grim as Moses’ future seems at that moment to be, this baby, like Noah, will be saved through water. 

After Moses’ mother places her son in his tiny ark, trusting him into the hands of God, Moses’ sister (later we learn that her name is Miriam) follows along on the shore, “to see what would happen to him” (Exodus 2:4). What she sees must have horrified her. In what is surely the worst possible outcome, the little basket floats into the Egyptian princess and her attendants, who are bathing in the Nile.

Remember, Pharaoh himself had commanded that any Egyptian who finds a Hebrew baby boy is to drown the child in the Nile—and surely, if anyone can be expected to obey Pharaoh’s edicts, it is his own daughter! But instead, even though she knows that this child “must be one of the Hebrews’ children” (Exod 2:6), she decides to keep him and raise him as her own—in defiance of her father. It is she who gives him the Egyptian name by which he will be known: Moses. Miriam is then able to step up with an offer to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby: Moses’ own mother. As a result, Moses grows up aware of his heritage. In turn, according to Jewish tradition, Pharaoh’s daughter became known as Bithiah, “daughter of the LORD”; in 1 Chronicles 4:18, we learn that “Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter” married into Judah’s line, becoming herself by marriage an Israelite.

Friends, what a story! Praise God, who calls and saves us–and particularly, on this centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, praise God who calls outspoken, courageous, “nasty women” to speak God’s word of grace, love, and justice. My friend and colleague in ministry Liddy Barlow expresses, I am persuaded, the heart of this passage:

Jochebed’s children still make their perilous journeys today, armed with little but their mama’s fierce love. And Bithiahs aplenty sunbathe by the riverside, capable of casual cruelty but also–at our best–able to subvert the systems that sustain us. God calls us into holy conspiracy and invites us into one tangled family, for the sake of the most vulnerable. For God’s own sake.

Jul
2020

I Have Set My Bow in the Clouds

I just saw this image on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Facebook page–along with a thank you to Master of Divinity student Caryn Doege for “sharing this beautiful photo and reminder of God’s love.” The seminary paired this image with a familiar passage from Genesis:

“I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13, NRSV).

We need to think about what is happening in this verse. Just what is it that God has placed in the clouds? We may respond, immediately, “A rainbow, of course!” But what is a rainbow? Our thoughts may go to sentimental whimsy

Cute Leprechaundownload Now Cute Rainbow And Pot Of Clipart ...

or to the science of optics

The visible light spectrum is the section of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum that is visible to the human eye.

or, perhaps to the politics of inclusion (the PTS student organization supporting LGBTQ+ persons is appropriately called “The Rainbow Covenant”).

Image for post

The Hebrew word used in Genesis 9:13-16 is qeshet, which does mean “rainbow” in Ezekiel 1:28. However, Ezekiel’s vision pretty explicitly alludes back to the Genesis flood story:

Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared.

Otherwise, we have to go to late Hebrew (Sirach 43:11; 50:7) to find qeshet meaning “rainbow.”

Ninurta - Ancient History Encyclopedia

Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, qeshet refers to the bow as a weapon, whether in the hands of a hunter (for example, Genesis 27:3) or a warrior (for example, Zechariah 9:10). So here, the rainbow is the LORD’s war bow (Habakkuk 3:9; Psalm 18:14), which God sets aside, placing it in the clouds.

Remember, God had just finished destroying the world with a flood, returning the cosmos to pre-creation chaos. It was an action taken in sorrow and regret, to put an end to the violence and corruption that threatened God’s ordered world–but nonetheless, it had been done. Now, as life begins again on the renewed earth, the unavoidable question for the reader has got to be, what if this happens again?

An actual rainbow | Rainbow, Quotations, Love quotes

God promises that it will never happen again: “I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9:11). Then, to underscore and seal that promise, God disarms Godself:

I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds,  I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures.  The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth” (Genesis 9:13-17).

“Covenant” is not an everyday word–mostly, we encounter it in the sanctified vocabulary of the Bible or the church. When you see this word, think “treaty,” or “binding contract.” In the final form of the Torah, the priestly editors have tied the text together with a chain of these contracts, binding and committing God to the world, and the world to God.

Genesis 8 Bible Commentary - The Flood Ends | Access-Jesus.com ...

This is the first covenant in that chain: one made, not merely with Noah, or his kin, or even with the entire human family, but rather with “with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you” (Gen 9:10). The others are the covenant with Abraham, promising him land and descendants (Gen 17:1-8); and the covenant with all Israel established through Moses on Sinai (Exod 31:16-18). Each of the three is called a berit ‘olam: an enduring, everlasting, or eternal covenant. Each is sealed and memorialized by a sign: sabbath for the Sinai covenant, circumcision for the covenant with Abraham, and for this first covenant in the chain, the LORD’s bow in the cloud. By setting God’s bow aside, God declares that, henceforth, God will not come against the earth and its people as an enemy, armed for battle.

Of course, other texts in Scripture view matters differently. The prophets sometimes describe the LORD’s judgment on Israel in such stark terms that God appears as the enemy of God’s own people (for example, Ezekiel 6:1-14). Apocalyptic texts famously speak of another, final end of the world, despite the promise in Genesis 9. The African American spiritual “O Mary Don’t You Weep” (here, by Mississippi John Hurt; first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers) cleverly gets around this conflict: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time”!

But the fact that other texts follow a different path should not draw our attention from what is happening here. Indeed, God laying aside God’s bow, and rejecting the role of warrior, marks the beginning of a pronounced trajectory through Scripture, leading from Genesis through Hosea 11:8-9

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
        How can I hand you over, Israel?
    How can I make you like Admah?
        How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
[towns destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah]
    My heart winces within me;
        my compassion grows warm and tender.

I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.

through, as we have seen before, Zechariah 9:9-10:

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.
 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.

and leading, by Jesus’ humble road, from Bethlehem to Calvary to the empty tomb and beyond; to, finally, the Elder’s profound statement of who and what God is:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.  The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8).

There are of course other trajectories through Scripture, friends. But particularly in these conflict-ridden days, we should not ignore this one, which begins and ends with God coming in peace.

Jul
2020

The Longest Book

I am a long-time fan of the television quiz show “Jeopardy.” Many categories throw me completely (pop culture, sports, and geography in particular), but usually I can hold my own. I particularly enjoy Bible questions, which often completely throw the on-screen contestants. Last week, I was tickled when the Final Jeopardy question was in the category “Old Testament Books.” So, after the commercial break, I was a bit thrown when the clue was, “By Hebrew word count, the longest book bears this name that led to a word for a long complaint or rant.” The reference to “jeremiad” made the answer they were looking for clear, but I thought (and said out loud to the television screen) “Jeremiah isn’t the longest book!”

The Jeopardy episode was picked up by people on social media, many of whom blasted the show's producers and host for revising history [File: Chris Pizzello/AP]

Jeopardy has gotten it wrong before. Usually, they get it right in the end–often, before the final credits roll. But this past year, one question with a wrong answer was not corrected. The clue, under the category “Where’s that Church?”, was, “Built in the 300s A.D., the Church of the Nativity.” 

[Katie] Needle, a retail supervisor from Brooklyn, responded it was in Palestine but was told her answer was wrong. One of the other two contestants, Jack McGuire, then buzzed in with the reply “Israel”, which host Alex Trebek accepted as correct.

As it happens, I have been to the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem in the West Bank. I know people who live and work in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is not in the state of Israel: you must pass through a security checkpoint at the border between Israel and the West Bank to get there.

Israeli-occupied territories - Wikipedia

As the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera accurately reported,

The Church of Nativity, declared a world heritage site, is located in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, which is internationally-recognised as part of Palestine.

Particularly as Israel continues to annex Palestinian land, displacing families, many of them Christian, who have lived in the land for generations, it is tragic that this error has still not, to my knowledge, been corrected.

At any rate–knowing, as I did, that the longest book in the Bible is the book of Psalms, I was confident that Jeopardy had erred again. But my old friend from graduate school, fellow United Methodist minister Frank Norris, set me straight. He posted on Facebook a link to an article by Justin Taylor in “The Gospel Coalition” titled “What Is the Longest Book in the Bible? (Hint: It’s Not the Psalms).”

The article cited the work of David J. Reimer, a fellow Ezekiel scholar. The book of Psalms is certainly the longest by chapter divisions (there are 150 Psalms, after all; no other biblical book gets out of double digits!), or by verse count (2,527 in the Psalms). But Dr. Reimer recognized that verse or chapter count wasn’t the best approach, as these divisions are mostly late, and not generally included in the biblical texts until the Middle Ages. He proposed three other criteria for length:

  • “Graphic units” counts the number of Hebrew words in a particular book using BibleWorks (e.g., there are seven “graphic units” in Genesis 1:1).
  • “Morphological units” was found according to the Groves-Wheeler Westminster Morphological database (which separates prefixed elements, but not pronominal suffixes; e.g., there are eleven “morphological units” in Genesis 1:1).
  • The “Bytes” figure calculates the length of the Hebrew book in ASCII format (i.e., so there is no interference from extraneous word-processor code).

Placing the top ten in a chart:

OrderBook# Verses in BookGraph-unit HitsMorph-unit HitsBytes
 1.Jeremiah1,36422,28530,203241,209
 2.Genesis1,53320,72228,848226,894
 3.Psalms2,52719,66225,465238,562
 4.Ezekiel1,27319,05326,572214,416
 5.Isaiah1,29117,19723,204191,777
 6.Exodus1,21316,89023,934184,372
 7.Numbers1,28916,58323,363182,945
 8.Deuteronomy95914,48820,329159,872
 9.2 Chronicles82213,52020,000154,125
10.1 Samuel81113,50619,211147,392

So–Jeopardy DID get it right: by Hebrew word count, Jeremiah is the longest book. Psalms is not even the second-longest book–by Hebrew word count, that would be Genesis. I was wrong–and happy to learn something new! The Bible does this to me all the time, I find.

The trivial question of the relative length of biblical books opens onto other, more interesting questions–specifically with regard to Psalms and Jeremiah. The Greek text of the Psalms differs in many ways from the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) from which our Old Testament is translated. More of the Psalms are given titles in the Greek text, and more of those titles ascribe the poems they introduce to David. Most notably, however, the Greek text contains an additional, 151st Psalm.

I was small among my brothers,
    and the youngest in my father’s house;
I tended my father’s sheep.

My hands made a harp;
    my fingers fashioned a lyre.

And who will tell my Lord?
    The Lord himself; it is he who hears.

 It was he who sent his messenger
    and took me from my father’s sheep,
    and anointed me with his anointing oil.

My brothers were handsome and tall,
    but the Lord was not pleased with them.

I went out to meet the Philistine,
    and he cursed me by his idols.

But I drew his own sword;
    I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel.

This psalm is found in Hebrew in 11QPsa (the Great Psalms Scroll, one of the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls”), a manuscript of the Psalter from Qumran dating to around the time of Jesus. Although not used in Western churches, Psalm 151 is included in the Bibles of many Eastern Orthodox communities, including Greek and Slavonic Orthodox Churches. So the length of the book of Psalms may well depend on where you worship.

Similarly, the text of Jeremiah in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) differs significantly from the Hebrew MT–but this time, the Greek text is shorter (by about an eighth), and its chapters are differently arranged: chapters 46–51 (the prophet’s oracles against foreign nations) in our Old Testament appears instead following Jer 25:13a: “I will unleash upon that land everything I decreed, all that is written in this scroll.” Then, in the LXX, the material in our Jer 25:13b–46:5 resumes, followed by our Jer 52. In this case, the finds from Qumran are particularly intriguing.

Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah - ppt download

4QJera from before 200 BCE, and 2QJer, which on the basis of paleography (that is, the form of ancient writing used) dates roughly to the first century CE, place the oracles against the nations at the end of the book, and otherwise generally preserve the textual tradition of the MT.  However, portions of Jer 9:21–10:21, written in Hebrew, were found in a fragment, 4QJerb, that looks more like the LXX. The fact that old Hebrew texts relating to both the LXX and the MT of Jeremiah were found at Qumran shows that ancient communities of faith treasured and studied both versions of Jeremiah. So it makes little sense in this case to ask whether the “real”–the best, most ancient, or original–book of Jeremiah is the shorter or the longer version!

We need to know that there is not just one, pristine original Hebrew version of Psalms, or Jeremiah, or indeed of ANY biblical book. Therefore Bible translators do not begin with how best and most faithfully to render the biblical languages into clear and understandable English. The prior question is which ancient version of a text to translate. Addressing text critical questions requires expert knowledge–and even experts may disagree as to their resolution. However, every reader of Scripture needs to be aware that these questions exist. Otherwise, we are vulnerable to misunderstanding and misinterpretation–and even to deliberate attempts to deceive.

For example: just this morning, a friend shared this meme, and asked me if there was anything to it (spoiler alert: there is NOT–and I have not included the poster or the address so as not to give them another platform to spread this deception).

Image may contain: text that says 'KJV Why did Jesus come to earth? NIV Why did Jesus come to earth? Luke 9:56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village. Luke 9:56 and they went to another village. Matthew 18:11 For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. Matthew 18:11 (MISSING)'

VERY CRITICAL ALERT!!!
NIV was published by Zondervan but is now OWNED by Harper Collins, who also publishes the Satanic Bible and The Joy of Gay Sex.
•The NIV and ESV has now removed 64,575 words from the Bible
including Jehovah, Calvary, Holy Ghost and omnipotent to name but a few…
•The NIV and ESV has also now removed 45 complete verses. Most of us have the Bible on our devices and phones especially “OLIVE TREE BIBLE STUDY APP.”
•Try and find these scriptures in NIV and ESV on your computer, phone or device right now if you are in doubt:
Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14;
Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46;
Luke 17:36, 23:17;
John 5:4; Acts 8:37.
…you will not believe your eyes.
•Refuse to be blinded by Satan, and do not act like you just don’t care. Let’s not forget what the Lord Jesus said in John 10:10 (King James Version).
There is a crusade geared towards altering the Bible as we know it; NIV, ESV and many more versions are affected.
•THE SOLUTION:
If you must use the NIV and ESV, BUY and KEEP AN EARLIER VERSION OF the BIBLE. A Hard Copy cannot be updated. All these changes occur when they ask you to update the app. On your phone or laptop etc. Please spread the word…

To address the first claim made above: it is true that Zondervan is owned by HarperCollins. But they purchased Zondervan over thirty years ago, in 1988. You can, if you wish, still access the NIV from 1984 online and compare it with later editions, made after 1988. When you do so, you will discover that the two passages cited in this meme read no differently in the 1984 NIV than in its post-1988 revisions.

So, first of all, the fundamental claim in this meme, that the NIV has been corrupted by “godless” editors from HarperCollins, is simply false. Refusing to update the NIV on your phone or computer, as this post recommends, makes no sense–again, the differences with the KJV that this post decries were already there over thirty years ago. Also, for the record, I highly recommend the HarperCollins Study Bible, which I have used in my Bible classes for years, as well as the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary and Bible Commentary. All three were prepared under the auspices of the Society of Biblical Literature, and should be on every pastor’s bookshelf.

However, the meme is certainly correct that the words cited here from the KJV do not appear in the NIV of those same passages, either before or after 1988. Not only the NIV, but the NRSV, the CEB, the ESV, and most other modern translations skip these sentences–although they are sometimes given in footnotes. That is because these words are not found in the oldest and best Greek texts of the Gospels.

The KJV translators in 1611 did not have access to as many texts as we do, and often included in their version very late additions and expansions to the biblical texts they were translating. Luke 9:56 and Matthew 8:11 are but two examples. Others include the Lord’s Prayer doxology in Matthew 6:13; the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7-8, which is not found in any Greek text of 1 John from before the 16th century, and the inclusion of Erasmus’ explanatory expansion, “of them which are saved,” in Revelation 21:24.

These translators are not part of some imaginary “crusade geared towards altering the Bible as we know it.” To the contrary: they have decided to use the oldest and best texts available to yield the best translation of the Bible, rather than simply aping traditional language. We do not need to know the biblical languages or the ins and outs of text criticism to be faithful readers of Scripture, friends. However, we do need to be aware of these issues if we are to avoid senseless controversies (1 Timothy 6:20), and to read the Bible responsibly, comparing and selecting among translations, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).