Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deuteronomy

If you were the leader of a people, were approaching the end of your life, and had one last opportunity to pass on what you thought was most important for those people to hear, what would you say?  That is, in effect, the book of Deuteronomy.

It's interesting to me that Moses begins by recounting Israel's failure.  He basically tells Israel, "Here's the first thing you need to know...don't be like the generation before you.  Don't ignore God.  Don't be stubborn.  You've seen how that goes."  However, he balances that with, "The Lord keeps his promises anyway.  You have seen what God did with King Sihon.  Now is the time for trust."

I look forward to hearing what else Moses has to say.

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 2

Through With Numbers

So, I finished Numbers.  I find it a fascinating and frustrating book.  It a weird way, it's frustrating aspects lend credence to its historical nature.  I know for some readers that statement will send up a red flag.  It might sound like something a fundamentalist would say.  If so, oh well, but seriously, who would make up such unflattering things about him or herself?  If I'm going to make up my own history, I'm not going to make myself out to be a bumbling idiot who, in the end, gets myself killed wandering around in a desert.  Would you?  I'm going to make myself out to be the hero, the guy who makes great choices.  I'd make sure Moses made it to the Promised Land.  Anyhow, for those of you reading through numbers with me, I hope you enjoyed the book and were rewarded by the discipline of reading it.

Stopping point: Numbers 36

Friday, February 25, 2011

Will God's Plan Work?

I want to build off of something I said on my last post: the idea that God is up to bigger things then just displacing one group of humans and replacing them with another.  There is a story arch that has been continuing since Genesis 1, and that is whether humanity (and all of creation for that matter) would be able to function in the role God intended for it.  The story of Adam and Eve says no.  The story of Cain and Abel says no.  The story of the Tower of Babel says no.  The story of Egypt says no, but out of Egypt God has delivered the Israelites according to his promise.  What is the purpose of this?  Is it just so God can say, "See, I keep my promises."  God is a faithful god, but I don't think that answers the question.  Is it just because God is loving and compassionate, a god who lifts the lowly and humbles the mighty?  Again, that is true, but it doesn't necessarily answer the question of why God chose this people (Israel) and showed them these experiences (plagues, crossing a sea, water out of rocks, bread out of dew, etc.).  The why behind it all has to do with the greater story arch: God was working through humans to bring humans back to being fully human.  Redundant, I know, but there you have it.  Israel was meant to be an example to the nations of what true Humanity looked like.  If Israel merely reflected the accepted culture and norms, well, then Israel wasn't fulfilling its purpose.

That being the case, is it any wonder that God gets so frustrated with Israel?  He has called them to great things, world changing things...humanity changing things, and up to this point in the story he has very little to show for it.  Israel is perfectly happy looking just like everyone else, thank you very much.  Is it any wonder that God tells the Israelites that if they start behaving and looking like every other nation in Canaan he'll, "...do to you as I thought to do to them"?  There are things at stake here, and if Israel won't let him use them to turn things around, he'll find someone else who will.

That makes sense to me.  As Christians we are called to be reflections of what it means to be Human, as God intended it.  If we don't take that seriously (notice I did not say, "If we don't do this perfectly"), what makes us assume God won't find people who will?

Stopping point: Numbers 34

Why the Ban?

The "ban" refers to God telling the Israelites that when they enter into Canaan they need to kill everything, men, women, and children.  That, no doubt about it, seems harsh and cruel.  My goal is not to explain that away in this post, or to explain it at all, really, but rather to give one example of why that might have been necessary.

In Numbers 31 Israel defeats the nation of Midian.  As spoils of war, the army takes typical treasure: loot, livestock, and women (and before we get all high and mighty about how much we've changed in the modern era, the spoils of war are still the same: trinkets, economic treasure, and sex).  When the army returns to camp, Moses meets them, not proud of their accomplishment in battle, but angry of the women they've captured.  These women are the very same women who seduced the Israelite men into worshiping Baal a few chapter back.  In fact, they were bait Balaam used to derail the Israelites when God wouldn't let Balaam curse them.  These women would be a cancerous presence in the nation of Israel.  They would keep Israel from fulfilling the purpose God had brought them out of Egypt to accomplish.  What's really sad about all this is the fact that the Israelite warriors didn't seem to remember this at all.  In typical male fashion, their higher intellect seemed to stall out at, "Ooh, pretty."

Now does this make the ban sound any more palatable to us?  Absolutely not, but it does bring light to the fact that there are bigger issues going on then Group A wants to live where Group B is, so Group A is justified in genocide.  This is not Hutu vs. Tutsi, Bronze Age version.  This is "Does Humanity Have a Future" Bronze Age version.

Stopping Point: Numbers 32

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Vows of Women

Numbers 30 discusses vows women make and how it related to males.  At first read, this chapter sounds pretty sexist, but on further reflection I'm not so sure.  We have to remember as we read chapters like this that women had very few, if any, rights in the ancient world.  They were little more than property, so any mention of rights or any talk of women as actual people is a significant thing.

So, Numbers 30 deals with how things should be handled if a woman makes a vow but her father/husband disapproves.  If that is the case, Numbers says that, "the Lord will forgive her."  Now again, at first that sounds rather insulting.  Forgive her...forgive her for what?  She didn't do anything wrong.  Well, that's precisely the point.  She didn't do anything wrong.  God wants the Israelites to know that even though they lived in a time where women had not rights and men could order them about, even order them to break a vow, men can't then turn around and hold that broken vow against the women.  That wouldn't be fair or just.  To go a step further, if the husband/father hears the woman take the vow, doesn't say anything, and then forces her to break the vow later, he will bear the guilt of the broken vow.  He will be held responsible.  The ancient Israelite woman does have rights, and although they may seem like rather pointless rights to us in our culture, they might have been rather shocking rights to Israel's neighbors.

Stopping point: Numbers 30

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What About Moses's Family?

I noticed something strange on this read through of Numbers.  Every time there is a census, Moses and his descendants aren't listed.  Moses has children, so why don't they get counted?  I shot an email to my OT professor from ACU.  Hopefully he'll have some insight to offer.  If so, I'll be sure to post it.

Update: My professor got back to me.  Here was his response.

"It's not clear why Numbers omits the Moses family.  It may have died out early on.  Some think that the Aaronide priests had a conflict with the Mushite priests (descended from Moses), and since the texts came from the former, the latter got excluded.  However, this is EXTREMELY speculative, so just something to know is out there without giving much credence to it.   It's probably better just to say that we don't know.  One reason may have been the desire to downplay the importance of the family: power was not to be inherited just because the founder of the family was such an extraordinary person."

Stopping point: Numbers 27

Monday, February 21, 2011

Defining Faithfulness

If you've been around me for very long you're sure to have heard me say something along the lines of, "Faithfulness is not simply believing in something."  Some may read this and think, "Well, duh," while others read this and think, "Heretic!"  If I say I'm faithful to my wife, that doesn't mean I just believe she exists.  It means I am true to her, committed to her, make repeated choices that choose her over others.  For some reason when people start thinking about Christianity or God, they suddenly begin treating the idea of faith differently, but it isn't.

Infant Israel seems to like making this false distinction also.  There's not doubt they believe in God's existence, or even his ability to act, but they're anything but faithful.  They constantly turn their backs on him.  As spouses, they are unfaithful.  In Numbers 22-25, King Balak sends for the diviner Balaam.  (As an interesting side note, Balaam is one of the few ancient Biblical characters there is archeological evidence for.  In 1967 a copy of one of his divinations was discovered.  The copy dates to around 800 BC.  You can read a recent translation of the text here.)  Although Balak and Balaam both intend to curse (as in put a curse on someone, not swear at them), Balaam is forced to bless the Israelites, not once, but three times.  This, understandably, infuriates King Balak, who then refuses to pay Balaam for his services.  However, the thing that stands out to me about this whole passage is not how Balaam is forced to bless Israel, but rather that after receiving three blessings, the people of Israel then convert to worshiping Baal.  Granted, the Israelites probably did not know that God was working on their behalf, behind the scenes with Balaam, but they had first hand knowledge of all the things God did for them up to that point.

Israel was an unfaithful spouse, through and through.  Her unfaithfulness was like the red and white swirl of a candy-cane.  No matter where you break it, you'll find the swirl because it goes all the way through.  That's a sad commentary on the choices Israel made.  It's a sad commentary on how God has given humanity power to shape creation, even ourselves, but we shape it for the worse far too often.

Faithfulness is not belief.  Faithfulness is trustworthiness and commitment and keeping our word.  Belief is the easy part.  Faithfulness...not so much.

Stopping point: Numbers 25

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Formation of Complaint

Leaving a congregation is a difficult thing, but it does provide you with time to reflect, and over the last month I've been doing quite a lot of reflecting.  I've wondered if there were things I could have done differently (and yes, there were).  I've thought about all the dynamics and undercurrents in the congregation that became clear during my ministry, but that I didn't see during the interview process.  I've wondered about how to approach beginning my next ministry opportunity differently.  Specifically, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the corrosive nature of complaint.

In Numbers 16, Korah, his family, and a few other followers rebel against Moses and Aaron.  Specifically, they rebel against what they see as an unfair distinction: that only Aaron and his descendants can be priests.  After all, Aaron is a Levite, no different then Korah or his sons.  Who are Aaron and Moses to think they can appoint themselves over Israel?  That question ignores that fact that Aaron and Moses didn't appoint themselves to anything, of course.  They responded to a call.  Accepting a responsibility given to you is very different then usurping authority.  This is not how Korah sees things, however.

The fallout of this rebellion is great.  Korah and basically his entire clan is wiped out.  The unity of the Israelite tribes is broken.  A second rebellion breaks out, followed by a plague.  Aaron's and Moses's lives are at stake, not to mention the safety of their families.  The fabric of infant Israel nearly unravels.  God's work through Israel almost comes to an end before it begins.

What's the root of all this?  Well the Korah Rebellion doesn't happen out of thin air.  There has been a great deal of plot development leading up to this place in the story, and what has been driving that plot?  Complaint.

Nearly from day one, the freed Hebrews who witnessed the power and glory of God have done nothing but complain, complain about food, complain about water, complain about Moses, complain about Aaron, complain about Moses's wife, complain about how scary God is, complain about who God talks to, complain about the fact that even though God brought them to the Promised Land there are people in it....  The list could go on, but you get the point.  Reflecting on the Israelites' experience and my own, some concepts have been reaffirmed in my mind about the formation that takes place in an atmosphere of complaint.

First, complaint alters perception.  I know an individual who is fond of saying, "Perception is reality."  Which sounds insightful...except for the fact that perception is not reality.  Perception can, in fact, be the furthest thing from reality.  Two of Korah's fellow revolutionaries tell Moses, "Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?"  Let's think about that statement for a moment.  That is certainly Dathan and Abiram's perception, molded by years of complaint, but it is nothing like reality.  Egypt was not a land of milk and honey.  It was a land of forced labor, and economic and social oppression.  Egypt was the place where Pharaoh, god of his people, shouted, "Lazy!  Lazy!," not the land where the God of his people said, "Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of the land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey...."  And as far as dying in the wilderness goes, that statement is like a broken record stuck in a grove.  Why do Dathan and Abiram use that phrase?  Simple, they've been using it for years.  The reality that God has fed and watered and delivered them over and over and over has nothing to do with it.  Reality doesn't matter, neither does the fact that the generation of Israelites speaking here brought their deaths upon their own heads.  Finally, Moses hasn't lorded his authority over anyone.  He's repeatedly tried to step out of leadership altogether.

So what brought Dathan and Abiram to a place where they could spew this vitriol?  Complaint.  Of course there are other factors, but at the very least, complaint played a significant role.  Complaint is like water dripping on limestone: over time it wears a groove.  With enough time the groove becomes so deep that water doesn't know how else to flow.  Complaint has warped perception to a point where individuals are incapable of seeing things any other way.  Forget the difficult passage about God hardening Pharaoh's heart.  Complaint does that just fine on its own.

A second thing I've noticed about how complaint forms individuals, both in the Exodus experience and in churches, is that complaint absolves people of individual responsibility.  Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On, et al., their rebellion wasn't their fault, at least as far as they saw it.  It was Moses's fault, Aaron's fault, the priests' fault, God's fault...but certainly not their fault.  No, the decision to rebel was forced upon them.  What choice did they have?  It was for the good of all Israel that they tried to depose of Moses, Aaron, and their lackeys.

I knew a man just like this.  He thrived off of conflict.  Of course, he never wanted to be aggressive, but what could he do?  He had a responsibility to speak out against the wrong of others...just like Korah.  And just like Korah, it was always someone else's fault when he lost his temper.  Therefore, this individual never seemed to be aware of all the havock and harm we was causing in his wake.  And surprise, surprise, what did you always hear coming out of this man's mouth?  Complaint.  Complaint provides an easy scapegoat, a rationalization for any behavior.  Complaint always makes things about the other.

And finally, complaint always divides.  In Exodus, it not only divided the tribe of Levi.  It divided the Korahites from the Israelites.  It divided the Israelites from Moses and Aaron.  Ultimately it divided Israel from God.  Churches are no different.  Complaint divides leadership from leadership.  Complaint divides leadership from the congregation.  Complaint divides congregations from the ministers, and ultimately, can divide congregations from their God.

Complaint is toxic, acidic, corrosive, and enervating.  Complaint is arsenic for congregations, their leadership, and their ministers, and if it weren't for ministers that reflect the same love Moses had for his people and an exceedingly patient God, I'd hate to think about where many congregations would be.  Well, if Exodus is any indicator, I know where they would be...dead in the wilderness, their only accomplishment being the birth of a new generation who might be able to get out of the complaint groove.

Stopping point: Numbers 17

Thursday, February 17, 2011

God Save Us From Ourselves

I ranted pretty hard against ancient Israel yesterday.  I want to switch gears a bit today.  Reading through the fallout of Israel's decision to not trust God, I can't help but be struck by the tragedy of their decision.  The ten spies who refused to trust in God's ability to fulfill his promise all die, which would have impacted their families, clans, and tribes.  An entire generation of Israel would die in the wilderness, in unmarked graves, forgotten by history.  Israel would be forced to wander, knowing that each year they wandered would correspond to one day spent doing reconnaissance in the land they were supposed to inhabit, forty years for forty days.  And when the reality of what their stubborn hearts had cost them set in, I think they truly tried to make it right.  They prepared for battle and set off to take the Promised Land...except they still didn't quite understand.  It was God who had given them everything they had and everything they ever would have.  Their attempt to fight for themselves was too little too late.  By turning their backs on God they got exactly what they expected to get, a crushing defeat on the field of battle.

Why is it that the blinders are only removed after the consequences of our prolonged behavior fully take effect?  My heart breaks for the people and churches who cause their own heart aches, knowing full well that I am no different.  When will we ever learn to trust God up front and realize that because God has always provided for us in the past, we can trust him to provide for us now?  Instead, we complain and grumble and rebel, and then find ourselves living the self-fulling prophecy of wilderness wandering.  The problems we have in our lives and our churches aren't the fault of God.  We cause them all by ourselves, and the truly frightening thing about this is that sometimes we can put ourselves in a position where no matter what we do, it's too little too late.  And again, this is not God refusing to show mercy or compassion.  Israel did inherit the land God promised to give them, but the first generation of Israelites had hardened themselves, and hurt themselves, so much that they would never see it.  They couldn't.  They wouldn't have been able to live and thrive there anyway.  I pray God keeps us and our churches from doing the same.

Stopping point: Numbers 15

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ingratitude, Jealousy, and a Lack of Courage

Have I mentioned I hate complaint?  I'm pretty sure I have, but if not...I hate complaint.  I mean I really hate it.  It puts a cloud over everything.  It is enervating.  It can completely derail a church.  Now I'm a pretty pessimistic person, so I spend far too much time complaining myself, but frankly, I've had it up to my eye balls with complaint...my own or anyone's.

After years of being personally cared for by God himself, the Israelites are ready to leave Mount Sinai.  They've seen the 10 plagues of Egypt.  They've crossed the Reed Sea.  They've seen bitter water made sweet, starvation turned to full bellies, deserts transformed into wet oases.  They want meat; they get meat.  They want water; they get water.  They want protection; they get protection, and now, after spending an entire year being able to look upon Mount Sinai and see the active presence of God himself, what do the Israelites do?  They complain.  They whine.  They revolt, after all...in Egypt they at least got to eat fish.

The Israelites tick me off.  I completely understand God saying, "You want meat?  I'll give you meat.  I'll give you meat until it's shooting out your nose.  I'll give you meat until you choke on it."  As a minister, I've had those days, and I don't know a single minister who hasn't.  Sometimes I just want to tell people, "We have a promised land waiting for us, and all you want to do is complain about meat?!"...metaphorically speaking, of course.  It rather irritates me.

But on a different note, as if dealing with an entire nation of complainers wasn't enough, Moses's brother and sister try to usurp some authority.  It's a strange story.  Miriam and Aaron get upset that Moses is married to a foreigner.  They make a play for power, saying that Moses isn't the only person God speaks to (presenting themselves as the other options), but God catches wind of their behavior and calls them in for a family meeting.  In front of Moses, God berates Aaron and Miriam, and as his presence leaves the tent of meeting, Miriam is found leprous.  Moses asks God to heal her, but God refuses until Miriam has been forced outside the camp for seven days.

As I said, this is strange.  First of all, why do Aaron and Miriam care who Moses is married to.  Second, why is Miriam the only one given leprosy?  Weren't both her and Aaron guilty of the same thing, and if so, isn't God rather sexist in his punishment of Miriam?  Well, not having done any research what-so-ever, here are my thoughts.

I think Aaron and Miriam's anger over Zipporah and Miriam's punishment are connected.  A play for power is obviously going on behind this story.  That having been said, we must also take into account how families centralized power in Egypt.  The way that worked in Egypt (as it does in all royal families even until relatively recently) was to marry within the family.  Pharaohs were often times married to sisters or near cousins.  We can see Hebrew examples of this in Genesis with the Patriarchs.  Abraham married his half-sister.  Abraham's son married a first cousin, etc.  If Miriam wanted to gain and consolidate power, the best way to do that (and the culturally acceptable way) would have been to marry her brother.  But there was a problem...Moses had run off and married a foreigner, not only outside the family...but a foreigner.  Ah, the shame of it all!  If Aaron and Miriam can get ride of Moses's Cushite wife, Miriam can try to force herself into the position of Moses's new wife and, wallah, guess who's the power behind the throne now?  Who knows, maybe Miriam was the mastermind behind the whole plan.  Maybe that's why she's punished and Aaron isn't.  Aaron hasn't exactly proven himself the natural leader type, but Miriam, after the crossing of the Reed Sea, had gained quite a bit of prominence in Israel.  Maybe she liked it...a lot.  Maybe by knocking Miriam down a few notches, God dealt with Aaron as well.  Dominoes 101, maybe.

Last thought for today...if you had seen God deal with the most powerful nation on the planet, would you have had the courage to follow God into a relatively weak country of loosely allied city states?  If so, in the entire nation of Israel you'd be one among four.  Is it any wonder that God has finally had enough of that generation of Israelites?  Strike three...you're out.


Stopping point: Numbers 13

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hurrying Up To Wait

Before I write about my reading in Numbers, let me begin by saying I am really enjoying getting together Tuesday morning with the three women who are reading through the Bible with me this year.  I enjoy the questions, the discussion, and the reflection.  If all Christians approached the Bible with their level of excitement, seriousness, and curiosity, our churches would be full of very different people, indeed.  For those three, (and those I know who are reading but haven't been able to join us on Tuesdays) thank you for taking this journey through the Bible with me.

That having been said, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently announced to my congregation that I would be stepping down as their minister some time this year.  You can read a copy of what I said to the congregation on my wife's blog, here.  What makes this situation...interesting...for lack of a better word, is that as of now, Kalyn and I don't have another ministry position to go to.  The leadership here has been very understanding about that, and is in no hurry to rush me out the door, which I am grateful for.  That means, for the time being, Kalyn and I are sort of in a limbo, in an interim.  We must hurry to try to get things ready for a move, but then wait for it to happen.

The beginning of Numbers takes place in that "hurry up to wait" moment for Israel.  They've been freed from Egyptian oppression and they've been given instruction for how to be the people God wants them to be.  They've been camping at Sinai for at least a year, learning and preparing for what is to come next: God leading them to the Promised Land.  I wonder what that was like for some of them.

I'm curious because I hate waiting (and I'm not just talking about the idea of instant gratification, although I'm not real good with delayed gratification either).  When a decision needs to be made I can be very patient.  In fact, I get very frustrated if I feel things are being rushed.  That having been said, once a decision is made I want to get to it.  If I know where I'm going I just want to get there.  When I have to wait at that point I go batty, but there is a lesson for me in the story of Israel.  Sometimes the hurrying up to wait is necessary if we are going to be formed into the type of people that can function in the new places God is taking us.

This goes back to a conversation I find myself having often as I read through the first few books of the Bible, a conversation about the idea of transformation.  God is transforming us (or if you prefer language going back to Genesis 1-3, working to restore us), and transformation (restoration) only happens over time, or maybe more accurate, only happens over uncomfortable time.

God would bring his people to the land he promised them, but first they had to wait.  They hurried out of Egypt only to sit at a mountain, but if they would thrive in Canaan, they had to have that formative time at Sinai.  That seems to be how life goes.  We hurry up to wait, but if we don't wait we're never truly ready for the next place God is taking us.  I hate that, but I'll do my best to try to learn from it.

Stopping point: Numbers 10

Friday, February 11, 2011

Four Month Old Genius

Future astrophysicist?  Discoverer of the cancer cure?  Only the future will tell...

Horribly Inappropriate

Considering the nature of my last post, this is horribly inappropriate, but I can't help laughing so hard I cry when I see this.  This is one of my favorite songs ever.  What does that say about me?



And on that note, I have to get back to some business of my own and finish this sermon.

Quite An Introduction

I just saw this today.  I have no idea when it was originally recorded, but I love it.

A People of Blessing

A few days ago I did a post on the diverse job description of Hebrew priests, namely that they were both priest, teacher, and doctor.  But having said that, I left out what might be the most important aspect of a priest's job: to bless people.  Numbers chapter six ends with Aaron's blessing, a passage that has come to mean a great deal to me as a minister.

"The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace."

How much would it effect pop culture's view of Christians if we started living to make this idea a reality in people's lives?  We've been priests, in the negative sense at least: a people aloof and distant, disconnected from the everyday problems people face.  We've been teachers, in the negative sense: a people quick to argue and viciously stamp out heresy among non-Christians who do not believe as we believe.  We've often times simply dropped the vocation as healers, and as far as being people of blessing goes, far too often we've been a community only known for our hypocrisy and antagonism.

I say all this knowing that not all Christians are this way.  I, for one, hope I am not, and I have had the pleasure of knowing and being influenced by many Christians who were the embodiment of priest, teacher, doctor, and blesser.  But the exception proves the rule, those people stand out so starkly in our mind because they are so few.

But at the same time, those people have a powerful influence on the ones around them.  Through them, God's glory lightens the world, making it a more pleasant, beautiful, joy filled place.  Imagine what our world would be like if people like that were not the minority, but the majority?

We as Christians are called to be those people.  We are a priesthood of believers, which means that when we accept the name Christian we accept the job description that comes along with it, and that includes not only taking praise to God and teaching and healing, but also blessing.  We must bless the hurting.  We must bless the disenfranchised.  We must bless the widow and the orphan and the poor.  We must bless the immigrant worker who has no rights in our land.  We must bless the Muslim in a Christian land.  We must even bless our enemies.  Blessing must run through our core; it must ooze out of our pores.  It must be part of the fabric of who we are.  We must be a people of blessing.  Otherwise, we might call ourselves Christians, but we will not be a priesthood of believers.

Stopping point: Numbers 6

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I Have Made You Walk Erect

The title for this blog post comes from Leviticus 26:13, "I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect."  When I read that today I felt a deep sense of gratitude, humility, relief, joy, and hope.  "I have made you walk erect."  I have, and have had for as long as I can remember, self-esteem issues.  All of my successes and accomplishments tend to vanish with the wind, and I'm often left behind feeling impotent, weak, frightened...bent under a weight I'm not sure how to carry.  I feel trapped and limited by chains of my own making.  I know as a Christian, and especially as a minister, I'm supposed to portray myself as confident and firm in my trust toward God, but most days I struggle.  Many days I wrestle with the slavery imposed by a lack of confidence and trust.

But God is a god who makes us stand tall, with shoulders back.  There's more to this then simply being freed from literal slavery in Egypt.  God gives the Israelites identity, restored humanity, value, and purpose.  Because of the love of God, the Hebrews have a reason to stand with back straight and eyes forward.  The bars of their yoke have been broken.  Because of what God has done for them in the past, they can walk into unknown futures with courage and hope.  They can stand with a sense of pride, not for their own accomplishments, but because of the value they've found in God's accomplishments on their behalf.

As God's people, we are a community that walks tall.  That, for me, is a great image, a great metaphor for what God has done for all of us.  (As a total side note, this language reminds me of the story where Jesus heals a women stooped over for 18 years in Luke 13).

On a different note, the second half of chapter 26 deals with what will happen if the Israelites refuse to listen to God.  I found it interesting that God says he will give the land its sabbath, if the Israelites refuse to let it rest, when he removes the Israelites from their home.  What stood out to me was not how harsh this may seem toward the Israelites, but how much God loves and cares for all of his creation.  Israel (and to a greater extent Christians, as an extension of God's people) was meant to be a caretaker for God's creation, a reincarnation of Adam in the beginning.  If it failed in that task, God would not allow the land to suffer forever.  God loves his universe, and although he loves humanity as part of that universe, if we refuse to fulfill our responsibility, God will not allow his creation to suffer forever do to our negligence.  The land will have its rest regardless.

Stopping point: Leviticus 27

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Priest, Teacher, and Doctor

From what I've heard during discussions, most people tend to view Israel's priests rather one dimensionally, as the ones who offered sacrifice in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. The priests had quite a diverse job description, however. They were, of course, priests offering sacrifices and going to God on behalf of their people, but they were also teachers going to their people on behalf of God. It was the priests who passed on all of God's instructions to Israel. Without them, God's words to Moses would have mostly stayed with Moses. As if that wasn't enough, the priests also acted as Israel's doctors, seeing to the health of a nation. They were the ones given the task of keeping disease outbreaks in check. They were the ones to examined the sick. They were the ones who were supposed to watch over individuals while they healed. Being a priest was no simple task; it was quite a calling.

In the New Testament Christians are called the "priesthood of believers." It might be a good idea to keep in mind the job description that goes along with that calling before we start bragging about our new title.

Stopping Point: Leviticus 25

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

But What About...

When I taught Bible and Christian thought north of Dallas, I developed a close friendship with one of the high school English teachers.  He was, and continues to be, a great guy.  One evening he and I were laughing about strange passages in the Bible, and of course Leviticus 18 came up.  To put it lightly, Leviticus 18 is thorough.  God is very clear about how you can and can't have sex with, although the chapter is almost entirely a list of who you cannot have sex with.  My friend shared how he couldn't read the chapter without picturing someone in the crowd repeatedly raising his hand and asking, "But what about..."

I can't help but wonder if this is always what happens when we try to legalize character.  In other words, when we focus on cans and can'ts, rather then the type of people we are forming ourselves into, I wonder if we've already missed the point.  Rules are good and necessary; they establish boundaries for our own protection, but how sad is it that it takes an entire chapter to answer the question of who someone can't sleep with rather than the one sentence, "I'm going to be the type of person who is faithful to my spouse and not objectify women."  However, that last statement assumes some character formation has already happened.  What do you do if no formation has yet occurred?  Leviticus 18, that's what.  You set the boundaries so that formation may occur.

Anyhow, Leviticus 18...a strange, funny, sad chapter....

Stopping point: Leviticus 23

Friday, February 4, 2011

Potāto Potăto, Tomāto Tomăto

I don't have much to say over today's reading, but there is one thing I read that made me chuckle.  Leviticus chapter 13 discusses skin diseases, or more specifically what constitutes a skin disease.  As a side note, it's important to know that when ancient authors used the label "leprosy" they didn't mean the modern medical understanding of leprosy, which is a disease that affects a person's nerves.  Leprosy was the ancient world's way of describing any skin disease at all.  It was a very broad term.  Having said that, in chapter 13 there's a long discussion on what to do if a white bump shows up on the skin.  If the hair does not die in the follicle, the individual has to be quarantined for seven days and then reinspected to see if the bump has gone away.  If not, and the hair is still alive, the person has to wait another seven days.  Here's what I found amusing.  If the bump goes away and has not spread on the skin, the person is considered clean because it was only an "eruption," or at least that's how the NRSV translates it.  In other words, never mind, it was only a zit.  I feel sorry of the little Levite boys and girls going through puberty.  Zit, eruption. Potāto, potăto.

Stopping point: Leviticus 13

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Rough Start

Nadab and Abihu offer unholy fire unto the Lord and are therefore consumed with holy fire...so begins Leviticus chapter 10.  Leviticus chapter 10 is one of those chapters where just when I think I know what's going on, something else confuses me.  Chapter 10 takes place during the first week of Aaron and his family's life as priests.  During this first week, Aaron and his sons aren't even allowed to leave the Tabernacle because their ordination is not yet complete.  They must eat, sleep, and serve there.  It's during this first week that the two oldest sons of Aaron are killed for not practicing their roles as priests as God instructed.  Remember, leading up to this point Israel has finally been responding to God with obedience rather then complaint.  They have built the Tabernacle, everything for the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and made the priestly robes all as God asked.  But now, Nadab and Abihu decide that they're going to do things their own way.  As the family chosen by God to represent him to all of Israel and instruct Israel in all the ways of God, I can see why God must make an example of them.  That's my read on what Moses says to Aaron after Nadab and Abihu are carried outside the Tabernacle for burial.  In my translation (the NRSV) it almost sounds as if Moses tells Aaron that God killed Nadab and Abihu to show how holy he is.  If that's true, I understand why so many people despise what they consider the "God of the Old Testament."  I think what Moses might might actually been saying is something more along the lines of, "Did you think God was joking when he said he was holy and that your family was expected to reflect that holiness?  God takes this seriously and your family better get that through its head right now."  Whatever Moses is saying, it puts Aaron in his place.  (This seems pretty harsh, but remember, Aaron is the "priest" who was more than happy to make an impromptu cow and call it YHWH.  Like father like sons.)

At the end of the chapter, Aarons remaining sons don't eat their portion of the goat sin offering.  This has Moses steamed, and he let's Aaron and his sons know about it.  This time, however, no one is killed and Aaron finally vents some of his frustration.  This is the part of the chapter I can't figure out.  What does Aaron mean by saying that his sons have already given their sin and burnt offerings, but catastrophe came anyway.  Therefore, would God have been happy had Aaron ate the goat sin offering?  Moses takes this as an acceptable response, but I don't get it.  I'm sure this dialogue would have made perfect sense a few thousand years ago, and that everyone who heard it would have nodded their heads with a hardy, "Oh yes, quite right," but to me it just seems like a strange story.

Was it okay for Aaron and his family to make mistakes their first week as priests or not?  It seems the answer is yes...and no.  It all depends on some factor I do not understand.  Ah Leviticus, you are a thorn in my side.

Stopping point: Leviticus 10

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Putting The Cart Before The Horse

When I hear most Christians talk about the ancient Jewish religion, I usually hear something along the lines of, "Those crazy Jews...they thought their works could make them righteous."  Now, for the moment let's choose to ignore the racial prejudices behind such a sentiment.  Let's also ignore the fact that such a sentiment is imposing a misunderstanding of Martin Luther over ancient Judaism.  For now, let's just look at how ancient Judaism actually functioned.  The Jews didn't offer sacrifices and follow the Law because it made them righteous.  God brought them into a covenant with himself, provided them with formative instruction, and Jewish religious practice flowed out of that.  Saying the Jews believed following Torah would bring them into or keep them in a relationship with God is like putting the cart before the horse.  It's not a matter of works leading to righteousness.  It's a matter of relationship leading to good works.  A good Jew doesn't believe his or her works will make him or her worthy.  It is the fact that God called them out of Egypt that makes the Jews want to respond with obedience.  Christians believe that we should be sexually pure.  Why...because we think sexual purity will bring us into a relationship with God?  No, because God loved us while we were still sinners.  The activity is a response to God, not a bribe to God.  That, at least, has not changed from Old Testament to New Testament.

Stopping point: Leviticus 7

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Economization of Ethics

So, Chick-Fil-A is in the midst of a political scandal.  You can read a brief article about it here.  I find it both fascinating and frustrating that we live in a country/culture that has economized ethics.  We live in a country where we literally tell ourselves we are saving the planet because we purchase bottled water with smaller, more ecologically friendly caps.  Or to put it a different way, if as a Christian I sanction the ideals of humility, simplicity, self-denial, and the letting go of materialism, should I purchase a vehicle with cloth or leather seats?  Now I say this half joking, but on some levels this is a serious conversation.  Especially with the globalization of economics and trade, I should probably think about where the things I purchase come from.  If all of my cloths are made in a sweat shop, then I am financially supporting the oppression of the poor.  That is an ethical issue that should be taken seriously.  (For another, better worded discussion on the topic, here's a post by Dr. Beck.)  However, sometimes I think we can get a little rediculous.

For example, take Chick-Fil-A's present situation.  It is a widely known fact that the founder of Chick-Fil-A is a Christian.  Therefore it shouldn't surprise anyone that a restaurant in Pennsylvania donated sandwiches to The Pennsylvania Family Group.  It just so happens that the TPFG also works to outlaw gay marriage.  Gay rights groups quickly went on the offensive, which is within their right to do.  The present president of Chick-Fil-A even made a statement stating that Chick-Fil-A serves all people of all values.  But here's the thing...would gay rights groups be as angry if Pizza Hut or Subway provided food for the event?  And either way, we can't forget that a restaurant provided food for TPFG, not Chick-Fil-A headquarters.

But here's the bigger issue.  When ethics gets distilled down to economics, we're all missing the point.  Ethics is all about relationship.  So, if members of the LBGT feel they have been wronged by sandwiches, then I guess they should say something.  However, could it be that sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich?

At this point I find myself happy I have such a small reader-ship.  I can only imagine the flaming I would receive from this post.  But, basking in my lack of fame, I think I'll go eat a chicken sandwich and try to love my neighbor, no matter what their sexual orientation.

Finishing Exodus and Beginning Leviticus

I've got to get better about posting over the weekends.  Oh well.  Exodus ends with the building of the Tabernacle, the Ark, and the priestly vestments.  Exodus ends with chapter after chapter of all the minute details the artisans followed in crafting the Tabernacle, Ark, and vestments.  I can imagine some reader thinking to him or her self, "Well, that's interesting, but who cares?"  Or maybe, "What's the point of telling all the details?"  Here's the point: the artisans did exactly what God asked them to do.

If we think back to Genesis there's another story that contains line after line of minutia, and that is the Noah and the Ark story.  Noah is given pages of details about how he should go about building his boat.  He's told specific dimensions.  He's told what specific wood to use, what to seal that wood with, where to place a door and a window...and guess what.  Noah does exactly what he's told to do.  Now some might read the Noah and the ark story and think God must just love being knit-picky, but that misses the point.  The point is that Noah is a righteous man, which is shown in his willingness to do what God tells him to, to the best of his ability.  The same goes for the end of Exodus.  The point isn't that God requires 50 loops of blue cloth on the outside of each 28 cubit curtain, as if 49 or 51 are death-worthy numbers.  The point is that Moses and the Israelites were getting a handle on what it means to be a righteous people, shown by the fact that they did as God asked.  They were learning obedience and trust and humility.  That's the point behind chapter after chapter of needless detail.  The end of Exodus says more about who the Israelites are becoming then it does about who God is.

So what about Leviticus?  Leviticus is the Bible reader killer.  When I was a teen I would read through the Bible.  I read every book, except Leviticus.  Leviticus is tedious, at least in my opinion.  I've known of a few Leviticus lovers, but I'm not one of them and I haven't known many that are.  But beginning our journey into Leviticus, there's one important thing to remember.  Leviticus was for the Levites.  Leviticus is part of the Priestly Code.  What that means is that all Israelites weren't required to follow it.  What tends to happen in Christian circles is Leviticus is read and then the reader is amazed that the nation of Israel had to follow so many rules or that Judaism was a religion all about rules.  Well, they didn't, and it wasn't.  The tribe of Levi did, although they still didn't think their religion was all about rules.  I'll go into more detail about why I think that is later, but for now, as we begin Leviticus, just remember that the book was only intended to be followed by one of the twelve tribes.

Stopping point: Leviticus 4

The Vulnerability of God

I want to begin today with a reflection on Moses' sense of justice.  This is actually a thought I had while reading yesterday's reading.  When the Israelites tested and quarreled with God, Moses named the place they were at Massah (Test) and Meribah (Quarrel) so that they would never be able to forget how they embarrassed themselves, or at least that's why I think he named the place Massah and Meribah.  When Moses caught the Israelites worshiping a golden calf and referring to it by the name of their God, he melted it down, ground it into powder, mixed it with water, and made the Israelites drink it.  I like Moses.  I like Moses' definition of fair.  Moses isn't perfect, but this is one thing about his personality I applaud.

That having been said, a word we may not associate with God is the word 'genuine.'  Maybe that's because it's a trait we usually associate with ourselves, and so the word genuine seems to human to be connected to God.  But, I am impressed by how genuine and vulnerable God chooses to be with Moses.  When God tells Moses to take the Israelites and go to Canaan without him, because if God went with them he would consume them on the way due to the fact that "you are a stiff-necked people," that probably sounds harsh to many.  That doesn't sound harsh to me; that sounds hurt.  God has been hurt.  He married himself to this group of people and they have rejected him over and over and over and over.  The golden calf broke his heart, and I don't think he's trying to hide this from Moses.  God chooses to be genuine and vulnerable with Moses.  He chose to speak to him (as Exodus states a few verses later) "face to face, as one speaks to a friend."  That tells us something about the nature of who God is and what God wants between himself and us.  He is not a dictator.  He is not Zeus hurling lightening.  He is a god that chooses to be vulnerable with his children, and talk to them as friends.

Stopping point: Exodus 33