Thursday, March 31, 2011

Samuel's Heartache

When I read how Samuel's story ends, my heart aches for him.  Here's a man Israel had esteemed so highly that his words were practically seen as the words of God himself.  Yet in the end he is ignored.  Here's a man who was once seen as a rescuer and deliverer of God's people, but when he travels to Bethlehem to anoint David as king, the village elders are afraid he's coming to attack them.  But worst of all, in spite of knowing Israel had rejected God in demanding a king, Samuel had found himself wanting Israel's first king to succeed.  He had invested in Saul, only to see Saul fall farther and farther away from the high hopes Samuel had for him.

I Samuel 15 is the story of the straw that broke the camel's back, or should I say, the story of Saul crossing a point of no return.  The Lord, through Samuel, commands Saul to rid Palestine of the Amalekites.  Saul goes to war, and he utterly crushes the Amalekites, but he doesn't kill the king and he takes all the best livestock for himself as loot.  In other words, rather then obeying God, Saul parades the imprisoned Amalekite king around as a little public relations stunt and makes a hefty profit along the way.  When Samuel meets him after the battle he is shocked by Saul's behavior.  Saul then has the audacity to try to lie to him.  "I didn't take these livestock for myself," he says, "I was going to sacrifice them to the Lord."  I'll give him credit...it's pretty gutsy to lie to a prophet.  Not surprisingly, Samuel isn't having any of it.  "Shut up!" he says, "You think you can lie to me?  Let me tell you what God told me last night."

"You're no longer king," is what Samuel tells Saul in the end, and understandably this doesn't sit well with Saul.  Ironically, to me at least, Saul is so full of himself that he still thinks Samuel should come back with him to his camp in order to make sacrifices to God on his behalf.  Sure, he says, "I have sinned.  I was afraid of the people.  They made me do it!  You must forgive me," first, but ultimately I think what is really going on is Saul knows he still needs Samuel's support.  I think by this time Saul could care less about his standing with God.  He cares quite a bit about his standing among the people, however.  Having Samuel make sacrifices would make it appear that God sanctioned Saul's activity.  Samuel refuses however, heatedly repeating the fact that he doesn't have to do a thing for Saul anymore because God has rejected him as king.  Things escalate, and as Samuel turns to leave Saul yanks him back, tearing his cloak, but as I read the story I picture the anger leaving Samuel's eyes when he turns back to Saul.  I think the anger is replaced by despair, not over Israel, but over Saul himself.  Saul is a lost cause, totally unrepentant.  Ultimate power has corrupted ultimately, so when Saul again tries to convince Samuel that he is sorry and that Samuel should sacrifice to the Lord on Saul's account, Samuel agrees.  I don't think this is because Saul has tricked Samuel or because Saul's repentance is authentic.  I think it's because Samuel has given up hope.  What does it matter if Saul wants to play king?  What does it matter if Saul wants to play at religion?  Everything Samuel had worked for his whole life had fallen apart.  He was rejected as judge.  He was rejected as priest.  He was rejected as counselor, and now his hopes that the first king of Israel might be able to turn things around had been dashed.  The man he had empowered was now using him for selfish gain.

I can sort of resonate with Samuel on this one.  The life of a minister is largely filled with empowering other people.  A minister who wants to make sure he always ends up on top is a minister to be leery off.  A good minister is a person who works diligently to see God's power made manifest in the life of others, and sometimes that means anointing others to rule, so to speak.  It hurts, deeply, when the people you helped get into positions of authority then use that authority to attack or belittle you.  As a minister, that really sucks, and it only takes once to really make you lose heart, to make you gun-shy to trust another.  Samuel seems to give up after this encounter with Saul.  He goes back home, mourning how things turned out with Saul, and basically withdraws from the life of Israel.  Until the day he died, he never went to see Saul again.

I'm torn about this.  As a Christian I am called to forgive, but when people you empowered turn out to lead selfishly, what is the proper response?  Saul needed to be removed as king.  God had rejected him as king, and ultimately Saul becomes a case study in self-destruction, but did Samuel handle himself well?  Should he have forgiven Saul?  How would that have looked in practice?  Frankly, I don't know.  There are some times when staying in Ramah is easier.

At the same time, Samuel doesn't completely shut down.  When God tells him to stop throwing himself a pity-party, pick himself up and go to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Samuel does it.  I guess there is a lesson to be learned in that too.  Sometimes things just don't work out.  I'm sure Samuel spent quite a bit of time thinking through how things had gone wrong, although I'm probably just reading myself into Samuel.  But some things are just too complex, answers can never be found.  At some point we must move on, not matter what remains unresolved, and go out to empower the next leaders.  I guess it's good to remember our place.  We are not the ones who rule, neither are the ones we empower.  Ultimately there is only one King, and we all must do our best to serve him.

Stopping point: I Samuel 17

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How Quickly The Mighty Can Fall

I Samuel 13 represents a shift in the story of Saul, first king of Israel.  The tip off is the first verse, which is actually an incomplete verse, lost to time.  It tells us how old Saul was when he became king and how long he reigned, or at least it would if the numbers weren't missing from the manuscripts.  Either way, beginning in chapter 13, the story of Saul is no longer the story of Saul, it's the story of Saul falling from power.

In two chapters Saul loses the support of the most respected man in Israel, Samuel, loses the support of his army as he begins losing battles, and loses the support of his son.  By the end of chapter 14, his people have no regard for him what-so-ever.

Chapter 14 concludes a campaign against the Philistines.  Saul, after losing a battle already, has withdrawn to higher ground while much of his army has fled and is hiding in the hills.  His son, Jonathan, decides to take his armor bearer and head to the Philistine camp by himself.  Long story short, his son attacks the camp, throws the Philistines into a panic, and brings a victory out of what should have been a clear defeat.  The problem is Saul makes a bad call as the supreme general.  He refuses to allow his troops to eat.  Jonathan doesn't know about this order, however, and eats anyway.  Later, Saul orders for his son to be killed for disobeying orders.  The troops' response is telling.

"Shall Jonathan die,who has accomplished this great victory in Israel?"

When I read that verse, what I hear is, "You want to kill Jonathan...who do you think accomplished this great victory, anyway?  Are you nuts?"  The answer being...yes.  From this point forward Saul continues to make poor decisions, eventually losing his mind to jealousy and paranoia.  Israel wanted a king, and they got one, but I'm guessing they realized after the fact that having a king wasn't everything it was cracked up to be.

Stopping point: I Samuel 14

A Parallel Universe...Theology and Not Sci-Fi

I realized early this week that as I was reading over the weekend I skipped the book of Ruth, so I went back and read it.  Every time I read the book of Ruth I'm impressed by how risque it is.  It's a very down to earth book about right-less women doing what they need to do in order to survive.  Naomi returns home in disgrace, and old, bitter woman.  Ruth gleans the dropped wheat for food, letting Naomi convince her that seduction is a completely valid approach to marriage.  Boaz uses business savvy to procure a wife.  It's an interesting book.

Most people are unaware that there is a controversy regarding the book of Ruth, and it all revolves around the meaning of the word regel.  The Hebrew word regel has two meanings.  The first is "feet," so when Naomi tells Ruth to uncover Boaz's feet after the harvest feast and she does it, she could have been taking off his shoes.  Something along these lines is what I was taught growing up (technically I was taught that Boaz was in bed, so Ruth just rolled up the covers.  This was somehow seen as a sign of servitude.).  The second meaning for regel is "private parts," for a PG rated translation.  Well, I'm guessing you can see how that changes everything as far as what Ruth is attempting to do with Boaz.

Over the years I've seen quite a few different reactions when people first hear this.  Many people, especially with conservative leanings, find this suggestion outrageous, if not heretical.  That is not the type of thing the Bible would condone!  (I've always found this reaction strange considering the book of Ruth follows Judges, which ends with rape, murder, near genocide, and kidnapping.  What's a little seduction compared to that?)  People have literally lost their tempers over such a suggestion.

What I want to suggest is that such a response is rooted in a false concept of God.  Western religion is heavily influenced by both gnosticism and deism.  Gnosticism (warning, this is an oversimplified definition) is the idea that the physical and spiritual are two separate things.  More over, all things spiritual are good, all things physical bad.  The direct implication of this is that God cannot stomach us.  God, spiritual, is repulsed by the universe, physical.  To sound juvenile, God thinks sex is icky.  Therefore, there is no way in heaven or earth that God could be present or work in a situation like Ruth trying to seduce Boaz.

Deism sanctions the idea of a supreme being, but only a distant supreme being.  Deism's god is a god who built the universe like a clock, wound it up, but then stepped back and let it go.  Deism's god is distant, far away, aloof.  The implication of this is that God is not in the thick of things.  He never gets his hands dirty.  Ultimately, we are on our own and God will not work with us (for us, in us) to bring about our good or his will.

There is, however, a third option, an option shown to us in the incarnation of God's son.  For the lack of a better term, we'll call this incarnationism (theologians would call this "incarnational theology," but why use the proper term when I can make one up?).  Incarnationism proves gnosticism false because in Jesus we discover that we are not divided beings.  We are not flesh and spirit, we are fully human.  Jesus was not a divided being.  Jesus was Jesus, fully human, fully divine, not degrees of both.  In incarnationism we find that God is not repulsed by our existence.  God does not, in fact, find sex icky.  He did, in fact, make it and call it good.  Such a statement does not suggest that seduction is the best, or even a good, use of sexuality, but it does suggest that God can, by nature, be present where seduction is present.

Incarnationism also shows deism false.  God is not far off and aloof.  He is, in fact, stepping in all the same crap we step in.  Not because he has to, but because he wants to be near us, to walk with us, to be in us, and knee deep in muck is often where we find ourselves.  God will get his hands dirty.  We are not alone, and God will work to bring about our good and his will even if that means working with poor or desperate decisions like attempted seduction.

Most Christians I know tend to think of God as somehow above us, unreachable and beyond us.  Instead, I would suggest that God is along side us, but that something has gone wrong.  The "along side us" that God intended got broken, and so what was once one has now become in some way parallel universes, tracking along side one another, but dissected.  Is that not exactly what we find happen from Genesis 3 forward?  God has never been absent from our reality, but we have often times walked away from his.  Bringing the two together seems to be the ultimate work of God.  Is this not what Jesus prayed for when he said, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?"  Is this not what early Christians looked forward to when they spoke of a new heaven and earth that would come together as a bride and groom?  Is this not what we caught a glimpse of when Jesus came back from death on Sunday morning?

In the mean time, God works within the messes we give him.  If that means two desperate women who are running out of time and hope decide to seduce a man in the hope that marriage might result, then God will work with that.  I don't see how this makes God look like he is sanctioning seduction.  It simply shows how fallen things have become that two women would be in that situation to begin with, and how far God is willing to go to try to turn things around.  So for me, I'm going to stick with the idea that Boaz's regel was not his foot.

Stopping point: Ruth

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Love Your Enemies...Even When They're Your Friends

As anyone who has been around me much already knows, a pet peeve of mine is people who think the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are two different Gods, or at least two different sides of God.  Such people see God in the OT as wrathful, mean, and vindictive, whereas the NT God is loving and kind.  After all, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and where do we see that in the OT.  Well, as just one example, with Samuel.  That's where.

Samuel finds himself rather frustrated in his old age.  His sons have turned out to be selfish and corrupt.  The nation of Israel has continually refused to be true to God or each other.  In spite of God repeatedly delivering them from all sorts of oppression, they eventually want a king to deliver them.  As far as Samuel is concerned, Israel has sold out.  His own people have abandoned their heritage, and in so doing, stood opposed to him and everything he represented as a judge in Israel.

As Saul learns more and more about what it means to be a king, and as such gains more influence, Samuel finds himself pushed further and further into the margins.  He is old.  He can no longer lead armies.  His family is a disappointment, and where once Israel listened to his advice, now they ignore him.  Samuel has one last speech left in him, however, and by the end he has finally brought his audience to a place where they can see how they have turned their backs on God, which is why they demanded a king in the first place.

When Israel comes to this realization, the people ask Samuel to go to God on their behalf.  If I were Samuel, I would probably be thinking, "Oh sure, you abandon and reject me.  You abandon and reject God, and now you want me to come to the rescue?  Forget it."  But, that isn't Samuel's response.  Samuel's response is this:

"...As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; and I will instruct you in the good and the right way."

Israel and Samuel found themselves on opposite sides.  Israel, Samuel's own people had effectively become his enemies, but Samuel's response to them in their time of need wasn't to laugh and say, "To hell in a hand basket with you all."  His response was to love his enemies, even though in this case those enemies might have been friends.  There's a reason Samuel was the man of God during his day and age.

As the phrase goes, God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Jesus is the full revelation of God, not a redefining of God.  Assuming otherwise is a misunderstanding on our part.  As such, God has always expected the same behavior from the people who claim to follow him.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love your enemy.

Stopping point: I Samuel 12

Friday, March 25, 2011

No Happy Ending For The Tribes Of Israel

I'm sorry if the graphic nature if the photo disturbs you.  It definitely disturbs me.  The woman has obviously been raped and murdered, and what truly disgusts me is the fact that the two men in the picture are smiling.  I look at this picture and I think, "Lord help us.  How have things become so broken in this world?"  I think the same thing when I read the conclusion to the book of Judges.

A Levite, a murdered concubine, and the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, that's how the book of Judges ends.  It is truly a depressing conclusion.  Does the nation of Israel have a future?  Will it ever realize the hopes God has for it?  Are the twelve tribes doomed to destroy one another, the nation of Israel spiraling apart into twelve warring mini-nations?  The book of Judges ends with a cliff-hanger.

The story begins with a woman leaving her husband.  The NRSV says this was because she was angry with him, but there is a footnote that says she "prostituted herself against" him.  This is one of those moments that I truly regret letting my Hebrew slip away because I really want to know which is the more accurate translation.  Oh well.  Either way, after a few months the Levite decides to try to win her back, so he begins a journey to Bethlehem.  The woman's father seems overjoyed to see him and entertains him for multiple days, convincing him to stay longer and longer, but eventually the Levite must return home and begins the trip back.  However, they leave late in the day and are forced to choose where to stay for the night.  One option is Jerusalem, which during the time of Judges was not a Jewish town.  Their other option is to travel a bit further north and spend the night in one of the villages of Benjamin.  They choose the later option, assuming that it would be safer to spend the night with fellow Hebrews.  At once, things go wrong.

First of all, no one welcomes them into the village.  They're forced to sit in the village square.  As the reader, this should immediately tip us off to a serious problem.  In the back of our minds there should be a little voice that says, "Hey, I remember this...this sounds just like Sodom and Gomorrah."  In a direct parallel to that story, an outsider to Gibeah (the Benjamite village in which the Levite stopped), an Ephraimite, is the only one to eventually shelter them, just as Lot was the hospitable foreigner in Sodom.  Just like Sodom, the men of Gibeah come out at night, bang on the Ephraimite's door, and demand to rape the Levite.  The Ephraimite offers them his only daughter; he offers them the Levite's wife, but they want nothing but the Levite.  Danger is imminent.  Lives are at stake, all because the Levite needed a place to rest.  I'm guessing in desperation, the Levite pushes his wife out the door.

Now before we get too angry at the abhorrent decision of the Levite, let us just remember that this couldn't have been an easy decision.  He seems to have loved her.  Why else would he track her down after she left him, especially if she had prostituted herself to other men, with the sole intent of "speaking tenderly to her."  The Levite was not an evil man, and I can only imagine what it must have been like with an angry mob screaming on one side of a door and a woman you had traveled to a different part of the country to rescue on the other, along with a servant and a whole family who stood a real chance of being killed.  What would you do in that situation?

Whatever you might do, when the Levite deems it safe to leave the next day, he finds his wife dead, her hand on the threshold of the door, loosing her life in a last attempt to return to safety.  At first it seems the Levite is rather callous to this, but assuming that would be wrong.  He is outraged.  So outraged that once he returns home he takes his wife's body, cuts it into twelve pieces, sends a piece to each tribe of Israel, and asks, "Are you going to allow such a thing to happen?"

The ultimate answer is "no."  There is a new Sodom in Canaan, but unlike the original, this one is within the very people of God.  As the reader, I find this completely disheartening and disillusioning.  Eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel muster at Shiloh, for the first time since entering Canaan.  Judges says they were "united as one."  This is how God intended them to be all along, but they have never done it until now, and it is to destroy one of their own tribes.

Many details skipped, civil war breaks out.  Out of an entire tribe only 600 men remain alive after the war.  Benjamin is a single breath away from extinction.  All Israel mourns for the situation they find themselves in.  The eleven tribes had made a vow before the war to not allow any of their daughters to be married to the Benjamites, so how can things be remedied?  One possible solution is to punish one town for not responding when all Israel was called to war.  Other then the virgin women, the entire town was eradicated.  The young women were then given to the 600 remaining men of Benjamin, but only 400 virgins had been captured.  That wasn't enough to save the tribe of Benjamin.  The ultimate solution...allow the remaining men of Benjamin to kidnap women from the yearly festival at Shiloh, and if the fathers complain...well, Benjamin is saved and the fathers won't be killed for breaking their vow to not allow their daughters to marry anyone from the tribe of Benjamin.  Think that through.  The solution to the problem of Benjamin's extinction is murder or the threat of murder.

And what does the author of Judges think about all this?  How does he summarize the situation?  The last words of Judges are these:

"In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes."

This, of course, is a foreshadowing of the kings to come, but on another level this is a critique of how far Israel had fallen.  Kings, of course, can be men, but in Israel the true King was God himself, and Israel had done a fine job of pushing him out of the picture.  Without him, they were left to their own devices.  Without him, there was nothing to keep them from becoming what they had always been: selfish, greedy, destructive, and stubborn.  Israel had turned its back on its God, and in so doing embraced death.  Is it any wonder they mourned and wailed?  In the absence of a "king," Israel realized they were doomed.

One last thought before wrapping up this post.  When Christians read books like Judges, especially for the first time, they're understandably shocked.  However, far too often Christians seem to write off the book of Judges with a subtle sense of arrogance.  The attitude seems to be that the Jews were barbaric, the Jews were selfish, the Jews had turned against God and each other...but thank God that we're not like that any more.  The only difference between the Jews and Christians is that the Jews were brave enough to write down their own history, warts and all.  By the end of the 30 Years War in Europe, Germany's population had dropped by upwards of 30%.  And why was that?  Because the Reformation had happened and the Christian tribes had gone to war with one another.  America might not have fought a civil war over religion, but I was raised in a Christian tribe that taught we don't marry people from other tribes.  It doesn't take a long google search to see where we might not be killing one another, but there is a civil war going on among the Church and its tribes.  So, before we start patting ourselves on the back for being superior, we need to take a cold, hard look at ourselves and see if there is any King among us.  Otherwise we're doomed to a reality where everyone does what is right in their own eyes.  The book of Judges tells us exactly how that will go.



Stopping point: Judges 21

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It Takes One To Know One and The Gospel of Wealth

Samson finally met his match in Delilah.  For once, he met a woman who was as selfish, destructive, and greedy as himself.  He wants sex; she wants sex.  He wants to make an easy buck; she wants to make an easy buck.  He practices trickery; she practices trickery.  He has no hesitation in leaving a woman behind, and she apparently has no hesitation in leaving a man behind.  He found someone just like him, the perfect match.  It got him killed.  Frankly, I don't feel much sympathy for him.  Samson was a judge of Israel, true, but a hero or example...not so much.  His death is a tragic, angry, vengeful one.  But then again, the words tragic, angry, and vengeful sort of sum up his whole life.

That having been said, after the story of Samson the book of Judges changes course.  Samson is actually the last judge listen in Judges.  The rest of the book deals with the quick decline of tribal relations and religious faithfulness in Israel.  It begins with the story of a man named Micah who had stolen a great deal of money from his mother.  She places a curse on the stolen money, which he hears, and so he decides to give it back.  I'm guessing it was quite a curse.  Anyhow, in gratitude for the returned money, the mother decides to dedicate it to the Lord by turning a portion of it into an idol.  I hope you see the irony of that decision.  Micah then decides to give the idol some company, so he makes other idols to Baal and Asherah.  After all, we wouldn't want God to get lonely, would we?  After the idols are ready to go, he sets one of his sons over the idols as priest.

Let's think about how many things are wrong with this story.  First, Micah is a crook.  Second, Micah's mother is trying to make God into an easily contained image.  Third, Israel was supposed to be monotheistic.  Forth, only descendants of Aaron were meant to be priests.  We might remember the last time people from another tribe decided to make themselves priests...the ground opened up and swallowed them whole.  But then the story gets better.

A Levite living with the tribe of Judah decides it's time for him to explore the world a little.  He sets off and eventually comes across Micah and his mini-Pantheon.  Micah offers to hire him as an official priest, after all, this young man is at least a Levite, the same as Aaron.  I'm assuming Micah's son was fired.  Micah then says this:

"Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest."

He has a Levite.  His little idol temple must be officially sanctioned by God!  Wow, what luck....  A long-present thorn in the side of American Christianity is prosperity theology, otherwise known as the Gospel of Wealth.  The gist of this theology is that God blesses those he loves with physical blessings (namely money).  Again, this is nothing new.  The Gospel of Wealth has been around in one form or another since the Industrial Revolution, and there are far too many theological and practical problems with it for me to summarize them all here.  Suffice it to say, it's all poppycock.  It ties to Micah's experience because the Gospel of Wealth suggests that if one is being blessed financially then one must be right with God.  It's a perfect, little circular argument.  Micah has silver.  He has gods.  He even has a priest from the right tribe.  He must be right with God!  Of course, from an outside perspective we know that he has been blinded by his own "success."

By the end of the story, Micah looses everything.  He is belittled in front of his own household, and the Danites walk off laughing at his expense, with his idols and his Levite.  In the end, the Gospel of Wealth is aptly named because wealth is what is worshiped, but wealth is a fickle thing.  It comes and it goes, and contrary to how secure it makes us feel, it is not God.  It keeps no promises.  It is not self-sustaining.  It has no loyalty.  Micah learned that the hard way.  Americans continue to learn that the hard way, and yet we still want so desperately to believe in our false, little gospel.  After all, if mega-churches can grow around such a gospel, it must be true!

Lord, save us from ourselves.

Stopping point: Judges 18

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Judge...Justice...Samson...Really?

The title "Judges" given to the people in the book of Judges can be rather misleading.  Naturally, when we think of the title "Judges," we assume a corresponding sense of justice.  It doesn't take long when reading the book of Judges to question the type of justice meted out.  Frankly, a far more accurate depiction of the judges in the book of Judges would be "warlord."  The judges in Judges are generals, warriors...Genghas Khans.  There isn't much discussion or deliberation over wrongs done in the book of Judges; there is simply war.

Samson is the perfect example of how a judge in Judges is anything but just.  One only has to look at his view of women to see that justice is not high on his priority list.  His first wife was a Philistine woman from the town of Timnah.  Her name is never given, which is just as well considering how tragic her life would become after meeting Samson.  Knowing her name would only make her loss all the more real and human.  Why did Samson want to marry her?  Was it her personality?  Was it her intelligence?  Was it even for prestige or money?  Nope, he found her sexually appealing.

Moving ahead to their wedding, Samson sees an opportunity to make a little wealth on the side by challenging the Philistines to solve an unsolvable riddle.  They agree, after all, there were a bunch of them, and when people put their heads together how hard can a little riddle be?  It doesn't take them long to realize that Samson's riddle isn't a riddle, but rather gibberish, the answer to which only Samson could know.  Cutting out some details, the young men of Timnah finally learn the answer to the riddle by blackmailing Samson's wife.  His response is not to find out what's going on, but rather to accuse his wife of being a whore, saying, "If you had not plowed with my heifer, you wold not have found out my riddle."  I'm sure that's what every newly wed bride wants to hear.  He abandons his wife, whose father then gives her to be the wife of the best man.  That's what I'd call a rough day.

But then...harvest season comes around.  I don't know if this was weeks or months later.  It doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that Samson shows up with a baby goat.  "Why a baby goat?" you might ask.  Well, in the ancient world that's how you pay a prostitute for sex.  Now, if we were to read ahead we'd discover that Samson has a thing for prostitutes, so there is a chance that Timnah was, in fact, a prostitute.  But still, showing up out of the blue to consummate a marriage you abandoned with price in hand is rather tacky.

When he approaches the family of his ex-wife does he say, "Hey, dad"?  Does he say, "I'm sorry"?  Does he say, "I've been an idiot"?  No, what he says is, "I want to go into my wife's room."  See, I brought a goat!  The father understandably tells him no, and that, by the way, your wife is now the wife of your best man because you abandoned her you moron.  Samson then throws a temper tantrum and burns all the fields, vineyards, and olive groves around Timnah.  (This also fits with Samson's idea of "justice."  When he lost his bet over the riddle, he murdered 30 people to get what he needed to pay up.)

By the end of the story of Samson and his first wife, the people of Timnah burn his wife and her father alive because of what Samson had done.  Way to go Samson.  As far as loosening the death grip the Philistines had on the surrounding Jews, he was instrumental in breaking their hold, but as far as personal justice or moral fortitude, Samson is a failure.  He wasn't a judge in any modern sense of the word.  He was a warlord, and in his case, an army of one.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Book of Morons

If asked, "What's your favorite book in the bible?" Judges probably wouldn't make it on very many people's lists.  But believe it or not, the book of Judges is one of my favorites.  For me, it's like stepping back in time, into another culture.  Now that's not to say it's a nostalgic, overly romanticized, "oh..things were better back then" stepping back in time.  In fact, the book of Judges is about warfare and oppression and murder.  It's a bloody, brutal book where foreign generals are nailed to the ground with tent pegs through their heads.  I realized that this makes me sound very violent, so Judges is a rather odd book for a pacifist to like, but there you have it.

One of the things I find most intriguing about the book of Judges is the type of person God repeatedly works through to free his people from neighboring powers.  The list isn't exactly a list that makes you say, "Wow," in a good way.  For a long time, I have fondly referred to the book of Judges as the Book of Morons.  Here's just a sampling of Israel's judges:

Ehud: a left handed man who kills the king of Moab on the toilet.  (In the ancient world, left handed people were considered odd.  There was something wrong with them.  The idea that God might use a left handed man...well, the scandal of it all!)

Barak: a man so courageous that he refuses to go to battle unless Deborah, a prophetess, goes with him.  (Think Bronze Age here.  Hiding behind a woman would have been a huge insult to Barak's leadership skills.)

Gideon: again, a man so courageous that when he first appears in the book of Judges he's hiding in a wine press.  And then as if seeing an angel isn't proof enough, Gideon demands multiple signs from God before he decides that God really is serious about using him to lead an army.  His great act of revolt against foreign gods, tearing down the altar and idols of Baal and Asherah in his home town, was done at night because he didn't want his dad to catch him.  And then, after pushing the army of Midian out of Israel, Gideon makes an idol of his own.  Moron....

Jephthah: the rejected son of a prostitute, an outlaw and brigand.  He was approached by the very half-brothers who threw him out in order to see if he might lead their armies and defeat the Ammonites that had invaded their territory.  He agreed, with the condition that if he defeated the Ammonites he would become their leader, which suited them just fine.  Before going to battle, he vowed to the Lord that if he should win he would offer as a burned sacrifice the first thing that walked out of his house.  It just so happened that he did win, and as he returned home his only child, his daughter, came out to welcome him home (In Jephthah's defense, the first floor of Israelite houses was used for keeping livestock at this stage in Israel's history.).  The story doesn't say he backed down from his vow....

That's just a sampling of the judges in the book of Judges, not exactly what I would call heroes or role models for virtuous character.  These people are messed up!  Maybe that's why I like the book of Judges so much.  Hey, if God can use those people, I might not be so bad after all.  I'm even right handed!

Stopping point: Judges 12

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Age of Judges

So, yesterday I finished up Joshua and today I began Judges.  I've always found the beginning of Judges interesting.  If there's one thing I hear used more than anything else as far as discrediting God and the Bible, it's the conquest of Canaan (although as I type that, maybe a more recently used argument in view of Japan's predicament is why God allows disasters).  When people think of God leading Israel into Canaan all they can think of is a God sanctioned blood bath.  Granted, it was war, and war is a blood bath, but it would do us well to try to see things as the authors of these stories want us to see things.  First, the book of Judges immediately points out that Israel did not kill everyone in Canaan.  Second of all, as modern readers shaped by a knowledge of history, by WWI and WWII and Auschwitz and Vietnam and Rwanda and Darfur, we understandably have a hard time reading these biblical stories through a lens other then revulsion.  But that is not the lens used by the authors of Joshua and Judges.  Their issue is whether Israel will stay faithful to God.  That being the issue, the goal of Israel is not to murder the Canaanites but rather to remove them from the land so Israel will not be tempted to worship foreign gods in their midst.  Before the book of Judges a phrase often read is "put to the sword," a rather violent phrase, but in the first chapter of Judges, the phrase that gets repeated over and over is that Israel failed to "drive out" the Canaanites.  Now, I'm sure the Canaanites didn't like either option, but again, the motivating question for Judges is whether Israel will be faithful.  By not driving the Canaanites out of their midst, the Israelites set themselves up for failure.  They are not only surrounded by neighboring countries with foreign gods, the foreign gods are in their own villages.

I know I'm repeating myself, but I want to drive this point home.  God's goal was not to kill people.  The Israelites' job was not to kill people.  The goal was for Israel to be a faithful people and to tear down the Canaanite altars.  That is what Israel did not do.  That is how they betrayed themselves and their God.  That is what ultimately cost them a vibrant future.  That is, in fact, why the whole book of Judges exists.

Stopping point: Judges 2

PS--I put the land allotment map at the top because that's how I was taught the first land if Israel looked like, and if Israel had taken possession of all the land, that is how it would have looked like.  The problem is that both the end of Joshua and the beginning of Judges is very clear that Israel did not take possession of all the land.  So, all those nice internet maps are more of a dream then a reality.  Yet one more thing I find thought provoking.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Challenge To Be A Better People

Was ancient Israel monotheistic or polytheistic?  In a nutshell, the answer is "yes."  At the end of the book of Joshua, Joshua presents Israel with a challenge.  They could either serve the God who brought them out of Egypt, serve the gods of the people they now lived among, or serve the gods of their forefathers from beyond the Euphrates River.  In response they say they'll serve God, but Joshua seems to doubt it.  When Joshua hears the people say they'll serve the Lord, his response is, "You cannot serve the Lord...."  Now that sounds a little judgmental, and Israel is willing to argue the point.  "No," they say, "we will serve the Lord."  Joshua pushes back, "You are witnesses against yourselves...."  In other words, "Are you absolutely sure?  From now on, if you commit to this, you will convict or acquit yourselves based on what you do."  Israel repeats again that they are, in fact, sure that they will only serve God.  At this point Joshua's response is interesting:

"Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel."

What?  Israel is, and has been, worshiping other gods?  In spite of God taking them out of Egypt, in spite of an entire idolatrous generation passing away during forty years of wandering in the wilderness, in spite of Israel finding a home in a land where their enemies far outnumbered them, they're still worshiping other gods?  Again, in a nutshell, the answer is yes.

I think the challenge Joshua presents to the Israelites is a much deeper challenge then just worshiping God.  Joshua is really presenting Israel with the challenge to be a different type of people, not just a people who worships God, but a people shaped by faithfulness and trust and commitment.  With the exception of a few individuals, faith, trust, and commitment have yet to describe Israel.  Israel has now been given another chance to change its ways.  I say another and not a second because Israel has already been given a second and a third and a forth and a fifth and a sixth...you get the point.

Idolatry was only a symptom.  Israel's illness ran much deeper.  It was an illness of character.  It was a confusion of what the relationship between God and humanity was meant to be.  In that sense, things haven't changed much.  With each generation, and for many times within each generation, humanity is given a chance to be better, to try to turn things around, to be the type of humanity we were meant to be.  At one level, is this not what God did for us in Christ?  In Ephesians Paul says:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the results of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Christ's death and resurrection for us, that is gift.  That is grace, just as Israel being delivered from Egypt, from starvation and dehydration was unmitigated gift.  But the next question is, "What were we delivered for?"  What now?  Joshua's and Paul's answer is the same.  God freed us to be a different type of humanity, the type of humanity we were meant to be, a type of humanity that is obsessed with doing good rather than idols and of serving God rather then serving ourselves.

Just because Joshua spoke to another people in another land at another time does not mean that we can ignore his challenge.  Who will we worship?  What type of humanity will we be?

Stopping point: Joshua 24

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Simple Misunderstanding

It's amazing to me how much damage a misunderstanding can do.  Maybe it was something misunderstood in an email.  Maybe it was a word or phrase that one individual heard in a totally different way than the speaker intended.  Maybe it was an altar built to be a sign of fidelity that another group saw as a sign of idolatry.  That was Israel's case.

Israel had arrived in Canaan, and although they had not claimed all their territory, they had at least set up permanent residence.  That having been accomplished, the two and a half tribes whose inheritance was east of the Jordan returned home after years of war.  There was a problem, however.  Nine and a half tribes lived west of the Jordan, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to imagine that some day, those western tribes might forget that the eastern tribes were really part of Israel.  The Jordan River might stop being a river and start being a boundary marker, a visible distinction between an insider group and an outsider group.  The eastern tribes understandably didn't want this to happen.  So, as a sign of fidelity, they built a copy of the altar used at Shiloh (the new home of the Tabernacle).

But then, also understandably, the western tribes thought that the eastern tribes had built a false idol.  This is no small issue.  Israel was still experiencing the spiritual, emotional, and even physical consequences of the idolatry they practiced at Peor, and God had warned the Israelites what would happen if they began worshiping other gods once they inherited Canaan.  He would destroy them.  No, such an altar could be allowed to exist, and neither could the heathens who built it.  Those eastern tribes...you know how people are on that side of the tracks...or Jordan.  It's seems like the eastern tribes had reason to be worried.

Luckily, after mustering the army but before sending it off to war, the western tribes sent a delegation to find out why the eastern tribes would do such a thing.  They then discovered that the altar wasn't an altar at all.  It was a memorial.  It was a physical, lasting tribute to the fact that the eastern tribes didn't worship false gods and did worship the Lord.  It was a sign that the eastern tribes were, and always would be, part of the true Israel.

It saddens me how quick Christians are to go to war with our brothers and sisters on the other side of the Jordan.  The Jordan can take many forms.  Maybe it's differences of opinion about what happens to us when we die.  Maybe it's differences of opinion about women's roles in the church, whether there should be ordained ministers, whether ministers should wear robes, or what style of music we sing.  Maybe it's whether we're Church of Christ or Disciple of Christ or Baptist or Methodist or Catholic or Presbyterian or Episcopal or non-denominational.  Whatever the case, we have a tendency to misunderstand each other, especially as generations come and go.  What at first seemed like a small stream now seems like an immeasurable gulf.  Maybe there is something for us to learn from ancient Israel.  There is only one God, one Son, and one Holy Spirit, and we all agree on who that is.

I have no doubt that within a few generations the cultures on both sides of the Jordan became very distinct.  West of the Jordan that happened from north to south, and they were physical neighbors.  Maintaining relationship and community is never an easy endeavor, but it must be done.  Maybe it's time for us to erect some memorials, or better yet, to remember the ones we already have.

Stopping point: Joshua 21

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Playing Catch Up

Yeah, so...I completely fell off the wagon with posting last week, only posting twice, and neither having to do with my reading.  Let's see if I can do better this week.

Since my last actual reading post, I have read another 39 chapters, finished Deuteronomy, and almost finished Joshua.  There is a lot of interesting, odd, and thought provoking material in all of that, too much for me to boil down into a single post.  So, here are a few random musings from my reading.

I find it interesting that God commands the Israelites to marry the captive women they find beautiful, and then wait a year before having sex with them.  Considering that the commonly acceptable practice would have been to rape them and leave them, this probably would have seemed like an extravagantly strange law to all the nations Israel moved into.  Not only that, if after a year it became obvious the marriage wouldn't work, the man was to set the woman free.  No shame would be placed on the woman, and she was free to marry whoever she wanted.  Again, in our day and age this seems barbaric, but in the bronze age this would have been quite a victory for women's rights.

God gets a bad rap for the Deuteromistic covenant (do good and I'll bless you.  Worship other gods and I'll destroy you).  For many modern readers it seems overly simplistic, if not callous.  However, if we keep reading, the warning ends by saying that if the Israelites betray God and they are taken off into foreign lands, when they search for him again he will come to them and bring them home from the four corners of the earth.  Nothing, in the end, can separate them from the love of God.  In the end, God desires his last words to be words of love, not judgment.

Toward the end of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses a few final things before his death.  One of them is that God knows the Israelites will betray him once he brings them into the land promised to their ancestors (technically God says they will "prostitute themselves to the foreign gods").  The surprise: God gives them a home anyway.

Well, sort of.  After the initial conquest (which lasted at least 5 years), the Israelites lose steam.  I don't know if it's the fact that they're tired of fighting or if they lose trust in God, but either way, they stop kicking the Canaanites out of Palestine.  They stop expanding to take all the territory God intended for them to have.  In the end, the only thing that keeps God from giving Israel all he hoped to give them was...Israel.  How often is it the case that the only thing in our way is us.

So, there's 39 chapters in a nut shell.  Sorry for getting sidetracked from the posting.  Here's to staying diligent!

Stopping point: Joshua 18

Friday, March 11, 2011

Taking My Own Medicine

So last night Kalyn and I were laying in bed, about to zonk out, when she said something to this effect, "BJ, people have said they're sorry."  That is not the beginning of a conversation I want to have at midnight, but I'm glad she had the courage to say something after reading yesterday's post.  As I said yesterday, I find myself a mix of thoughts and emotions as I try to come to terms with the last three years and what this next year may be like.  I wasn't thinking very clearly yesterday, and I let my hurt skew my memory of the past.  Kalyn gave me one good example of when a person who had hurt me deeply came into my office and genuinely said, "I was wrong.  I'm sorry," ...the very thing I said no one had said.

So now I get to take my own advice.  Yesterday's post wasn't fair.  It wasn't accurate.  I was speaking out of pain, and seldom are we able to see clearly when we do that.  It was not right for me to paint things in negative colors only.  I am sorry.

Also, thank you, Kalyn, for being willing to say the hard things I don't want to hear when I need to hear them.  I love you.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Power of Words

Sorry for falling off the face of the earth this week with my blogging.  I'm still on track with my reading, but I fell behind with the commenting on it.  That having been said, my post for today won't be on Deuteronomy.  It will be more personal in nature.

As I've said in previous posts, I'm in the process of transitioning out of my present ministry.  I tend not to post much about it.  This is partly due to the fact that often times I'm not sure what to say as I wrestle with all the feelings and emotions and anxieties that come with such a transition.  It's also due to the fact that ranting on this blog wouldn't do anyone any good, even me, the ranter.  That having been said, I had an interesting conversation with a member of my congregation yesterday, and it's got me thinking.  The conversation happened because I overheard this person asking someone else how serious I was about leaving.  Since announcing to the congregation that I would be leaving, I've had many individuals approach me and ask me to reconsider.  Without going into my reasoning why, when I overheard the discussion about how serious I was on leaving, I felt I needed to talk with this person and address their question.  So, I pulled the person aside after our service and asked the person if we could talk.

A long conversation made short, yesterday we had that talk.  I tried to express, both honestly and gently, some of the specific reasons that I am leaving.  I'm not sure how well I did.  I tend to get passionate about these things, and it's hard for me to not let that affect my thinking and tone of voice.  I can be very analytical, so it wouldn't surprise me if I came across like a lawyer making my case, point of evidence by point of evidence.  However, the person was very open to the conversation and things ended on a positive note.

But then on the trip to work today (which is a whopping 1/3 mile), I had a moment of clarity.  I spent over an hour talking with this person yesterday, listing the reasons behind my decisions and trying to answer their questions, but you know what...those reasons don't really get to the bottom of things.  At the core of the issue is a deep sense of hurt.  People have been mean, sometimes even cruel, in how they've treated me and my wife.  Words were used that wore and weighed us down, but here's the thing.  If just one of the people who hurt us had said, "I'm sorry," things would have been radically different.  The words "I'm sorry" have power too, power greater than words used to attack.

It amazes me how it's always the bullies that say, "You need to have thicker skin."  Granted, as a minister, being attacked comes with the territory.  You expect it when you go into this line of work, but such behavior shouldn't be acceptable.  Normal and right are two very different things.  But again, things happen, words are said that hurt and damage.  That's just the way it goes.  However, as Christians, as a people who should not think of themselves more highly then they ought, as people who pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us," we should be the first to say, "I'm sorry."  How much healthier would our churches be if we could just be a people who learned to say, "I was wrong; forgive me"?

Words have power.  I spent a long time yesterday trying to explain actions that had gone wrong over the past three years.  My conversation could have been much shorter.  I could have simply said, "I've never been told, 'We're sorry.'"

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 34

PS- Since some from my congregation do read this blog, let me acknowledge that many members have come to me and apologized for how things have gone.  That continued support means a great deal to me and Kalyn, and I know you are as upset about how things have gone as I am.  But let me also say this...you are not the ones who have hurt us.  You have nothing to apologize for.  We love you.  We appreciate you, and we pray for you.  May the Lord bless you and keep you.  May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.  May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.  Amen.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Doomed...

I have a long standing reputation for being a nerd.  I do not deny this.  The reputation is, in fact, rather accurate.  That having been said, what people might not know is that my wife is somewhat nerdy herself.  We make a good team.  That means Shepherd is doomed, however.  Maybe he'll get lucky and find a gorgeous wife like I did.  Enjoy the picture of the loves of my life.

Remember You Were a Slave in Egypt

I'm probably starting to sound like a broken record on this, but one thing that continues to stand out to me as I read through the Torah is that Israelite identity does not revolve around a central idea but a central act.  Why should the Israelites remit all debts, free their slaves, and send those slaves off with livestock and goods every seven years?  Why should the Israelites dedicate the firstborn of their flocks to the Lord every year?  Why should they remember to keep the Passover as well as the other yearly festivals?  The answer to each question is always the same:

"Remember that you were a slave in Egypt..."

Everything the Israelites practiced, their ethics and morality, their belief and knowledge of God and of themselves, it all revolved around God's act of delivering them from Egypt.

In Churches of Christ, when a person wants to become a Christian they are baptized.  Part of the ritual surrounding baptism is asking the individual before the congregation, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"  In large part, this tradition stems from a legalistic attempt to make sure "confession" has happened, because the Bible states that one cannot be saved without confessing Christ.  That definition of "confession" is problematic on many levels, but let me just state one problem.  True commitment to a relationship doesn't begin with a statement of belief.  It begins with inter-act-ion.  Relationship begins with one party stepping into another party's life.  I've read books about Ghandi.  I think he's a fascinating and great man, but I'm not committed to him, and me saying, "I believe he existed," doesn't mean diddly-squat.

How much would the life of the Church change if part of entering into a relationship with other Christians began with a story of how the individual has met Jesus or what Christ has done for the individual?  What is the act, the individual's deliverance from Egypt, that has brought him or her to a place where he or she is saying, "This is who I now am."?  That, in my opinion, would be a true confession.  That type of confession really gets to the heart of what it means for Jesus to deliver us.

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 16

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Courage to Stand Alone

I was a short kid growing up.  I hated that.  When I finally hit 5' tall my grandmother made me a sign that said, "Beware low flying aircraft," with a blinking light on top.  Seriously...is it any wonder I grew up warped?  On a positive note, I got a good Mexican meal out of it, so there was that.  Anyhow, when you're the odd one out, all you want to do is be like everyone else.  It takes a special type of courage to be comfortable standing alone.

Israel was being challenged to find that courage.  As they stood prepared to enter into Canaan, Moses repeats one piece of advice more than just about any other: don't practice Canaanite religion.  If Israel stayed true to who God made them, they would be monotheistic.  They wouldn't equate an object with a god or goddess (idolatry).  They wouldn't practice fertility rites in order to bring about fruitful harvests.  In other words, they would be the odd one out, unique among the peoples of the fertile crescent.

God was asking no small thing of the Jews, which is why he had given them forty years of practice.  As I've hinted at before in earlier posts, simply referring to the wilderness wanderings as punishment slightly misses the point.  The point of the wilderness wandering was formation.  Forty years is a lot of time to develop character and virtue.  So God wasn't just throwing down the gauntlet and threatening infant Israel with, "Do what I say or die."  He had, in fact, been preparing them for this moment for an entire generation.

However, skipping ahead, we know Israel failed in this endeavor.  They failed miserably, even going so far as to burn their infants alive, just as the Canaanites had done before them.  You'd think that they'd at least be able to resist that peer pressure.  But to keep us from the temptation of saying, "Those foolish Israelites," and moving on, it is still rare to find a Christian who truly has the courage to stand alone.

Christians, for the most part, run the same rat race as everyone else.  We all want that proverbial cheese, only to be surprised when our little chunk is not fulfilling.  The "Canaans" of our modern world may not have the same cultural hang-ups as ancient Mesopotamia, but our cultural hang-ups are many and diverse none-the-less.  Do we have any more courage than (and this is a comparison, so "than" is the proper spelling.  I'm learning, dad!) ancient Israel?

A few days ago I came across this picture.  The subheading was something along the lines of, "The West is liberating Afghan women!"  First of all, it would take some convincing for me to believe this is actually two pictures of the same woman.  But for the sake of argument let's pretend it is.  When I read that, I thought, "Really, liberating?  What are we freeing them to?"  Is this woman free to be herself, or is she simply forced to replace one uniform for another?  What would this woman look like if she were really freed to say, "I'm going to look the way I'm meant to."?  Would she be a detail-less blob, a sex object, or something else?  Would we see breast line or intelligence?  And if this is the same women, it makes total sense for a woman who has been forced to go along with everyone else in one culture to then (implying an ordering in time, so...then with an "e"!) conform to the expectations of another.  Again, to do otherwise would be quite the feat.

God intends his people to be a people of courage, otherwise we cannot be a people to stand alone in our own Canaans.  And if we can't do that the world will never see God, because just as with ancient Israel, he has chosen to make himself known through his people.  I hope that more and more Christians find the courage to stand alone, to be different, to be the small ones in a world of seeming giants.  What might happen if we did that, and the impact we would have on our world, is truly an exciting idea.

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 13

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Purpose for Suffering and Humble Pie

Moses is now full-on into his second speech, and two things stand out to me in today's reading.  The first is that Moses seems to have had some time to reflect, and looking back on the last 40 years of Israel's experience, he has connected a few dots for us.  In Deut. 8:3 Moses says:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna...in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Some of you might recognize this immediately as one of Jesus's responses to temptation during his forty days in the wilderness.  You might also connect Jesus's forty days in the wilderness to Israel's forty years in the wilderness, and if you do, you might be onto something...but that's off topic.  What stood out to me is that Moses doesn't see the Israelites' trial in the wilderness as punishment, at least not exclusively so.  Moses sees it as a time of formation and of discovering truth, and the truth the Israelites discovered was an important one: God is the sustainer of life.  If the Israelites suffered in the wilderness, and I think one could make an easy argument that wandering in the wilderness is not a pleasure cruise, Moses sees an important purpose behind that suffering.

Now suffering is a pretty negative word, and so it is understandable that some might squirm in their seats when considering that God brought his people to a point of suffering.  But if we can put the semantics on the back burner, it isn't hard to think of other examples where someone is made to suffer for their own good.  Making a teen stay home to do homework instead of going to the movies with friends might not be a wilderness wondering experience, but the teen tends to think its the end of the world.  Or even worse, a legitimate grounding or taking the car away...or even the cell phone, why would parents do such a thing?  Oh my.  Those might be silly comparisons, but here's the point.  People don't grow or mature unless forced to.  Some call this the process of differentiation, others the process of moving from orientation to disorientation to reorientation.  Call it what you will, but unless we are unsettled, made uncomfortable, even suffer, we never mature.  We never learn.  Israel had quite a bit of learning to do.  They needed to suffer.  In so doing they had the opportunity to see something that they otherwise would have never seen: God provides.

In the Kingdom of God, suffering has a special place.  Paul puts this susinctly in Romans when he says:

[W]e also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

As Christians, and as Israelites, suffering is not something to run from, to deny at all costs, but something to embrace.  Suffering is God teaching us to rely on him, and he will not fail us.

But enough about suffering, Moses also feeds the Israelites a little humble pie.  In three verses, Moses repeats three times that God is not leading the Israelites to the land he promised them because of how righteous the Israelites are.  In fact, he spends the next twenty-three verses describing just how stubborn and hard hearted the Israelites have been.

It's easy to forget that the blessings we receive are not do to our worthiness.  It's not easy for we Americans to acknowledge that manifest destiny is nothing other then this very idea, that we get what we get because we deserve it and more than someone else, in the spiritual realm as well as the physical.  But reality checks can be quite brutal, which is why we need them.  As was the case with Israel, it is often times the least worthy that feel the most entitled, and so Moses gives Israel a strong warning, one which we still need to hear.  God's gifts come to us because of God's righteousness, not our own.

So here, have some humble pie.  You'll be glad you ate it.

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 10

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Steadfast Love of God

As you read through the book of Deuteronomy, you repeatedly come across a word translated as "covenant loyalty" in the New Revised Standard Version.  I honestly prefer the New American Standard Version's translation: lovingkindness (yes, one word).  Another translation I like is "steadfast love."  The word being translated is hesed, and in defense of the bible translators, hesed means all of the above.  It's a tricky word to translate, a small word that carries a lot of weight.  It refers to the type of love one has in a committed relationship, a covenant, which is why it connotes the ideas of steadfastness and faithfulness.  It is kindness, but a deep, providing, sustaining kindness.  In the Old Testament, hesed is almost always the word used to describe God's love for his people.  Other then the proper name for God, I think you could make the argument that hesed is the most frequent way of describing who God is, and I find that amazingly comforting.

God loves us, and not like I love Chinese buffets.  He has invited us to be in a relationship with him, has initiated that contact.  He is faithful to that relationship, steadfast in the responsibilities that come with that relationship, and kind in his holding us accountable to that relationship.  He is not a fickle or moody partner.  He, in fact, is the only constant, while we continuously get tossed back and forth by the winds of our fancy.  The Apostle John, in the New Testament, didn't coin the phrase, "God is love."  The Old Testament writers beat him to the punch.  They knew who God was too.  God is hesed.

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 7

The Challenge to Remember

At the end of Moses's first address in Deuteronomy, Moses challenges the Israelites to follow all the instruction God has given them.  We would be doing Moses a disservice, however, if we thought Moses was just passing on a list of rules for the Israelites to follow.  What Moses is truly doing is challenging the Israelites to remember all the acts God has performed among them since Egypt.  The conclusion of his first speech begins:

For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other; has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of?  Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived?  Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?

He goes on, but you get the point.  Israel had witnessed things that no one had ever seen before, and so, their ethics, laws, social structure, religion...everything, revolved not around ideas imagined out of the blue but around touchable, visible experience.  As such, what the Israelites could not afford to forget or downplay was that experience.

Now, culture has changed over the past few thousand years.  The Enlightenment tells us that such experiences are impossible, and so although we can value the ethos behind such mythology, we should intentionally forget the notion that such experiences actually occurred.  At the risk of sounding very unenlightened, we do ourselves great harm by ignoring Moses's advice, just as the Israelites eventually did.

As Christians, our existence revolves around one tangible experience: the resurrection of Jesus.  Not a spiritual resurrection, not a hallucination made up by the apostles due to over-abundant stress hormones, the infant Church grew and matured with the memory of a physically raised Savior.  As Paul writes later, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain."  2000 years later, it is no less a challenge for us to remember what God actually did then it was for the Hebrews to remember what God actually did.  In fact, post Enlightenment, I would say it is much harder.  After all, only fools and mental pygmies believe in the impossible.  But if we listen to what our rivals would have us believe, thereby downplaying the importance of God's actual works, if not denying them all together, why should we expect an outcome any different than what the Israelites eventually experience: to become a lost, wandering people scattered among the nations?

As Christians, we must have the courage of Moses.  We must be the ones who stand up and say, at least to each other, "Ask of the generations before you, of history long before your own, ever since time remembered, has such a great thing ever happened?  Has the likes of it ever been heard of?  Has any man ever been born of woman and God?  Has a man ever come back from the grave three days after his death?  Has any god ever attempted to take a nation for himself, not from just one other nation, but from multiple nations and peoples all around the globe, by suffering and crucifixion and sacrifice, and ultimately by the defeat of death itself?  Since when has God ever chosen to dwell within his people, not in a temple, not in a tent, but within those who follow the one he sent.  To us it was shown so that we would acknowledge that the Lord is God, and Christ is his Son."

Let us not be another generation of people who forget the words of Moses, who forget the mighty works of God to free us, who forget the reality of a risen Savior.

Stopping point: Deuteronomy 4