Friday, April 29, 2011

Speaking Of Darkness

I don't know whether to be angry, sad, horrified, or relieved.  Either way, this is worth watching.

Just to clarify, what sickens me is the darkness done in the name of Jesus by these supposed "healers," not that this video exposes them for what they are.

Darkness Has Fallen

By the end of II Kings, the nation of the Hebrew people is no more, north and south alike.  The temple is no more.  The kings are no more.  Praise and worship are no more.  It is a dark time.  Exile has the people's ears ringing.  How could such a thing have happened?  What went wrong?  What will happen next?

II Kings wrestles with the first two questions, but it ends on a cliff-hanger.  It doesn't provide us with an answer to the third question.  There is no final message of hope.  There is no assurance of what is to come.  As I closed my Bible today, I couldn't help but feel the tension of II Kings, the still unanswered question hanging in the air, "Surely this isn't the end...?"Although one of my pet peeves is when people automatically jump to the New Testament to explain everything in the Old Testament, the end of II Kings is one of those moments when it is hard not to look forward to Jesus.

There are many such moments in the Old Testament, moments of groaning and despair, moments where people ask, "What will happen to us?  Will anyone rescue us?  Will we ever be free?"  Abraham wanders through the fertile crescent with no place to call home.  What will happen to him and his family?  The Israelites find themselves in Egypt under a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.  Will anyone rescue them?  The northern nation of Israel is gone forever; the southern nation of Judah is taken into exile.  Will they ever be free?  To jump ahead in history, the Greeks occupy Palestine and Hellenize the land.  Rome overthrows the Greeks and sets up their own cronies as high priest and king.  What will happen to the disenfranchised, the poor, God's people under foreign rule?  Dark times...exile was supposed to be over, but the Hebrews had a nagging feeling that they weren't quite home.

But then light breaks into the darkness.  The Messiah, the true king of Israel, has come to reclaim his thrown and set his people free.  In the context of the Old Testament we discover that the coming of Christ is about far more then dealing with some nebulous idea of sin.  Jesus was the answer to the question. What will happen next?  Not exile.  Not feeling oppressed in your own land.  Not being abused by your own leaders.  Darkness does not have the final say, but light.

Jesus is the only positive answer to the question, "What will happen to us?"  That answer is: we will discover what it means to be home within the community of restored humanity.  Will we be rescued?  Absolutely, resoundingly, yes...from oppression, from disillusionment, from hopelessness, from separation, from death.  Will we ever be free?  Again, yes, but not just from a foreign tyrant, but from the type of existence that creates foreign tyrants to begin with.  Because of Jesus, we are not just freed from something but to something, to the calm of peace, to the joy of an altruistic life, to the celebration of relationship, to the fulfillment of life.

Thank God the Bible does not end at II Kings.  Exile does not have the final word.  Mourning and loss are not the end of the story.  God and humanity are not separated for all time.

Stopping point: II Kings 25

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why The Flip-flopping?

Well, first let me say that my memory failed me a few weeks back.  Going into the books of I & II Kings, I didn't think there were very many good kings in the southern kingdom.  Off the top of my head, I only remembered two or three.  Having now read through most of I & II Kings again, there are eight good kings in the southern kingdom.  Considering that there were twenty kings altogether from the time the nation of Israel split until the fall of Judah (well, technically nineteen kings and one queen, so twenty rulers), that's still not a great record, but it is far better than I remembered.

However, in some ways that makes the bad kings in Judah even more hard to understand.  You would think that there would be more stability of religion from one generation to the next.  Granted, Solomon (ironically remembered for his wisdom) didn't exactly set up Judah for a faithful relationship with God, and his son and grandson didn't help, either.  However, his great-grandson turns things back around, officially making Judah a monotheistic nation once again.  But that only lasts through the life of his son.  Judah's longest continuous stretch of monotheistic kings only lasts for four kings.  What is the appeal of polytheism that makes it so tempting to Judah's kings?

I can't help but wonder if it is the parents' fault.  Did the kings not make it a priority to teach their sons about God?  Had too much been forgotten as the years went by?  I'm skipping ahead here, but during Josiah's reign a book of the Bible was rediscovered in the temple and the Passover was held for the first time since before King Saul.  Was the problem that the kings didn't have much knowledge to pass on?  After all, how can you teach about God when you lose the texts that have the stories you need to passed on?  Was it a failure on the priests and Levites?  Had they neglected their duty to teach Israel the ways of God?  I really have a hard time figuring out why Judah constantly flip-flopped when it came to there relationship with God.  The northern kingdom and its kings were bad, but at least they were consistent.

Maybe this bothers me so much because I have a son of my own now.  I want him to know God and know his ways.  I want him to be able to envision God's redemptive work in creation and then be able to envision how he might be able to participate in that work.  Shepherd is following after at least three generations of godly men, some more overtly than others, but all trying to live good lives as best they understood the ideals behind the phrase.  Is Shepherd's future relationship with God one gigantic crapshoot, or is there more hope than that?  I want to say it must be more than just random chance, but the kings of Judah bother me in that regard.

Anyhow, reading about the kings of Judah makes me think about other things also, such as how it's hard to maintain integrity when everyone around you thinks your ways are strange.  It's tempting to model all our behaviors after people we see as more successful or impressive, and but not filter out the bad from the good.  It's harder to have a relationship with a living God who has plans of his own versus a make believe god who can be controlled and always seems to be just what we want.  There are a lot of things to reflect on about Judah, its kings, and its relationship with God, but I'll call it quits here.

Stopping point: II Kings 22

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reminding God To Act On His Own Behalf

When is the last time we heard a prayer in church asking God to act on his own behalf?  We petition him for our needs, for our friends' needs, for our family's needs, for the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves, but when is the last time we asked God to act in order to save face?  It is remarkable how often we see just that in the Bible.  Abraham's discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah centers around Abraham reminding God that he is not a god who kills innocents.  Moses asks God not to destroy the Israelites in the wilderness, not for the Israelites' sake, but for the sake of God's reputation.  Here in II Kings, Hezekiah does something very similar.

King Sennacherib of Assyria has demanded tribute and besieged the city of Jerusalem.  He has already conquered all the other fortified cities in Judah.  In other words, Judah is one city away from suffering the same fate as Israel: annihilation.  In the midst of all this, Sennacherib sends representatives to give Jerusalem a message.  The message is pretty simple: you will fall.  After all, look at all the other nations who have fallen already.  And more importantly, don't for a second think that Jerusalem's god will save it.  Have any of the gods of the other nations and cities been able to save them?  Obviously not.  Jerusalem's fate will be no different.

It is at this point that Hezekiah prays.  "Open your ears," he says, "and open your eyes."  Hear how Sennacherib is mocking you!  Granted, at the end of his prayer, Hezekiah does ask God to deliver them, but it is "so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you...are God alone."  All the other powers and authorities have been shown a sham.  Sennacherib has proven that all other gods are nothing but wood and stone.  Is God going to allow the same to be said of him?  If not, he better do something about, or all the other nations will think the same thing of him that they do the rest.  God needs to act to save his own reputation.

This may seem very sacrilegious, but I sympathize with Hezekiah on this one.  God is losing face.  He is being mocked, and if that is going to change then he needs to step up.  I was thinking yesterday about what the book of I Samuel says about God at the beginning of Samuel's story, that "the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not wide spread."  God seemed largely absent.  Frankly, that is how I would describe our present time, and quite a bit of time before us.  It has been so long since people knew the voice of God that most churches teach in some way or other that God doesn't do "that sort of thing" anymore.  The Pentecostal movement seems to be the only Christian movement that largely disagrees, but sometimes I wonder if they hurt our cause more than help it, as far as conveying God's presence to modern, American culture goes.  (I can't figure out a softer, kinder way to say that.  Sorry to any Pentecostal who might come across this.)  Personally, I don't need miracles and visions to believe for myself, otherwise I'd be an agnostic and find a much more peaceful profession.  However, if the promises I repeatedly talk about are true, that God is working in the world to heal and restore and redeem, it would be nice if God would more regularly work in the world to show that.  (Having said that, I realize how cynical that sounds.  As a disciple of Christ, one of my main responsibilities is to witness to those same things in my lifestyle.  So, if I were living a more healing, restoring and redeeming life, the world would see the activity of God more often.  I realize my reflections today are a bit one-sided.)

Anyhow, I say all that to say: God doesn't seem to mind us praying for him to prove himself.  In stories like Hezekiah's, God is not the enemy to be feared, as if we might ask for the wrong thing or be too forward and get zapped in response.  God is the only one capable of rescuing us from our enemies in this world, and if he doesn't appear to be doing what he promised, it seems he might actually expect us to call him on that.

So, God, you promised us that you would place all powers and authorities under the Lordship of Christ.  Do you hear the world mocking that promise?

Stopping point: II Kings 19

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Israel Has Fallen...And I'm Depressed

Once again, as is now routine, I fell behind on my reading over the weekend.  The downside of this is that on Tuesdays I have a ton of catching up to do.  Another downside to this is I have a hard time figuring out something precise to write about when I've read 10+ chapters.  A lot tends to happen in that amount of reading.  However, there is a plus side, and the plus side is that when you read big chunks of text you start noticing the forest instead of just the trees.  Tuesdays are turning into my "big picture" days, the days I get back in tune with the themes going on behind the stories of the Bible.

At the end of today's reading Samaria falls.  The northern kingdom of Israel is no more.  Ten tribes of Israel are gone forever.  I put down my Bible today feeling depressed.  Twelve chapters of reading today...there was very little hope in any of it, and then it ended with defeat.  I joked back in college (usually at the end of the semester when all the term papers were due) that "life sucks and then you die."  That's sort of the feeling I got while reading through II Kings.  The story of the northern kingdom is dark.  Assassination, mass murder, the corpse of a person thrown out of a window eaten by dogs (and feeling that such an end was a just end for the individual in mind)...that's how things go for Israel.  A slow but steady deterioration of a nation from the inside out, that's what my reading for today was.  It is very sad.

But even more sad is the bigger picture.  As the history of Israel (and again, to clarify I'm using "Israel" in terms of the northern kingdom here, not the people of God as a whole) unfolds, the ten tribes of the north become more and more a reflection of the people around them.  There is a direct correlation between that happening and the northern ten tribes becoming less and less a reflection of God.  God had a plan for the Hebrews, north and south alike.  He did not bring them out of Egypt so they could go party and have a good time.  He did not free them so they could become enslaved to narcissism and debauchery.  He freed them in order that they might begin turning things around.  Creation, fall, calling, cure...that is the big picture going on in the Bible up to this point, but here toward the end of II Kings, God's plan to redeem and restore his creation is falling apart.  The calling worked out well (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Israel), but the inheritors of that calling have forgotten everything.  They have forgotten their beginnings.  They have forgotten their identity.  They have forgotten their purpose, and so, as they lose more and more of themselves, and eventually disappear altogether, they are not the only one who suffers.  The world becomes a darker place because of their failure.  The end of their story concludes by the king of Assyria bringing foreigners into what was once Israel, but they are away from home.  They do not know how to survive in Israel.  They do not know God.  They are lost.  The king of Assyria sends a captured priest back to northern Palestine, but it is too late.  God, his ways, and his hopes for humanity have been forgotten beyond reclaiming, at least for Israel and everyone around.

In our modern world of specialists and cynicism, theology is usually deemed a science of foolish dreamers.  It's not a real science.  It's not a hard science.  It's the discipline of people who prefer the land of make believe over what any sane person would call reality.  Obviously, as a minister, I disagree.  Theology and anthropology are directly linked.  Christianity has gotten side tracked by hot-topic arguments.  What Christianity should be spending its time thinking about is what it means to be human, and what type of humans we should be.  Now, that thinking may certainly affect the world of politics, but let us not put the cart before the horse.  Humanity suffered when the ancient Hebrews lost their way.  I would say our modern world is suffering because we Christians have lost our way.  As God's representatives in this world, our failures affect far more than ourselves.

Well, enough melodrama for today.  I have a long list of reading to do before the victory of Jesus.  I'll try not to be so depressed the whole way there.

Stopping point: II Kings 17

Friday, April 22, 2011

Generosity, Pain, And The Nature of Faith

A number of things stand out to me from today's reading.  The first is the nature of God's generosity.  II Kings chapter four begins with the story of a woman who is at risk of losing her children.  Her husband has died and left their family in a great deal of debt.  To pay off the debt, the loan provider is going to sell the woman's two children into slavery.  At this point the woman comes to Elisha to ask for help.  He tells her to collect every spare storage vessel in the village.  She is then told to take the single jar of oil she already owned and pour it into the other vessels.  By the power of God, her little jar of oil fills every storage vessel she was able to find.  Elisha then tells her to sell all the oil she collected.  The generosity part comes in when Elisha tells her to keep the change.  God didn't provide just enough to pay off the debt.  He provided too much.

Last night Kalyn and I attended a Seder meal.  It was the first time I've gone to one, and even though it was abbreviated (We didn't have a full meal.), it was still a neat experience.  During one part of the Seder, the host listed all that God had done for the Israelites in leading them out of Egypt.  After each step, the rest of us chanted "dayenu," which means "it would have been enough."  The point of that part of the service is to reflect upon how much God went above and beyond what he needed to do.  God went over-board.  He went too far.  Thinking back to the widow and Elisha, it would have been enough for God to provide for her debt, but he was not willing to stop there.  That is the generosity of God.

The next thing that struck me in today's reading is the story of a woman who was childless until Elisha wanted to give her a gift.  She was a wealthy woman who needed nothing, but she was barren.  So, Elisha prophecied that she would be given a child.  In due time, she had a son.  A number of years passed, and then one day as her son was out with his father, he complained of a severe head ache.  The son returned home, but after a few hours of sitting in his mother's lap, he died.  In the end, Elisha brought the boy back to life, but this story tears me up.

During my senior year of high school and my freshmen year of college I worked as a drum instructor for the Angola high school marching band.  I'm proud to say that they placed first in state both years (the band and the drum line respectively), although that has much more to do with their talent than mine.  I got the gig because their band director had been my band director in middle school.  After I marched drum corps, he called me up and offered me a job.  This band director and his wife had tried for years to have children, but with no luck.  Then, when I was in eighth grade, they were shocked to discover his wife was pregnant.  That was, in fact, why he left my middle school to take the position at Angola.  Our little, country school couldn't pay him enough to support a family.  Their little boy was the joy of their life.  Then, one day about four years later, they were taking a road trip when he started screaming in pain from a head ache.  The next day he died of an aneurysm.  It was soon after winning state the first time.  That next year as we all headed down to Indianapolis, he wrote a letter to his absent son.  When Angola won state the second time, he left the letter on the 50 yard line.  I wonder if anyone ever read it.  Maybe it's having a little boy of my own now, but that breaks my heart.  Where was their Elisha?

The last thing that stood out to me from today's reading is what Naaman has to teach us about the nature of faith.  Naaman was a military leader for one of Israel's enemies.  He was also a leper.  One of his wife's servants was a captive from Israel, and she told his wife about Elisha.  Naaman then went to see Elisha, and Elisha told him that if he wanted to be healed he needed to go dip himself in the Jordan River seven times.  Now the Jordan River is more of a moving mud puddle, so Naaman wasn't too pleased about this proposal, but his servants convinced him do as Elisha had said.  They told him, "If Elisha had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it.  Why won't you do something so simple?"

As I've said in previous posts (I think...maybe it was in a sermon), faith is active.  Faith isn't a belief in a principle; it is an active trust that leads to an active response.  Naaman might not have been happy about Elisha's requirement, but his active response was enough.  He was healed.  This seems to have surprised him as much as anyone.  We modern, enlightened people tend not to do something unless we know why and know what we'll get from it.  So, our faith gets filtered through that lens.  Our prayer life suffers because we don't know what good it's doing.  We don't fast because, well...what's the point?  Lectio divina, is that an Italian dish?  Dunk myself in the Jordan seven times?!  One time...nothing.  Two times...nothing.  Three times...this is embarrassing.  Four could I be tricked into this?  Five times...I'm never going to live this down.  Six times...God is a giant disappointment.  Seven leprosy is gone....

We approach faith as belief that leads to action.  It might do us some good to discipline our action and discover that we have developed belief.  Maybe that has been the nature of faith all along.

Stopping point: II Kings 5

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mesha Challenging The Power Of God: Unsettling Stories of the Bible

As many from our reading group have noticed, the Bible is full of troubling stories.  Why the ban?  Why is David an example for moral fortitude when he relishes the chance to kill 200 Philistines and mutilate their corpses to gain the foreskins he needs to marry Saul's daughter?  A few of the readers in our group have been worn out, and worn down, by the constant killing in the Bible.  Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children seem to be killed every other page.  It is unsettling.

At the end of II Kings chapter three, there is a story that strikes me as unsettling.  King Jehoram of Israel has formed an alliance with King Jehoshaphat of Judah and the king of Edom (name not given) to quell a rebellion in the land of Moab.  While on the way there, the armies of the three kings run out of water.  This is understandably an issue, much like when the American army ran out of gas and got stranded in the desert a few years back.  The chances of a successful campaign are greatly diminished, and so the three kings decide to track down Elisha the prophet to ask if they should return home.  Elisha says they should not.  In fact, not only will God give their armies enough water for the soldiers, he'll also provide enough water for their cattle (I'm assuming they were brought along for food) and their animals (horses for the chariots?).  Then to go a step further, God is going to absolutely route the Moabites.  Every fortified city will fall.  The three armies will have full access to the riches of the land, and it will be a lasting victory from which the Moabites will not recover.  This all seems to come to pass...until the very end.

Toward the end of the war the three kings have the remaining Moabites surrounded in the city of Kir-hareseth.  King Mesha of Moab attempts to escape the siege with the help of seven hundred swordsmen, but the King of Edom forces them to retreat back into the city.  In desperation, the king of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son on the wall of Kir-hareseth.  At this point, as II Kings puts it, a great wrath came upon the Israelites and they were forced to retreat.  In fact, the sacrifice, and the resulting wrath, bring an end to the war.  The Israelites go home and the Moabites survive.

This is troubling to me.  To the ancient mindset, the end of this story couldn't have been understood as anything but the god of the Moabites defending his people.  To take it a step further, the god of the Moabites pushes back the God of Israel.  What is that doing in the Bible?  For me, this story is far more troubling then the sheer number of deaths mentioned so far.  Sure, the blatant devaluing of human life is appalling, but up until now God's ultimate power has gone unchallenged.  Even though the implications of Mesha's sacrifice aren't overt, the consequences of that sacrifice, if we stop to think about them, are rattling.

Most modern readers of the Bible (at least American readers.  I can't speak for anyone in Napal.) carry a number of presumptions with them.  Just to name a few...first, faith is the absence of doubt.  Second, even though more and more people are becoming comfortable with the idea that inspiration doesn't necessarily mean every word and syllable of the Bible is faultless (there are spelling errors and bad grammar), at the very least, there certainly shouldn't be any major, troubling contradictions.  Personally, I don't find either of these presumptions to be very helpful.  Actually, I think they can be rather harmful.

As to the first, if faith is the absence of doubt, that makes doubt the absence of faith.  Since when has that been the case?  On the contrary, it is only people who truly try to live a life of faith that discover what doubt really is.  I don't waste time doubting things I don't believe in anyway.  I don't spend a lot of time doubting the existence of life on Mars, because, frankly, I could care less.  I don't believe there is any...end of discussion...let's move on.  However, it matters very much to me whether there is a God and whether that god is the god revealed in the Bible.  So, I spend a great deal of time thinking about that.  I also believe and trust (have faith) that there is a God and that god is the god revealed in the Bible, which then means I have a ton of doubt.  It is only in seriously questioning the truth of a premise that you discover all the reasons why it might not be true, and all those arguing voices get twisted together in your head.  So, doubt is not a sign of my lack of faith, it is the evidence of just how much faith I actually have.  Not to toot my own horn, but apparently I have quite a bit of faith.

As to the second presumption, that if the Bible is inspired it must be simple (and yes, I am rephrasing my statement above), I'm afraid we're in for a major disappointment.  The Bible is full of stories, specifically the stories of people, and even more specifically, the stories of how God reveals himself in the lives of people.  Here's a news flash...peoples' lives are messy.  They contradict.  People say one thing and do another.  People act honorably one day and demonic the next.  People are a jumble of formative experiences and genes and hormones and indigestion and ever changing sleep patterns (maybe I'm just speaking for myself here.  Also, for an interesting read on the relationship between free will and blood sugar levels, check this out.).  The Bible being full of difficult, troubling, often times contradicting stories does not make it less realistic.  A child sacrifice in the Iron Age does not make the Bible less believable, but more so.  If I were making a story up, why would I include a story that weakens my position?  So, the Bible is not simple.  It does not answer all our questions.  It doesn't even try to.  It is infuriatingly complex.  It presents me with questions that I'm not prepared to wrestle with.  The Bible repeatedly refuses to form to my presumptions and expectations.  Audaciously, God seems to think I should be formed by the Bible.  The nerve....

So, what do I do with the story of Moab and Mesha's sacrifice?  I don't know.  For now, I'll brood over it.  I'll continue to trust that God is in control, that he is, in fact, the only true power.  I'll also let the story of Mesha exist, no matter now much it makes me question and doubt.  I will have faith.  I will accept the authority of Scripture.  I will be unsettled.

Stopping point: II Kings 3

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Resentful and Sullen

The last few chapters of I Kings revolve around King Ahab, one of the worst kings in the northern kingdom.  Two words used to describe King Ahab that stood out to me on this read through were resentful and sullen.  Every time Ahab doesn't get what he wants that is what he becomes, resentful and sullen.  When a prophet condemns Ahab's behavior, he becomes resentful and sullen.  When Naboth refuses to sell Ahab his vineyard, Ahab is resentful and sullen.  He's like a spoiled brat of a child, completely self absorbed, and that got me thinking.

One of the major themes, if not the major theme, going on behind the kings in I & II Kings is whether the kings will worship God alone or worship false gods and goddesses.  Ahab is remembered as one of the worst kings of Israel specifically because of all the false deities he actively worshiped.  At the same time, he's also just a rotten human being.  King Saul wasn't a great example of a king.  He was selfish too, but how do we find Saul dying in the end?  Saul dies trying to free his people from the Philistines.  Granted, Ahab dies fighting the Aramians, but it's not to protect any of his people.  It's to take back a city that had been lost a long time ago.  In other words, it's Naboth's vineyard all over again.  Ahab wants Ramath-gilead, and so Ahab will take Ramath-gilead, or at least he would have if he hadn't been killed trying.

I don't think it is by accident that as the kings of Israel and Judah veer farther and farther away from God they become less and less honorable, noble, and regal.  Ahab, about as far as you can get from God, is nothing but a pre-pubescent man-child, at least emotionally.  It makes you think about many of the powerful elites in world politics today, and I don't know whether to be sad or scared.

Stopping point I Kings 22

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monotheism versus Polythiesm: who will win?

I never read The Da Vinci Code.  To give you some insight into how uninterested I am in the book/movie, I actually had to google how to spell "da vinci."  I thought it was "davinci."  Spell checker disagreed.  Anyhow, I never read the book, but my wife did, and every once and a while she'd lean over and say something along the lines of, "Read this; is this true?"  One of those times had to do with the author arguing that ancient Israel had never been monotheistic.  As is often times the case with historical fiction, it's true and not true.  It doesn't take long when reading through Deuteronomic history to realize that the nation of Israel repeatedly struggled to decide if it would be monotheistic or polytheistic.  Most of the time, at least leading up to the Babylonian Exile, polytheism won out.

Think about it.  The book of Judges is just one long story of Israel worshiping Canaanite gods and paying the consequences.  In I Samuel, the first king of Israel, Saul, seems to be monotheistic, but would rather serve himself than God in the end.  It's not until we reach David that the nation of Israel has a truly monotheistic king that leads the Israelites into an age of monotheism.  How long does that age last?  Well, until David's son comes into power.

Solomon begins his reign supporting his father's monotheism, but soon becomes polytheistic to support his wives' religions.  Solomon was beyond politically savvy, but the alliances he made to bring the nation of Israel power and wealth also brought Israel Molech, Chemosh, Baal, Astarte, and Milcom, to name just a few of the foreign gods and goddesses he married into.  As punishment, God strips the ten northern tribes away from Solomon's son and gives them to a servant in his son's government.  However, Jeroboam (the new northern king) immediately sets up golden bull idols at the northern and southern borders of his territory so that his new subjects won't have to travel back the Jerusalem temple to worship God.  In what I find an example of true irony, Jeroboam calls these golden bulls idols of Israel's God, but bulls were the embodiment of Apis and Baal, Egyptian and Canaanite gods.  So, surprise of surprises, the northern tribes leave monotheism behind and never go back.

The southern kingdom wasn't any better.  It wasn't until four kings after David that another monotheist comes to power in Judah.  The only other two that are coming to mind right now are Hezekiah and Josiah.  I'm probably forgetting one or two, but most of the southern kings were polytheistic also.  But in spite of all of this, I still say one cannot blithely make the argument that ancient Israel was a polytheistic nation attempting to become monotheistic (as many who are bias against traditional Judeo-Christian would argue).  It is still possible to argue that ancient Israel was formed on the foundation of monotheism but had a hard time maintaining that position considering they would have been absolutely alone in their theology.

Either way, one of the major tensions driving I & II Kings is the internal conflict between monotheism and polytheism.  As we'll find out by the end of II Kings, polytheism wins, but the cost of that victory was the loss of the nations of Israel and Judah.

Stopping point: I Kings 20

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sign of Success or Foreshadowing of Failure?

I don't have much to say about today's reading.  Today's reading was mostly details about the building of Solomon's temple, lots and lots of details.  I sort of wish I had stuck with my middle school dream of becoming an architect so I could put the details into a better mental picture.  Anyhow, one thing I find interesting is that the house Solomon built for himself was quite a bit bigger than the house he built for the Lord.  Is this a sign of how successful he had become as king, or is it a foreshadowing of his future failures?  I'm not sure.  It's something to think about though.

Stopping point: I Kings 9

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Solomon: Becoming His Own Man

My reading about the early kings of Israel has officially transitioned into the reign of Solomon.  Honestly, I wasn't quite sure what to post about today's reading.  In chapters three through five of I Kings, not much happens.  Today's reading is pretty much three chapters of praise about Solomon's wisdom as a leader.  What do you say about that? He was a wise ruler...the end?

But then I watched a video my wife posted on her blog of our son learning how to crawl.  You can check it out here.  As I watched, I couldn't help but think about how proud we new parents get of the simplest things.  Shepherd turns six months old tomorrow.  If the statistics hold true, that means he's been learning to crawl a bit early, and guess what.  I actually feel a slight sense of pride over that.  Lame, huh.  My son crawled before your child...neener, neener, neener.  Why would I feel pride over that?  Well, I have a theory.

When Shepherd does things (has his eyes wide open during the first minutes of post-gestation period life so he can take in everything, or smiles at just about everyone he sees, or crawls a little early) I can't help but picture his future.  I fully expect that he will be a ridiculously curious child with the drive, audacity, and stubbornness to get into everything.  I wonder if he'll be far more extroverted than I am.  I have a feeling he'll be intelligent and perceptive.  Of course, I don't know any of this for sure, but I certainly can't help but wonder.

One day Shepherd will become his own man, and as with all parents and their children, I can't help but wonder what he'll be like.  I have hopes and dreams, but one day he'll reach a point where he must truly become his own man, and not the man I had pictured.  Sure, there might be similarities between those two images, but there are going to be differences as well.  I Kings chapters three through five share the story of Solomon becoming his own man.  He is no longer under the shadow or guidance of his father.  He must now stand alone.  What we find is that Solomon is an impressive man in his own right.

He is politically savvy.  He is concerned for his people.  I was thinking today that even though Solomon is considered wise because God says he will make him wise, asking for wisdom to rule is a pretty wise thing.  In other words, God had a solid foundation on which to build.  He didn't turn a fool into a genius.  As those of us who have read the whole story know, Solomon is far from perfect, and in the end his own propensity for political intrigue does him in, but when Solomon leaves childhood behind and becomes his own man, he could have done far worse.

I don't expect Shepherd to turn into a Solomon, and I would hate to think about what that type of pressure would do to his formation, but he could to far worse than to end up like Solomon.  Hopefully I wont be like David and pass on before Shepherd comes into his own.  I'd love to see what God does with my son.

Stopping point: I Kings 5

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catching Up...Again

I have got to do better on posting more often.  For the last two weeks, our little morning group hasn't met because of people traveling and grandchildren visiting, and I'm discovering that when that happens I fall behind over the weekend.  On top of that, yesterday was my once a month get together with other area ministers, so I didn't catch up on Tuesdays like I usually do.  So, today I got to read 14 chapters...which is way too much to contain in a single blog post.  But none-the-less, here's a  random musing.

As I was finishing II Samuel and beginning I Kings, I was reminded of a common misconception regarding this portion of the Bible.  This misconception revolves around the difference between "historic" and "historical" and how that then relates to the purpose of these books.  When most people pick up the Bible and read the books considered part of Deuteronomic history (Joshua-II Kings), they assume they're reading history records.  More specifically they think they're reading from a history genre, and when we modern readers think history we think facts and dates.  We want details and we want those details to be right.  We are typically interested in the event itself.  What we fail to realize is that this type of historic writing is a relatively recent genre.  It wasn't really until the Enlightenment, and the valuing of objective fact above all else, that history books as a genre emerged.  What we're really dealing with before that, at least more times than not, is historical writing.

Historical writing is a slightly different thing than historic writing.  Historical writing doesn't ignore history or make up history, but it is much more interested with what history tells us about how we got to where we are than the facts of the events themselves.  That may not seem like much of a distinction, since our culture is starting to come to grips with the fact that no historic reflection is truly objective, but it does explain why much of the "history" we read in the Bible seems jumbled.

For example, in II Samuel 14, Absalom is said to have had three sons and a daughter named Tamar, but after Absalom's death in chapter 18 there is a little blip of a story about Absalom setting up a pillar so that people would remember him.  He supposedly did this because he had no sons to be remembered by.  Now we historic readers want to harmonize those two accounts.  Maybe he put up the pillar before he had children.  Maybe his sons died in battles or from disease.  Absalom can't both have sons and not have sons...that isn't logical.  Either there's an explanation or the Bible is wrong, and if the Bible is wrong about Absalom it must not be inspired, and if the Bible isn't inspired I can't trust anything it says.  It must also be wrong about God in general, Jesus, the Apostles, the Church, life after death....  People literally bring themselves to theological crises over insignificant details like Absalom's sons or lack there of.

All such issues can easily be explained by realizing that the historical books of the Old Testament are just that: historical.  In other words, why did Absalom have a daughter named Tamar?  Well, because he had a sister named Tamar that he obviously cared about deeply.  Why is there a pillar in the Valley of the Kings named Absalom's Monument.  Well, because Absalom put it there.  For another example, a great deal of effort and energy is wasted debating whether the armies mentioned in the Deuteronomic history were in fact as large as the Bible says, but these books in the Bible are far more concerned about what God is going to do with those armies.  Does it really matter if two-hundred thousand is literally two-hundred thousand, two-hundred oodles and gobs (which was my Hebrew professor's favorite way of translating eleph), or two-hundred clans (a theory based off the close comparison between eleph and aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet which could signify the idea of clan head)?  Seriously, who cares?  Well, we might, but I can tell you who doesn't: the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, and I & II Kings.  Our questions aren't their questions, and as my freshman level Old Testament professor was fond of saying, "You have to learn to ask the same questions the Bible is asking."  Frankly, those are the only questions the Bible is interested in answering.

This debate can easily lead into a much greater discussion over the nature and meaning of inspiration, but I'll leave that alone for another day.  In the mean time, live and read in the tension.  Don't try to smooth it over.  We might just discover that the Bible has more to say than our historic brains want to consider.

Stopping point: I Kings 2

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Brother's Love

For those of you following my blog, sorry for not posting yesterday.  Normally I wouldn't post on a Saturday, but I'll give you a quick thought.  The first major thing that happens in II Samuel after David's affair with Bathsheba is the rape of Tamar by her step-brother Amnon.  Long story short, after raping her, Amnon is repulsed by her, so she ends up living in disgrace with her older brother, Absalom.  David eventually hears about what his oldest son has done to one of his daughters, but refuses to do anything about it because Amnon is heir to the throne.  This, understandably, infuriates Absalom, who quickly begins planning his revenge.  By the end of our reading, Absalom has murdered Amnon, gone into exile, returned from exile, and started a rebellion, usurping David's throne.  Absalom becomes the villain of the story, and so he is typically viewed through a lens of revulsion and distaste.  The assumption, going back to my post on David and Bathsheba, is that only evil people do evil things.

There is, however, an interesting little blip of information that calls this assumption into questions.  When David calls Absalom back from exile, II Samuel shares that Absalom had three sons and one daughter.  We're not told the name of his sons, but the author of II Samuel does relate the name of his daughter, and it is Tamar.  Absalom named his daughter after the sister he loved.  Evil men don't love their sisters.  Once again, the stories in Samuel don't present us with an easy black and white world.  Instead, the stories in the books of Samuel present us with the lives of real people, mixtures of black and white, who through valuable attributes like love do terrible things like murder.  Absalom may not have been the evil villain he has been made out to be.

One final, possibly interesting, I've said in previous posts, my Hebrew has mostly fallen by the wayside, but Absalom's name looks remarkably like a merging of two other Hebrew words: ab and shalomAb means "father," and shalom means "peace."  It's quite ironic that David's refusal to enact justice led the Father of Peace down the road of murder and revolt.

Stopping point: II Samuel 15

Thursday, April 7, 2011

No One Is Immune

II Samuel chapter 11 is a tipping point in the life of David, like the fulcrum on a sea-saw.  Up until chapter 11, David's life has been slanted in one direction, but after chapter 11 everything is changed.  Chapter 11 is the David and Bathsheba story, and as I was reading though it this morning what struck me was the fact that no one is immune from doing truly stupid, dark things.

We tend to think that only evil people do evil things, that sin is a sign of corruption.  We can usually come up with multiple examples of where that is actually the case, but David wasn't evil and he wasn't corrupt.  David was an exemplary man who almost always turned away from selfish desires, even when his life was being threatened.  David took the hard road, the high road, the road less traveled by.  Of all the people to have an affair and then murder the woman's husband, David was not that guy.  And yet, of course, we know that that is exactly what he did.

"I could never do that," is a common thing we tell ourselves, especially when repulsed by another individual's behavior.  But if David, who most readers of the Bible would agree is a far better person than most of us are, can pull a 180 out of the blue, who are we to think that we're immune to such things?  There is a reason humility is so important to Christian living.  It keeps us on guard.  Any person, no matter what their upbringing or background, no matter what type of parents or education they had, can do terrible things if the situation presents itself, and that implies two things.

First, resist the temptation to demonize.  However different Christian traditions understand the Fall, the result is the same.  Humanity is broken.  We do terrible things, and many times simply because we fail to stop and think about what we're doing, or, as is also sometimes the case, we're in a place in life where we just don't care.  Give us the same situation during a different place in our life and the outcome may be very different.  So, people don't do evil because they are demonic.  People do evil because they are fallen, and that is a universal trait.

Second, we all need to accept that even if we're "good" people, we are all capable of causing great harm to ourselves and others.  We all need a good dose of humility.  We also need to stop rationalizing our own sins because, well, at least we didn't kill Uriah.  Slandering a person behind their back and costing them a job can effect a family's livelihood just as much as putting a man on the front lines of battle.  Once we decide, "I want it my way first, and I don't care who I hurt to get it," the rest is just details.

No one is immune.  No one is safe.  No one can sit back and assume that they've reached a point where they can do no wrong.  If you find yourself there, don't be surprised with a prophet Nathan comes knocking on your door.

Stopping point: II Samuel 12

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The End of the First King of Israel

You'd think that because the Deuteronomic history books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the Books of Samuel, and the Books of Kings) are some of my favorite books in the Bible, I'd have a lot to blog about, but for some reason inspiration has decided to play hide and seek.  So, today's post is more about the discipline of writing then it is about having something to say.

So, Saul, the first king of Israel...Saul doesn't exactly go out in a blaze of glory.  I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say that Saul was losing his mind by the end of his life, but he was certainly becoming unstable.  As Saul's story reaches its conclusion, we find him paranoid, obsessed with conspiracy theories, and losing national support like sand slipping through an hourglass.  There is a fascinating story about Saul that takes place shortly before he is killed in battle.  Desperate to bring about victory against a Philistine army, Saul consults a necromancer.  The New Revised Standard Version calls her a medium, but the idea of death-magic might be more accurate to how the woman would have seen herself.  As an interesting side note, archeologists have found pits used for rituals much like what probably happened in I Samuel 28.  Mediums/necromancers like the one we find Saul consulting would have literally gone down into a pit to meet with the dead.  They would physically enact the idea of going down into the pit of Sheol.  Anyway, Saul meets with such a person to ask advice of the dead.  If you think about it, this is pretty spooky.

Who knows if Saul descended into the pit with the woman, but as she calls the dead, the story gives the impression he's right there with her.  So if Saul was with her, picture two people in a cramped and deep pit in the ground.  It's dark; it's cold; it's at night (such rituals weren't done during the day).  The necromancer has asked Saul who he would like to call back from the land of the dead, and he has chosen Samuel.  So, as Saul watches, the woman calls Samuel back from the dead, but things quickly go wrong.  The woman does not know that it is King Saul who has asked her to do this, so she does not realize which Samuel she is bringing back, but she is terrified by the Samuel that emerges.  I'm not sure what is considered "normal" when meeting with the dead, but apparently she wasn't used to the dead looking like the gods themselves.  This Samuel is no hazy effigy, but a being of power, and now the pit is even more crowded, at least for her.  Now she is down in a pit with a man she just realized was the king who put a bounty on the heads of all necromancers and the ghost of the greatest leader Israel had seen since Joshua.

Then the night gets weirder.  The King of Israel bows down to the spirit of Samuel, and Samuel looks to Saul and asks, "What did you call me back for?"  Saul's response, "The Philistine army is here.  I don't think I can win.  You have to help me."  Samuel's response is great, in the darkly sarcastic sense of great, "Then you shouldn't have called me back.  I told you the last time we talked that God was taking away your kingdom, and that is exactly what is going to happen.  In fact, tomorrow is when that is going to happen.  Today you have brought me to you.  Tomorrow God will bring you to me."

Creepy, huh!  The next day Israel's army is crushed.  Saul and all his sons are killed on the field of battle.  As I said, Saul doesn't necessarily go out in a blaze of glory, but he at least goes out with some pizazz.  How many people do you know that bring the ghost of their estranged mentor back from the underworld only to have that ghost tell them they'd soon be going to the underworld themselves?  Personally, I'd have to say none.

Thus ended the reign of the first king of Israel.

Stopping point: II Samuel 7

Friday, April 1, 2011

Samson, Saul, and David: a Common Bond

While reading through I Samuel today, something struck me.  Samson, Saul, and David all have one thing in common: the Philistines.  Samson was judge against the Philistines.  I Samuel says that Saul battled with the Philistines all his days as king.  David, in service to Saul, is constantly going out to battle against the Philistines.  In a way, this creates a standard with which we, the reader, can make some comparisons.  Namely, as leaders in the nation of Israel, which of the three gives us the best example and definition for "servant of God?"

Of course we remember Samson: womanizer, murderer, narcissist, hot-head, and lover of prostitutes.  He is only a servant of God in the sense that God uses him.  As far as being an example to Israel of what it means to serve God, Samson is an absolute failure.  Samson's life culminates in an act of vengeance, and suicidal vengeance at that.

Next we have Saul.  Saul starts out alright.  He's humble.  It is not ambition that leads him to accept the crown (or sword, or whatever his sign of office happened to be).  But once he is king, well, he becomes as self-serving as Samson.  Keeping power becomes the driving force guiding Saul's use of power.  In the end he leaves serving God behind in the name of serving himself, betraying is once mentor, his son, his daughters, and his greatest servant.

Finally we see David, a shepherd, a musician, and a military genius.  Even though the fact that Samuel has anointed him king is kept a secret, everyone who sees him realizes that this man has royal potential.  When women welcome the armies home by singing, "Saul has killed his thousands, but David tens of thousands," Saul rightly perceives this as a change in national support.  It may be subconscious, but Israel's allegiances are shifting.  But how does David handle this?  He never tries to overthrow Saul.  He constantly obeys Saul as God's anointed king.  When Saul gives him the opportunity to marry his daughter, David sees himself as unworthy.  Even in the face of repeated murder attempts, David never retaliates.  He never grasps for revenge like Samson or seeks his own advantage like Saul.

The tension with the Philistines created an environment of instability and disorientation for Israel.  Sociologists, psychologists, and theologians have long understood such an environment to be an impetus for growth and change.  Samson, Saul, and David are all shaped by that environment, but how are they shaped?  Samson and Saul become self-destructive.  Only David takes a different road.  Only David comes out as a true servant of God, capable of providing his people with an example of how they were meant to be.  In so doing, he set the standard against which Israel would compare all their later kings.  When compared to Samson and Saul, it makes sense that Israel would remember him as a man after God's own heart.  Samson was a man after Samson's heart.  Saul a man after Saul's heart.  Only David focused his eyes on God's will and not his least up to this point in his life.

Stopping point: I Samuel 20