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Author: Henry Neufeld

Above and Below: Thoughts on Exodus 32

Above and Below: Thoughts on Exodus 32

Yesterday I taught the Sunday School lesson for my class. The primary scripture was Exodus 32, the story of the golden calf. Our Adult Bible Studies title for the lesson was “The Permission Trap” and the goal was “To recognize the consequences of giving ourselves permission to do that which we know to be wrong.”

In one sense, one can’t argue with that. The Israelites knew they shouldn’t be making an idol, and that is precisely what happened, Aaron’s claim to miraculous sourcing notwithstanding. (Have you ever thought, “I know nobody is going to believe this, but I need some excuse”?) The Israelites did sin, and there were consequences for their sin.

The question in my mind as I read the lesson was whether this is actually the intended message. No, let me be honest here. I pretty much disagreed with that as the primary message.

It’s quite possible for something to be true on one level and to miss the mark when one goes deeper. The point here is not to say that making calves is OK, but rather that the message is somewhat deeper than “Remember not to make golden calves.” When interpreting stories, I would suggest that finding the moral (or a moral) of the story is not the point at which you have found the meaning. In fact, finding that moral can often prevent you from truly learning from the story.

To lead into this, let me note one Christian reaction, which is to blame the Israelites for being so faithless while imagining that we would do better. I would imagine that people who think this way have either spent very little time in the wilderness, or even in campsites, or they have ignored their own behavior. People who get away from their normal source of food and other supplies tend to get nervous. So the idea that the Israelites were faithless while we would be faithful involves looking at our own characters through rose-colored glasses.

That rosy view of our own characters also results from seeing only the surface problem. We cannot imagine ourselves constructing a golden calf and then dancing around it. We think we could avoid that. Unfortunately, our idolatry often takes less work-intensive forms.

To lead in from another direction (anything to avoid getting to the subject!), let me note that I read from Brevard Childs’ commentary on Exodus. Childs is one of my favorite commentaries, up in the top three. He goes through some of the source and redaction critical ideas on the chapter and does an excellent job as always. He points to some critical aspects of what the chapter teaches based on some of the “problems” certain people have noted in the text.

In an aside about the aside, Childs is a foremost, if not the foremost, advocate of canonical criticism. Canonical criticism involves seeing a passage as part of the whole canon of scripture. By nature, it can make a text look different depending on your religious tradition and view of the canon. For example, Jewish and Roman Catholic interpreters are working from a different canon of scripture than one another and than protestants. I would say that Jacob Milgrom does the best job of seeing the canonical picture from different perspectives. His own perspective is that of a conservative Rabbi, but he looks at usage and interpretation in other traditions.

In practice, scripture comes to us a part of a canon, whether that is the canon of our religious tradition or perhaps of our own making. We will read differently based on the setting in which we place the book. I will read a passage differently myself if I’m trying to understand Israel as an ancient near eastern people, Judaism as a faith, Christianity, or simply looking at a document as a piece of literature. I think we do well to be aware of all of those and I personally don’t privilege one or another point of view. (I would comment Edward W. H. Vick’s book From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully on this topic, particularly section 2, Canon.)

For my Sunday School class, I looked from the canonical view, and that leads me to think that the calf itself was an instance, a symptom, and not the underlying problem. I think the text is arranged to emphasize that.

Note, for example, that after we have the introductory story we begin and end dealing with the results on the mountain. In verse seven, YHWH tells Moses about the peoples’ failure. The conversation between YHWH and Moses goes on through verse 14, at which point YHWH repents (more on this in a moment). In verse 31 Moses returns to the mountain for a conversation about the same topic again.

The thinking on the mountain and the thinking at the foot of the mountain are quite different. The people are impatient with God’s timing. Moses doesn’t seem to realize that so much time has passed. This is a good place to put yourself in the shoes of the people at the foot of the mountain. Supposing you are climbing a mountain with a guide. The guide tells you to wait in the based camp while he goes away for some purpose. It could be supplies. It could be information. It doesn’t matter. If the guide doesn’t return in good time, what do you do?

Consider that you have no way of knowing where the guide is. He might have fallen over a cliff. He might have been killed by a wild animal. He might even have gotten lost. If any of those things occurred, and you keep waiting in camp, you could wait until you die. How long do you wait before you move out and try to save yourself? Your life could depend on accuracy.

Yet the meeting on the mountaintop moves at its own pace and the Israelites have to wonder. It’s Moses who has done everything. (We can remember, from the comfort of our easy chairs, that Moses was the agent of God’s action, but to the people, it looks like Moses.) Moses met with Pharaoh and announced the plagues. Moses stretched out his rod over the Red Sea. Moses announced the Manna. Moses struck the rock and brought water. And now Moses is gone.

Be honest! How long do you wait?

Moses hears what God has to say, and God proposes destroying the people. I don’t want to go into detail about this conversation, except to note that this is often the time when we get into debates about foreknowledge, predestination, and whether God can repent. I would suggest those debates don’t go well in this story. Let the story be the story.

Consider: If God is at least as intelligent as an ordinary human, don’t you think he’d know what reaction Moses would have at this point? We don’t have to settle issues of theology and philosophy to understand that God is making a point, and that the storyteller is making points about God and about Moses. Even a God without foreknowledge would know the outcome of this conversation.

We make this point of God’s faithfulness before we hear about what Moses did in the camp. There are consequences and results of my actions, yet neither my actions nor those consequences cause God to be unfaithful. This is stated before Moses goes down to deal with the people.

Let me compare this to someone who gets drunk and falls off of a cliff. This behavior was perhaps sub-optimal. Can God forgive? I think doubtless God does. But the body is still lying broken at the bottom of the cliff.

In Israel’s case, God can forgive the unfaithfulness, but behaving in an unfaithful manner has results. Let me put that into my own perspective. I tend to worry about money. When one problem is solved, I immediately find another one. Since I run a business with many bills, and in many cases narrow margins, I can always find a bill to worry about. Many bills have been paid. God can forgive me for being a worrier, and yet I will suffer the health effects of sleeplessness and tension.

The Israelites have a simple problem. It’s said that in war (and I suggest everything else) most tasks are simple, but are very hard to accomplish. After this event, for example, would be the story of the spies and the decision to turn back. Faithlessness breeds trouble.

Moses takes visible action in the camp. I can’t say that I’m in love with his procedure, but he is, after all, Moses, and I’m so not. Visible, human inflicted consequences can have a substantial impact on behavior. Behavior can be important in many ways. I see no contradiction here between God’s faithfulness expressed on the mountaintop and Moses’ actions taking control of a camp that was very much out of control.

And then we have the final, enigmatic statement. After the next debate with God on the mountaintop, we are told that God punished the people. We are not told when and we are not told how.

My suspicion is that faithlessness has its own punishment built in. I gain nothing and lose much by worrying. That’s how things work. For punishment to occur, all that is required is for God to continue being God, and maintaining the universe.

As a final note, I want to look at the basis of God’s grace and faithfulness. In verse 13, Moses appeals to the promise God had made to the patriarchs. There are those who hold that in this passage Moses is calling up the collective and collected merit of the patriarchs. Because of their merit, God should show grace to God’s people now.

There is no indication of such a thought in this text. It is not the merit of the patriarchs to which Moses appeals. Rather, it is God’s promise, God’s oath, sworn on himself to those patriarchs. That is why the appeal is precisely what works. It is an appeal to something solid and firm, the faithfulness of God who promised.

One can look through this story for the details of what was done wrong, and there is plenty of that. But the ultimate failure, and I know my ultimate failure, is that I lose trust. It’s the sin that underlies the sins, sin “living in me” (Romans 7:17).

I’d rather deal with the sins because I can measure them, count them, and even deal with them in some sense. How many times was I angry today? Can I be angry fewer times tomorrow? It sounds doable. But under it all, there is that sin, which is not one I can deal with myself.

That requires the One on the mountaintop.

(Theme Image Credit: Adobe Stock # 279252149. Licensed, not public domain.)

Of Publishing and Facts

Of Publishing and Facts

Today a post by one of my authors was removed from Facebook. On reading the post I must conclude that if a reader finds a problem with it that would justify removing it from social media, the problem is with the reader, not the post.

At the moment we are seeing people in a variety of positions on the political spectrum resorting to government action to protect their kind of content. The debate, of course, is whether these things are factual.

I like factual. I dislike fake. I go to fact-checking sites, where I read not only their rating, but their reasoning for it, and the evidence they provide to back up that reasoning. Sometimes I disagree with the fact-checker. I expect that. I appreciate those sites that provide both reasoning and references.

I am a publisher (Energion Publications). From time to time I am asked whether everything I publish is true. My answer is that it is not possible that it is all true because I publish books that are opposed to one another. I have authors with a variety of opinions and viewpoints from progressive to conservative, to a number who object to that spectrum, as I do.

They can’t all be right.

I have had people question whether I should publish certain viewpoints. In fact, I once had complaints about a book I published from both sides. A conservative said it was too liberal. A liberal said it was too conservative. That is a valid discussion.

When I publish a book I disagree with, am I promoting some viewpoint I shouldn’t? That is a question I have to ask and answer with each book. If I disagree strongly with the content of a book, should I publish it?

For me, that question is always much more one of approach then of actual content. Yes, there are viewpoints that I think are not really needed as part of our public conversation. I make a choice not to publish those. But there are other viewpoints that I think are dead wrong, yet I think need to be part of our discussion. I will publish those.

Inevitably, some people will object.

My response is simply that I am a private company and that I make the rules. I’m also a firm believer in free speech. I’m not anxious to shut some other publisher up because he or she follows different rules than I do. I am also not anxious to force some other platform or publisher to advocate for material of mine that he or she considers inappropriate.

All of this is carried out by private individuals working under the umbrella of free speech. Free speech does not mean I have to support or even respect your viewpoint. It doesn’t force private individuals (as practiced in the USA) to support various positions.

As a result, while I think Facebook has an atrocious system for determining what to publish, I do not advocate—in fact, I vigorously oppose—any effort to force them to present or not present something legally. I don’t care how big they are. They got big by doing things that kept people coming back to their platform. There is nothing they are doing that will not be made worse, in my view, by government regulation.

At the same time, I think there is a way to deal with Facebook. For example, I publish my primary material on a separate platform. Facebook can reduce my reach by cutting off access to their platform, but my material is still online. One of the ridiculous aspects of modern discourse is that people trying to get Facebook (or other social media platforms) regulated are at the same time providing the very numbers that make those platforms strong.

And of course, I am still on Facebook. Why? Because most of you are. I can be as annoyed as I want to be, but I’ll still be there using social media to get my own message out.

And to share pictures of cats. Always cats.

The one—and I believe the only—solution to disinformation is an educated and informed public, a public which demands truth. I’m not that optimistic about this in general, but no matter how much disinformation others consume, you can be a fact-checker. And no matter how many regulations you pass, there will still be some people who will believe whatever rumor best suits them.

(Featured Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay)

Genesis 2:4-9 – God Plays in the Mud

Genesis 2:4-9 – God Plays in the Mud

This is again from the Daily Bible Study series. One complaint I have about the reading is that they will split up chapters and even give the verses out of order. This is not, unfortunately, according to some coherent theory about the history of the text, so far as I can tell, but seems to simply be a convenient way to get the right texts for the Sunday reading.

There is a substantial change in the text starting with Genesis 2:4. The precise division depends on who is doing the dividing, but usually it is Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, and then 2:4b and following. These are the two creation stories.

These two stories describe creation in quite different terms. In Genesis one we have soaring literary prose. It is powerful, and likely intended for use in liturgy, a purpose it has served well many times. The key theological elements, emphasized by the literary form are power, control, success, satisfaction, and blessing (and perhaps more).

God is certainly involved, but the emphasis is on God’s power and glory and not on how close God is to creation. Genesis 1 could potentially be regarded as compatible with deism, seeing God as ultimate creator, but not as one interested in the day to day aspects of the world. Of course we have the Sabbath rest in 2:1-3, but a bit of interpretation, specifically not getting too literal, takes care of that. God is in charge.

I should make a couple of quick points. First, Genesis 1 is not poetry. It has poetic elements in the language, but it does not have the characteristics of Hebrew poetry. It is powerful, well-designed prose. Second, Genesis 1 is not a myth, when myth is used in a literary sense. While it uses some of the language and symbolism of mythology, this symbolism is used in quite a different way. There is none of the conflict between supernatural characters, for example. One could almost call it an anti-myth.

It is also not narrative history, nor is it science. It is theological in nature, and specifically liturgy. This doesn’t mean that it has no relationship to history or to science. It just isn’t trying to make testable scientific statements, nor is it trying to narrate a series of historic events in a form a historian might recognize. A good analogy might be the relationship of the liturgy of Good Friday and Easter Sunday to the events of the resurrection. Historical elements occur, but are never in focus. This is not a weakness. Liturgy takes its power from focusing on the divine elements and their connection to worshipers.

But with Genesis 2:4b we come to a very different picture. We see God planting a garden, forming a human being out of dust and then breathing the breath of life into that body. As we proceed through the text, we will see God personally involved with the human being.

There are those who think we solve problems with the text by noting different literary sources for Genesis 1 & 2. I do think that source criticism is accurate here in that these two stories of creation were at one point separate. But source criticism solves very little of what a text means as we have received it.

The problem with trying to resolve contradictions by referring to sources (and there are chronological issues between Genesis 1 & 2 if you take them as intending to present the events in precise order) is that it doesn’t really solve anything. We still have the text before us, and that means that somebody, somewhere, sometime thought they worked together.

This, to me, is evidence of the simple fact that this was not written, nor was it collected, by someone who was primarily concerned with chronology or with presenting narrative history.

In combination, these tell an exciting story. There is a God of ultimate power who does not have to fight with others in order to create, whose word brings things into existence, whose will is carried out, and who has no peer. At the same time, this God of great power is personally involved with the creation, getting his hands dirty, so to speak, and coming in contact so as to provide breath.

While on the sixth day, God is said simply to create the animals, in Genesis 2, the animals are created and brought before the original human so that he can name them, thus emphasizing and personally upholding the human’s authority and dominion. This same God of power is concerned that this first human is alone, and creates a woman, so we now have a first man and first woman, who are neither of them alone.

Either of these views by itself would be incomplete. Personally, I like to join them to Psalm 104, in which God as creator is presented as sustaining life on a moment to moment basis.

You can see my color-coded view of Genesis 1 & 2 here, and my thoughts on Psalm 104 here.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a from the Daily Study Bible

Genesis 1:1-2:4a from the Daily Study Bible

This is a day late, but the text for Sunday, the key text for the lesson, was the creation story of Genesis 1. This is a summary of what I taught, and some notes on what I didn’t.

For obvious reasons, we discussed Hurricane Dorian. By Sunday morning we were pretty sure we would not be impacted in this area. I wanted to make the point that it is questionable to claim an answer to prayer regarding the movement of a hurricane. If God spared us because of our prayers, what did God have against the Bahamas? Let’s just pray that God will be with us and with whoever is impacted by a storm and leave the movement of the story to the processes of nature.

I chose to spend my time in Psalm 19 and to discuss the relationship of God’s creative power to lawgiving, and then to God’s power and the proper place of the law. For my comments on this, see my earlier post.

Yes, this Sunday was scattered, because we covered a variety of related questions. I’m not teaching this coming week, but I’m planning to take a look at the scriptures and post a few notes.

Since the Daily Bible Study commented on authorship, I should like to my own color coded text for Genesis 1.

Exodus 31:12-17 – Daily Bible Study

Exodus 31:12-17 – Daily Bible Study

As I continue my posts on the Daily Bible Study readings for this week’s Sunday School lesson, I come to what may be, for many, a somewhat more troubling passage. It’s not that the passage mandates no work on the seventh day of the week, though that bothers some, but more that the penalty for violating this law is death.

This frequently brings on the standard Christian response, which is dismissal: This is from the Old Testament, so we don’t have to worry about it. The big problem with that is that, by incorporating themes from Hebrew scripture into the New Testament and by basing any number of beliefs on it, Christianity has accepted this as part of our history, and part of our scripture.

We face the fact that most of us work on the seventh day. Certainly by rabbinic definitions, but also by practically any definition, I have already worked on this seventh day. Some of the actions involved in posting this blog count as work. So I have violated a law from the scripture.

I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, so I have another perspective from which to look at this. I grew up refraining from work, as we defined it (which differed from rabbinic definitions). Some Seventh-day Adventists have told me they believe I left the church because I didn’t like the Sabbath. This is quite incorrect. The Sabbath is one of the things I miss about the Seventh-day Adventist community. I don’t actually believe this is a command applying to Christians, so I do not feel obligated, but there was a great value in the obligation to rest at specific times.

I believe the New Testament view would make all time sacred to God and all time to be used by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I see a violation in failing to take the appropriate rest, not in the keeping of a specific day. This is because there has been a revolutionary shift brought on by the death and resurrection of Jesus. But this is not my primary topic.

The focus of this statement of the Sabbath command is on God as the creator. This is quite frequently the case, such as in Genesis 2:1-4a and the Sabbath command in the Ten Commandments. The rest is tied to the creator. The authority for the rest is tied to creative activity. This is a theme repeated from most of our scriptures this week. God, as creator, asserts God’s power as legislator.

In Israel, this law was particularly tied to idolatry, which, as we have seen in other scriptures this week, is a fundamental sin. The most attractive form of the temptation to idolatry is the temptation to attribute divinity to what is created. The sun, for example was seen in much of the ancient near east as the god of justice. This is why Psalm 19 asserts God’s authority over justice, and his creative and controlling power over the sun itself.

I could discuss the nature of and use of the death penalty, but I’m going to avoid that on this occasion, except in the sense that it emphasizes the importance of the command in question. Idolatry separates one from God in a way that nothing else can. Nothing else can do so — logically — because all the other ways we might think of separating ourselves from God turn out to involve idolatry.

When, for example, I do not rest as God would direct, and do not maintain my health, I am putting my own labor above God. This is a form of idolatry. I am more concerned with my own activities than I am with that Ultimate Concern.

Thus the Sabbath command was very much central for Israel, and the thing to which it points—constantly reminding ourselves that God is Creator and the true Ultimate Concern, remains central for us.

Hebrews 11:1-3 – Daily Bible Study Text

Hebrews 11:1-3 – Daily Bible Study Text

Hebrews 11:1-3 begins thus: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV). Most of the words here are at least a bit controversial.

It may be easier to understand the passage if we accept that the writer is not trying to define “faith” or the Greek word “pistis,” but is speaking of the function of faith. In Hebrews we have a kind of hand-in-glove paired ideas of this faith or faithfulness. On the one hand, one of the key concepts of the book is God’s faithfulness, and it is from this platform that the author calls for a response of faith, endurance, and boldness.

If you look back to chapter 3, verses 1-5, and especially verse 2, you will see the expression of the faithfulness of Jesus, who is faithful “as was Moses,” though the point of the passage is to say that Jesus is faithful to a greater mission and authority than was Moses. In verse 5 we are called upon to hold firmly to the boast and the boldness of hope.

This is one of many cases of the author of Hebrews signaling upcoming topics. Though it is the boldness and the boast of our hope we are to hold onto tightly, we have some similar wording in 11:1 where faith is the “substance” of the things we hope for. I believe it’s necessary to get to a point in the semantic range of the word used for faith, so that it is a faithful acceptance and affirmation, it is the key to what we are to hope for.

The context of chapter 11 makes this nature of the faith clear. It is a belief that drives endurance in hope that underlies the actions of all of the people of faith in the chapter. They didn’t just sit around and believe really intensely. They remained faithful to their call.

But the real key is not their faith, or the genuineness of their belief, but rather the faithfulness of the one in whom they are believing and trusting. We have only to look a few verses back to 10:23 to support this idea: “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who promised is faithful.

Our faith is enabled and brought forth by the one who is faithful in everything, an idea that has been building from the beginning of the book of Hebrews. The one who is faithful has been faithful in accomplishing our redemption and thus we have but to put our faith in his, faithfully.

Of course, the passages for this week all deal in some way with creation, so we have verse 3 telling us that it is by faith that we can understand God as the creator. Yet again we see God’s authority and power established by God’s creative power.

This combined faithfulness of God with a response of faith is quite common in scripture. In Romans, we have a great affirmation of God’s faithfulness in chapter 8, followed by chapter 9, which some see as a complete change of topic, as though Paul said, “Well, I’ve got to say something about Israel, so here goes.” In fact, when I took Exegesis of Romans in college, the professor was content to make it just through chapter 8.

There is a subject change, but it is incremental and not one that turns a big corner. Yes, Paul is going to talk about Israel and the salvation of Israel, but they way he does it emphasizes God’s faithfulness. It would be natural in a church of both Jews and Gentiles for people to ask after the firm, or perhaps fiery proclamation of God’s faithfulness at the end of Romans 8, to ask, “But what about Israel? It’s God’s biggest promise! Is God faithful there?”

So the discussion that follows, rather than being a sort of excursus, is a historical and eschatological affirmation of the foundation of the book’s message: God is faithful.

Which reminds me that one of the authors I publish, Edward W. H. Vick, commented in a couple of his books (Creation: The Christian Doctrine and Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide), that we can’t really talk about soteriology without talking about creation and eschatology, and we can’t talk about creation without talking about soteriology and eschatology. These topics tie together frequently and powerfully in scripture.

This week, with these scriptures, we’re not even going to try!

Psalm 33:3-9 for the Daily Bible Study

Psalm 33:3-9 for the Daily Bible Study

I’m continuing with comments on the scripture passages for this week from the Daily Bible Study, which my Sunday School class uses as curriculum.

This passage, like most of the passages this week, links God’s Word (whether in words or not) with creation and justice. We are to praise God because his word holds true, his work endures (v. 4). He loves righteousness and justice and his unfailing love fills the earth (v. 5).

It’s interesting to note that this passage, very much like yesterday’s passage from Proverbs, states the attributes first and then makes the power explicit. “By YHWH’s word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all their host” (v. 6). “He spoke, and it was, he commanded, and it stood firmly” (v. 9).

I quote it fairly frequently, but I wonder how often we think about who this must be when we talk about being in God’s presence, or hearing God’s voice, or looking at something that we say must surely be the act of God.

It’s possible for us to affirm the right things about God and never even imagine a tiny fraction of what all this would be like. Perhaps a slightly less casual attitude might be in order.

The reference “Ephesians 3:14-21” is inscribed inside my wedding band. This is a powerful passage, and I just want to call attention to a few lines: “… that you may be able to grasp with all the saints the breadth, length, height, and depth, (19) to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you can be filled with all of God’s fullness.”

We often—I often—don’t really get this. It is in the nature of a teacher to explain things, but in this case we have to say we can’t make this clear. It surpasses knowledge. It surpasses our ability to imagine it.

And then verse 20: “Now to the one who is able to immeasurably more than we ask or conceive according to the power that is working among us …” And that points us back to Psalm 33 and the one who speaks and it is done.

Do you ever pause and try to imagine this? Or is “we are the body of Christ” just a description of an ordinary gathering of humans?

Here is a link to a story and a poem I wrote some time ago, but that I believe connect to our lesson this week: It Got Very Quiet up in the Mountains and What Was It Like?

Featured image credit: Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay