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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!

Proverbs 3:13-20 from the Daily Bible Study

Proverbs 3:13-20 from the Daily Bible Study

Continuing my notes on the daily passages from this week’s lesson, I’m looking at Proverbs 3:13-20. I assume it’s clear to all that the subject is creation.

13      Happy are those who find wisdom, 
        and those who get understanding, 
14      for her income is better than silver, 
        and her revenue better than gold. 
15      She is more precious than jewels, 
        and nothing you desire can compare with her. 
16      Long life is in her right hand; 
        in her left hand are riches and honor. 
17      Her ways are ways of pleasantness, 
        and all her paths are peace. 
18      She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; 
        those who hold her fast are called happy.
19      The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; 
        by understanding he established the heavens; 
20      by his knowledge the deeps broke open, 
        and the clouds drop down the dew.  (Prov. 3:13-20 NRSV)

We again find ourselves looking at God’s revelation through God’s work. I like to emphasize the importance of not just reading words from the Word of God, as we do in scripture, but also receiving the Word of God as revealed in God’s acts in history (as well as our own lives) and in Jesus.

This passage is logically extracted from the chapter, which is not always the case, as I noted yesterday. You can see a simple inclusio which ties the passage together. In verse 13, the ones who are fortunate are those who find wisdom and get understanding. This is reflected again in verse 19 when these same to things (the words in Hebrew are the same just as they are in the NRSV). The tie between these two verses emphasizes the message. It is divine wisdom and understanding that the happy, or fortunate, ones have found.

But I think one can further deduce that real wisdom (and not all claimed wisdom really is) and real understanding derive, just as does all creation, from God. It’s interesting how often we try to discover those things that God does. That is, as opposed to things that just happen. But the scriptural view of creation would say rather than all things depend upon God and function because it is God’s will that they do.

As a believer in free will, I also note that my ability to choose along with the ranges of choices available all derive from God’s action and God’s will. There is no real independence. Everything derives in some way from God. I believe in free will, but each act of my will happens because God has permitted it and also set the bounds on it.

Today’s scripture is very positive. It emphasizes the good things: Long life, pleasantness, peace, happiness. Yesterday’s passage was taken from a cry of deep despair. Job was facing just how unlikely it was that God would respond to him. The wise person is not always fortunate in everything. Job, called righteous, suffers. The season of his life reflected in the book that bears his name was anything but pleasant and peaceful.

Is this a contradiction in scripture? Is it inappropriate to say of wisdom that “her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold”? (v. 14). Actually, I think that the contradiction, or better the tension, is in the nature of reality itself.

We tell young people not to text and drive. A young driver collided with my car while probably texting. So we say, “Don’t text and drive. It’s safer.” There’s that hedging. But no matter how safely one drives, bad things can happen. When the other car collided with mine, I was driving within the speed limit and obeying all traffic laws. Indeed, I was paying quite close attention. Yet from a side street came something I was not prepared for.

In life as well, unpleasant things can come upon us from a side street and smash our lives to pieces. It’s just the nature of reality. No matter how careful you are, there are things that happen that are beyond your control. As I write, people in Puerto Rico are awaiting Tropical Storm, likely to become Hurricane Dorian. Wisdom is useful. Good preparation is helpful. But there are some things that storm will do that nobody could have prepared for well enough.

We don’t abandon preparation just because storms come when they come no matter what. We don’t abandon safe driving because someone else may be driving while impaired or sending an essential text at just the wrong moment. These things help, but nothing is certain.

As a Christian, however, I believe that God has set a boundary. God permitted Job to be stricken by disaster, but God also set limits. I could definitely wish those limits were more, well, ummm, limiting! But odds are that when I want to see some flexibility in the boundaries, I will be less happy with the limits.

Perhaps God thinks of that as well, noting how unhelpfully we beat against the limits set on creation.

Featured Image Credit: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Starting Leviticus

Starting Leviticus

I mentioned in my post about completing the study of Romans that our next book was Leviticus. This was by choice of the group, but it is surely driven somewhat by the number of references I have made to Leviticus.

While I experienced Leviticus as a child, going to a Christian school where we read—really read—the entire Bible, and memorized a great deal, it never really caught my attention.

Two factors combined to catch my attention:

  1. I changed my view of biblical inspiration
  2. I studied through Leviticus using the three volume commentary on it in the Anchor Bible series by Jacob Milgrom.

Studying with Milgrom

Here’s a key Milgrom quote, and this from a man who does not tend to speak in one-liners!

Theology is what Leviticus is all about. It pervades every chapter and almost every verse. It is not expressed in pronouncements but embedded in rituals.

Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Vol. 1, Anchor Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 42. (Link is to my review.)

One of the key lessons I learned in that book is that ritual matters. The way we worship both reflects and creates theology. When we go to church and listen to one person from the front do all the talking, that has an impact on how we see the Christian life, learning, discipleship.

I recall that I was once asked to speak at a church where, unknown to me, people felt they could delegate that task of prayer to the prayer warriors. The pastor who invited me knew I’d say something different.

I would like to say something similar about study to the church as a whole: You can’t leave your study to pastors or scholars. You need to get involved.

Bottom line here is that our ritual matters in many ways.

I asked a question in a previous post:

If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?

Henry’s Threads, “A Morbid and Boring Christianity

I think it’s a good question. In terms of Leviticus, would it be a “pleasing odor?”

What’s God Really Like?

Inspiration in the Production of Scripture

The other element is my change was my view of inspiration. There is a single element that is critical. I came to regard the process of inspiration and transmission of scripture as a critical element in our understanding. I see scripture as a compendium of the experience of people with God. It is important to recognize both the divine and human element.

Out of that divine-human story, I see God working with people through scripture. In Leviticus, we see God as educator. Yes, we see the human report of what happened. I’m not trying here to debate details on how human and how divine scripture is; in fact, I think that’s the wrong question. What we’re looking for is the process behind what we have. We want to see God in action.

Is that perhaps arrogant? I don’t believe so. I believe God has left God’s imprint all over creation, and very much in the way in which God’s chosen people were developed and prepared. Looking at this process is even more critical than connecting dots between specific scriptures.

Things I Won’t Be Doing

In focusing on the way ritual expresses theology and develops worshipers, there are two things I will not be emphasizing.

First, I will not be looking for the minor ties between specific scripture prophecies and New Testament events. While I accept predictive prophecy in principle, in practice I find that the detailed interpretation of a prediction/fulfillment is rarely necessary to learn the lessons expressed.

Second, I will not be doing a detailed symbolic connection between elements of the ritual. Those sorts of things (and the resulting debates) are available elsewhere.

I will be focusing on the expression of theology through ritual and the relationship of that ritual to forming God’s people. I hope to learn something about discipleship and instruction/nurture through this book.

(Featured image credit: Adobe Stock #158382143. Licensed, not public domain.)

Of Isaiah 40 and Grasshoppers

Of Isaiah 40 and Grasshoppers

Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed this rather interesting chapter, one that I believe expresses the basics of the gospel message well.

Now I don’t mean by this that it mentions the name of Jesus or even directly predicts anything about his ministry. There is some material here that is used of John the Baptist and Jesus, but that is another subject. What I mean is the basic principles. I will express these as: We can’t, God can, God does.

There are those who find the whole depravity thing in Christian theology somewhat morbid. But there’s a really simple point, and one I think is obvious once you see it. We really can’t!

Once we accept the fundamental idea of God as creator at all, we accept total dependence and our inherent smallness. As Isaiah calls us, grasshoppers. God looks down from the circle of the earth and the inhabitants (that’s us) are as grasshoppers.

If we think about it for a moment, not only can we not do good without God, we can’t do anything at all. We can’t exist. We are, before our creator, nothing at all.

And yet!

And yet, God is coming to God’s people. God cares, in great detail.

Here is the Lord GOD; he is coming in might,
coming to rule with powerful arm.
His reward is with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he will tend his flock
and with his arm keep them together;
he will carry the lambs in his bosom
and lead the ewes to water.

(Isaish 40:10-11, REB)

God’s greatness is not something that should make us miserable. Face it, we have looked at the universe and it is incomprehensibly large. We are small. Yet we are significant. If God is the creator, as we believe, then God is incomprehensibly large, and we don’t really have anything to offer.

And yet!

When I consider your heavens
the work of your fingers
the moon and the stars
which you have put in place,

What is a human being
that you take notice?
A mortal that you seek him out?

Yet you have made him a little lower than God,
with glory and honor you have crowned him.
You have made him rule over what your hands have made.
You have put everything under his authority.

Psalm 8:4-7 (my translation)

Isaiah 40 tells us that while we can’t, God can, and God will.

A Different View on Hezekiah

A Different View on Hezekiah

I will now do on my blog what I did last night for my Tuesday night group. Contradict my previous post. Here’s the idea in a Monty Python sketch:

Watch to the end. I dare you!

What I did was quote a scholar whom I respect, and in fact who has been my companion through much of my study of the book of Isaiah, Brevard Childs.

For my part, I am unconvinced that these explanations help in understanding the judgment [the exile-HN]. The very fact that the narrator of the chapter is unwilling to proceed in these directions should check the need for supplying reason. The writer’s emphasis rather falls on establishing a link from one event to another. The judgment that was shortly to occur was not by accident of even directly evoked by the king’s misdeed, but unfolded according to to a divine plan. This theme clearly emerges in the response of Hezekiah to the prophet. Ackroyd (“An Interpretation of the Babylonian Exile,” Studies, 157ff.) has mounted a persuasive case against interpreting it as a smug response that the judgment will not personally affect him. Rather, it is an acceptance of the divine will in which Isaiah’s form of the response (39:8) emphasizes the certainty of divine blessing at least in his lifetime.

Brevard Childs, Isaiah, Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 2001), p. 287.

For my part, I am unconvinced that the normal sparseness of Hebrew narrative is an indication of a lack of moral commentary. I admit that I may read this too much in the context of 2 Kings, but I think the Isaiah context supports this adequately. But Brevard Childs is a really excellent commentator.

Hezekiah’s Horrible Prayer

Hezekiah’s Horrible Prayer

We’ll be continuing our discussion of Isaiah 36-39 tonight in my Tuesday night group, hopefully finishing that section. Last week, we looked at Hezekiah’s prayer for healing.

For those who may not remember, it’s a short one:

“Remember now, O LORD, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.


The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Is 38:3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

No confession, no praise. Just “Look how good I am!”

I’m going to guess that most of us have prayed prayers just like this one. Why is this happening to me? I’m doing ____ and this is what I get?” It’s not unnatural. In fact, it’s very natural. Of the flesh, even!

So God hears Hezekiah’s prayer and sees his tears. God gives Hezekiah what he desires.

Is it a good thing or not?

We tend to see healing as always a good result. In this case, I think it’s worth thinking about the story. During that 15 years we have the visit of the messengers of Merodach-baladan from Babylon, to whom Hezekiah shows everything. Very little is explicitly said, but God clearly does not approve.

It is not unlikely that this meeting was a plan for alliance, presumably against Assyria, as Babylon was aiming to retake the lead position in Mesopotamia, something they didn’t accomplish until Nabopolassar accomplished it late in the 7th century BCE.

Did God see this as a denial of the protection God had just promised to Hezekiah and to Jerusalem?

Then in 2 Kings 21 we see Manasseh, generally considered the worst king of Judah, took the throne at 12 years of age on the death of his father. His birth would have occurred in those 15 years added to Hezekiah’s life.

I can’t help but contrast this to another answered prayer, as mentioned in Hebrews 5:7. In reference to Jesus’ prayer in the garden, we are told that he was heard because of his reverent submission. Yet the cup did not pass from the hands of Jesus. Jesus went on to the cross.

Sometimes the best answers to our prayers may not involve us getting what we asked for. Getting what we asked for might not be the best result.

(Theme Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)

But Did God Approve of That?

But Did God Approve of That?

Last night in my Tuesday night group we were discussing the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah 36 & 37, in which King Sennacherib of Assyria attacks Judah, and things get pretty dire. Following a sneering message from the Assyrian king, Hezekiah, at the beginning of chapter 37, tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and goes to the house of the Lord.

The first question we had was whether people liked this action. Here’s the king acting afraid, worried, and uncertain about this message. I found it pretty easy to discuss this from a sociological and political point of view. How is it that a king like Hezekiah, in a tiny kingdom such as Judah, manages to hold everything together when pretty much everything is in enemy hands except for three cities?

I’d suggest that part of the reasoning (ignoring God’s involvement for the moment) comes from the fact that unlike his father, King Ahaz (Isaiah 7), Hezekiah goes to the prophets. The prophets were a political force. We have more evidence for this from the northern kingdom than the southern one, but it seems a reasonable assumption to me.

Further, the priesthood of Jerusalem was another force in the nations politics, and Hezekiah was the one who centralized worship in Jerusalem. That would have endeared him to that group.

Thus I suspect Hezekiah had his political ducks in a row as far as powerful groups in the country were concerned. Which, of course, ignores the role of the God of Israel.

Someone in our group asked this: But was God pleased?

The background here is one of doubt. In a sense, both Hezekiah and his father Ahaz show doubt. Ahaz does this by ignoring the prophet, assuming that he has to do the necessary work to protect himself when Isaiah says God’s word is that the alliance against Ahaz will not prosper.

Hezekiah, rather than putting on the perfect performance of piety and trust in God, which might have involved getting up and dramatically announcing that the God of Israel was greater than all the gods of Assyria, tears his clothes.

This is one of the interesting—perhaps the most interesting—questions we can ask in reading a Bible story. The Bible, particular in the Hebrew scriptures, tells stories in a fairly sparse fashion and doesn’t spend a great deal of time explaining the details to us. We have to read the stories carefully and ask ourselves what moral lessons may apply. Sometimes our perspective can change over time.

In this case, I think I can answer quite definitively. I think God was very pleased with Hezekiah. I have a few reasons for that:

  • Hezekiah is honest. In the modern church we have a great deal of pretense, because we expect certain performance from our leaders. If the pastor expresses doubt, the foundations are shaken. This is an unrealistic expectation whether of a pastor or of a national leader. This is your Old Testament edition of 2 Corinthians 12:10 in two acts: Isaiah 7 has Ahaz strong, so God is, in effect, weak. In Isaiah 37 Hezekiah is weak, and God is strong!
  • God gets the glory. Because of Hezekiah’s honest, God gets the resulting glory. I back this up with the story in Isaiah 38 & 39. When Hezekiah is healed by divine action, messengers come to see him. He shows them everything. Now the story doesn’t say it directly, but it appears he shows them how strong he, Hezekiah, is, and neglects God’s glory.
  • Hezekiah seeks God immediately. While he is afraid, he nonetheless goes to God rather than seeking the answer himself.

These two stories in Isaiah 36-39 (I think some might make it three or even four stories, but I think of it as two parts, and effectively the acts completing what happened with Ahaz) open up a great deal of room for meditation and discussion on leadership, weakness, dependence on God, and action.

It’s said, however, that Hezekiah ends up on a very selfish note. In Isaiah 39:8 he tells himself everything is OK, because destruction and exile won’t come in his own lifetime.

Even the best of us, like Hezekiah, can fail!

(Featured image credit: Pixabay.)

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

A friend’s post on Facebook got me thinking about this verse:

I said to them, “If anyone has items made of gold, bring them. And they gave them to me, and I threw them in the fire, and out came this calf.”

(Exodus 32:24, my translation from the LXX)

I can’t help but think that Aaron is hoping that a claim of miraculous activity will somehow justify his action. Moses wasn’t buying it, as his actions show.

We laugh, but how often to we make Aaron’s appeal?

Appeal to Blessings and Curses

In fact, I think we do this from both directions. If someone is blessed, we often say they must be following God’s will because look at all the blessings! On the other hand, if someone is suffering hardship, we say, “They must be doing God’s work, otherwise the devil wouldn’t be after them that way!”

Depending on how we feel about the people, we might just reverse those things. “Look at how their worldly behavior is resulting in increased worldly good! Must not be very spiritual with all that money!” Or, “If you were truly doing God’s will, you wouldn’t be having all those hardships.”

The Bible story presents many examples that stand in opposition, no matter which of these options you take. In preparing for my Sunday School lesson tomorrow, I read Isaiah 53, which is one of background passages:

He was despised, rejected by humanity,
Beaten, experiencing disease.
We turned and looked away from him,
We despised him and accounted him nothing.

Isaiah 53:3 (my translation)

Whether you apply this to Israel as God’s servant, or to the remnant of exiled Israel whom God would restore, or to Jesus as the suffering servant, it still refers to someone who is suffering, even though they are in the process of carrying out God’s plan.

In Philippians (chapter 2 was the reading, but I refer back to chapter 1 as well), we find Paul in prison. He is suffering. There are those who proclaim the gospel in a way intended to give him pain. It’s possible these were people who thought their view and presentation of the gospel was superior to Paul’s, and were using his suffering as a basis for asserting that superiority. Surely God would free Paul if his teaching was so good!

Yet in the key reading for today’s lesson, we have the note that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or hung onto (Philippians 2:6), yet clearly it is not Paul’s intent to suggest Jesus, in giving up everything, was not following God’s plan.

The Case of Prophecy

In discussing prophecy, many make frequent reference to Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a prophet makes a prediction and that word does not come true, God has not spoken. This test of a prophet is both simple and deadly.

Consider Jonah. He made a prediction, and that prediction did not come true. He was really annoyed, because he wanted Nineveh destroyed. I’m sure he was also annoyed, because now he was a false prophet.

Turn that around and think of the Ninevites. Suppose they have their version of Deuteronomy 18:21-22. They say, “Well, if he’s a true prophet, the city will be destroyed in 40 days and we can be certain.”

I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you’ve completed your test and made a determination, you’re likely dead. Not an optimum strategy, I would say. Of course, if you’re not dead, find that prophet and a pile of rocks.

Too bad for Jonah.

Another Example: 1 Kings 22

In 1 Kings 22 we have a lovely story in which Jehoshaphat of Judah, by all accounts a good king, is visiting the king of Israel. While there, they get the idea to go to war. Jehoshaphat, good king that he was, wanted to consult the LORD. The king of Israel gets 400 prophets who tell the two kings to do what they want to do.

Jehoshaphat is not satisfied and looks for one more prophet. Micaiah is brought in, and he prophesies something quite different. The day isn’t going to go well. (You can get out your Bible and read the details.)

So if you’re one of the two kings, how do you make a decision? If Micaiah is prophesying falsely, you can ignore him, but by the time you know that, you will also have lost the battle. Not so helpful!

The Other Test

Deuteronomy has another test, however, and it’s an important one.

If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (NRSV)

In this case your test is one that can be done immediately. Is this person telling us to worship other gods? I wonder if that was not the reason Jehoshaphat doubted the word of the 400 prophets. Unfortunately, even though he was wise enough to ask for one more prophet, he was apparently unwilling to go with the advice of the prophet he requested.

The Case of Gifts

I’ve seen this used in connection with spiritual gifts. People look for a manifestation of miraculous gifts, sometimes a specific gift, or one off of a list Paul provides. But Paul is never intending to provide exhaustive lists of the spiritual gifts. That’s why his lists don’t match. He’s just giving us examples. In each case, he’s providing a different test, not one that appeals to miraculous (or at least obviously miraculous) activity.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we are given a view of the real test in verses 4-7, as the example list is introduced. There are varieties of gifts, but one Spirit, one Lord, one God. It is by looking at the One in whose service the gifts are used that we can discern their nature.

No Simple Answer

Scripture doesn’t provide us with a single, simple answer. It leaves us with the task of discernment. Are your troubles due to the devil trying to stop your carrying out of God’s work, or are they God closing doors? Is your wealth God’s blessing in response to your following God’s will, or is it the devil rewarding a servant?

You find this out through prayer, thinking, discernment, study, and good counsel. The result may be miraculous!

(Theme image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

I encountered a question recently that I’d like to explore a bit. The question comes in three parts, or perhaps with three perspectives.

  • When God commanded the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, was God commanding idolatry?
  • Why would God give this command?
  • Was this a good command?

It’s easy to dismiss the question by simply saying that it is God’s command, therefore good, and further cannot be a command to sin. But if we consider that, as Paul says, “these things are examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6), perhaps we might want to explore just why God would command such a thing.

Idolatry

Let me first note that idolatry is rather easy to fall into. We are very much idol-making people. I often use Paul Tillich’s vocabulary in this, that idolatry is making something that is not ultimate your ultimate concern. We can take a book, such as the Bible, from which we get God’s Word, and make the book, the thing, into the object of worship.

An example of this would be using the Bible as a sort of magical talisman. I have seen people who expect the possession and use of the physical book to accomplish miracles. Not so! The power of scripture is in revealing God who is the one who takes action. It is not minimizing or dismissing the book to realize that it is what conveys to us God’s will rather than being magical or an object of worship.

An unopened Bible sitting on the shelf in your home in a prominent place might well become your idol. You believe you are closer to God because of the object. A picture of Jesus might function in a similar way. It displays to others your faith. The question is, are you in Christ and Christ in you? That same picture on the wall might either be a reminder or it might be an idol.

I have three crosses over the door to my office. If I treat them as an object of worship, and forget what they symbolize, they could easily become an idol.

Some Objects and Commands

The ark of the covenant became a problem in this very way in scripture. It was commanded by God and built according to God’s instructions. It was supposed to be there in the temple. There was some critical symbolism involved in that under those cherubim, where there would have been an image of a god in a temple of another religion, there was empty space. Empty, at least, to human sight.

This was part of the ritual of Israel’s worship. It played a key role. But when the sons of Eli decided to take it from the tabernacle and to war, something else happened. Idolatry broke out! In 1 Samuel 4 we have the story, as Israel gives this triumphant shout, the Philistines hear it and decide that the gods have come into the camp of Israel.

Israel’s actions were idolatrous. They thought that God was confined to the thing. Now the thing was good. It was commanded by God, but it was being used in a way that was inappropriate. Idolatry is dangerous, because it disconnects us from God and connects us to, and limits us by, our own power.

As a public event, this idolatry also provided a false witness to the Philistines, who believed that God was again limited to the object.

So the question becomes, why did God want the ark built if it could be so misused?

In this case, we have considerable evidence to suggest why this should be. The ark provided an important symbol in Israel’s worship, and even an antidote to idolatry in what it symbolized.

At the same time we see one of the key sources of idolatry: We really like to have something to take hold of, something we can see, and a course of action that will let us take control. When Eli’s sons took the ark, they were trying to force God’s hand. If God wouldn’t save them from a distance, they’d bring God to where God could do what they wanted done.

We combine that with liking to repeat the action. If it works once, let’s do it again.

The Command to Worship

We have many rituals commanded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet the prophets tend to downplay these to some extent. I think a good place to look at this is Psalm 51. Here we have a prayer of repentance, which says that God doesn’t want sacrifice (v. 16), but then says that burnt offerings will be acceptable (v. 19). What’s the difference? Repentance!

The point of the sacrifice is a ritual that works with, reminds us of, and reinforces the actions that we need to take. It is a good ritual in that sense. But if we replace repentance with a ritual of repentance, the action itself becomes idolatry. It suggests that some action I take can box God in. “Oh well,” it says to God, “I may have sinned, but I offered a sacrifice so now you’re stuck with forgiving me.”

We have an idolatry of action, by placing the action in place of God. Only God forgives. Leviticus and Numbers are worded carefully to not suggest that forgiveness is accomplished by the sacrifice. Rather, forgiveness comes from God. The sacrifice is God’s command, and becomes a means of bringing us to repentance and keeping us there.

So here’s another command of God that can be abused, and in much the same way as the ark of the covenant was abused by Eli’s sons.

A Means of Healing

When Naaman comes to Elisha for healing he’s told to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times (2 Kings 5). Is there something particularly efficacious about the water of the Jordan river? Not at all! This is something God is commanding Naaman to do. The action doesn’t heal. God heals. God asks for that act of obedience before God heals.

Now we could make a cult out of Jordan river water, saying that it has special healing powers. Come to think of it, we do make quite a thing out of Jordan river water, being baptized in it, bringing back bottles of it from trips to Israel.

Now don’t get me wrong. Enjoying an experience isn’t idolatry. But if you for one moment think that being baptized in the Jordan river is better than being baptized elsewhere, that the water of that particular river has more power to cleanse from sin, you have fallen into idolatry.

The Idolatry of Places

When Jesus is transfigured, Peter wants to set up camp. It’s a sacred place. It’s a natural response (Matthew 17, see especially verse 4 for Peter’s response).

That response was also natural in both Jews and Samaritans. It’s better to worship on Mt. Gerizim. It’s better to worship in Jerusalem. All of which depends on what God has commanded. It is not the place that does it, though a place can help us. I like to pray in the church sanctuary. Is this idolatry? Only if I believe that it’s the only place God can reach me.

Jesus said that those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and not based on place (John 4:23).

Again, it’s easy to see how the command works. Gathering in a place is part of the human process of building community, so God commands a place. Making the place more sacred than God is our desire to bring things under our own control. A good command becomes an idolatry of the particular place.

About that Snake!

In the case of the snake on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Here we have a simple command of God that the Israelites are to look to the serpent and they will be healed.

Before I go to our three related questions, let’s look at two other scriptural points of reference. The first is 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah is reforming the land and destroying idols. He destroys the very serpent referenced in Numbers 21:4-9 at the time. Why? Because people were burning incense to the serpent and had even named it. This is idolatry. What God had once commanded and used for God has been turned to another purpose.

This is one of the best illustrations of the process of idolatry. We find something good, something that God commands or approves, and there are good results. Instead of realizing that it is God’s power in action, we make that set of actions, circumstances, things, or the very location the means of our receiving good. We are then worshiping the creature, rather than the creator (Romans 1:25).

In this case we have another scriptural reference point:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him can have eternal life.

John 3:14-15 (my translation)

Here we have a symbol by analogy, so again the serpent, destroyed by Hezekiah, serves God’s purpose. Never underestimate God’s power to redeem, whether that redemption is of a symbol or of a person!

A key here, as back in Numbers, is that the person looks up to the serpent but is healed by God, and there’s a fulfillment in a person looking up to Jesus and seeing God. The lesser symbol points to the greater/greatest.

The Questions

Is God commanding idolatry? No. God’s command is to look at, not to worship the snake. The healing comes from God. Idolatry would be to assume that the snake healed. But the text doesn’t say that.

Why does God command people to look at the snake? This one is harder. I don’t really know. By analogy, I assume it has something to do with teaching them other lessons. I can also look forward to the lifting up of Jesus. But how this act connected for the people I don’t know. I understand, however, that making a place of worship, providing an ark, and providing sacrifices each had an impact on the people, and I assume this did as well.

Was it a good command? God’s word doesn’t return empty. Just because I don’t know the reasoning, which is lost in history, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know. My guess is that Moses and the people understood this in a way I can’t, that it made sense in the situation. I have heard numerous explanations, and I can’t claim any one as definite. The fact that someone turned it into idolatry down the road doesn’t indicate that the command itself was bad. We are idol making machines. We make idols.

Was This a Good Question?

Perhaps I could word that differently. Should we ask this kind of question of God’s actions? Should we not just assume that God’s command is good?

I would suggest that this is an excellent question. If you don’t ask this kind of question of a story in scripture, you can’t really learn from it. Simply appending a moral that says, “God said it, so it’s good,” doesn’t involve much learning.

There are commands in scripture that are much more troubling, I think, and we need to be prepared to examine and see what we can learn.