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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.)

What Does It Mean to Call Jesus Lord

What Does It Mean to Call Jesus Lord

A commentator noted that I was not all that helpful in my post yesterday, since I hadn’t made any effort to say just what it would mean to have Jesus as the center of a doctrine, nor what it means to call Jesus Lord. In response, I obviously had to create a new, more ambitious title!

As a first note, in moving forward, I think it would be helpful to read an earlier post that I wrote about community: Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community. The question this raises goes beyond what was asked to look at just why we care.

In other words, let’s say I find a doctrine “not Christian.” What does that mean for my actions? For the most part, it makes a difference largely to whether I keep it in my personal theology. In dealing with others, the question is one of what we should debate.

As an example, I am quite willing to discuss creation and evolution as a matter of Christian doctrine. What do we believe about God as creator that is an essential part of our Christian theology? Here I would distinguish something that might make that doctrine not Christian at all, as in a believe in a creator other than God. This might take some mind twisting work with definitions to accomplish, since the word “God” tends to follow the concept “creator” around in dialog, but something that drastic would result in me saying, “That’s not a Christian doctrine.”

Let me note carefully that I would not be saying the person holding it was not a good person. That’s a whole other discussion tied up with quite different theological questions.

What is more likely is that I will identify differences as not relevant to whether the doctrine is Christian or not. In the case of creation, while the issue of whether there was a real Adam is significant (though often solved in various ways), the issue of the length of a Genesis day, or whether the length is even relevant, is not. I can still believe in Jesus while not believing in 24 hour days.

This doesn’t mean that there cannot be debates about which view of the details is correct. It simply puts those issues on a lower level.

To get past this point and use “Jesus is Lord” as a testing point for an application of doctrine requires a great deal more thinking. I’m not going to provide any of my own answers to this today, but I will simply warn you of this: You are unlikely to be satisfied, at least if you like simple and clear answers that let you classify worship experiences and activities as “of the Holy Spirit” or “not of the Holy Spirit.” Part of my view of what “Jesus is Lord” means tends to deny such simple answers. I’ll discuss that in a future post.

The reason I referenced my article on community is this: I believe the church is to be a community, and so one way of phrasing the test would be: Does this tend to build community, and is it the right kind of community?

This past Tuesday night we ended up discussing this same issue, referring back to Isaiah 42:6:

I, YHWH, have called you in righteousness.
I have taken you by the hand and kept you.
I have placed you as a covenant to people,
a light to the nations.

Now this was written to the Jews when they were in exile in Babylon, and was part of promising their return. I believe, however, that it says something about how God works in general. God blesses, not so that the person(s) blessed can be special, but rather so that they can be a blessing. The blessing is not meant to stop here, wherever “here” may be.

Christians often think this is a New Testament concept, but it is very old. You can find it in Genesis 12:2, said to Abraham. The New Testament is remarkable in its lack of newness. This is an established way in which God works.

So this points to the type of community the church is to be. We form and strengthen community so that we can bless those who are outside. We are not the community of those who are more right, or more in favor with God, or better behaved. We are a community of God’s grace, and we’re not even special as recipients of God’s grace, we are rather sharers of God’s grace. If you want to be special, superior to others, God’s kingdom is likely not your best place.

I will expand on this later in a future post. Right now, let me simply say that announcing that “Jesus is Lord,” so that you can immediately afterward gloat about your superiority to someone else, you likely have not truly proclaimed Jesus as truly Lord.

Evaluating Doctrines regarding the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology)

Evaluating Doctrines regarding the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology)

I have encountered a few questions lately regarding the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly the manifestation(s) and gifts of the Holy Spirit as they may be observed in a church setting. There is always a problem with evaluating theology based on the visible actions of God, because this gets confused with identifying God’s actions. This latter is difficult to accomplish.

My aim in this post is to point to the way in which I look at any Christian doctrine, using as examples the manifestation (note singular) and gifts of the Holy Spirit. By my use of those expressions I point you to 1 Corinthians 12-14, where those are used in verses 4 & 7 of chapter 12.

(I have a prior series on 1 Corinthians 12-14, which includes 1 Corinthians 12-14, 1 Corinthians 12-14 Greek Terms, 1 Corinthians 12, 1 Corinthians 13, and 1 Corinthians 14.)

What I frequently hear done is that one identifies what the gifts of the Spirit are by looking at the list in 1 Corinthians 12, sometimes combining this with lists in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4, and thus identifying whether a gift is “of God,” that is, has its source in God’s action, by whether it occurs in the list. Should one use a gift that is not in the list, that gift is seen as suspect.

I find that process suspect, because I do not believe that Paul is attempting to teach the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit here. Rather, Paul is teaching them about true spirituality, and is using the gifts as an illustration. I imagine that the Corinthians would have agreed with the list of spiritual gifts he gives, and thus he can use it to illustrate the real way to test.

He gives that real way in 12:3, which can be boiled down to the assertion that Jesus is Lord. That is the key assertion. How that works is detailed in verses 4-11, with 11 being the wrap-up. It is one Spirit, that acts in the church under the church’s one Lord.

We depart from this test at our peril in the church, and it is the test that Paul puts up front. He doesn’t say, “Check out whether the person is speaking in tongues,” or “Check out whether they can prophesy,” or even “Look at whether they have some gifts of administration.” Rather, he emphasizes that all of those come from one Lord.

I am not a theologian by profession, though many will point out that a Christian is always a theologian in a certain sense. Having the opportunity of reading and studying under some quite gifted theologians, however, I don’t want anyone to think I’m claiming to be one them.

I found this view repeatedly stated by one of the authors I publish, Edward W. H. Vick. To summarize his various statements, just one of which I will quote below, the way you determine if a doctrine is Christian is by asking whether it is centered in Jesus Christ. He makes this note in his book Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide, in From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully, and Creation: The Christian Doctrine.

I quote the latter here:

The essential Christian conviction is that God moved toward man and made his decisive revelation in Jesus Christ, that what is known of God is known in Jesus Christ, that in Jesus Christ we have the clue to the meaning of reality, not this or that part of reality only (although this as well), but to reality as such. This means that the Christian must attempt to see every aspect of reality in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. We emphasize: the starting‑point, the sine qua non of Christian theology is belief in Jesus Christ. Belief in Jesus Christ is evoked by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. That is given. Once present it is never questioned. The faith in Jesus Christ that is a result of God’s revealing activity in Him provides the theologian with the starting point. All Christian doctrine, works from this starting-point, A Christian doctrine of creation must start here. No scientific research or discovery can touch this basic religious conviction or its theological expression. It is a method of interpreting the world and an explanation of the very existence of the world. It is an explanation of the world that says basically that the world is dependent on a reality that may not be known by an examination of the world alone.

Edward W. H. Vick, Creation: The Christian Doctrine, (Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2013), 104-105.

You can have numbers everywhere and plenty of scriptures and calculations to back them up, but if the center of your eschatology is not Jesus, the Christ, it is not Christian. It may be partially, even mostly, based on scripture, but it will remain outside Christian doctrine. Similarly, you can know ever so much about creation, whatever your view on the details is, but if you do not find Christ in creation, your doctrine of creation is not a Christian doctrine.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can know ever so much about scripture, but if Christ is not at the center of your interpretation, it is not Christian. Note here that I do not mean that non-Christians cannot interpret scripture, nor that Christians should not do historical interpretation using sound, scientific methodologies. I’m speaking of the scriptural interpretation that nurtures and builds (edifies, to use the term from 1 Corinthians 14) our faith and our community.

I use this principle in two ways. First, as you have seen, I define (having learned from Dr. Vick), a doctrine as Christian based on whether it is centered in Jesus Christ. Multiple tie-downs to various scriptures, appeals to experience, or a variety of other options do not make a Christian doctrine.

Second, however, I use this to help me define the essentials. When looking at doctrinal disagreements, I ask how those disagreements impact the view that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3) and that Jesus is Lord. This is not a clean checklist, because not everything has an equal impact. I’m usually willing to trust the expressed intent of the person who holds the doctrine.

I believe it is important to know the difference between essentials and non-essentials in order to prevent ourselves from becoming narrow and judgmental. Romans 12-14 covers much of this ground, and it is often quoted out of context on both sides of the divide: the importance of right doctrine, and the importance of some flexibility and of letting the Lord lead.

This leads me to the way in which I evaluate either gifts attributed to the Spirit or manifestations attributed to the Spirit.

First, the manifestation of the Spirit comes in many ways, one of which is the availability of the gifts of the spirit. The spirit is also made manifest through the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). Most importantly, the gifts are made manifest directly in calling forth the confession that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Second, does the expression of any doctrine of the Spirit center on Jesus Christ, in other words, is the doctrine itself a specific expression of the broader statement that Jesus is Lord?

Third, as Paul expresses himself in the rest of 12 and then reinforces and expands in chapters 13 and 14, is the expression of the doctrine or the manifestation of the Spirit something that builds the body of Christ? (The term we’re used to in chapter 14 is “edify,” which is fine, provided you really hear it!)

The love chapter, 13, is often treated separately from 12 & 14, but Paul is here giving us a key to the way in which we identify gifts. For example, are people claiming superiority over others because of the gifts of the Spirit? That is not manifesting the love of Christ, nor is it building the body of Christ. It is therefore hardly an expression of the statement that Jesus is Lord.

Tomorrow (hopefully I will make time!), I will discuss the idea of manifestations a bit more, but this is going to be the foundation of everything. I think one of our human problems is equating “things that make us comfortable” with “things that build the body.” Those may not be the same thing.

So we’ll discuss!

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.

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

I’ve appreciated the work of Brevard Childs since I first encountered him via his Isaiah volume in the Old Testament Library series.I just finished with the first section in his Exodus volume (see below), and I have to say that I find it even better. Childs takes note of source and redactional issues, but subordinates them to hearing the text as a part of the canon.

Sections view the text in its Old Testament/Hebrew Bible context, its New Testament use, history of exegesis and finally theological reflections.

Admittedly, many pastors would find it difficult to follow all the material, but the time taken to think both broadly and deeply about a passage will produce a reward in understanding and the ability to share one’s reflections with others.

I may review this book when I have read it through, but the start was so rewarding that I wanted to comment immediately.