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Link: Bible Criticism – A Common Sense Approach to the Bible

Link: Bible Criticism – A Common Sense Approach to the Bible

This article is quite helpful in understanding what biblical criticism is, how it is helpful, and also how it may be threatening to some.

Here’s a quote:

The basic point, however, is an important one: until we know what kind of material we are dealing with, we don’t know what questions it is sensible to expect it to answer for us.

TheTorah.com

Read the rest and enjoy!

Choose Your Shape!

Choose Your Shape!

Well, perhaps, “choosing” should be “recognizing.” Weird? Doesn’t make sense? Read on!

In the late 1990s I participated in a program here in Escambia County called CommUNITY Dialogues, led by a creative and interesting communications specialist (and I had not, up to that time, used “creative” or “interesting” with regard to such people!) named Dr. Dolly Berthelot.

It was a great program, and I learned a great deal. The reason I’m writing about it, however, is that it was the first diversity training program I’d experienced that I considered personally valuable.

While I valued and value diversity, I felt that many interfaith and diversity programs negated their own value by asking people to give up their own beliefs on entry. The result was a debate largely centered around whether divesting oneself of one’s own “diverse” views was a good idea or not.

What Dr. Dolly did was invite us to explore our beliefs and those of others and to look at ways in which we could understand one another and work together by celebrating and taking advantage of our differences. I have always believed that this would be valuable, but in my experience people of strong convictions tend toward excluding others, and those advocating diversity want to diminish the value of one’s own values.

You may, in fact, decide to change your belief on some topic as a result of dialogue, but eliminating the differences before they are experienced and understood is, in my view, suboptimal. (I like that word!)

I say all of this to bring us to the present, and some of the work of Dr. Dolly Berthelot. I publish her book PERFECTLY SQUARE, and I have spent some time looking at a training program she has developed, SELFSHAPES. She has developed a simple quiz based on this program, and I have implemented it on our web site.

I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, because it is best experienced first. I have commented before that I have found things I’ve learned about human nature, including sociology and psychology, and definitely about different personality characteristics more helpful in Bible study and teaching than learning biblical languages. (I in no way regret learning the languages. I say this to emphasize the extreme value of learning to understand people for biblical studies and theology.)

And, of course, for life.

So head on over to the Energion Publications retail site and check out the quiz. It’s called Dr. Dolly’s SELFSHAPES. There are no pop-ups, and very little advertising. At the end we offer you the opportunity to share on social media and to sign up for an e-newsletter to keep up with developments.

Enjoy!

Ezekiel and the Bones

Ezekiel and the Bones

The lectionary readings called my attention to Ezekiel 37:1-14. I love the story, not to mention the song.

So how about the song?

Note: Here’s a comment from T. Henderson on this video on YouTube: ” That’s my Dad the second from the left. They couldn’t express more emotion because in that day they were under strict direction on what a black group could and could not do. Love the song though!” I like to get the historical context. You can read more of the discussion on YouTube.

There’s a specific point I want to call attention to. Notice how God provides Ezekiel with very specific instructions as to what to prophecy, first in verses 4-6, and then following up specifically to the wind/breath in verse 9.

Now God certainly could have said these things directly to the bones or to the wind. Could have, but didn’t.

What God actually did is act through Ezekiel. The event takes place not when God gives the instructions, but when Ezekiel carries them out and makes a proclamation.

There are so many things one can get from this passage, but for today, let me say just this. God likes to work through people, through human and other natural agencies. (Remember Balaam? Why didn’t God just send an angel and allow Balaam to see? God used a donkey.)

We depend on everything from God, but sometimes what God is doing is providing you with the opportunity to be the agent of what you hope for.

Featured image by Wolfgang Eckert from Pixabay

On Milk and Milk

On Milk and Milk

A couple of days ago I was reading 1 Peter during my devotional time and was struck by 1 Peter 2:1-3:

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 2:1-3 (NRSV)

My mind jumped to Hebrews 5:

With the time that’s passed you should be teachers, but you again need someone to teach you the basics of the foundation of God’s message, and you now need milk and not solid food. Everyone who subsists on milk is still an infant, untested in the message of righteousness.

Hebrews 5:12-13 (my translation)

There are several reasons not to connect these two verses. The interpretation of “milk” and the viewpoint about it are very different. I think, nonetheless, that there is something to be learned from the connection.

I talk a great deal about context in Bible study, various types of context. But there is also the context of your hearing. Your spiritual experience and situation is important. There is a saying that you read or hear the text as you are, not as it is. I think this can be overstated, but it does provide us with an important perspective. We do contribute something to our own interpretation from our own experience.

Another sort of context is your own perception of your relationship to the text. And this is what struck me about these two passages.

I can easily see the message (that is, the message that I see!) in these two passages. One is urging believers to move forward. The other is urging the readers to focus on those basic elements of the gospel, things that are essential to growing in the future.

The question is how I, as a reader, see myself.

We tend to read the text from a superior position. The author of Hebrews is castigating the readers because they have failed to move forward. Their discernment is not developed. They can’t understand what he wants to teach them because of this failure.

We join ourselves with the author, looking down on the original readers, who are so undeveloped spiritually as to need milk. I think most of us, at least, do this unconsciously. We are the spiritually developed, discerning, intelligent folks who are ready for the solid food. Let’s move through this passage quickly to get to the real stuff.

But if we haven’t done enough milk drinking, as in 1 Peter 2:1-3, we are not going to correctly understand that more difficult material.

What I suspect is that all of us—myself most definitely—have a need of some of that pure milk, reminding us of whose we are, and who is the one who is perfect. It is only because of Jesus that we grow into anything. We want to discuss deep, serious, complex theories when we really need a reminder that we’re only here because of grace.

The solid-food-eater who comes to despise that milk is likely to fall short in understanding the harder, deeper material.

I feel the need to confess my need of milk before I try to tackle the harder stuff.

Recently, after having taught my way through Romans and Hebrews, my Wednesday night class at church asked me to tackle Leviticus. I claim that my theology is primarily founded on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus in that order. They wanted to know why I found so much spiritual food in Leviticus.

I, on the other hand, felt that I was not up to teaching them what I had learned in Leviticus. Do you hear the arrogance coming through there? I, the experienced solid-food-eater type was unable to get across to milk-drinkers the wonderful things I had learned.

Several people in the class reminded me that if it was God’s time for me to teach that material, God would help me do it.

It was such a critical point, one that I know, but don’t know. The teaching itself is an act of God’s grace. Everything is. That’s the milk right there. The better you get at technical things, the easier it is to forget that no matter how brilliant your deductions are in your own eyes, you depend on God.

The milk-drinkers, who were and are, in fact, solid-food-eaters, were there to remind me of the simple milk of the Word. It is not about me, but about God reaching out to every person.

That was a time for repentance for me, and 1 Peter 2:1-3 reminded me that I need to regularly check in with the pure milk and remember the source of it all.

We need to say, with Paul:

By God’s grace I am what I am.

1 Corinthians 15:10 (my translation)

Featured image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

The Limitations of Word Studies

The Limitations of Word Studies

It’s a common question, but it’s one I don’t like: What does that Greek word really mean? (You can substitute Hebrew or Aramaic for Greek.)

The basic problem is the assumption that a word “really” means anything specific. Underlying this is a tendency to think that one discovers the meaning of a communication by mentally finding the meaning of the individual words and then adding them together. Language isn’t that simple.

In English, we see this in appeals to the dictionary when word meanings are concerned. “The dictionary says that word means ____, so that’s it.” I have encountered great frustration when I don’t find that the final answer. But the way we use dictionary definitions can help us with understanding definitions in biblical languages.

A look in the dictionary will help at this point. You’ll notice that the definitions of words come in groups, and that there are multiple possibilities. If you have definitions 1, 2, and 3, which one applies to your particular case? I’ve seen angry debates occur because the participants were using a different, valid definition for a particular word. Valid, that is, apart from the particular context.

How do you know which one to use? The answer is context. Your dictionary is not written as a form of sacred writ, derived from some mountaintop revelation and delivered on unalterable tablets. Lexicographers study the ways in which words and used and then develop definitions that reflect those uses. The meaning is determined by the way words are used. Even what words get the official status of being in the dictionary is determined by usage. Who uses them? Where? Are they slang, or have they become part of mainstream languages. Lexicographers debate this sort of things, sometimes quite vigorously.

Now you need to avoid the reverse problem. This doesn’t mean that words can mean whatever you want them to. Well, they can, but not if you want to be able to communicate with someone else. Language is social, which is why lexicographers look at the way people use the words.

Words in the Bible behave as words do anywhere else. While we may debate the working of inspiration in the choosing of the words, it is clear that they are there to communicate with humans. These words function as human language.

So when I’m asked what a Hebrew or Greek word “really” means, I need to know where it is in the text so I can ask who is using it, when it is used, and what the various elements of context are. The Bible was written and transmitted over many centuries. If we take the oldest suggested dates for elements of the text, this history covers more than a millenium and a half. Many of those dates are debatable, but the time period is fairly long. Try reading something written in English in the 15th century CE (make sure it hasn’t had its language updated) and see how hard it can be to understand. Then be aware that the biblical languages underwent similar changes over time.

One way we learn how to guess and then remember words is etymology. A word is derived from one or more other words, and we combine the meanings to determine what the word means in its current form.

This procedure is helpful in guessing the meaning of a new word and in remembering meaning, but it doesn’t determine the meaning. That is because words develop in meaning as they are used. A favorite of New Testament teachers is the Greek ekklesia, which is derived from the words for “out” and “called.” I don’t intend to run through the history here, but that meaning is at best very doubtful for uses in the New Testament. The word has developed in meaning, and now refers to the gathering of believers.

Another technique that has been applied to that particular word is a search for historical meanings. An ekklesia could, historically, be a legislative assembly, but there is no evidence of this usage in the New Testament. My point here is not to develop a “correct” interpretation of this word, but rather to point out that such a result must ultimately result from reading the texts of the church that use the term.

What can a word study do for understanding the text in that case? Is it a waste of time?

Hardly! It is no more a waste of time than lexicography is. What word studies can do is discover the range of meanings a word may have. A good word study would find different contexts, different categories of use, and appropriate examples. That’s one of the differences between a good dictionary or lexicon and a vocabulary guide.

Strong’s concordance, for example, is a vocabulary guide. (With questionable content in many cases.) It provides a general survey of the English words used to translate a particular term in a particular Bible version, not a good range of definitions. It’s a challenging tool to use for word studies. A good Bible app with search, or a good concordance of a text will make it much easier.

Similarly etymology doesn’t tell you what a word really means. Rather, it provides some options for what a word may mean. That’s why we have a named fallacy, the etymological fallacy, which refers to the improper use of cognate words as determining meaning.

Debates about linguistics and biblical languages were in a much earlier stage when I was studying, but I was able to observe this in connection with using Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew, but definitely not identical. After five years of Hebrew it was easy for me to learn.

At the same time there was a temptation to use Ugaritic to determine the meaning of obscure Hebrew words, as well as to determine the meaning of unknown or obscure Ugaritic words from Hebrew. The latter was necessary. The language was an unknown, and we had to start from what was known.

In both cases, however, we had to watch for the problem of letting something other than the context determine the meaning. Words in Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Arabic (among others) could give us a range of possibilities, but we had to work to interpret the text in order to get a good definition of a word in a particular context. (No, I was not one of the folks who interpreted these texts initially. My professor encouraged us to walk in those steps to develop our own skills.)

Thus the etymology, parallel languages, and summaries of word uses (word studies) all contributed to understanding, but none of them determined the meaning. That involved understanding the context.

Now suppose we’re looking at a New Testament word. What goes into determining the meaning of a word in a particular text? You need the known options. You also have to consider that a creative author can re-purpose an existing word. You need to understand the passage not just as a matter of the definitions of the words in the local context, but in terms of the author’s overall message. You could add to all these contexts a theological context.

Then you have to ask whether the author always uses the same word in the same sense. As an example, I suggest reading Romans 1-9 (if not further) carefully, looking at how Paul nuances the use of the word “law.” If you don’t watch his dance with that word, you will have a hard time coming up with a definition that will work. If you try to force something on the text from the outside, then you will miss what Paul is actually saying.

One of the negative results of studying biblical languages is that one can develop a tendency to study only the nuts and bolts. You spend so much time on specific words and even phrases or idioms that you lose site of the passage and its message.

That sort of careful study is essential. It provides the foundation for understanding. All comments about words not having singular, specific meanings should not give us the idea that we can do anything we want.

But once that sort of work is done, we have step back and read more rapidly, hearing the message in its broader sense.

In turn, we go back to the nuts and bolts and see if we understand them differently now that we’ve seen the overview.

Difficult? Time consuming? It can be. Yet each step you take builds your understanding of the text.

For more on word studies, see my post on Word Study Dangers, starting with Word Study Reprise, which links to the rest.

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

I had occasion to discuss this passage a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of many discussions I have had regarding this parable. (It’s Matthew 20:1-16, by the way.) This is a short note and not an extended discussion.

The most common response I hear to this is that it isn’t fair. My most common response to the response is that God isn’t fair. Then people want to discuss whether as employers we should reward people according to their accomplishments, or whether this is a call for a different type of society.

My simple note is this: While I stand by my statement that God isn’t fair, I need to go farther and faster. God is not fair in that he gives us more than we can possibly claim. We are often afraid to simply note that God doesn’t really have to do anything.

Go back to the garden. God creates human beings, male and female, and places them in the garden. God doesn’t have to do that. We can say that it wouldn’t be nice to just dump them somewhere, but we have no way of calling God to account about that. In Scripture, God can be called to account, but it is only because God has set the standard and invites us to do so. When we talk about fairness we appeal to an outside standard.

To some, that makes God seem worse than us. God is unfair, and God can be unfair because, well, God! But what we see is God being kind and gracious even without that outside appeal. Many of us only do nice things because we might be seen, or we want the reputation, or—face it—because we have to. God does more than God has to because, well, God!

When we read this parable, I suspect we are not called upon to examine the fairness of economic systems (though that is a good thing to discuss), or whether the owner of the vineyard was a nice guy, which is perhaps questionable.

Rather, I think we are invited to think about who we are. And that’s tough.

I’ve never heard someone respond immediately by commenting on how unfair it would be to them, as the 11th-hour worker, to get a full day’s pay for one hour of work.

We think of ourselves as early, all-day workers. We’re wrong!

I think the passage’s main point is to invite us to think of ourselves as 11th-hour workers, people whose wages would be inadequate to feed our families if we just got the standard wage for our hour of work. We’re the ones who get something without a claim on it.

This is the value of a story: Helping us adjust our thinking by placing ourselves in the story.

I think if you get what Jesus is saying, one impact will be to change the way you think about yourself. In doing so, you may change the way you think about, and interact with, other people, those we have often thought of as getting more than they deserve.

Which is another value of a story: It carries over into so many different aspects of our life.

Featured image credit – Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

How to Read Hebrews 4

How to Read Hebrews 4

… or any scripture, for that matter.

In graduate school I became progressively less interested in listening to sermons or in reading devotional items. While I was very interested in reading poetry, fiction and other non-technical materials, I applied a largely technical approach to scripture and theology. I say this to make clear that I preach to myself in what follows and not just to others.

I think there is a problem with academics interpreting scripture. It’s not true of all academics, but it tends to be stronger in those with both a fervor for the scriptures as religious texts and a strong technical background. People like that tend to expect direct, final answers. Things mean either this or that. One works very hard to make a clear presentation, properly argued presentation out of a text, whatever may actually be there in the first place.

Writers of poetry, on the other hand, may have other ideas in mind. They may be trying to evoke emotions, paint pictures, or energize a reader to action. Preachers also may have a different approach. I am a teacher, and tend very much toward the academic approach, and yet when I’m asked to preach I am not satisfied with an audience becoming acquainted with a set of facts. When preaching I want to evoke some form of commitment.

One of the best examples of this, in my opinion, is what Walther Eichrodt does to the text of Ezekiel 1. Ezekiel writes of the experience of a vision. He struggles for words, he moves through the picture. He is comprehending and presenting at the same time. I imagine that he is writing so close to the vision that he is under its influence. Eichrodt, though an excellent commentator whose work I much appreciate, guts the text, correcting the “error” and making a relatively ordinary description.

R. H. Charles, in his International Critical Commentary on Revelation, thinks that the latter part of Revelation became disordered (you can find his commentary, likely at a library, and read how if you want), and proposes a reconstruction of the text that makes it much more logical and orderly.

So what does all this have to do with Hebrews 4? Well, mostly that I got to thinking about it while reading that chapter, but also because there are terms in Hebrews that people want to place in an orderly structure when they are intended differently.

It’s critical, for example, to consider rhetorical structure and to look at the text broadly. Forcing the text into a known pattern can be fatal. As an example, now from Hebrews 4, there is considerable debate on the division of the presentation. Is there a major topical division between 4:13 and 4:14, or does this come slightly earlier? When does the next major discourse begin?

I would suggest it’s not quite so clean. The author of Hebrews likes to tie his text together with keywords. He likes to give glimpses forward at what’s coming up, and in turn tie what he’s currently discussion to earlier material. I would suggest considering the possibility that 4:14-16 is a kind of bridge, connecting 4:13 to 5:1. Because it isn’t purely a conclusion, since it leads to further discussion of this high priest, and it isn’t purely an introduction, people get into debates about what it is.

We also have changes in quality, such as was introduced in chapter 3. Jesus is not just better than Moses in the sense that one might hire a better steward who can do more “stewarding.” Rather, he is something different, the owner of the house (note the element of christology here), and not a steward (see particularly 3:5-6).

In the broader theme of Hebrews, it’s easy to get into the “the law of Moses failed to get us to do what is right, so Jesus is a better command-giver, evoking better obedience.” I’ll leave discussing this to other posts (perhaps!), but I’d suggest that what is in view is changing the quality of the relationship. In fact, this new quality is one that has been sought all along. No amount of running will turn you into a bird so you can take flight. No amount of doing will turn you into a saint. Being a saint consists of something qualitatively different.

As the argument develops, words shift meaning as their context shifts.

As we come into Hebrews 4, we have repeated uses of the word “rest,” and the question generally asked is just what does the rest (or specifically “Sabbath rest/celebration”) that remains to us consist of? Is it something that happens now or in the future?

Here’s a case where I think finding the one, clearly delimited answer is suboptimal. We have a pattern of “rests” presented. Our author is not afraid to draw on the story and bring us into it. There is the rest after creation (do you see the tie-back to 1:1-4?), then the rest of being in the land offered to the Israelites, and finally (or is it final?) a rest offered to us.

I’d suggest that the word rest here is as flexible as the story and the context. There is definitely a “now” rest to us. In fact, that is the rest of confidence in the One who is perfect. This is developed as the topic of priesthood moves forward. This rest is part of that very boldness in approaching the throne of grace. But there is no reason that this rest does not extend ultimately to the rest in the kingdom of God. No one-or-the-other choice is required.

I would note also that the word use for “to rest” (4:4) and “to give rest” (4:8a) are the same word and form used in different ways close to one another.

Which leads me to 4:12-13, in which we being with the word (logos) of God and end with the account (logos) which we must give to God. First, I find the debate over whether this is Jesus as the Word, with the follow-up debate over how closely it is tied to John 1:1-3ff in intent, to be slightly misguided. God’s Word is much more than your Bible, but your Bible reflects and provides God’s Word in its way and purpose. Is Jesus greater than the book? Yes, just as the one who provided the book is greater than the that which he provided (see the logic at the beginning of chapter 3).

I think that this Word is more than written scripture because of the context, but by nature it must include scripture. Just look at how firmly the author roots his presentation in the story of prior scripture. But because the author intends to establish Jesus a greater than what we have received by nature (1:1-4), it also must bring in this greater revelation here. This is an integral part of what is meant by Jesus as our High Priest.

Then we turn back to the account. I believe the account we will give is the account placed in us by the Word. We can talk about how thorough the examination presented by 4:12-13 is and how difficult it would be to survive such an examination. If, however, we assume that somehow we will in this life be ready for such an examination, we’ve missed the point again. This examination is not one you’re going to handle.

I think the second use of the Greek word logos is our first pointer to the fact that the one who is perfect is Jesus, and only Jesus, and it is only in Christ that we attain anything. We are going to give back to the Word nothing but the Word. The account we give is Jesus.

Featured Image Credit: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

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.)

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.