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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

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

With a hat tip to UM-Insight, I saw a great cartoon and some excellent commentary on the Wesley Brothers blog. Maybe you think you, too, need a Disciplan.

Here’s a quote:

We don’t engage in these practices to prove anything. Selfless practices do not make me more worthy of God’s love. Rather, they prepare my heart to believe that God’s love is real.  And it’s really for me.  God doesn’t love me more just because I kept all my spiritual disciplines and turned into the best version of myself.  No, God’s love for me is just as steadfast during my most selfish and greedy moments, I am just closed to accepting that truth.  I can do all these spiritual practices for selfish reasons: trying to prove my love or my worth, to prove that I’m on the “right side of history.” But if it doesn’t till the soil of my heart towards knowing the humble heart of God, what am I doing?

Go read the whole thing! God will love you more!

Well, no, not true, but go read it anyhow.

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

There’s an article on For the Church, in which Dr. Andrew King tells students: “Don’t Take Your Greek or Hebrew Bible to Corporate Worship.”

There are a number of good points in the article, such as the note that if you are not comfortable with the languages, working on them during a sermon may be distracting. It is also important not to suggest to those who do not read the Bible in its original languages that they are less than you, or somehow unable to read and understand their Bibles. Be cautioned by the issues raised here. But I have a slightly different view.

When I was studying biblical languages as majors both for my undergraduate and MA degrees, I very quickly started carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church. Since I went well beyond the couple of semesters or the couple of years that many seminary students study, I became quite capable of following the scriptures in a sermon or in a Sunday School lesson with little difficulty.

During the time that I was a student this presented little difficulty. As far as I could tell, very few people ever noticed. I never became self-conscious about it. I didn’t really care to have people notice, but it was the way in which I enjoyed studying the Bible.

For me, it became a problem when I was working and teaching in churches, though I was not a pastor. I have written before about not using Greek and Hebrew as part of your sermon. I avoid using the biblical languages as an explanation for something I’m going to say in a sermon. The reason is that I don’t want to suggest that I, an individual student, have discovered something that nobody in all the many translations into the English language, have managed to convey. I have found that a good presentation of the context of the passage, linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural, can convey pretty much anything you need to convey.

So one of my reasons for no longer carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church was to avoid the suggestion that one must know the biblical languages in order to read and benefit from the Bible.

The second was that certain preachers who knew me would try to bring me into Greek or Hebrew comments by saying things like “as Henry would know.” It was annoying, drew attention away from the point the preacher was making, and highlighted me when I had no part in presenting the message.

So I stopped taking those Bibles to church. It seemed easier and less likely to cause trouble.

One experience with a very close friend and mentor who is a pastor (though now retired) set me thinking in different ways. I was sitting in a classroom in the church reading my Greek New Testament when he walked in.

He said, “I am so awed with the way you can read and understand those languages. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

I thought for a minute and said (and I think this was the Holy Spirit helping me), “I’m just so awed by the way you can sit down with a couple and help them heal their marriage. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

Now you might think this is a good reason not to let people know I read Greek and Hebrew by carrying the Bibles with me, but I have come to see it in the opposite way.

We all have gifts. I personally believe that all gifts are spiritual when they are used as God calls us to use them. We shouldn’t privilege any gift over another. God has gifted me with the ability to read and make use of languages in my study. I’m not a specialist. I don’t work in this field, though I occasionally teach classes in church. But I’m not an academic. I stopped after my MA degree. Nonetheless, I can read substantial amounts of scripture, such as sitting down to read an entire book in a day or so.

This doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. It doesn’t make me more spiritual. It doesn’t make me more intelligent. I have a gift that I’m called to use in service to God.

I have yet to find anyone in the church who is not gifted in some way. The pastor who was one of my mentors had quite a number of gifts that inspired a sense of awe in me. In all the years I knew him, I sometimes disagreed, but I never thought he was not using those gifts for God.

My wife has an extraordinary gift for organizing difficult tasks and getting different people to work together to accomplish them. I absolutely am unable to understand how she does it.

Reading biblical languages is not a greater gift than any other. It gives me certain options for study. It doesn’t make me better, nor does it mean I always have the right answer for a biblical question.

So what I do now is go out of my way to affirm everyone’s gifts, while going ahead and using what works best for me in study. I have had many excellent opportunities to affirm the gifts of others and how they apply to Bible study, church leadership, and ministry.

There is a danger of pride, but there is in anything we do. Our pride can come out it so many ways. There is also a danger of misleading, but you won’t have solved that by leaving your Greek or Hebrew Bible home.

But there is also a tendency of some to forget the benefits we all gain from those who engage in a scholarly study of the Bible, from those who study archaeology, to anthropology, business management, human relations, and yes, languages and linguistics.

You don’t need to hide your gift. Use it responsibly to build the body.

Oh, and yes, if it’s distracting you from the sermon leave it out. And don’t use it in preaching. Let it deepen your study and then preach in the appropriate language for your congregation.

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

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Steve Kindle and Bruce Epperly got together on the Faith on the Edge podcast (episode 33) to discuss Nick May’s book Ditch the Building. I’m publisher to all three authors, though as pointed out in the podcast, Bruce has books with a number of publishers. It should be noted that Bruce’s written output is too great for any small publisher!

Here’s the Facebook post and the link:

I am delighted to see this kind of discussion taking place. I would have published Nick’s book even if I disagreed, but I find myself very much in agreement with his suggestions. I have a personal connection to the traditional church, but I also think we spend most of our time trying to figure out why it isn’t working.

That is a suggestion that we need to do radical surgery. How radical? That is worth discussing. I am watching as multiple churches I know are working on their structure, attempting to bring it more into line with the gospel and with the command of Jesus not to be seeking to be greater than one another.

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Albert Einstein is frequently credited, incorrectly, with saying that insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results. Repeatedly point out that the attribution is incorrect is likely a form of insanity, as it will doubtless still be attributed to Albert Einstein. (You can read the details on the Quote Investigator.)

I like the form given by George A. Kelly in 1955 (as quoted in op. cit.):

“… we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.”

The Quote Investigator

The phrase “… in spite of consistent invalidation” is my sort of language! I must note that I use that sort of language on people frequently, with the most common result being blank looks. Not what I was looking for. Yet I repeat.

By this definition, however, many, many churches can be diagnosed with some sort of disorder. We have churches and whole denominations diminishing in numbers, worrying about those diminishing numbers, holding meetings and conferences about them, without ever actually making substantive changes.

I’m reminded of a pastor who once told me how his church had asked him for a plan to grow their congregation and to reach their community for Christ. He labored over the plan for months, and it was presented to the church with some fanfare, ceremony, and excitement. The members agreed that this plan would bring in new people, and they thought it would reach people in their community for Christ. But they decided not to do it because their church would no longer be the church of their childhoods. They wouldn’t really like it anymore.

One disorder in the church is that we can determine the quality of some church by numbers. Mainline denominations are criticized because their numbers are dropping. It’s often considered the end of the argument: “Our church is growing, so we’re better. Yours is shrinking, so you’re worse.”

But there are large, growing churches with quite different and contradictory theologies. We’ve discussed and tried to cure our numbers problems for years. Is it possible that our obsession with numbers is one sign of church insanity? Is the number of backsides contacting the pews of our church buildings each Sunday a good indicator of spiritual health, or even of church health? More importantly, is finding what appears to be a good strategy for church growth the right way to be the Body of Christ in the world?

Why am I writing this at Christmas?

Well, I’m really writing it in Advent, and this advent season, I’d like to consider the possibility that the best strategy we can devise is not God’s strategy, the best measurements we can devise do not measure what God wants measured, and finally that God’s strategy might look totally hopeless and useless to us.

Think of yourself in the Roman world in the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE. What do you see as your problem? How do you measure it?

Lots of modern Christians criticize the Jewish people for “expecting the wrong thing.” I’d like to take note of two things. I suspect if you think that, you haven’t been reading the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures with care and attention and looking at them in context. There were plenty of indications that God’s plan was to free his people politically and make them the center of the nations and to do it now! Second, Christians criticizing the Jews seem to be looking for the same things as the Jews were. We’re chucking stones through openings in our glass houses. One of the great Christian pretensions, quite insane, is that somehow we would do better than Israel did, that we are somehow better people.

And it was not only the Jews who wanted freedom from the Romans. History looks back on the Pax Romana with a certain amount of approval. As brutal as Roman government was, it did provide an unprecedented degree of law and order. Many still wanted to rebel, and the Romans provided them with many reasons to do so. One reason for their failure, however, was that people appreciate law and order, as long as they are not the ones suffering the penalties. Line the roads with people dying on crosses, and as long as one can convince oneself that one is not headed to the cross next, one will often support the oppressor.

One thing we often forget about the rise of tyrants is that it is not just the tyrants who are involved. Often a weak, divided, corrupt, and ineffective opposition is the would-be tyrant’s best friend.

So clearly I must be advocating for a good grand strategy, mobilizing the right people, making the opposition effective, getting the right weapons, and acting in a unified way.

As a member of a United Methodist congregation, the strategy should be greater grounding in Wesleyan doctrine, more advertising of Methodist churches, more money spent on hospitality and relationships with our visitors, and more people inviting others to church. Right?

That would, after all, be the equivalent of uniting the opposition to a tyrant around a clear plan, led by people who are known not to be corrupt, with plenty of financial backing, and perhaps even weapons and people with training willing to put them into action.

Good strategy, yes. God’s strategy, no.

You see, this is a Christmas post (yes, I know, posted in Advent). Faced with probably the most efficient army the world had known up to that time (at least the world as seen from the Mediterranean), with a brutal but effective means of enforcing rule, and a government willing to apply that method with the necessary ruthlessness, God did not summon up an army. Not even an army of angels. The only angels around seem to have been bringing messages or singing songs.

God didn’t find a charismatic political leader to organize a party, nor did God bring a political leader to take effective action in the Roman senate. He didn’t perform a miracle to wipe the oppressors out so that others could fill the vacuum.

Faced with a terrible, intractable situation, God went stupid. I say that with the utmost respect. Awe even. Reverence.

God sent a baby, born of a nobody, barely surviving childhood, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. Donkey tracks, that is!

Not a good plan, Lord! Bad strategy! Losing, even!

This was grace in action. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Let’s expand that. While we were still sinners, Jesus came as a baby, lived as we have to live, encountered dangers and we have to encounter them, lived through reproach, and then died the horrible death that the authorities had prepared for someone like him.

The reality is that if we’re honest, we will confess that this strategy would never occur to us and we wouldn’t really try it. As evidence, I will point out that we never seem to plan church strategies of that kind. Our strategies are not designed to give without waiting for a return.

If they were, then church growth groups couldn’t sell their services to churches by promising more members. Stewardship consultants wouldn’t be able to sell churches their services by promising a certain amount of increase in the weekly take in the offering plate.

We’ve been doing those things for years, and yes, business plans built around such activities can work for a time. That stewardship consultant very likely can increase your weekly offering.

But here’s the problem. That success is not a success of the Body of Christ, but rather of your organization, your people, and your goals. It is advertising one thing but then offering people another when they come in the doors. The greater offering intake, greater influence in the community, and better social programs don’t solve people’s basic needs. These things may make your church successful, provided what you’re selling is Sunday morning entertainment and a platform for social programs.

But if that is what you’re offering, don’t be surprised when people down the street, with any number of motivations and programs, provide a better mechanism for people to influence the social realm and even help people economically than your church does.

Perhaps we need to look at our behavior, recognize our “disorder,” and look to God for a strategy. Perhaps we need to prepare to go out into the world, build relationships, walk alongside people in their need. As recipients of God’s grace, perhaps we can be sharers of God’s grace.

Some will be saying, “But those big buildings, the money in our offering plate, and our big platform are helping us serve the world.” If they are doing that, great! Thanks be to God for that great blessing!

But if you still feel that something’s missing, or if the pews start to empty as people realize they can do as much by sending a check to their favorite charity, then consider that you may need to go out into the world in the way that God sent his son. (But remember also that people may be leaving because they don’t want to take up their cross.)

No, we cannot cure our insanity. Only the grace of God can do that. The starting point is to realize that we are insane, that we can’t cure it, but our gracious God can.

Yes, I’m a publisher. Let me recommend a book.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock 95049255. Not public domain.

We Have Sinned

We Have Sinned

This week as the story of yet another prominent Christian who had fallen passed through my news feeds, a young man who was pleading guilty to 18 counts related to sex with minors, I was led again to Daniel 9 and Daniel’s prayer of repentance.

We argue about the impact of prayer and what God does with our prayers a great deal. Does prayer change God? But there is a much more important question, in my view: Does prayer change us? Whatever it does, I think it reflects how we are thinking.

The Bible is quite hard on its main characters, never giving them a break. Their faults are put on display for all to see. Even the heroes of the Bible are presented with flaws. Daniel is one of those that is presented at all times in a positive light. There are those who believe he is the one referenced in Ezekiel 14:14, where he’s in a list with Noah and Job, both of whom are described as righteous.

But when Daniel begins to pray, he uses the third person plural: “We”

We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have incurred guilt, and we have rebelled by turning aside from your commands and decisions.

Daniel 9:5 (my translation and emphasis)

I think Daniel had something there about a response to sin.

You see, our tendency is to blame others. Other people in other traditions, using other forms of church governance, believing other doctrines, and just generally being different from me/us (the righteous one/ones) fell into grave sin. They should correct their traditions, fix their church governance, clean up their doctrinal statements, and become more like us!

For decades, Protestants have spent their time looking down on Roman Catholics because they had pedophiles in the ranks. We Protestants, being wise enough to allow marriage in the ministry, obviously wouldn’t have such a problem.

They have sinned. We’re OK.

But the fact is that we have sinned, and the more news comes out, the more glaringly obvious it is that we are all falling short.

We have sinned:

  • By looking at the sin of others and assuming we ourselves are immune
  • By ignoring what Jesus said about not lording it over one another and making hierarchies
  • By considering some people to be above accountability because they are anointed leaders
  • By failing to be accountable to one another
  • By turning aside less important people, claiming their word should not stand against the word of the holier, the more educated, the richer, the more powerful, or the more respected
  • By shifting the blame from perpetrators to the victims
  • By thinking our witness for Jesus could be made better by covering up than by confessing
  • By seeing the least of these as least, rather than as God’s children, pearls of great price
  • By thinking that we can ever criticize and judge from the outside
  • By believing, contrary to Romans 13, that our behavior is only church business, and refusing to report crimes to the appropriate authorities
  • By feeling all holy inside when someone’s sin is exposed and we realize (or imagine) that their sin is not one that attracts us.

If the church is to be a witness we need to be an honest and genuine witness to who we are. God knows who we really are. In a self-righteous prayer, we do not deceive God. We just deceive ourselves. We help ourselves believe that we are exempt.

It is in feeling that we are exempt, better-than, holier-than, more Spirit-filled, more Christ-like, more like a real church, and less subject to temptation that we prepare for a fall. Our fall, my fall, may not come via sexual temptation. But if I become superior and arrogant, if I fail to realize who I am, my fall will surely come.

May God have mercy on us all.

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.

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