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.
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.
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.
I have often annoyed people by saying both that I believe in substitutionary atonement, though I prefer not to use “penal substitutionary atonement,” and also do not believe it is the sole reason for, view of, or metaphor to describe what God did in the atonement.
So it’s nice to link to Roger Olson, who may be a bit less critical of substitutionary views than I am, but yet explains both the positive in this theory of the atonement and also some of the misunderstandings. If nothing else, this may help us discuss serious presentations. Well worth reading.
I’ve drawn some questions and produced some amusement (from Calivinist friends) by using the term “total depravity.” Listeners were surprised to hear a Wesleyan use that particular term. “Sinners,” “sinful,” and similar terms, OK, but total depravity? I have previously heard people remark that total depravity isn’t Wesleyan, so as United Methodists we don’t believe that. (Oh, the many things we modern Methodists don’t believe that Wesley did!)
The question first came up as I used the term right after reading Romans 3:9-18, which is a somewhat depressing passage, largely made up of snippets from the Old Testament. Paul is completing his dissertation on all being sinful, Jew and Gentile alike, and in need of God’s grace. That need is total, In verse 20, he will ask: “What room then is left for human pride?” and answer, “It is excluded.”
The doctrine of total depravity does not maintain that we have all committed some list of specific sins. Rather, it claims that we are all, without God, completely and utterly lost. I find this easy to believe, because as a theist I believe that without God, I am not. Period. The specifically Wesleyan difference on this, however, is that everyone has access to God’s grace. That’s the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. It provides the universal answer (potential) to a universal problem. The differences thus arise in the doctrine of election.
I think it’s important to note also that this same passage suggests that those who don’t know the message that Israel and then the church has carried may, in fact, be doing God’s will. One might perhaps do better to let God do the judging of persons, and realize that where good is done, God is present, even if not in ways we understand.
Here’s John Wesley on this topic, from Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions, Sermon #74, “Of the Church.”
“21. We are called to walk, First, “with all lowliness:” to have that mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus; not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; to be little, and poor, and mean, and vile in our own eyes; to know ourselves as also we are known by Him to whom all hearts are open; to be deeply sensible of our own unworthiness, of the universal depravity of our nature, (in which dwelleth no good thing,) — prone to all evil, averse to all good; insomuch that we are not only sick, but dead in trespasses and sins, till God breathes upon the dry bones, and creates life by the fruit of his lips. And suppose this is done, — suppose he has now quickened us, infusing life into our dead souls; yet how much of the carnal mind remains! How prone is our heart still to depart from the living God! What a tendency to sin remains in our heart, although we know our past sins are forgiven!
“And how much sin, in spite of all our endeavours, cleaves both to our words and actions! Who can be duly sensible how much remains in him of his natural enmity to God, or how far he is still alienated from God by the ignorance that is in him?
“22. Yea, suppose God has now thoroughly cleansed our heart, and scattered the last remains of sin; yet how can we be sensible enough of our own helplessness, our utter inability to all good, unless we are every hour, yea, every moment, endued with power from on high? Who is able to think one good thought, or to form one good desire, unless by that Almighty power which worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure? We have need even in this state of grace, to be thoroughly and continually penetrated with a sense of this. Otherwise we shall be in perpetual danger of robbing God of his honour, by glorying in something we have received, as though we had not received it.”
Wesley is often calumniated by descendants (spiritually) who do not actually know what he taught.
In What’s God Really Like?, S. J. Hill invites us to become fascinated by God and, in that fascination, to move beyond the fear-based themes that have so often distorted our image of God. With a focus on Jesus and Scripture, Hill paints a portrait of a God who is “holy wild” and overflowing with generous love and contagious joy. This book is a welcome and timely remedy to the unworthy portraits of God that have too often haunted our imaginations.
Lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO
and author of
Another Energion author, Allan R. Bevere, posted the following video, a sermon by Brian Zahnd. I think all of these go well together!
One of the problems with understanding biblical talk about salvation is that we do not live with a sacrificial system. For many Christians, the whole idea of sacrifices is that someone sinned and a bloody sacrifice was required for atonement. Christians believe that because of one bloody sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross, no other bloody sacrifices need be offered, and we’re very relieved. In Judaism, the sacrifices have been replaced by Torah observance, without sacrifices due to the absence of the temple. Despite the desire of some Jews to rebuild the temple, I suspect the majority are quite happy with its absence.
This was emphasized to me recently as I prepare for (never ending) episodes of my study on Paul, especially as I read Galatians, and even more as I read Hebrews. The problem is that every word needs to be defined, and we are, to a large extent, convinced that we already know what the words mean. In fact, we are so convinced that we can define ourselves right past the message of the scripture we’re reading. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Read more at BrainyQuote).
My purpose here is not to provide a new and perfect (I have been reading Hebrews, after all!) answer to the question of what sacrifice really means. The word means different things in different places. I has a range or ranges of meaning. In cultic terms, as opposed to the more personal,, it seems to grow out of the idea that one needs to communicate with the divine. That can be as simple as the need to present your petitions effectively or as complex as wanting to hear from God, or from the gods, what is the ultimate plan for the physical universe, always assuming there is one.
That’s why you have a complex array of sacrifices and rituals in any religious system. The actual sacrifices and rituals evolve as worship takes place, and as people believe they receive communications, or more specifically directions, from the divine. The actual rituals are a mix of what people expect such things to be (tradition), from what people perceive to have worked (accurately or not), what people have heard, and available options and resources. These rituals will also combine the perceived needs of people, secular authorities, and religious authorities in various measures.
It may seem somewhat irreverent to some to apply this kind of process to biblical rituals, but as I argue in my book When People Speak for God, communication involves at least two termini, and one of those, in this case, is human. The lesser (slower, narrower, less precise) terminus determines the quality of the received message. In addition, a culture does not turn on a dime. Even revolutions are actually evolutionary to some extent.
The result is that the cultic system serves a range of needs. In modern Christianity we’ve come to think of salvation in rather simple terms: Avoid hell, and go to heaven. The intervening problem is that we’re sinners (though that term can get complex too), and the solution is the sacrifice of Jesus. All of which can be quite helpful except that it leaves us living in this world with all the many and varied issues in our lives.
The biblical concept of sacrifice was not quite so narrow. Or, rather, I should say that the biblical concepts of sacrifice were not quite so narrow. There is no particular reason to assume that every author in scripture is going to use the word “sacrifice” (or rather, various words sometimes so translated) in precisely the same way. If you read the texts carefully, you’ll find they are quite varied and nuanced.
In Leviticus, the world is made up of sacrifices. That’s because, for the most part, Leviticus is a book giving instructions about the cult to priests who were to carry it out. In that book sacrifices speak to the continuous presence of God, to atonement for specific sins, to atonement for guilt perceived for unknown reasons, to thanksgiving for blessing, to rituals for healing and purification, and ever so much more. The sacrifices were an integral part of the way the community of Israel was to live in community with its God.
The sacrificial system was not universally loved. For the prophets, it was often a dead routine carried out in Jerusalem by a nation in rebellion. Even earlier we have Samuel’s comment to Saul:
22 And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obedience to the voice of the LORD?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams.
(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Samuel 15:22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.)
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Hebrews 10:5–7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Now the author of Hebrews puts Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus, and here emphasizes something that is often missed in Christian discussions of atonement. One of the claims made by various New Testament writers was that Jesus accomplished God’s will in a way that humans had failed to do. It’s not that we don’t have in mind the idea that Jesus accomplished God’s will. Rather, it is because that is not part of our view of atonement.
I think this is why we so often have trouble understanding something like John 3, in which yet another different view of atonement is presented, one in which we immediately “have” eternal life. The typical response to this is that I’m going to die. How is it that I can have eternal life? But that’s because we get off the track of a desire to create community here and to be in communion with God (and both of these concepts invite further discussion and definition), and have limited our idea to one thing. Where do I spend eternity?
That is a question that doesn’t work well in isolation. It makes faith, salvation, and atonement a narrow and selfish thing. It’s not that we shouldn’t want to care for our eternal reward. Rather, it’s because we shouldn’t try to plan our eternity independently and as a solely future event.
I’m mostly raising questions here, and providing way too little in pointing the way. The key thing I’d like to suggest is that we need to quit reading scripture in the elementary or high school sense of “look the word you don’t know up in the dictionary.” That’s a good starting point. But then you need to allow the context of one author’s work build a nuanced definition for you.
I recall reading Ludwig von Mises’s book Human Action back when I was in college. It’s more than 800 pages of rather intense prose. In that book von Mises creates his own vocabulary. He’ll say that a particular word (psychology, for example, which he replaces with thymology [but not precisely]) has problems of definition. Then he defines the word himself and proceeds to use it in further discussion. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll wind up completely baffled a few pages further. You can’t use the dictionary, because the word is not there. What you can do is develop your own understanding of the term as von Mises uses it.
Try that with your Bible. It can be rewarding!
(Featured image is from Adobe Stock [#126750439] and is licensed. It is not public domain.)
This will continue the discussion, dealing more with definitions. In the area of soteriology (the study of salvation) we frequently make the same statements in terms of words and structure, yet mean something quite different by it. “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” means quite different things, depending on who is saying it.
We’re going to start our look at Paul’s soteriology by reading Galatians 2:15-3:18 and looking at Bruce Epperly’s fourth lesson in Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, “The Dynamics of Grace.” Here’s a quote:
Three key words are present in Galatians – grace, justification, and faith. Put simply, grace is God’s love embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is victorious over sin and liberates us to live freely through God’s Spirit. Grace can’t be earned, but is God’s loving gift for all who have gone astray. Earning God’s love by following the law ends up separating us from the grace of God. God gives us everything, but we want to justify ourselves as if the cross and resurrection never occurred. We can’t nullify God’s grace by our dependence on Jewish law; but we can diminish our experience of grace. (p. 34)
Tonight I’m going to talk about some views of what salvation is, what we are saved from, what we are saved to, and how this is accomplished.
I’m preparing to teach tomorrow, and the main text is Hebrews 4:14-5:10. The quarterly is kind enough to stop just before the author tells his readers/hearers that the topic is difficult and they’re not very bright!
Nonetheless, the idea of priesthood brings up the idea of “sacrifice” and “sacrifices,” and these are two concepts that I don’t believe modern audiences are prepared for. We tend to get locked into one of two unhelpful modes.
On the one hand, we may believe sacrifice is critical, and its primary, or even only purpose is to atone for sin. This feeds into the penal substitutionary atonement theory (or I prefer metaphor), in which the sacrifice of Jesus is specifically as a substitutionary death taking the punishment for our sins. The reason I prefer metaphor to theory here is that a theory should be an explanation that deals with the relationship between various facts. A good theory is a singular thing because it is the best explanation of the data. A metaphor, on the other hand, is one of many ways of looking at a set of events. In this sense I reject a substitutionary atonement as a theory, but accept it as a valid metaphor.
On the other hand, because the whole idea of substitutionary atonement, sometimes even referred to as “cosmic child abuse,” is so foreign to our way of thinking about things, that we reject everything that relates to it. But there is a least one really good thing about substitutionary atonement (and I believe there are others): A person convinced that Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifices for his or her sins will be convinced that wrath and punishment have been averted.
This is not the place to cover this in detail, but I am doing so in my video series on perspectives on Paul. I started in Paul’s Gospel vs. Another Gospel, then went on to part 2, and this coming Thursday night I will be doing part 3. I’m thinking there may be yet more parts, because I’m looking verse by verse at some defining statements about the gospel in various Pauline and disputed epistles.
I think there’s a better background against which to think about sacrifice, and that is communication within a relationship. The priesthood and sacrifices were part of the way in which ancient people carried on communion within an ongoing relationship with their god(s). The Israelites had specific ways of offering various sacrifices, ways of representing their God, and expectations.
I like to think of gifts that I give my wife. One of the traditional gifts for someone with whom we are romantically involved is roses, often a dozen, maybe two dozen. I have only done that once in our relationship. I mean the dozen. There have been a scattered number of times on which a gift has included roses, but that is much less frequent than in other relationships.
So am I neglecting my wife and being unromantic by not giving her the traditional gift? I don’t think so, and she’ll surely read this post and let you know if I’m wrong. We’ve established a different tradition that fits her personality and mine. That tradition has to do with surprise and variety. I look at various places where I can buy flowers. The grocery store even works out frequently. I look for flowers of a different color or a different type than she has had recently. I often buy enough for a couple of arrangements in vases. More importantly, I try to bring the flowers into the house when she is not expecting them.
It is true that flowers are frequently a way of expressing regret for a wrong action, but that wouldn’t work all that well in our relationship. In fact, the only thing that does work is sincere regret, directly expressed (no weasely political apologies), and a discussion of how we can improve as we move forward. Flowers as a sacrifice for sin are not functional in our relationship, yet they are given.
I’d like to suggest thinking of the reason why you might do something for another person, or have something done for you and the various reasons you might give or receive a gift. Then start looking at the sacrificial system again. There are still many things that will not connect. For example, in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the killing of the human victim—the ideal one being a firstborn son—was seen as giving that child to God. So also with the animal sacrifices.
If you think of the sacrifices in this way I think it will be easier to follow how sacrifice was replaced by the “mitzvah” (good deed) in Judaism, and by a combination of giving and symbolic acts in Christianity. You might even start to think about the Sunday liturgy at your church and what it says about what God would like to see happening in your relationship to him. Is it possible God might prefer a “mitzvah” of some sort?
I’m going to build on this, but I think this is a good foundational metaphor to use in looking at sacrifice. Then we can adjust for the people involved and how they viewed what was good and bad in a relationship.
To my liberal brothers and sisters: Yes, I do believe in penal substitution.
To my conservative brothers and sisters: No, I don’t believe in it as the one and only way to believe in or discuss the atonement.
One of the ways. Your mileage may differ. In fact, I hope it does.