Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

While our congregation is reading through Exous, Leviticus and Numbers, I thought I would add some daily notes of things that caught my imagination.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:17)

What is so important about a name?

In the Egyptian worldview, your name was not just a label. It was a significant part of who you were. This is a difficult concept for us to embrace because names do not have nearly the same significance to us.

In 1323 BCE, the young pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amon died, possibly bludgeoned to death by assassins. His successors, Ay and Horemheb, spent their years of rule eradicating both his name and his father’s name from every monument and inscription in Egypt. Tut-Ankh-Amon’s father had been the great heretic pharaoh Ankh-Aten, who had abandoned the millennia old religion of Egypt in favor of the worship of the sun disk, Aten.

In the Egyptian view, the best way to destroy this heresy was to remove any mention of the names of those who followed it. Their names were struck from the king lists. Their monuments were either torn down or edited. Everything about their names was destroyed.

Most importantly, their tombs were buried under tons of rubble. This was fortunate for Howard Carter, the archaeologist who ultimately discovered Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in the early 20th century, but unfortunate for poor Tut-Ankh-Amon who, as far as the Egyptians were concerned, was left floating in the nether without completing his journey to the afterlife.

You see, in the Egyptian worldview, the final stage of passing through the afterlife requires your name. People in the world of the living must know your name. If they do not, you will not move on. You will be lost forever. The world of the living and the afterlife are inextricably connected.

When Moses asked God for his name, he was not making an excuse. An unnamed God had no power to the Egyptians.

And what a name God gives to Moses – I AM. This is a name of absolutes. It implies that he exists whether you know his name or not. God gives the ultimate name.

This was not lost on the Egyptians or the Sons of Israel. It had a weight and power that we cannot imagine. That is why Pharaoh laughs. It is a laughter of fear. God puts his existence up against all the Egyptians know and believe.

God wins.

Abusing History in Bible Teaching

Abusing History in Bible Teaching

As a student of history and the Bible, I often find myself telling people to learn the background and context of things before making definitive statements.

As of late, however, I am discovering that the only thing more dangerous than ignorance of historical context is the abuse of incomplete knowledge of history. People who develop a thesis based on partial or unverifiable evidence can develop some very erroneous and even dangerous thoughts about the Bible and its message.

Be cautious about making definitive statements because you read some interesting historical anecdote or perused a website. Verifying your evidence and your conclusions is part of the responsibility of any competent Bible teacher.

By all means, learn all you can. Don’t be afraid of the backdrop of the Scriptures, but make sure you don’t go off half cocked because some idea caught your fancy. More poor doctrine has been born from incomplete context than probably any other single factor.

Vestigial Theology

coffeeHave you ever gotten to the bottom of a cup of coffee and taken that last swig only to encounter a mouthful of coffee grounds? Is there anything more surprising than expecting a beverage in your mouth and discovering what essentially amounts to bitter-tasting dirt?

Those of us who came out of established (and sometimes dogmatic) movements within Christianity have a problem others do not have. We often have these little bits and pieces of beliefs floating around in our cup of faith (and that metaphor is now exhausted).

These fragments of belief are often disconnected from most of our faith – little bits of eschatology (beliefs about the end times, heaven and hell) or soteriology (how someone is saved).

When you are asked about a matter you have not considered in some time, your first instinct should be to ask, “How does this fit with everything else we see in Scripture?”

When I first wrote the question above it said, “How does this fit with everything else I believe?” It was ironic that I had to filter that question, and I realized I made two mistakes.

First, our interpretation of these fragmentary, vestigial bits and pieces of our faith should not be based on an individual decision. This is not about what I believe but about what the community, the Church sees. The Scriptures are not for our private interpretation (2 Peter 1:21). They are held in stewardship by the Church. Therefore, we should be discussing our faith – both doctrine and practice. Led by the Spirit, we should be engaging in dialogue. That’s how doctrine is sorted out.

Second, this should not be about what I believe but what Scripture says. While my beliefs might be important in our modern world, they should be suborned to the Scriptures’ truth. What matters is not what I believe, but what the Bible says.

I find that when I am asking this question, it is useful to journal the dialogue. I write down my questions, what I think it is that I am supposed to believe, the interactions I have with others, and anything else that might be pertinent. I often read a lot – Scripture, the church fathers, and even commentaries (sometimes).

We should strive to bring our beliefs into submission to God’s Word. As we find these vestigial bits and pieces floating around, we should deal with them – or rather, we should conform our thinking to that of the Bible.

Tom Wright on Framing the Debate on Homosexuality

Once again, Tom Wright brings wisdom and reason to a hot topic. Toward the end, he addresses the Enlightenment arrogance of those who say, “We know more about homosexuality” or “We have evolved from the ignorance of the ancient world”. While Wright does not come down on one side or the other in this video, he brings up a lot of points that people refuse to consider in this debate (or rather argument). Chief among the issues worth considering is Wright’s point about differentiation in creation.

Tom Wright on the Resurrection

That the disciple of Jesus taught his resurrection was a revolutionary concept. Here is Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham and one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day, explaining why the resurrection must be true.

“The only way you can explain why christianity began and why it took the very precise shape it was is – let’s say cautiously first – they really did believe he was bodily raised from the dead…the only way you can explain the rise of the early Christian belief that Jesus was raised is if there really was an empty tomb, and  they really did meet jesus alive again in a transformed body.”

A Theology of Violence

In the United States, violence is something that used to happen to someone else. It was something reserved for urban areas and gangsters or third world countries and oppressive regimes. But in the midst of the suburban American dream, violence was something you observed on television or in the newspaper.

All of that has changed in recent years. Violence has come home.

There has been a lot of bizarre news in the United States in 2012, and all of it has been violent. During the summer there were two – TWO! – strange stories of cannibalistic violence with people actually attacking and eating others. At the opening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, an insane man loaded all the weapons he could find and just started blasting away in a theater, killing a dozen people and injuring another eighty-five.

The past week has seen two very violent mass shootings in two suburban settings not usually associated with violence. In Happy Valley, Oregon, a lone gunman walked into a shopping mall and with apparent abandon, started blasting away at holiday shoppers. Then yesterday in Connecticut, a twenty year old man shot his mother and then went to the school where she worked and mercilessly killed her kindergarten students – her kindergarten students. Both shooters then turned their weapons on themselves.

The scope of these tragedies cannot be overstated. It simply boggles the mind that someone would be so messed up that slaughtering children seemed like an appropriate response to – well, anything.

A lot of people have been asking where this impulse of violence is coming from, and they have been coming up with all kinds of answers. Perhaps it comes from not having strict enough gun laws, or perhaps it comes from banning the Ten Commandments in schools. Perhaps it is a sign of the end times, or perhaps it is because of violent video games.

No one seems to be taking any time to consider what the Scriptures have to say about man’s violent nature.

Let’s consider for a moment just how violent human beings are.

It certainly is nothing new.

In Genesis 2, God creates man. In Genesis 3, man sins. In Genesis 4, man begins to murder his brother. In Genesis 6, we read these words:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.
Genesis 6:11-12 (ESV)

Mankind fills any situation with violence, and the more of us there are, the more potentially violent we become. This is something that the author of this part of the Genesis narrative knew over 6,000 years ago at the beginning of human recorded history.

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.
        He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.
Psalm 7:14-16 (ESV)

Violence is part of our sinfulness. It is multiplied and magnified in the “wicked man” but the potential exists among all of us. We need to understand that violence is part of the human experience – a natural consequence of the sin nature that lies within all of us.

And what does God say to all of this? The words he gave to the prophet Jonah echo his desire for mankind to lay down his violent nature:

Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.
Jonah 3:8 (ESV)

Jonah was speaking to the Assyrians in Nineveh in the 8th century BCE. This was a culture that used violence to good effect. They were renowned for cruelty and destruction. And yet, God points out to Jonah that there are at least 120,000 children in the city of Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). Judgment would have come on these children as well as their parents, and why? Because of their violence?

One of the promises God gives to David (around 1000 BCE) about the kingdom of Israel is that “violent men will waste them no more.” (1 Chronicles 17:9)

The reality is that violence is simply a matter of our existence here on earth. It is part of life. It has been a part of life for a long time.

We Americans seem to view violence from a distance, believing that somehow we have bettered human nature and have overcome the innate violence of our nature. Sometimes it seems like we have the underlying belief that we are better than those “other” people who are so violent.

Christians tend to think we have done this through moral law codes and sermons. Humanists think we accomplish it through just “being” better people.

But the reality is that we are not any different from Cain who killed his brother in an envious rage. We are no better than the Assyrians. We are still violent, and violence will continue to happen. Human beings don’t evolve and improve. We’re still just as sinful as Cain was.

A world without violence is an illusion. We can clean up the streets and pay more police officers, but we cannot get rid of the violence that resides in the heart of sinful man.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates our need for a Savior, for someone to take our violence upon himself. Christ’s crucifixion was a cruel, awful death; and yet it was a death invented by man to be inflicted upon man. What better way to illustrate how our violent and sinful natures torment the heart of God? What better way to show us the violent grace we receive through Christ?

Does Christ remove the violence of the world? His own words indicate that persecution and violence will continue until his return (Matthew 24:6).

If there is a theology of violence, it is that violence will always be present in sinful man.

If there is an answer to our violence, it is Christ.

No laws will change that. Teachers can’t change it. We cannot improve ourselves enough to eradicate the darkness of the sinful condition.

So, what to do?

We must answer violence with compassion, war with peace. The Church must be the peaceful rocks of truth that the waves of destruction crash upon and we must continue to love.

We must not be a marching army, determined to conquer the violence of man’s heart. Instead, we must become the heart of society – the clear voice of the gospel in the midst of voices of chaos, rage, guilt, fear and pain. To be the body of Christ is to be the peacemakers.

We must do this although the strength to do it is not present in our own spirits. We must rely upon the Spirit of God, upon the direction of our grieving Creator who wishes to see His creation reconciled. It is not enough to mourn injustice or to lament violence. We must become the agents of His peace, in whatever ways we can.

Violence will not cease as long as their are sinful human beings.

So, grace must not cease. The Church must never cease to be Christ’s peace and grace.

Theories as Facts

Among students of the Scriptures, it is often hard to discern the theories from the facts. Someone in one generation develops an idea, and the next generation – who learned the idea in their college classrooms – teaches it as fact.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than the theory of the “historical Jesus” which fuels so many of the articles about Jesus that appear every year in mainstream magazines around the time of Easter. The same theory fuels almost every History Channel and PBS documentary about Jesus as well.

But the theory – which briefly states the that Jesus of history is very different from the Jesus of the Bible – is just that, a theory. It is a theory first clearly and plainly articulated around 1900, although it had been discussed at great length by German theologians at the close of the previous century. Two works – Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, first published in English in 1910; and Albert Kalthoff’s The Rise of Christianity (1907) – made the idea somewhat mainstream. Both owed an enormous debt to an earlier book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examinedwritten in 1846 by David Friedrich Strauss.

The themes were taken up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and then became a part of pop culture with the formation of the Jesus Seminar in 1985. Almost all of the mainstream authorities on the “historical Jesus” – Robert Bonk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg – first gained notice outside of academia because of it. Infamously, in the Seminar, members voted on the historicity of Jesus’ sayings by putting colored beads in a bowl – red meaning Jesus said it, black meaning he did not, and a range of colors between indicating various probabilities.

Although opposed by some of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century – Karl Bath and Rudolf Bultmann both opposed it – the idea has gained traction in popular culture and is taken as a given by almost everyone, including Christians. People just assume that the gospels present Jesus differently than he actually was in life.

But the theory hangs on the slender threads of assumptions. The assumptions are simple ones:

  • Jesus was illiterate because he came from Nazareth and therefore would not have
  • Jesus was poor because he came from Galilee and therefore resented the rule of the Romans

These two notions should bother the student of history. They are the Marxists ideals. Jesus is a poor, illiterate carpenter who rises up against his bourgeoisie Roman masters and is crushed for trying to lead a rebellion. They are not representative of first century Palestine, but they are representative of an ideal that existed in Europe at the time that the historical Jesus quest took root.

Everything about Jesus’ teachings is rephrased into a class struggle, and because it was convenient to the struggle of the day, people followed it. It should not surprise us that it gained popularity again in the 1960’s when Marxist ideals – repackaged as communal living and the oppression of “the Man” – became an academic norm again.

My purpose in all of this is not to critique the Jesus Seminar. I have done that elsewhere. It simply illustrates the weakness of the theory, which unfortunately is taught in even some of the most conservative colleges and churches.

For example, almost everyone who attends a basic Bible study or New Testament Survey class is told that Mark was the first gospel written. But why is this taught?

Because the historical Jesus people say so. Mark has the fewest miracles, reports events in the tersest terms; and since Matthew and Luke contain many of the same events, it became popular to conclude that it was the first gospel written.

This, of course, moves the core of the gospel out a generation from the life of Jesus and it makes Matthew and Luke derivative works.

In historical fact, however, most of the Church Fathers believed that Matthew was the first gospel written. It is 1) the most Jewish of the gospels and 2) reflects very little of later events. This is why Matthew appears first in the canon lists, and in your own Bible if you have one.

The argument that Mark was written first was created to justify dissecting the others, eliminating the miracles and the divinity of Christ. The Jesus Seminar people then decided that Mark was actually a composite of an imagined work called Q (from the German for source) and the Gospel of Thomas. They extrapolate Q from Mark by simply removing anything miraculous, supernatural or divine.

The theory, and it is was nothing more than that, became presented as fact and now, virtually everyone in Western Christianity adheres to it when in fact the Church has not adhered to that position for nearly 2,000 years.

All of this is just an illustration.

When something is presented to you as if it is facts, ask where the facts come from. Assume nothing. Alone, we won’t always catch everything; but as a community, we watch each other’s backs. We keep each other straight.

Don’t be afraid to question things, especially when those things are presented as undeniable fact without substantiation.