Sunday, July 29, 2007

The "Uh-oh" principle: sin and its consequences

The world of the Old Testament has a predictable moral order. Good deeds turn God into an ally, resulting in spiritual and material gains. Conversely, bad deeds turn God into an adversary, resulting in spiritual and material losses.

Moral cause and effect are rarely so straightforward in the "real" world, the world of our personal experience. Nonetheless, the Old Testament insists that the moral order exists, even if our personal experience often contradicts it.

With the negative part of the cycle in mind, we might speak of the "Uh-oh" principle. Sin has negative consequences. If you do the crime, "Uh-oh!" — you're gonna do the time.

David's sin and its consequences:

Which brings us to 2 Samuel 11-12, which tells the story of David's great moral failure and its tragic consequences. I won't display the whole text, but here's a summary of 2 Samuel 11:
  • David commits adultery with Bathsheba, who becomes pregnant as a result (vss. 1-5);
  • David attempts to manipulate Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) so that he will later assume the baby is his (vss. 6-13. Verse 8, "wash your feet", evidently is a euphemism for "enjoy the pleasures of your wife's company".);
  • When David's first scheme fails, he resorts to more drastic measures:  he arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle. (vss. 14-27)
The chapter ends with the ominous words, "The thing that David had done displeased the Lord."1

Uh-oh. The reader who is familiar with the Old Testament worldview knows:  David is in deep doo-doo.

Sure enough, the prophet Nathan turns up at the palace door.2 He bears bad news:  somewhere in David's kingdom, someone has committed a grave injustice:
And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him."

Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."

Nathan said to David, "You are the man!" (2Sa. 12:1-7a)
David stood self-condemned.

So do we all. It isn't just that we violate other people's standards; we violate our own. It is a demoralizing fact of life. I suspect most of us have shed tears at one time or another when we found ourselves in David's shoes:  self-condemned.

We resist the truth, of course. We stretch our principles as taut as a high wire when we pass judgement on other people's conduct, and we slacken them into mere skipping ropes to evade the truth of our own misconduct. That's why Nathan dressed up his message in the form of a parable — to circumvent David's defence mechanisms.

And then Nathan tightened the noose:

past experience
of God's grace
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, "I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.
moral failure
Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.
Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife."

Thus says the Lord, "Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun."

David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord." And Nathan said to David, "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die." (2Sa. 12:7b-14)

I have displayed the text as a table to supply an outline for Nathan's oracle.

We have already discussed the second and third segments of the outline. David's sin ("present moral failure") turns God into an adversary, resulting in spiritual and material losses ("impending consequences"). It is the "Uh-oh" principle at work.

But there's another factor here that must not be overlooked.

God's grace toward David:

Nathan's starting point is David's past experience of God's grace. The Lord tells David, I blessed you very greatly in the past, and I would have gladly continued doing so.

God always makes the first move. God's grace is the foundation of the biblical worldview:  everything else rests on it. It isn't always mentioned explicitly, as it is here; but it is present in the background of every biblical command and every biblical narrative.

I can't emphasize this point too strongly. You will misunderstand the Bible if you don't begin here.

The religion of ancient Israel was, like Christianity, a religion of grace. To be sure, the Old Testament strongly emphasizes obedience to the Law of Moses. But Israel's obedience to the Law is properly set in the context of God's grace.3

Nathan evaluates David's disobedience from the same perspective. He considers David's sin in the context of God's grace, and concludes that David has shown contempt for the Lord (12:9, 10, 14).

In accordance with the "Uh-oh" principle, David suffers terrible consequences for his sins:
  • "the sword shall never depart from your house";
  • "I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives" (a reference to the rebellion of David's son, Absalom (see 2Sa. 16:22), which forced David to flee for his life and ended with Absalom's death);
  • "the child who is born to you shall die".
These are terrible consequences. Even so, David doesn't quite get what's coming to him.4 The penalty for adultery in the Old Testament is death. The penalty for murder is death. And note David's spontaneous response to Nathan's parable:  "the man who has done this deserves to die."

Thus David deserves to die. But in the last few sentences of the narrative, God's grace reasserts itself. Nathan's message is delivered so effectively that David repents on the spot:
David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord." And Nathan said to David, "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.
We might say that God's grace is the Alpha and the Omega of Nathan's oracle. Nathan's opening statement rehearses God's grace toward David, and his closing statement promises a further manifestation of grace in response to David's repentance.

Conclusion: the "too good to be true" principle

The "Uh-oh" principle is not the only power at work here. The principle of God's grace shields David from the full application of the "Uh-oh" principle.

David's transgressions were extremely grave and the consequences were necessarily grave as well. Even the principle of God's grace didn't allow David to get off scot-free. But David's life is spared. And he is allowed to remain king.

We might call this the "too good to be true" principle. I'm thinking of those occasions when someone does something extraordinarily generous for you. Your emotional response may be, Is this for real? It's simply too good to be true!

The idea of extraordinary generosity is beautifully illustrated in one of Jesus' sayings:
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. (Luke 6:37-38; emphasis added)
Imagine that you are purchasing a bushel of wheat. The shopkeeper fills a bushel measure and then says, "That's not generous enough!". So he shakes the basket to get the wheat to settle; then he presses the wheat down into the basket to make room for more; and finally he keeps pouring until the wheat overflows. This is extraordinary generosity indeed — why, it's too good to be true!

That's Jesus' description of God's grace toward us.

David paid a terrible price for his sins. It's difficult to say too good to be true in his case.

And yet … David's life and his throne were preserved. At least in part, the "too good to be true" principle shielded David against the full application of the "Uh-oh" principle.

The same two principles are at work in our lives, even if our perception of them is dim.

(More to come: I intend to take another run at this text to analyse it from a different perspective.)

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2An aside:  I don't believe it's necessary to assume a direct revelation of David's sin from the Lord to Nathan. Various people would have been aware of Bathsheba's visit to the palace (beginning with the messengers who approached her at David's behest) and David's subsequent machinations with Uriah. It would be enough information to start tongues wagging, so that a rumour might find its way to Nathan. In general, I think it is accurate to say that the prophets began with a known incident into which God gave them heightened insight.

3This is the great insight of E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion) who broke the mould of New Testament interpretation in 1977. Before Sanders, generations of scholars had caricatured Judaism as a legalistic religion, utilizing it as a foil against which to praise the superiority of Christianity as a religion of grace. The contrast is not completely unfounded, but the difference is not nearly as stark as Christians popularly suppose. Two texts from Deuteronomy are of particular note. They are downright insulting in making the point that Israel's election was an act of grace:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers. (7:7-8)

Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, "It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land," whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. (9:4-7a)
4Arguably, Bathsheba suffers relatively more than David. It isn't clear to me that she was in a position to refuse the king's advances. She might have been acting out of (implicit) compulsion, in which case she was essentially innocent of wrongdoing. Her husband was murdered (presumably she loved him), and then her baby died. In sum, she paid a heavy price for being the object of the king's desire.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Did St. Paul corrupt the teaching of Jesus?

Paul was the … first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.
(Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, 1820)
The above quote is from a post on The topic possesses perennial interest, and I strongly disagree with the stand taken by Thinking Ape.

I decided to address it on my other blog, Outside the Box, because it reaches a broader readership (i.e., including non-Christians).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Holiness, justice, and same sex marriage

This is a follow-up to the previous post, where I quoted Walter Brueggemann:
Sinai interpretation goes in two directions: holiness and justice.

The prophetic books:

Later in his survey of the Old Testament, Brueggemann points out that this dual emphasis carries over into the prophetic books. For example, Isaiah elevates justice above piety:
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?"
says the Lord;
"I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats. …
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them. …
Your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause." (Isaiah 1:11-171)
The social justice orientation of the prophets is familiar to us. But Brueggemann points out that the prophet Ezekiel fits into the other category:  he is a "holiness guy".

Ezekiel 8 describes various abominations by which the Temple is desecrated. In reaction, the LORD's glory leaves the temple by stages:
Successive steps are marked in His departure; so slowly and reluctantly does the merciful God leave His house. First He leaves the sanctuary (Ezekiel 9:3); He elevates His throne above the threshold of the house (Ezekiel 10:1); leaving the cherubim He sits on the throne (Ezekiel 10:4); He and the cherubim, after standing for a time at the door of the east gate (where was the exit to the lower court of the people), leave the house altogether (Ezekiel 10:18,19), not to return till Ezekiel 43:2.
(Jamieson Fausset Brown commentary)
Brueggemann comments,
In Ezekiel, it's not Israel that goes into exile, it's God, because God can't stay there.
— i.e., in a polluted Temple.

Thus, on the one hand, there is Isaiah's emphasis on social justice; while on the other hand, there is Ezekiel's emphasis on holiness. This is the same duality Brueggemann pointed out in the previous post, with reference to Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

The Gospels:

The same duality then carries over into the New Testament texts:  in particular, the Gospels. Jesus was primarily concerned about justice whereas the Pharisees were primarily concerned about holiness:
And as [Jesus] reclined at table in [Levi's] house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:15-17)
Here we see that Jesus was inclusive (tax collectors and sinners were welcome to join his community) whereas the Pharisees were exclusive:  they maintained a strict separation from tax collectors and sinners in order to avoid contracting uncleanness.

I maintain that the Pharisees are portrayed in a very unsympathetic light in the Gospels. Christians should not assume that we are given a full, unbiased picture; rather, we are shown the worst side of Pharisaic religion.2

Consider this:  the Pharisees' emphasis on separation and purity has a rich pedigree in the Old Testament and the intertestamental texts. For example:
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. …

[Daniel said to the steward] "Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king's food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see." So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. (Daniel 1:8-16)
There are a series of texts like this one in the Old Testament and the intertestamental literature:  i.e., texts in which people of faith refuse to eat certain foods, or otherwise distinguish themselves from the surrounding pagan community.

Thus the Pharisees were not the "bad guys" they are often characterized as from Christian pulpits. They were trying to be faithful to Israel's holiness tradition, as Orthodox Jews are to this day.

Indeed, the Pharisees tried to uphold priestly standards of purity in their everyday lives per Exodus 19:6, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests."

Jesus took the other path:  the path of justice and inclusiveness. He reached out not only to tax collectors and sinners but to lepers, the demon-possessed, Gentiles, Samaritans, women, and (not least!) the poor.

All such individuals were spurned by the Pharisees. For example, women were assumed to be in a state of continual menstrual impurity. Thus Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 7:36-50 are remarkable texts. On both occasions, Jesus allowed a woman to touch him; in Mark 5, it is explicitly a woman with a flow of blood.

Divorce and homosexuality:

Some "liberal" Christians support homosexual rights on the basis of this social justice tradition in the Gospels. This is an issue that cannot finally be resolved, in my opinion. (Though I personally support same sex marriage and other rights for gays and lesbians.)

On the one hand, we have explicit statements condemning homosexual acts — not from Jesus, but from Paul. Thus it is surely a biblical position to argue, from a holiness standpoint, that homosexual acts are not an acceptable practice.

On the other hand, there is Jesus' radical commitment to social justice and inclusiveness. But let's take a step back, to consider the subject of sexual purity more broadly.

Jesus was at his most conservative on the subject of divorce. Scholars believe that Mark 10 preserves the original form of Jesus' saying on divorce. That is, Jesus did not make any exceptions:  divorce was not permitted even in cases of adultery (contra Matthew's version of the same saying).

Arguably, however, Jesus was not concerned about sexual purity per se. When he prohibited divorce, he may have been responding to the vulnerability of women in that society:  women were economically dependent on their husbands. Thus easy access to divorce ("Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" — Mt. 19:3) was terribly harmful to the interests of women.

Jesus never addressed the subject of homosexuality. The subject presumably wasn't being debated among Jews in that era.

But what would Jesus say if he was facing this issue in contemporary society? One cannot assume that Jesus would have sided with the "holiness" impulse instead of supporting justice, mercy, and inclusiveness. That, in effect, is the stand taken by "liberal" Christians like me, who support rights for homosexuals.


We might summarize the data like this:

Holiness, separation  Justice, inclusiveness 
Leviticus Deuteronomy
Ezekiel Isaiah
Pharisees Jesus
some Pauline texts other Pauline texts

As you can see, Paul is the wild card here. But I won't attempt to analyze the Pauline texts in this post.

Yes, the table represents a simplification of the data. As I indicated in the previous post, Deuteronomy shows some interest in holiness and Leviticus shows some interest in justice. But in terms of emphasis, the table is accurate.

I know evangelical readers insist that there is no necessary conflict between the holiness and justice traditions. But the split between Judaism and Christianity illustrates the powerful centrifugal forces at work here; so does the more recent divide between evangelical Christianity and "liberal" Christianity.

In the previous post, I maintained that the Church must learn to live with this inescapable tension instead of trying to enforce uniformity. Jamie responded:
How, then, would you propose we deal with the issue of homosexual marriage? Surely you can’t support (respect, tolerate) those who oppose these marriages; that would go against your view that such people are propagating an injustice. …

With gay marriage, there can only be one "right" way. It cannot simultaneously, in the same circumstances, be right both to forbid gay marriage and to embrace it. Nor could God simultaneously both approve of and forbid the practice.
Jamie is right when she asserts that same sex marriage is either right or wrong — it can't be both. However, she is wrong to assume that I cannot respect and tolerate the position of Christians like her, who disagree with my conclusions on the issue.

In my view, we cannot finally be certain of the right answer to many of the vexed questions that roil the Church. To quote Brueggemann once again:
[The Bible] invites us to do an interpretation for now, knowing that we’re going to have to go back to Sinai and do it over again and again and again.

Indeed, I think that figuring out obedience is like having a teenager in the house. Having a teenager means, nothing stays settled. You’ve got to do it all over again.
Sometimes we think a certain issue is settled; but then someone goes back to the scriptures and mounts an argument that we hadn't considered before.

Similarly, a change of social context forces us to reconsider issues that we thought were settled. The exile forced Israel to reconceptualize its theology. Likewise, modernity forces the Church to revisit first principles with a fresh perspective.

Every conclusion we reach is provisional. We must therefore respect and tolerate the convictions of those who think differently than us.

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2After the death of Jesus, the Pharisees became the primary opponents of Christianity. Some of the conflicts of a later era appear to have been inserted into the Gospels anachronistically. For example, John 9:22 — "the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue." Scholars insist that excommunication from the synagogues was not introduced until several decades after the death of Jesus. The point is, these later conflicts colour the presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospels.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The problem with the Ten Commandments

A profound insight into scripture, courtesy of Walter Brueggemann:
What I want you to notice about the Ten Commandments is that it's not very clear what they might mean. If you're a judge in Alabama you like to think you know exactly what they mean. But just think of, for example, the commandment, Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. What does that mean? Well you know Orthodox Jews think it means you can't turn a light on. Etc., etc., etc.

Or Thou shalt not kill. Well of course we all agree on that. Well except maybe capital punishment … maybe war … maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe. Which led very early to the awareness that the Ten Commandments have to be interpreted and therein lies all the problem. …

The Torah commandments invite interpretation that is disputatious and that ends in pluralism. They didn't all think the same.

Let me give you that specifically. If you read the book of Leviticus (a lot of you have read the book of Leviticus lately? Hello?).

The book of Leviticus has, as its theme in Leviticus 19:2, You shall be holy as I am holy. Holiness, purity, order — these are rough synonyms — serenity …. It's all about right worship. If you read the book of Leviticus it's all about how to have holy priests and holy sacrifices and holy offerings and holy shrines and holy bread and holy festivals and holy everything.

Uncontaminated. This yields a kind of a static notion of worship which arises from Mt. Sinai by people [of sincere faith].

Now if you read the book of Deuteronomy, it has a little bit of this, but not much. Deuteronomy is really about civic justice.

The particular text that I want to refer you to is Deuteronomy 24:17ff. It says that when you harvest the grapes of your vineyard, you're going to miss some — don't go back and pick them up. Leave them for the widow, the orphan, and the illegal immigrant. (A translation of "alien" — those people that didn't belong there.)

[The text says the same thing about harvesting olives and grain.]

Scholars say that this provision is the first social welfare program in the history of the world:  that society is obligated to make provision for people who do not have economic means.

Extraordinary! What an incredible moment of interpretation that is all derivative of the Ten Commandments. I suppose that all comes out of, Thou shalt not covet. If you covet, you're taking stuff when you go back that ought to belong to your neighbors.

Now what I want you to observe about this is the way the Pentateuch works. Sinai interpretation goes in two directions:  holiness and justice.

I have no idea where your congregation is about the gay and lesbian thing in the Church and I don't really want to get into that. Except to observe that Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 are the two texts about homosexuality in the Old Testament. In between, in Leviticus 19, it says (the verse that Jesus quotes), You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

In the current practice of the Church, the holiness tradition is what we have come to call "conservatism". Deuteronomy is into justice; that's sort of what we've come to call "liberalism".

I'm wanting you to see that the Sinai obedience and hope is open to huge interpretive possibility. So what do you hope for? Well I hope for a society that is pure — not all this goofiness.

What do you hope for? I hope for a society in which the poor get their share. …

Scripture is complex and plural and they didn't agree from day one. The extraordinary thing about the Old Testament is that the holiness people were not able to vote the justice people into silence, and the justice people were not able to vote the holiness people into silence. So some committee (some General Assembly) in ancient Israel said, We're going to put all of this in.

What that means is, our deepest obedience cannot be an absolute norm because it must make room for other serious covenant members who are practising a different obedience. …

This part of the Bible does not finally permit us to get it right. It invites us to do an interpretation for now, knowing that we're going to have to go back to Sinai and do it over again and again and again.

Indeed, I think that figuring out obedience is like having a teenager in the house. Having a teenager means, nothing stays settled. You've got to do it all over again. I'm sure that Moses thought he was leading a bunch of teenagers.

The quote is from Brueggeman's lectures on the Old Testament:  specifically, on Exodus (beginning at 12 minutes 30 seconds) and Leviticus (ending at 9 minutes 40 seconds). I have tidied up the language at various points because speech always has patterns that seem odd when reduced to text.

Note that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy include both holiness and justice elements. That's the point Brueggemann is making when he quotes Leviticus 19:18, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Sandwiched between two "holiness" texts (which would rid the community of homosexual practices) is this core "justice" text.

Brueggemann reveals his perspective on scripture when he comments, "Some General Assembly in ancient Israel said, We're going to put all of this in." In Brueggemann's view, the texts kept evolving long after the death of the original author. (This is a consensus opinion among scholars.1) Brueggemann's point is, the text evolved in this dual direction:  each school of thought made sure its interpretation was represented in successive drafts of the text.

Finally, I should perhaps apologize for the title of this post, which refers to the "problem" with the Ten Commandments. It isn't really a problem except for those who can't cope with the resultant tension.

The tension is permanent and inescapable; God's people must learn to live there, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be. As Brueggemann says, our deepest obedience cannot finally be reduced to an absolute norm; it must make room for other sincere believers who are practising a different obedience.

(Cross-posted on Outside the Box)


1For example,scholars maintain that there are three "Isaiahs" represented in the Old Testament book as now stands. Similar arguments are made for certain New Testament passages:  e.g., some scholars (even some evangelical scholars) regard 1Co. 14:33b-36 as an interpolation.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Our Need to Heed God's Word
(Jeremiah 36)

The sermon I preached yesterday at St. Andrews United Church in Peterborough, reformatted as an essay. (More or less.)


We are about to do something we should never take for granted:  read a text from God’s word. We read it reverently, believing God can speak to us through it. We read it expectantly, believing it is replete with wisdom. We may or may not "catch" its wisdom; but if we do not, it is our failure, not a failure of God's word.

The cover says this is the "Holy Bible" – a description that puzzled me when I was younger. How can a book be holy?, I wondered.

The root meaning of the word "holy" is "different". When we say that God is "holy", we mean that God is not like us. Theologians refer to the "otherness of God"; "otherness" = "holiness". The Bible is "holy" in the same way:  it is unlike any other book.

All Christians affirm that fact. Some churches teach that the Bible is inerrant. Other churches maintain that the Bible is a human word as well as a divine word. The human element leads to some internal contradictions and errors of fact. Nonetheless, God still speaks to us through the Bible. All Christians agree that this book is unlike any other.

The text:

The text we are about to read is not merely a text from the Bible, but a text about the Bible. At the beginning of Jeremiah 36, the Lord tells Jeremiah to take a scroll and write down the Lord's words. Jeremiah was evidently wealthy enough to employ a scribe, Baruch. So Jeremiah dictates the Lord's words to his scribe. It is the first edition of the book of Jeremiah; interestingly, it is written during the prophet's own lifetime.

Jeremiah sends Baruch to the temple to read the scroll. One official (Micaiah) recognizes the importance of his words and calls all the other officials together. The officials respond in three ways:
(1) They are filled with dread;
(2) "We must tell the king";
(3) "Baruch and Jeremiah – go hide".
The third point makes clear that the officials are supportive of Jeremiah's message. They anticipate trouble when the king learns of the scroll, and they seek to protect Jeremiah and Baruch.

Ultimately, the scroll is ushered into the presence of the king. Note the progression: first there is Jeremiah and the Lord; then Jeremiah, Baruch, and the scroll; then just Baruch and the scroll; and finally just the scroll. The prophet drops out of the picture altogether, and we are left with only the written text. Hence my comment, this is not merely a text from the Bible, but a text about the Bible.

Here is the key portion of the chapter (Jeremiah 36:21-26):
Jehudi [one of King Jehoiakim's officials] read the scroll to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. It was the ninth month, and the king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot. Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments.

Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king's son and Seraiah the son of Azriel and Shelemiah the son of Abdeel to seize Baruch the secretary and Jeremiah the prophet, but the Lord hid them.1
1. King Jehoiakim’s reaction:

(a) King Jehoiakim needs to heed God's word

King Jehoiakim needs to heed God's word. We, the readers of the book of Jeremiah, know how the story ends. In 587 BC, the Babylonians swept down from the north and conquered Jerusalem. The nobility was sent into exile in Babylon.

The reader is given this information at the very beginning of the book. Jeremiah 1:1-3 — "The words of Jeremiah" who ministered during the reign of this king and that king "until the captivity of Jerusalem". Those words hang over the whole book of Jeremiah as a harbinger of doom.

The reader understands that it didn't have to be that way. History could have been different, if only King Jehoiakim had heeded the Lord's message through Jeremiah!

(b) … But King Jehoiakim is unimpressed

But King Jehoiakim does not heed the warning:  he is unimpressed by Jeremiah's word. Vs. 24 – "They were not afraid, nor did they tear their clothes." There's a pun in the Hebrew text: it says that the king "tore" the scroll with his knife. Same Hebrew word:  he did not tear his clothes; he tore the scroll instead.

Here's what amazes me about this chapter:  the king lets Jehudi read the whole scroll. Why not stop him after the first two sentences? The king is already familiar with the sorts of things that Jeremiah says. Jeremiah and Jehoiakim have a prior history.

In fact, Jeremiah was under a kind of restraining order. Vs. 5, "I am banned from going to the house of the Lord." That's why Jeremiah disappears from the scene and Baruch reads the scroll in the Temple.

The king doesn't have to listen to every word of the scroll to learn Jeremiah's thoughts. But he acts out this elaborate ritual:  he allows Jehudi to read every word of the scroll (however long it is — we don't know its contents). He destroys the scroll one strip at a time. The ritual impresses upon all the king's officials that King Jehoiakim is completely contemptuous of Jeremiah's words.

(c) King Jeohoiakim's insurance policy

Why is King Jehoiakim so complacent? He thinks he has an insurance policy. Even better than an insurance policy:  you only collect insurance after disaster has struck. King Jehoiakim believed he had a source of security that guaranteed no disaster would ever befall Jeruslem.

Jeremiah 7:4 — The Lord says, "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord'." The king and the priests believed that nothing bad could ever happen to Jerusalem because the temple was located there. They knew from Israel's history that the Lord would fight to protect his temple. And so they believed (mistakenly, tragically) that they could ignore Jeremiah's warning with impunity.

(d) Even though King Jehoiakim is unimpressed, he destroys the scroll

King Jehoiakim is unimpressed by Jeremiah's warning; nonetheless he destroys the scroll. This is paradoxical:  if the scroll was so contemptible, why go to the trouble of destroying it? King Jehoiakim was undisturbed ("he did not tear his clothes") but he was afraid that the people might be disturbed by Jeremiah's message.

2. The secular West's reaction:

(a) The West is unimpressed with God’s word

The secular West has a parallel response to God's word. First, like King Jehoiakim, the secular West is unimpressed with it. The West doesn't regard it as the "holy" Bible. They believe the Bible is a book just like any other. In no sense is it God's word:  it's just a book written by men, full of opinions that are now outdated and which we know to be false. The West does not believe that the Bible is replete with wisdom — that they need to attend to its message and learn from it.

(b) The West has an insurance policy

Second, like King Jehoiakim, the West has an insurance policy — an alternate source of security. Reason, education, science, the scientific method, democracy, capitalism — these are the great institutions of the West, in which people place their trust.

I don't mean to speak ill of those institutions. I would rather live in a democracy than under any other kind of government. And I am grateful to receive the benefits of modern science:  e.g., when I'm sick. But ultimately these western institutions are a false source of security. In that respect, they are comparable to Jehoiakim's great institution, the Temple of the Lord.

I am amazed by the overinflated confidence secular people have in their institutions. E.g., potential environmental catastrophe. People maintain, Capitalism is the source of the problem; but it will also solve the problem! Likewise, science / technology – the source of the environmental problem, but also regarded as its solution! The assumption is, no environmental calamity will come upon us because our great institutions will keep us secure.

(c) Even though the West is unimpressed, some seek to destroy the Bible

Third, like King Jehoiakim, the West — at least, some people in the West — are determined to destroy the Bible. This has almost become a publishing industry unto itself. I know of five books released in the past 12 months devoted to this topic. It is King Jehoiakim all over again, tearing off strips of Jeremiah's scroll to burn them in the fire.

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens
Letter To a Christian Nation - Sam Harris
You may recognize the names of the first two authors. The titles tell you everything you need to know about the first two books.

Harris, the third author, argues that moderate Christianity provides a cover for fundamentalism. The only solution is to rid society of religion altogether, without discriminating between moderate faith and fundamentalism.

It's the same paradox we saw with King Jehoiakim: these men are themselves unimpressed with the Bible, but they don't like the influence it has over ordinary people. And it isn't an insignificant movement:  Dawkins and Hitchens in particular have a considerable following.

(d) The West needs to heed God's word

Fourth, like King Jehoiakim, the West needs to heed God's word more than it knows. It is a mistake to suppose that no catastrophe could ever happen to us because our institutions will keep us secure.

Allow me to get political for a moment. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al are reacting, in part, to Islamic fundamentalism. But they are also reacting to the cozy relationship that the Bush Administration has with fundamentalist Christianity. They would tell me that my analysis is exactly backwards:  the US government is already paying entirely too much attention to God's word. The Bush Administration is doing exactly what I recommend, and that's the problem.

I take exactly the opposite position. I know that George Bush claims to trust in God as his security. But in fact I think he trusts in Western institutions. Consider his policy in Iraq: We'll depose Saddam, establish a democracy, write a constitution, and the Iraqis will love it! Democracy will spread to Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East!

In other words, George Bush trusts in the very same things as Dawkins and Hitchens:  e.g., democracy, capitalism, military technology (i.e., science). These great Western institutions will enable us to triumph over the enemy.

The Bush Administration isn't aligned with my side, but theirs. It is a mistake to place your security in any earthly institution. "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord."

The West needs to heed this book. For example, the potential environmental catastrophe mentioned. The Old Testament directs people to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. The capitalist model, on the other hand, is one of constant productivity and constant (over)consumption.

What would the principle of a sabbath year mean if we applied it to capitalism? Perhaps it could help us to avert a looming crisis. It's an ancient book, but nonetheless it contains wisdom that is relevant today.


But I’m preaching to the choir here. I don’t need to tell you to heed God’s word, or to put your trust in God instead of some earthly institution. Instead, let me tell you, in the words of Jesus, "Well done thou good and faithful servant."

God has given you a commission, and you have faithfully discharged it:
Preserve the word;
Live in accordance with it in your own life;
Pass it on to the next generation.
Decade after decade, for over a century, the people of St. Andrews have been faithful to that commission.

This is the Holy Bible, a book unlike any other.

It is a book replete with wisdom. It is a book through which God speaks to us. We moderns have not outgrown it. We need to attend to it and learn from it.

The West needs to heed God's word.

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1Scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

To Babel and back, part 1

This series of posts will introduce the concept of the blog. Part one surveys the history of biblical interpretation in the modern West.

1. The Normative Era:

People used to know things by consulting the Holy Bible. For example, if some scientist told you that the earth was millions of years old, you could whip out your Bible and prove him wrong.

The Bible was normative. Everyone agreed that the Bible was true; and truth can't contradict truth, right? So science had to agree with the Bible.

2. The Critical Era:

Eventually sceptics began to subject the Bible to critical scrutiny. For example, that question about the age of the earth wouldn't go away. New evidence was adduced to show that the earth is older than anyone would deduce from Genesis.

Theologians adapted. Maybe there are gaps in the Genesis genealogies, they reasoned. Maybe one "day" of creation actually refers to an "epoch". But the questions only multiplied:  evidence began to mount that the Bible wasn't absolutely trustworthy after all.

The assault from science was formidable enough, but then came historical criticism. It began to undermine confidence in texts that were critical to theology.

In the Hebrew scriptures, salvation is grounded in the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt. But did the Exodus really happen? All those plagues? The death of every first-born son in Egypt, and no trace of it in secular histories?

(In my view, the Exodus is simply too ancient an event to withstand critical scrutiny. Faith may say that it happened, but there is no independent evidence to corroborate the biblical account.)

For a while, Jesus was sacrosanct. Everyone shrank from criticizing the Gospels. But in 1778, Reimarus opened the floodgates. Critical scholars began to ask, for example, whether Jesus really walked on water.

And did he really claim to be God, or was that merely a myth, introduced later by Jesus' followers? The importance of historical criticism can scarcely be overstated:  it struck a savage blow at the very roots of Christian faith.

3. The Relativizing Era:

First, the assault from science; then, historical criticism; now, globalization. Globalization matters for religion because it exposes us to all the other traditions out there. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, native religions:  a veritable smorgasbord of religious traditions, most of them with a venerable history. And all of it is now available at your local Chapters!

The result:  a descent into Babel. A cacophony of voices, all talking at once, each trying to make itself heard over the others.

Exposure to many traditions has called all of them into question. Christians offer a narrative account of how the cosmos came into being, what went wrong with it, and how God will rescue us in the end. But what's so special about that? The Dalai Lama has a competing narrative; American Indians have one of their own; Mormons have still another; and so on and so forth.

Every religion is equally convinced that its narrative is true. The effect is to relativize all of them:  my narrative doesn't look so special anymore.

Science weighs in with its authoritative opinion, claiming that all of the sacred texts are equally bogus. Science profers a narrative of its own. There is no god; the cosmos is billions of years old; all living creatures evolved from the humblest, single-celled organisms; evolution has no end goal (it is not purposive); human beings are an accident of nature; inevitably, the cosmos will collapse back onto itself, and that will be that!

Science has its own epistemology, too:  reason and the scientific method are the only sure guides to knowledge. But here's where the story takes an unexpected twist:  from a post-modern perspective, the scientific narrative is as suspect as any other:
Science has been under unprecedented attack with the rise of postmodernism. Both in academic circles and in popular culture, we see today a contempt for the sciences that many find hard to understand. Science is viewed as the vanguard of European exploitation, a discipline run amok, the instigators of nuclear and other weapons systems, the handmaiden of big business, and as the defilers of nature.
Postmodernists argue that the ideal of the scientist as a neutral, objective observer is pretentious. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted "fact"; and the interpreter of that "fact" is always biased:
Hypotheses do not simply rise up from raw data. Instead, they originate in the mind of the observer, who then imposes the hypothesis upon the data as a way of organizing it.
In sum, we have all arrived in Babel together:  Christians and Muslims; Mormons and Buddhists; mystics and scientists; theists and atheists. No one's opinion is normative anymore.

4. Triangulating a way out of Babel:

I do not believe Christianity has cornered the market on truth. Nonetheless, I am a Christian:  which is to say, that is the tradition that I operate out of.

My method (which I will explore in subsequent posts in this series) is to rely on three approaches to knowledge.
  • Theological first principles.

  • Careful exegesis rooted in historical criticism.

  • Ultimately, I employ the texts as narratives which provide a necessary counterbalance to the presumptions of the modern, secular West.
Thus there are three elements to my method. We might describe the process as triangulating our way out of Babel, since there are three points at which we will seek to establish our bearings.

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