Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Genesis 22: God learns

As much as many theologians want to reject the notion, God learns the core of a person's character through testing.1 Any of us who have lived a few years know that a person does not really know the content of his/her own character until it is tested. We learn through experience to never make claims like "I would never do that" or "If it were me, I would... fill in the blank." We do not know the truth of those statements until we are tested.

Guess what. God does not know the truth of those statements either, until we are tested. We must not pass over the critical language of God ( = The Angel of Yahweh2):
Genesis 22:12, NRSV
He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Note the mix of first and second person. This "angel of the LORD" is reporting what God knows and what God just learned.

The only way this passage makes sense is that God knew something after an event that he did not know before the event.

There is a little saying that goes like this: I'm not a judge of the sheep but I am a fruit inspector (Matthew 7:15-20). God is also a fruit inspector.

I leave you with some questions to ponder today.
Genesis 22:3
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
Abraham's early start shows his determination to fulfill the requirement of the oracle. How did Abraham know this was a communication from God and not Satan?
Genesis 22:5-6
Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
How did Abraham know this? Does Hebrews 11:17-19 clarify or obfuscate?

1 More passages on God testing people: Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3; Judges 3:1-4; 2 Chronicles 32:31; Psalm 139:23

2 On the Angel of Yahweh = Yahweh, which is usually true, cf., Genesis 22:15; 16:7-13; Exodus 3. But sometimes the angel is more like an aid or ambassador, cf., 2 Samuel 24:16; Zechariah 1:7-17; 12:8.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Genesis 21: Wisdom of women; How God acts in history; God's tender heart

There are several neat nuggets of impact in Genesis 21.

Nugget 1: Us men ought to embrace women as sources of wisdom. In Genesis 21:12, God tells Abraham that Sara's word is the voice of wisdom. Obey it. Obviously, not everybody, man or woman, is wise; but there is wisdom in both sexes. Never close your ears to anybody's thinking based upon their sex (gender). If men will not listen to the wisdom of women, they are limiting their available wisdom by half (Proverbs 11:14; 24:6). It is not shameful for a man to obey a wise woman leader.

Nugget 2: God adapts his plans as reality changes. Ishmael was not in God's plan; but Ishmael was now a reality. God adapted (Genesis 21:13).

Nugget 3 has to do with how God responds to people's emotion. Check this out:
Gen 21:15-19
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
I am fascinated by what motivated God to act. All this sadness going on at the scene and God responds to the crying of the boy! It is interesting that God heard the voice of somebody who was NOT praying and God responded to it. We have seen this kind of sensitivity in God in at least two other places in the book of Genesis: Genesis 4:10; 18:20 (c.f., Deuteronomy 15:9; 24:15)! God is tenderhearted. God is sensitive to people's sadness.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Genesis 20: Ministry of reconciliation

Gen 20:6-7
Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”
It is fascinating that God tells Abimelech, a man of integrity, to have Abraham, who is showing lack of integrity, to pray for him.

It the duty of all believers to pray intercessory prayers for others.

It was the responsibility of a prophet not only to warn but also to plead with God for mercy (Jeremiah 18:20; Amos 7:2, 5; Ezekiel 22:30; Isaiah 62:6).

Our own intercession for the world must include persistent work to reconcile the world to God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21;  1 Timothy 2:1-2), even if it feels hopeless and if we feel unworthy.

Genesis 19: God's announcements are rarely the last word

Two angels (not three) entered into Sodom as they intended to investigate the truth about the cries Yahweh had heard about the city (Genesis 18:21). This chapter evidences a feature of the divine that is easy to miss.
Gen 19:17-22, NRSV
When they had brought them outside, they said, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.” And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” He said to him, “Very well, I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” Therefore the city was called Zoar.
The divine action against the cities of the valley had been determined. The judgment was going down in a determined way. Then, with Lot's input, the determined future was altered on the fly.

The God of the Bible reserves the right to alter his plans as situations change. When God announces his plans, the announcement is rarely the last word (Amos 3:6-8).

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Arguing from the Band Waggon: the critics of open theism

Sometimes it is wearying to read the terrible arguments that some writers offer. I just recently stumbled upon one example from a writer within my own faith tradition. In the article, the writer is analyzing the four views in the book Four Views of Divine Providence. When he commented upon the section promoting open theism he failed to properly critique it. He began with a tight and correct explanation of open theism:
Open Theists do not see God as being outside of time in any sense, and so future events are not yet real to God anymore than they are to us. It would then be logically impossible for God to know that which has not yet happened, that is, what is logically impossible to know. (Benjamin Williams, Four Views of Divine Knowledge, http://benpreachin.com, accessed 2018 09 16)
I don't think I could have said it better myself. Unfortunately, in critique he wrote:
The bad news is that – simply stated – Open Theism is heresy. It is a view of God’s nature which undermines and at times outright denies characteristics of God plainly attributed to God in Scripture, upheld in tradition, and demanded by philosophy. It rejects the conclusions regarding God of the ancient creeds and the philosophical work derived from them, specifically impassibility and aseity. For Open Theism, God’s providential plan is a “choose your own adventure” book. Open Theism states that the future is unknownable and that the outcome of God’s will for this world is equally uncertain (as in open ended). God is in genuine risk of losing his war with evil, though an Open Theist would state that God’s infinite intelligence assures him that he will not. Scripture on the other hand shows God mocking any counterfeit God who lacks the capacity to know the future with certainty: “Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. … Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods … Behold, you are nothing” (Isaiah 41:21-24). While I find Open Theism a “useful heresy,” one that helps me to ask difficult questions of my own view, it is ultimately unscriptural and false.
Here is what I believe Brother Williams just said (my paraphrase).
Open Theism is heresy. If there is anything that is abundantly and crystal clear in the Bible, it is that God is impassible (experiences no emotion) and self-existent (the meaning of "aseity"). Can I get an "Amen?" God is at risk of losing his war with evil, and nobody wants that; so we must reject any notion of God taking risks because, well, that's just inappropriate. Yes. The Bible is filled with details that show us that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Furthermore, all the theological philosophers and the most important church fathers (Augustine?) believed that God has this knowledge. While you can trust me that the Bible is full of examples of God's definite foreknowledge, I offer the most bullet-proof example in Isaiah 41:21-24 in which God mocks the idols for their inability to know the future!
This kind of argument fails with a great crash when cross examined. The Bible is my source for understanding the nature and character of God. Furthermore, in the Restoration Movement, the authority of the Bible is the highest authority on earth regarding God. It is difficult for me to care less what Augustine thought; and I am not too impressed with theological philosophy supporting some divine characteristic of God (e.g., deterministic) when another philosopher can highlight faults of the philosophy and present her own metaphysical arguments in favor of something else (e.g., open theism). I want to see the plethora of irrefutable Bible evidence that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge.

Let us, for example, look at Brother Williams' prime example scripture citation:
Isaiah 41:21-24
Set forth your case, says the Lord;
    bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.

Let them bring them, and tell us
    what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
    so that we may consider them,
and that we may know their outcome;
    or declare to us the things to come.

Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified.

You, indeed, are nothing
    and your work is nothing at all;
    whoever chooses you is an abomination.
The obvious point in this passage is that God is challenging the idols to do something they cannot do but God can do. And what does God mock the idols for not being able to do? Read, with comprehension, verse 23 again (emphasis mine):
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be afraid and terrified.
God is not challenging the idols to predict something from simple foreknowledge. He is challenging them to report their plans and then to do them! Declaring God's plans and then fulfilling those plans is something God is able to do that the idols cannot do. God is able tell his people what is going to happen and what will come hereafter because God is going to do it (see Isaiah 46:11)! This is more than simple foreknowledge. It is God's plans. In fact, Isaiah 41:25-29 is quite specific that God has called by name (indicating Cyrus) the one who will overthrow Babylon (Isaiah 41:25). The point in this passage is that the Babylonian idols will not be able to save Babylon from God's messiah Cyrus (see Isaiah 45:1).

When someone attacks a conviction by calling it "just wrong" and saying that "it is obviously wrong" and saying "it violates crystal clear divine teaching," that critic is resorting to "begging the question" and "bandwagon" fallacies.

Open theism is just a coin term to describe what subscribers believe is the biblical description of God. It started with Bible study and eventually it was given a name. It did not start with philosophy and a subsequent combing of the scriptures for out-of-context verses to support the philosophy. The more popular theories actually did come about in that shameful way.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jeremiah 4: Break up the fallow ground

The central verse in Jeremiah 4 may be
O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness
    so that you may be saved.
How long shall your evil schemes
    lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4:14)
Washing the heart of wickedness denotes an overhaul of one's own character. It parallels the figures of breaking up the fallow ground and of circumcising the heart in vss. 3-4.
For thus says the Lord to the people of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
Break up your fallow ground,
    and do not sow among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn with no one to quench it,
    because of the evil of your doings. (Jeremiah 4:3-4)
We can see that failure to do this character adjustment risks God's wrath. Breaking up the soil of a fallow field denotes years of neglected relationship with Yahweh. Working a field after so many years means that a lot of work will go to getting the weeds out (Mark 4:7; 18-19). Judah had gotten used to bad habits and even pagan rituals. The religious leaders were no longer worried about them. Getting rid of them would mean making difficult changes to long-established bad habits. Circumcision of the heart denotes the same thing. It means to perform surgery on the heart ( = the mind) to get rid of whatever is separating one's self from God (Romans 2:28-29; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Colossians 2:11-14).

Notice in Jeremiah 4:14 that this self-reorientation results in salvation. God in the Old Testament is not all about wrath. God has always been about salvation. God's call to repent is always open (Jeremiah 4:8) and it always comes with a promise of salvation. And more importantly to God, a broken relationship is repaired.

In verse 14, we also hear a question.
How long shall your evil schemes
    lodge within you?
An atemporal god would not ask such a question. A god who practices Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace would never ask such a question. A God who desires a real relationship with a people wearing God's name would definitely ask this question; for that relationship is neither established or restored until such time as you and I respond to God's earnest appeals. Our response is required or else the relationship cannot be real.

This drawing near to God is not a first action on our part. God is already passionately moving in our direction and he is diligently working to repair a damaged relationship. Something frequently stops the desired reconciliation. That something is our failure to respond to God's work. God is reaching out to us but we often fail to respond. The relationship remains damaged. That dynamic is what James has in mind when he says
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. (James 4:8-9)
I love the words to the song "Reach Out to Jesus."
When you get discouraged, just remember what to do.
Reach out to Jesus. He's reaching out to you. (Ralph Carmichael, 1968)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Jeremiah 3: To God, restored covenant is more important than reputation

In Jeremiah 3, God compares his relationship to Israel, in part, to a marriage relationship. (The marriage metaphor is mixed up with figures of a Father and his children and also a chief shepherd with his flock of sheep).

God knows the rule about a faithless spouse. The faithful partner in the broken relationship is barred from receiving the faithless partner back into the marriage covenant. It pollutes the land. It shames the faithful partner.

Yet God is willing to set his own good reputation aside in order to receive back his faithless partner Israel.
 “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.” (Jeremiah 3:14, NIV)
What a wonderful God is the God of the Bible! God is willing to set aside his own good reputation in order to restore me into covenant relationship to God—even after I have sullied God's good name and I have violated that relationship to such a level that the damaged should have been permanent! Such a restoration could be compared to a husband receiving back his faithless wife knowing full well that receiving her back as his wife is unlawful and a pollution to the land!

While I dirtied the relationship and while restoration is invited, the choice is to return completely my own. In the metaphor, I must return and behave as a faithful wife. In the meaning of the metaphor, I must return with intent to be faithful. The ball is so much in my court that God often expects one response when he gets another. In Jeremiah, God remembers his hopes for Northern Israel that were never realized.
And I thought, "After she has done all this she will return to me"; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. (Jeremiah 3:7, NRSV)
With God's invitation, God was certain the people would return in a similar manner of a restored marriage; but God's expectation was not realized. God was surprised by Israel's and now Judah's faithlessness! In fact, this chapter features a verse that seems to be deliberately vague; but if it is read carefully, it becomes evident that the verse describes God in the figure of the estranged husband, standing outside the house of his wife's lover. He is weeping because his faithless wife in inside the house with her lover.
A voice on the bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping [because*] of Israel's children, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord their God. (Jeremiah 3:21)
It is no wonder the poet says
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices. (Isaiah 65:2)
If we have violated covenant against God, God calls us back with weeping. Though God's reputation may be damaged by taking us back, restored covenant is more important to God than a good reputation.

* The Hebrew word, almost universally translated as "of" is variously translated in other places as "that, because, for, if, surely, except, yea, doubtless" (Strong's, OliveTree resource). The word "of" can indicate either a consequence or an antecedent. In the context of God begging the people to return to God in covenant relationship, the weeping in verse 21 is to be understood as God's weeping for Israel rather than Israel's ritual weeping in the Baal cult. A case can be made that this weeping is the weeping God and Jeremiah expect from the people over their own apostasy. The text eventually goes there in Jeremiah 3:22b; but the strength of the case is indirect and the text is confusing to read that way. (See Alex Varughese, Commentary on Jeremiah, Beacon Hill Press, 73).