Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Attributes of God

I wish to compare two contrasting views of the attributes of God. The standard Christian view generally is a list of attributes based somewhat on Scripture and to a large extent on what seems appropriate for someone like God (dignum deo).

I refer you to sample lists here and here.

I wish to focus on five attributes that people in general seem to accept without question: Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Omniscience, Immutability and Impassibility. In the first three, people tend to get defensive when somebody else says, "Really?" They often question the motives of the questioner as if there were some surly goal behind the question. "You don't accept omnipotence? You are trying to limit God!"

Anyway, it is my goal in this article to present two contrasting lists. One is the standard Christian list of divine attributes. The other comes from the article on "God" by Terence Fretheim in the Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible. I wish to highlight the features of this lists that do not overlap. In the interest of time, I will present an edited list from Fretheim as well.

Theopedia, et. al.
Omnipotence: God is all powerful. Matthew 19:26
Omnipresence: God is everywhere. 1 Kings 8:27; Jeremiah 23:24; Psalm 139:7-10
Omniscience: God has all knowledge. 1 John 3:20; Romans 16:27; Psalm 147:5; Hebrews 4:13
Immutability: God does not and cannot change. Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 6:17
Impassibility: God has no emotions. (no Scriptures, but it follows from omnipotence and Immutability)
Simplicity: God is not composed of parts. (no Scriptures, but it follows from the dignum deo assumption)

Active: God acts within the world. Romans 3:29; Genesis 1:1-11; Romans 11:36; Hebrews 2:10; Amos 9:7
Effective: God's actions are effective. Creation; Exodus; Incarnation; Cross; Pentecost; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Genesis 22:12; Deuteronomy 8:2
Present: God fills heaven and earth. Jeremiah 23:24; Psalm 139:1-24; 33:5; 36:5; Romans 8:38-39; Ephesians 4:6; Acts 17:28
Intentional: God acts from his own will. 1 Timothy 2:4; Genesis 12:3; Romans 11:32
Situational: God's actions are situationally appropriate. Galatians 4:4; Exodus 3:7-10; 9:16; Isaiah 43:25
Relational: God is interested in relationship. Psalm 31:2; Isaiah 65:1-2; Genesis 8:21-22; Psalm 8:1-9; Hebrews 8:8-12; Genesis 15:7-21
Vulnerable: God's activity is not inevitably successful. Ezekiel 2:7; Zechariah 7:11; Jeremiah 6:10; 23:17; 3:19-20; Luke 8:12; Hosea 11:1-9

Saturday, May 19, 2018

How may I know if I am a false teacher?

Most of the false prophets in the Bible seem to be aware that they are charlatans. Most. There are some who seem to be certain that they are preaching the truth while they are in gross error on some points. There are no clearcut rules for identifying false teachers, or prophets, in the Bible. There are some indicators; but they are more in the category of "evidence" than proof. What I have been interested in doing is turning the false-teacher-detection scrutiny inward on myself. Are there ways I can know whether or not I am a false teacher? Trying to answer that question will be the burden of this article.

The definition of a prophet is itself difficult to determine. I want to touch on the definition of a prophet because I suspect there is little difference between a prophet and a teacher. I believe the two terms are nearly synonymous. We can safely talk about "false prophets" and "false teachers" together.

There are indicators that a person is a prophet; but each indicator seems to always have an exception. For example, a prophet
  1. has had a divine calling experience in the form of a vision or supernatural visitation. There are the examples of Isaiah 6:1-8; Jeremiah 1:7-10; Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; John in Revelation 1:9-17. The problem is, several prophets didn't have these experiences (that we know of).
  2. has made prophetic predictions that came true (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). The problem here is that not all prophets made predictions. How can you test a prophet who does not predict anything? Furthermore, several prophets made predictions that did not come true; but the Bible treats those prophets as true prophets. It's not a dependable test.
  3. has never taught the people to follow other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). That is a pretty solid one. If the prophet teaches the people to follow other gods, he is a false prophet. It does not matter how powerfully he testifies to the truth of his false message.
The office of prophet, it seems, is a skill-set that could be taught. Elijah and Elisha ran prophetic schools. There was some sort of prophetic guild in the time of Samuel (1 Samuel 10:9-13; 19:18-24). Prophets seem to base a lot of their oracles on how he perceives God's character. For example, when David talked to the prophet Nathan about an idea to build a temple for the arc of God, Nathan said Yahweh would be with David in this enterprise (2 Samuel 7:3). Nathan's answer was based upon his knowledge of God. Later, Nathan received different instructions. The writer says "the word of the LORD came to Nathan." Nothing in the Bible explains what is meant by the expression, "the word of the LORD came." It is possible that the meaning has more to do with the prophet's wisdom than with some kind of ecstatic experience, after all, in several places, the word of God is described as coming through much effort and study on the part of the prophet (e.g., unknown prophets in 1 Peter 1:10-12; Paul in 2 Peter 3:15).

It appears that a good deal of teaching and prophesying, especially in Biblical times, involved circumstances in which people in the faith community saw a teaching need and realized that they were in the right place and time to fill that need. Today, some people may refer to that realization as a "divine calling." I think of it as recognizing an unmet ministry need.

When I find myself in the role of Bible teacher, am I there for the right reason or for the wrong reason? If I am teaching because I saw a need and realized that I was in the right place to fill that need, then I think that reason is pretty good.

I now return to the main purpose of this article. How do I know that I am not a false teacher?

If I know that I am faking it, then I already failed the test. Most of the false prophets in the Bible were prophets for hire. They knew they were charlatans.

There are several examples of prophets who were false prophets but they did not know they were false prophets. I offer two parade examples.
1 Kings 22:24
Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?”
Zedekiah had delivered a prophecy about an upcoming battle. He was certain he had delivered a correct oracle; but another prophet, Micaiah, had contradicted Zedekiah's prophecy. In Zedekiah's case, Micaiah determined that Zedekiah had delivered a false prophecy out of his inadequate knowledge of God. Micaiah had better knowledge of the divine council than Zedekiah.

If we were to apply this principle today, we would make every effort to teach correct things about God. Such effort would be invested in study. When something we teach is challenged, we would solicit good Biblical arguments against our own view and examine those arguments carefully. That principle is seen in 1 Corinthians 14.
1 Corinthians 14:29
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
Paul says to in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21,
Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.
Just because the person speaking has been identified as a prophet does not mean what the prophet says today is correct. Everything must be received through critical ears.

Another really good example false teacher is a prophet named Hananiah. He and Jeremiah had different prophecies to tell; and Jeremiah truly hoped Hananiah's prophecy was the correct one.
Jeremiah 28:11
And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way.
Both prophets believed they were true prophets; but later, Jeremiah learned that Hananiah was a false prophet.

The book of Jeremiah suggests several rubrics by which we can measure the truthfulness of our own teaching ministry. I want to come back to that after I talk about the Pharisees in Jesus' day. The Pharisees believed themselves to be true teachers. It took another prophet (Jesus) to point out the error of their teaching. If they had the right attitude, they would have taken Jesus' criticisms to heart and made adjustments to their teaching.
Matthew 23:23
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others."
There is much that is right about tithing. What the Pharisees missed is that justice, mercy and faith are more important. They neglected those important topics in their teaching. If they had made adjustments to their teaching, they would have quit being false teachers.

The book of Jeremiah points out that any prophecy that preaches only peace is false. There is always the risk of calamity, especially when there is no interest in repentance.
Jeremiah 23:16-17
Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”
The false prophets did not base their teachings on knowledge of God but rather on what the people wanted to hear. If you are preaching nothing but good news, you will have people who want to hear what you have to say. That's a problem.
Jeremiah 6:13-14 ( = Jeremiah 8:10-11)
For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 14:13-14
Then I said: “Ah, LORD God! Here are the prophets saying to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true peace in this place.’ ” And the LORD said to me: The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.
False teaching is all about peace. If there is no balance of teaching that includes strong messages of repentance, then it is false prophecy. If we look back on Hananiah's prophecy in Jeremiah 28, his message was all about peace but nothing about repentance. Essentially, he preached salvation without repentance. That is false teaching.

When you look at yourself and try to determine if you a true or a false teacher, ask yourself, "Is there balance in what I teach, or is it all feel-good teaching? Is there a strong ingredient of challenge for people to grow in the Lord or do I try to make them be content with their current level spiritual maturity?"

Paul's teaching had balance and it made people nervous.
Acts 24:25
And as he discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.”
False prophets offer peace even for the wicked. They never tell the wicked that they need to change. True prophets announce Yahweh's judgment.

People are often quick to identify people as false teachers because they are sometimes challenging in their teaching. Indeed, this is one of the marks of a true teacher!

Some people are quick to identify people as false teachers because they teach something they don't agree with. When two teachers disagree it does not mean that one (or both) is a false teacher. It means they merely disagree. They should be able to study together on the point of disagreement. Maybe they will come together or maybe they will continue to adhere to their divergent views. That does not make one (or both) of them a false teacher. Quite possibly, it may not mean that one (or both) is in error.

Yes, there are some points of doctrine that are really difficult to come together on. For example, it may be difficult for amillennialists and premillennialists to work together. It may be difficult for Calvinists and Open Theists to work together. The answer is not to avoid those topics in the interest of unity. The answer is to try to disagree without being disagreeable. I mean that. It is not a cliche. Anyway, I am interested in your thoughts on this one. What do teachers do when they promote contradictory doctrines?

Friday, May 18, 2018

What to do with passages in which God says he will harden Pharaoh's heart?

What to do with passages where God says, "I will harden his heart?"
Exodus 4:21
And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
Exodus 7:3
But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 14:4
I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. And they did so.
We need not make much of these predictions of divine hardening when we study divine hardening. What, exactly, hardening means is not at all clear. And if we are not able to determine what hardening is, we can indeed determine biblically what hardening is not. Divine hardening is not divine control. Contrary to general assumptions, it is also not some sort of "locking in" to a particular course of action. For a detailed blog-style treatment of the meaning of divine hardening, see this article. At this point in my study, I believe we can safely understand divine hardening as something God does for a person who is reluctantly obedient. The person strongly desires to act contrary to God's oracles; but, no matter how long he searches, cannot find a good enough reason to act in the way he desires. When a man wants to misbehave that badly and all he is lacking is an excuse, God is willing to provide that excuse or rationale.

Walter Brueggemann (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Abingdon, OliveTree) explains it this way:
God does wonders that shatter all present reality, but God also sponsors resistance to the newness on behalf of the status quo. The juxtaposition makes perfectly good sense, even if we judge only by what is visible and conventional. Gestures and acts that violate the present and anticipate newness do indeed evoke resistance in defense of the status quo. Moreover, the response of resistance tends to be proportionate to the threat of the “wonder.” As the pitch of wonder intensifies, so the intensity of resistance is sure to increase as well. The text shows that Yahweh intends to escalate both the wonder and the resistance.
The additional factor below the surface, and which changes everything, is the fact that the “hardening” does not just happen, is not merely chosen by Pharaoh, but is caused by Yahweh, who is the subject of the active verb harden. The narrator is willing to entertain the awareness that Yahweh operates negatively to heighten the drama, to make the clash between oppressor and victim as pointed as is bearable in the narrative.
James Bruckner (Understanding the Bible Commentary, Baker, OliveTree) has this fascinating comment:
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is sometimes a red herring for interpreters. Pharaoh’s heart was already “hard” enough—he had harshly enslaved a whole people. The theological problem is not that Pharaoh was compassionate and the Lord made him “hard.” The more difficult issues arise from the fact that the hardening prolongs the enslavement of the children of Israel and eventually requires that the Lord kill the firstborn of Egypt.
I strongly suspect that there is very little difference between divine hardening and self hardening. Pharaoh's heart was already hard. It would be easy to anticipate his answer to Moses' first "Let my people go." When God offers an opportunity to "do right" but the invitation is rejected, there is a hardening effect. Every time Pharaoh said "No" to God, he grew harder. God hardened Pharaoh by repeatedly sending Moses with another message to "Let my people go." Bruckner further comments on Exodus 7:3,
Throughout the plague cycles Pharaoh expresses his hardness of heart in three different ways: Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34), Pharaoh’s heart was hardened or became hard (Exodus 7:13–14, 22–23; 8:19; 9:7, 35) and God hardened it (Exodus 9:12; 11:10; 14:8). God had also promised to harden it (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 14:4, 17). There are no special distinctions between these expressions. It may be concluded that God calcified Pharaoh’s own stubbornness and cruelty to accomplish divine purposes.
Now, when we look at the first text of Exodus 4:21, it appears that God anticipates hardening Pharaoh even before Pharaoh has the opportunity to obey God.

There are several ambiguities in this text which prevent us from being too certain of ourselves about what God is predicting. The ambiguities begin to surface when we look at a little context.
Exo 4:21-26
And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”
On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”
The general wisdom of most Bible readers is that God's threat to kill Pharaoh's firstborn son refers to the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, as is indicated by Thomas B. Dozeman (New Interpreter's Study Bible, Abingdon, OliveTree).
The divine prediction to harden the heart of Pharaoh probably refers to the death of the Egyptian firstborn, since it is followed by the divine claim that Israel is the Lord’s firstborn. The firstborn status of Israel signifies kinship between the Lord and Israel and the divine claim on all firstborn (Exodus 13:1).
If Dozeman (and most other readers) are correct in this assessment of the saying, "I will kill your firstborn son," then the predicted hardening of Pharaoh refers specifically to the tenth plague. That means that the other divine hardenings of the king are not predicted this early in the drama.

There is another way to read "I will kill your firstborn son." Since God refers to enslaved Israel as God's firstborn, the nation of Egypt could very well be understood to be Pharaoh's firstborn son. If I am correct that Egypt is Pharaoh's firstborn son, then what is being predicted is the total ruin of Egypt. Such an understanding would motivate us to apply the predicted divine hardening in Exodus 4:21 to be something that happens in Pharaoh much earlier in the account.

Furthermore, it is fascinating that, in the verse following God's plan to harden Pharaoh, God attacks Moses and tries to kill him! Moses' wife Zipporah takes action and saves Moses' life. Nevertheless, the reader is shocked that the whole plan to send Moses to Pharaoh is jeopardized by God's own action against Moses. The narrative placement of this attack shows that God does not necessarily make divine plans in meticulous detail. God makes adjustments along the way. What would have happened had Moses died in this attack we can only speculate. Perhaps God would have selected somebody else to complete the mission. The narrative disruption of this attack strongly suggests that the divine plan to harden Pharaoh was a contingent prediction, no matter how strong the language, "but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go."

Finally, it is important to notice that the NRSV is correct in translating,
But you refused to let him go. (Exodus 4:23, also RSV, KJV, NKJV, MEV, REB, ESV, LXX)
Now, God may be telling Moses, word for word, what to say to Pharaoh after the execution of the ninth plague and in anticipation of the tenth plague. More likely, this statement is verbalized in the past tense because readers already know, even at this point in the account, that Pharaoh refused to let the Israel go. Not surprisingly, the reader also knows that Pharaoh's heart is going to grow more and more hard throughout the ordeal. The writer is right to anticipate these hardenings early in the account.

It is interesting to study the sequence of events in the book of Exodus; but we must return to the fact that divine hardening is not divine control of a person; nor is divine hardening a "locking in" of a person's preferred course of bad action.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Luke 22:22. What is the meaning of "determined?"

Luke 22:22
For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!" (NRSV)

The burden of this article will be to explain what Luke's Jesus meant in this verse by the word "determined."

Luke adapted his own reading from Mark's account. It is interesting and instructive how Luke adapted Mark. Here is Mark 14:17-25.
17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve.
18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me."
19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, "Surely, not I?"
20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.
21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born."
22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body."
23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.
24 He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."
Matthew 26:20-29 quotes Mark almost verbatim except for a few clarifying improvements (Matthew's Jesus says the blood of the covenant is "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins;" and Mark's "kingdom of God" becomes Matthew's "my Father's kingdom").

In both Mark and Matthew, Judas fades off the stage, either after the prediction of betrayal or between the time Jesus' Institution of the Lord's Supper and the time of Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. John adds some clarity to his account of the Last Supper my describing Jesus as indicating Judas by giving him a piece of bread (John 13:26). As soon as Judas received the bread, he left the intimate assembly. Since John does not document the Institution of the Lord's Supper, we still do not know if Judas participated in the sacred part of the meal. (However, in John, Jesus washed Judas' feet).

While Mark and in Matthew are not clear whether Judas participated in the memorial part of the supper, Luke is very clear. Here is Luke 22:14-22.
 14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.
15 He said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;
16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."
17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves;
18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."
19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.
22 For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!"

The fact that Luke reversed the order of Mark by placing the Lord's Supper before the betrayal prediction highlights the importance Luke placed on Judas' choices and upon his later invitation for redemption. The cup of the new covenant of the Lord's blood was poured out for Judas too! In Luke,the mention of a betrayer is an invitation for Judas to repent of the evil he is planning. Furthermore, if he goes ahead with the betrayal (and he indeed did) he is invited to repent after the fact. Thus, Luke softened Jesus assessment of the betrayer by omitting Mark's "It would have been better for that one not to have been born."

This understanding will help us to drill down on the meaning of Luke's use of the word "determined" in verse 22.

For clarity, let us scrutinize Mark 14:20-21.
20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.
21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born."
It may escape our notice that there is deeper meaning to verse 20 than just sharing a meal. John 13:18 helps us out.
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, "The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me."
The fact that Judas shared bread with Jesus was widely connected with Psalm 41:9. First Century Christians knew that Judas shared the bread with Jesus and they knew that he eventually betrayed Jesus. They correlated those events with the passage in Psalms. For a detailed discussion of John 13:18, see this article. Psalm 41 is about the psalmist's betrayal by a close friend and confidant. The psalmist is very sick and might die. The psalmist's close friend comes to comfort the sick psalmist and says he hopes he gets well; but privately, the friend hopes the psalmist dies. Many Bible readers consider the psalmist as possibly David and the close friend as David's adviser Ahithophel who became usurping Absalom's adviser against David. For convenience, I will call the psalmist's fair-weather friend "Ahithophel."

When Mark's Jesus says, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me," he means to say that the betrayer (Judas) is another Ahithophel. The betrayer is fulfilling Scripture by conspiring against his master, as Ahithophel did. So, in Mark, what Jesus means by "The Son of Man goes as is written of him" he means to say that he is going to fulfill Scripture by means of parallel actions. Luke means the same thing but he uses the word "determined." Luke talks about these parallels with much stronger language.
Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." (Luke 24:44)
Luke's citations of Scripture that are fulfilled are many; but all of them are understood as parallels (another Ahithophel) or as adaptations of old language to a new situation ("he was numbered with the transgressors"). The fact that Jesus fulfilled classical Scripture even in that non-direct way testified to his authenticity as the Messiah to a First Century Jew (or Jewish proselyte).

One more observation: When Luke changed Mark's "it is written" to "it has been determined" he may have intended to communicate that events have been set in motion that will be very difficult to derail. At this point, what is about to happen is essentially unavoidable. Determined.

Let us review.

14:20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me." 22:21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.The betrayer is another Ahithophel, like the betrayer in Psalm 41.
14:21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born. 22:22 For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!"Events are in motion now that will soon be seen as fulfilling Scripture.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Jeremiah 26: Anatomy of a Religious Attack

Jeremiah 26 is a typical example of what happens when a person is attacked for what he believes.

Jeremiah's main message was that Jerusalem is going to be destroyed by Babylon; yet, if the people of Judah repent, God will change his mind and spare the city of destruction by the Babylonians.

A summary of Jeremiah's central sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-15) appears in Jeremiah 26:4-6. Notice what Jeremiah said:
4 You shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you,
5 and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded—
6 then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.
In sum, the terrible thing that God will do to Jerusalem is conditioned ("If," vs. 4) upon the people NOT repenting.

The priests and prophets quickly caught onto something they believed to be heresy.
8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, "You shall die!
9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the Lord, saying, "This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant'?" And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord. (Jeremiah 26:8-9)
The problem that the priests and their supporting prophets saw was a violation of temple ideology. They believed that salvation was by temple and not by repentance. (Today, we might verbalize it as, "We are saved by temple, not by works of faithfulness"). This temple ideology is expressed in Psalm 132:13-14.
13 For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation:
14 "This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it."
In other words, the priests, et. al. believed it did not matter how the people approached covenant relationship with Yahweh. The presence of the temple in Jerusalem would keep the city safe. The warrior God (Yahweh) would not permit his house to be destroyed by a foreign enemy. The favorite sermon of the profits who promoted the temple ideology was "Peace, peace" (Jeremiah 6:14).

That is why the priests were comfortable to misquote Jeremiah as saying, "This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant." Jeremiah preached the judgment as conditional but the priests considered the city's safety to be unconditional.

They wanted covenant relationship with God except with no covenantal expectations.

Any preacher whose sermons only make people feel good about themselves without challenging them to see their spiritual failings and to make personal improvements is preaching lies. "Peace, peace" without "Repent, repent" is a lie.

Thus, they did not hear the conditional "if" in Jeremiah's sermon. We are the same way if we are not careful. If we do not agree with somebody on any issue, we tend to listen carelessly. We hear only part of what was said and repeat it back in a way that turns what was actually said into something heinous. We remember only half of what was said, and by itself the half sounds really bad.

Notice the content of the accusation with which the priests et. al. formally charged Jeremiah at trial.
Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, "This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears." (Jeremiah 26:11)
People tend to regard as heresy any preaching against what they hold to be sacred (church or church's leadership). It is almost like church and church leadership have a pass from being called to repentance. I have personally heard the following verses cited in support of censoring people who make hard challenges to church and church leaders.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
Obviously, if you want to conscript these verses into the service of supporting the censoring somebody's preaching, you cannot read them too carefully.

The princes and the people recommended acquitting Jeremiah on some fascinating grounds.
Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, "This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God." (Jeremiah 26:16)
They believed that any prophet who spoke in the name of Yahweh could not possibly be preaching against Yahweh's people or his city or his temple. This statement clearly parallels Luke 9:49-50.
49 John answered, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us."
50 But Jesus said to him, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you."
The passage from Luke is really loaded with meaning. One very important lesson is that anybody who is ministering for Christ is not an enemy. He is on your side and you should find a way to work together. Quit practicing the politics of exclusion in the church!

Jeremiah was not the enemy of Jerusalem. People who preach tough lessons against spiritual lethargy are not the enemy of the church. If they bring "shame and reproach" on the church, perhaps the church is acting shamefully and in ways that invite reproach. Instead of censoring hard and upsetting teaching, maybe we should listen.

The elders, who were acting as judges in Jeremiah's trial, quoted Micah 3:12. They noted that Micah's preaching was very similar to Jeremiah's; but Micah's king Hezekiah instituted religious reforms and Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster Micah predicted. It is fascinating to me that Micah's disaster prediction did not include a conditional clause; but there clearly was one and Hezekiah worked with it. Jeremiah's disaster prediction clearly did include a conditional clause but the priests could not hear it. The elders pointed out that, unless the city respond as Hezekiah did, Jeremiah's prediction of disaster will actually happen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Genesis 18, It ain't easy being God

Quite often, when we read something about God in the Bible, we find the presentation to be difficult to reconcile with our view of God in our own minds. One such reading is the account of God's visit to Abraham in Genesis 18.

In the account, Yahweh personally visits Abraham. The visit happens in the event of three men who came upon Abraham's camp. God can either be understood as appearing in the form of three men or he is one of the three. A straight read of the text gives a very strong case for Yahweh being one of the tree men. Verse 22 pretty much makes this arrangement clear:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before Yahweh. (Genesis 18:22, WEB)
An alternative reading is:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while the LORD remained standing before Abraham (NRSV footnote)
Indeed, this alternative reading is supported by the New Living Translation and it makes pretty good sense in light of Gideon's experience in Judges 6:11-24 which seems to tread the "Angel of Yahweh" and "Yahweh" as two different persons. Read that text and try to figure out what is going on. Who is whom?

In Genesis 18, Abraham discusses with Yahweh about the outcome of the divine investigation of Sodom. Yahweh agrees to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there are fifty righteous. Through several suggestions by Abraham, Yahweh eventually reduces the required number to ten righteous.

If Yahweh already knew how the investigation would conclude, this whole conversation in Genesis 18:23-32 has no integrity at all. For the conversation to actually have integrity, it cannot be that either party knew how the investigation would conclude. If Yahweh really is, as the text reports, weighing his options, then we must consider something possibly surprising about his experience. God often has to make tricky decisions. He has to decide between several difficult courses of action, neither of which is very good.

This description of God is entirely consistent with the way the whole Bible presents God but it clashes with the usual traditional view of God.

While God hears our prayers—even silent prayers—he does not go around reading people's minds. He knows people's thoughts by testing and by investigating (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3). That means God is not so much a judge of thoughts as he is a fruit inspector. In order to be certain we will act righteously when we are tested, we must grow righteousness in our hearts.

It is interesting that Yahweh's visit to Sodom was motivated by crying. God hears crying and we should add our voices when we hear about it. For a dedicated treatment of God's response to crying, see this article.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Selections from the First Nations Version of the Bible

I have been watching with interest the development of a new translation of the Bible. It is called First Nations Version. It is an English translation of the Bible but with a cultural emphasis on sensitivities of Native Americans. Progress is kind of slow and the end-goal is a translation of the New Testament. Progress is a bit slow but I sure approve of their efforts! I wish them the best. I recently laid my hands on a copy of this Bible. So far, they have translated the four Gospels, Acts and Ephesians. That's about all you need for a young church's spiritual nourishment (for a while). Reading from this translation is quite moving—almost shocking—emotionally for me. I am interested in how it reads for a Native American. Is it a welcome effort or is it offensive? I intend to find out.

This translation is the work of Native American Bible Scholars. There is an effort in every verse to render it is clearly as possible for a Native American reader. Everyone's name is given descriptively rather than technically. Jesus (meaning "savior") is written as "Creator Sets Free (Jesus)." Peter ("rock") is written as "Stands On The Rock (Peter)." For a taste, here is a short quote from Matthew:
Matthew 1:1-3
Here is the record of the ancestry of Creator Sets Free (Jesus)—the Chosen One—a descendant of Much Loved One (David) and of Father Of Many Nations (Abraham).
From Father Of Many Nations (Abraham) to Much Loved One (David), his ancestors were:
2 Father Of Many Nations (Abraham), He Made Us Laugh (Isaac), Heel Grabber (Jacob), Give Him Honor (Judah) and his brothers, 3 He Breaks Through (Perez) and his brother First Light (Zerah) whose mother was Fruit of Palm Tree (Tamar),
Circle of Teepees (Hezron), He is Lifted Up (Ram),...
This method has made one of the most boring chapters in the Bible into a good read!

The translation sometimes supplements the text with italicized notes that are intended to add clarity to a passage that is confusing if taken too literally. Here is an example:
Ephesians 6:16-17
Then you must raise high the shield of trusting in Creator; this will put out the flaming arrows of the evil one. Don't forget to 17 put on the headdress of Creator's power to rescue and set free, and use the long knife of the Spirit—which is the word of Creator coming from your mouth.
Ah. So the sword of the Spirit is not supposed to be used to hurt people but to hurt spiritual forces of evil. That helps.

So, I think that I would like to look up and quote a few choice passages to see what I think and what you think. Any typographical errors are my own.
Acts 16:30-31
He then took them outside and said, "What must I do to be set free and made whole?"
"Put your trust in Creator Sets Free (Jesus), our Honored Chief," they said to him. "He will make you whole and set you and all your family free to follow him."
Acts 22:16
What are you waiting for? Rise up and participate in the purification ceremony, washing you clean from your broken ways, as you call out to him, trusting in all that his name represents.
John 14:6
"I am the Great Spirit's pathway, the truth about who he really is, and the life of beauty and harmony he offers to all. There is no other guide who can take you to the Father.
Acts 2:32-47
"Creator Sets Free (Jesus) is this Chosen One who has been raised to life from death! We have seen him with our own eyes. He has now returned to his place of honor in the world above to sit at the right hand of Great Spirit. The Father above has gifted him with the Holy Spirit that he promised to send. This Spirit has now been poured out upon us like the rain from above. This is the meaning of what you see and hear happening to us.
"Much Loved One (David) did not go up into the world above, so when he says, 'The Great Chief said to my Great Chief, "Sit down beside me at my right hand, my place of greatest honor, until I bring your enemies under my loving power,"' he was not talking about himself. He was talking about the Chosen one.
"So let all the tribes of Wrestles with Creator (Israel) have no doubt about what the Great Spirit has done. He has made Creator Sets Free (Jesus), the one you put to death on the cross, to be both Chief of all the tribes and the Chosen One, the one he promised to send long ago."

The Crowd Responds
37 When they heard this, the words pierced their hearts like a long knife. With troubled hearts they lifted their voices to Stands On The Rock (Peter) and all the message bearers.
"Fellow Tribal Members," they said, "tell us what we must do."
Acts 2:38 Change your thinking," Stands On The Rock (Peter) instructed them, "and participate in the purification ceremony that is done in the name of Creator Sets Free (Jesus), the Chosen One, representing him and initiating you into his right ways. You will then be healed from your bad hearts, released from your broken ways and gifted with the Holy Spirit who will give you the strength to walk the Good Road with him. He has promised this to all generations of the tribes of Wrestles With Creator (Israel), and to all the Nations who live far away. For the Great Spirit, our Creator, is calling out to all who will, to share in this life of beauty and harmony."
Stands On The Rock (Peter) said many more things to the ones who were listening. With strong words he kept telling them, "This is how you will be set free and rescued from the bent and twisted ways of this generation."
The ones who believed the words of Stands On The Rock (Peter) became a part of Creator's new Sacred Family and participated in the purification ceremony. About three thousand people were added on that day!
A New Family is Formed
42 This newly formed family continued daily to learn from the twelve message bearers. They lived together in harmony, ate ceremonial meals and prayed with one another. Great respect and awe came down upon all, and the message bearers performed many powerful signs. As the new followers lived together in peace, their harmony grew stronger and they shared all things. Many of them had a give-away to provide for all who were in need.
Acts 2:46 Each day they gathered at the Sacred Lodge. With good and pure hearts they feasted together in their homes and shared the ceremonial meal of bread and wine given to them by Creator Sets Free (Jesus). Acts 2:47 They gave honor and thanks to the Great Spirit and were respected by the people. Each day Creator sent more people, who were being set free, to join with them.
Sometimes the italics is a bit overly interpretive in my humble opinion. What do you think:
Matthew 28:19-20
"So now I am sending you into all nations to teach them how to walk the road with me. You will represent me as you perform the purification ceremony with them, initiating them into the life of beauty and harmony represented in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You will then teach them all the ways that I have instructed you to walk in."
Creator Sets Free (Jesus) then looked into their faces with love and great affection. He lifted his hands toward them and spoke these final blessing words over them.
"Never forget," he said as he began to rise up into the world above. "I will always be with you, your invisible guide, walking beside you, until the new world has fully come."