Friday, October 31, 2014

Christian Reproof

Sirach 32:17 states: “The sinner will shun reproof, and will find a decision according to his liking” (NRSV).

When I read this verse yesterday, it got me thinking about Christian reproof.

Here’s my problem with it: A lot of time, it amounts to Christians criticizing me, without offering me any support or encouragement to help me to overcome whatever problem I may have.  Oh, some Christians love to criticize, since that makes them feel righteous and authoritative.  But are they actually going to help those they are criticizing, or will they essentially leave those people alone, to deal with their struggles all by themselves?  In my opinion, if those Christians are not willing to provide encouragement, support, and guidance, then they have no business rebuking.  I’m not saying that as an absolute, for there are probably exceptions, but just as a rule of thumb.

On the other hand, do I really want what I am talking about here?  Suppose that a Christian rebukes me, and I say “You’re right” just to get that person off my back.  Do I seriously want that person to be nagging me continually about whether I am living up to his or her standards?  Not particularly.  That’s the thing about spiritual mentorship: the spiritual mentee has to be willing to receive guidance.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Forgiven Yet Not Regenerated?

I read a post by Arminian theologian Roger Olson this morning entitled, Is It Possible to Be Forgiven (Reconciled) but Not Born Again (Regenerated)?  It’s a long post, and that was daunting to me, at first.  But I am glad that I stuck with it.

I was expecting the worse, especially after reading some of Olson’s past posts about whether we can question anyone’s salvation.  See particularly his post: Is A “Carnal Christian” Saved? (Part Three).  There, Olson gives us a fictional scenario of a man named named John, who accepted Christ at a revival when he was twenty years old, yet John is dishonest in his business, has gone through multiple marriages, had committed adultery while he was married, and seems to be filled with bitterness when people talk with him.  Olson asks: Can a pastor at least raise with John the possibility that John is not saved and needs to receive Christ?

That hit home a little too deeply for me.  I have not committed all of John’s misdeeds, but I do struggle with bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness.  And I would be outraged if someone suggested to me that I am not saved.  Why would I be outraged?  Because I have tried.  I said the sinner’s prayer years ago.  I was baptized.  I go to church.  I pray.  I read my Bible.  Maybe there are reasons that I am bitter, resentful, and unforgiving.  What makes judgmental Christians think that they wouldn’t be, either, if they experienced life as I experienced it?  What’s more, I am very skeptical that even the judgmental Christians are so perfect.  Guess what?  It is natural to be mad at people!  Not everyone likes everyone!  When we are hurt, we get mad!  You’d probably have to be a robot to pass the salvation tests of a lot of judgmental Christians.  Then again, maybe a robot would not pass either, since the judgmental Christians would accuse him of not being emotionally passionate for Christ enough, or of being lukewarm.

What a better world this would be if Christians were compassionate to those with character defects rather than judgmental.  If you are talking with someone and find that he or she has bitterness, how about praying for (or even with) that person that he or she might experience the peace of God, rather than getting on your high horse and questioning that person’s salvation?  What exactly is questioning people’s salvation supposed to accomplish, anyway?

These are just my reactions, and I am not saying that Olson is one of those judgmental Christians.  I’m also not particularly interested in being nitpicked over technicalities or accused of being an uncareful reader, for this post is simply my honest, raw response.  We’re allowed to have those, I do believe.

Anyway, Olson’s post that I read this morning was good, for he asked a question: What if a person sincerely had a salvation experience, and yet he does not seem to have spiritual affections?  Is he truly reconciled with God and forgiven, if he does not manifest any change in his life and his affections?  Maybe this person does not commit gross misdeeds, Olson says, and yet that internal transformation does not seem to be there.  Olson appeared to be open to the possibility that, yes, that person may truly be reconciled with God and forgiven.

I have wondered about this myself.  I have come across my share of people who appear to be Christians, and sincere Christians at that.  Maybe they actually do have religious or spiritual affections, but they are not particularly nice people.  I am tempted to say that they were not really saved, especially if they have rejected me or hurt me in some way, but who am I to judge?  There are people who may make the same sorts of judgements about me.  If these people reach out to God, in some capacity, and their lives do not appear to be transformed radically, does that mean that God does not honor their reaching out to him?  I would like to think that a loving God does honor that, along with my attempts to reach out to him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Scattered Ramblings on an Atheist Podcast and Believing in God

I was listening to an atheist podcast yesterday.  I was initially hesitant to do so.  Why?  Was it fear that they might persuade me to abandon my belief in God?  It’s not as if I hadn’t heard their sorts of arguments before, in some way, shape, or form.  Was it because I did not want to be nagged with spiritual doubt?  Maybe I feel that I have enough on my plate, so why be nagged with spiritual doubt?  Did I simply not want to feed my mind with that sort of stuff?  Could be.

Anyway, I listened to it.  I got a chuckle out of something one of the counter-apologists said.  She said that she talks to Christians and they tell her that the universe is so fine-tuned for life, and so there must be a God.  She responds that actually there is not that much life in the universe.  Christians then say that it is such a miracle that there is life on earth, amidst a largely hostile, lifeless universe, and so that shows there is a God!  My hunch is that there is something wrong with how she was laying out the Christian arguments, but I cannot really point out what.  The fine-tuning argument, as I understand it, says that the universe is finely-tuned for life on earth.  The question would then be why God would create life on only one planet, amidst a vast, apparently lifeless universe of other planets, stars, black holes, etc.  (“Apparently” may be too strong a word here, for perhaps there is life on other planets.)  That Matt Papa book that I recently read, Look and Live, said that God did so to teach us about his own vastness.  Could be.  The church tradition in which I grew up said that Christians as spirit beings would create life on those planets and rule them after Christ’s second coming!

I got a laugh out of what the counter-apologist said on the atheist podcast because, at first, she sounded spot on!  She actually was spot on when she made a similar point in discussing how Christians point to the good things in the universe and say that demonstrates there is a God, but, when someone points out to them the bad things in the universe, they blame that on the Fall.

Of course, we cannot stereotype what Christians say.  The people on the show were speaking about their own interactions with Christians and Christian apologists, and there are many Christians who believe as they say.  But I was listening to the radio program, Unbelievable, recently (for the first time in a long time), and it had a debate on animal suffering.  Is God’s existence and benevolence incompatible with animal suffering?  Why would God allow animals to suffer?  I got mad when I heard a clip of Christian apologist William Lane Craig saying (as I understood him) that animals technically do not feel pain.  But the guest on the show who was speaking from a Christian perspective said that animal suffering was part of the order of nature.  He also seemed to dismiss that it was the result of the Fall.

But back to the atheist podcast!  The counter-apologist made another point: that answered prayer is totally subjective.  There is no objective way to say that God answers our prayers.  It’s all based on how we interpret what happens.  We are the ones deciding if what happened counts as God’s answer to our prayer.  For some reason, I actually like that point.  She, of course, was making it to dismiss religion, and that soured the point a bit for me.  But I still liked the point, for some reason.  Maybe it has to do with liking the concept of interpreting circumstances positively.

The atheist podcast also made me think about reasons that I believe.  A lot of it has to do with fear: I am afraid of life.  The counter-apologist was saying that religions prey on that.  Not long ago, I was browsing through the library, and I saw a book by Hans Kung on the existence of God.  He interacts with Freud, Nietzsche—-you know, critics of Christianity who saw it as immature and as relying on a crutch—-and I did not want to read that book.  I just figured that I already knew, at a basic level, what Freud and Nietzsche said, that I did not feel a need to justify my faith to others, and that, therefore, I was not interested in rehashing those debates.  But the podcast yesterday helped me realize that maybe those debates are more important to me than I think.  When does believing in God discourage me from taking action myself?  Yet, I can’t do everything, and there are things outside of my control, so when should I trust in God?  And is it wrong to rely on something?  I wouldn’t be surprised if even atheists rely on something or someone—-family, a social network, maybe some take medication.

Of course, my usual response to those who say that Christianity is a crutch for the weak is for me to acknowledge that, yes, I am weak.  But I think that faith should be about more than looking for a security blanket.

Anyway, those are some scattered ramblings.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Write-Up: Religion of the Romans

Jӧrg Rüpke.  Religion of the Romans.  Trans. and ed., Richard Gordon.  Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2009.

This book is about the religion of the ancient Romans: their rituals, their festivals and who attended them, their votive offerings, their sacrifices, and their private and public devotion.

From an academic perspective, this book is quite informative, especially for those who want to learn more about Roman ritual.  There was not a whole lot of chemistry between me and this book, however, and so I may try out other books on Roman religion in the future.  This book did have some interesting details, though: that the Epicureans believed that the gods had bodies that consisted of atoms and that “the dynamic equilibrium between the positive and negative flow of atoms” guaranteed these gods’ immortality (page 65); that people were supposed to pray out loud because otherwise others might suspect them of devising harm against someone; and that gods were not believed to be under any obligation to grant people’s requests.

I also learned about a type of votive offering, a devotio, in which a Roman commander would offer to sacrifice himself in battle if the gods let Rome win.  Usually, the commander would charge into the ranks of the enemy to fulfill this vow, but what would happen to him if he survived and Rome won?  What was thought to have happened was that he would be excluded from the community and regarded as a non-citizen, and “a doll representing him was burned” (page 165).  That would count as the fulfillment of the vow.  Rüpke goes on to say, though, that “this was almost certainly a Late-Republican or Augustan rationalization” (page 165).

I appreciated when Rüpke tied in what he was discussing in Roman religion with the Bible.  This happened rarely, but it did happen, as when he talked about Paul’s stance on whether the Corinthian Christians could eat meat offered to idols.

Overall, because of my familiarity with rituals in the Hebrew Bible, I did not feel as if I was in a no-man’s land when reading Rüpke’s discussion of Roman rituals, even if Rüpke provided quite a bit of theory.  They are a lot alike.  I would have liked, however, to have read more about Roman theology—-beliefs about the gods and the gods’ stances on morality—-along with Roman mythology.

I may find another book that is more of a fit for me.  I don’t particularly want to go through the hulkish Cambridge Companion to Roman Religion, at least not right now.  I may check out A Matter of the Gods, which is a book about how Romans viewed the gods, but it keeps getting checked out!  I checked it out one time and could not renew it because someone else wanted it, and later I went to the library and it was not on the shelves.  There was a book on the emperor cult, which might be pretty good.  We’ll see!  I’ll just keep on reading!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Movie Write-Up: Grace Unplugged

I watched a Christian movie a few days ago: Grace Unplugged, which came out in 2013.  Although the movie is Christian, Lionsgate Films and Roadside Attractions released it, and they release a lot of secular movies.

The movie is about an 18-year-old girl named Grace Trey, whose father, Johnny Trey, used to be a rock star.  Johnny was known as a one-hit wonder, and he left the secular music industry when he became a born-again Christian.  Now, he and his daughter perform at their church, and also at other churches.  The two of them clash quite a bit.

When Johnny’s former agent, Frank “Mossy” Martin, comes into town and tells Johnny that his one hit is becoming famous again, Mossy invites Johnny back into the secular music industry.  Johnny declines Mossy’s offer, but Grace runs away from home, meets with Mossy, and becomes a success in her own right by performing her father’s hit.  Her father tells her that she is not ready for the secular music business, and she struggles to define the role of faith in her life.  She bumps into a nice Christian intern, Quentin, who befriends her and encourages her to make the Christian faith her own.  After Grace experiences a few professional bumps, Mossy tells her that she will be making her own album with songs that others have written for her.  When she objects that one of the songs depicts a one-night stand and goes against her values, she leaves the secular music industry and goes back home.  She remains a professional musician, however, along with her father.

The movie was not earthshakingly good, but is was all right to watch.  It shows how hard it is in certain settings to stand by one’s values, especially when they are unconventional.  In once scene, Grace and some higher-ups in the secular music industry are toasting with champagne, and Grace drinks it to fit in with the crowd.  I myself have no religious objections to drinking, but I do not drink because I am a recovering alcoholic, and I wonder what I would have done in Gracie’s situation: would I go along with the crowd, or would I just not drink from the glass while not being obvious about it?  I have to respect the Hollywood celebrities—-and there are many—-who are in Alcoholics Anonymous and may have to find ways to be social and fit in at drinking functions, without actually drinking.

Some of the actors in Grace Unplugged were familiar to me.  James Denton played Johnny Trey, and I know James Denton as Mike Delfino on Desperate Housewives.  I always liked Mike.  And I learned that Quentin was played by Michael Welch, who has been in some of the Twilight movies, but whom I know from the series Joan of Arcadia.  He played Joan’s nerdy little brother, who brought a scientific dimension to the show, and who also made a good point that there is a distinction between facts and the interpretation of them.

I read Christianity Today‘s negative review of the movie, and I have two thoughts about that.  First, the review tells about a host of a screening of the movie who scolded evangelicals for going to see The Hunger Games rather than Grace Unplugged, pleading with them to go in masses to the opening night of the latter movie.  I really did not like this, for a variety of reasons.  I get sick of evangelical leaders bossing around other evangelicals as if they’re children, or pressuring them to see a movie they may not want to see just because they are supposed to root for Team Evangelical.  While my opinion of Grace Unplugged was not as low that that of Christianity Today‘s review, I still laud Christianity Today for not being afraid to question Team Evangelical!

Second, I liked what the Christianity Today review said about the music manager in the movie, Frank “Mossy”: “Kevin Pollak sidesteps the film’s biggest potential landmine by making Frank a grown up, rather than a predator.”  I actually appreciated that, myself.  Mossy was not a Christian, and he did not share some of Grace’s values, but he was a good and a dependable agent, who knew how the secular music game was played.

Book Write-Up: The Foundation of Communion with God

Ryan M. McGraw, ed.  The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.

John Owen was a seventeenth century English Puritan.  Ryan M. McGraw’s Ph.D. work was about John Owen.  In The Foundation of Communion with God,  McGraw includes excepts from John Owen’s writings, focusing on Christians’ communion with and worship of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

McGraw provides readers with a strong introduction about who John Owen was, the rigorous education that Owen received as a youth, the concerns of the Puritans about adding non-Scriptural elements to worship, Owen’s support for and later disagreement with the Puritan Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell, Owen’s views regarding the Old and New Covenants, and Owen’s polemics against the Socinians, who denied the Trinity and held to other doctrines that were not considered orthodox (e.g., that God had a body).  The information in McGraw’s introduction is helpful and lucid for a popular audience.

In an appendix, McGraw offers advice on how to read Owen.  McGraw acknowledges that John Owen is not an easy read, so he provides information about the various works of Owen, as well as gives advice about the order in which to read Owen’s works and how to read them without getting lost.  McGraw also gives a list of Owen’s works and a small list of secondary literature about Owen.

The body of the work, as I said above, contains excerpts from Owen’s writings.  McGraw states that he has “updated [Owen's] language” in order to “introduce readers to Owen’s writings and make them more accessible…”  Personally, I found the updating of Jonathan Edwards’ prose in John MacArthur’s The Vanishing Conscience to be much clearer than what McGraw did with Owen’s language, and yet McGraw’s updating was not that bad: it preserved some of the old feel and flavor of Owen’s language, and maybe it does not hurt modern readers to concentrate a bit in their reading, especially when one is reading Owen’s discussion of weighty topics.

As far as the substance of the excerpts was concerned, there were parts that I really enjoyed.  Owen talked about the believer finding comfort in Christ, stressed the need for divine grace for people to rise above their sin, and discussed how believers can use rites as a means of divine grace, while focusing on God and not the rites themselves.  Owen demonstrated his classical education, as he contrasted Christianity’s focus on grace with the self-help programs of certain ancient philosophers.  Owen has a reputation as one who stressed that believers can have an assurance of their salvation, and this was clear in two passages that I appreciated: one in which Owen said that even a believer of weak faith has the attention of God, and another in which he stated that believers should remind themselves of their sins, but not in order to beat themselves up.  There were a couple of places where Owen seemed to manifest the stereotypical Puritan insecurity, however: he talked about experiencing worship in a state of dryness, and how one should try to prevent that from happening, and he discussed how non-believers may feel good by going through certain spiritual exercises, and yet they are not experiencing divine grace.

Overall, though, I found McGraw’s work, and the excerpts from Owen, to be informative and edifying.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: Look and Live, by Matt Papa

Matt Papa.  Look and Live: Behold the Soul-Thrilling, Sin-Destroying Glory of Christ.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

Matt Papa is a Christian recording artist and a minister.  His book Look and Live is about how Christians can find fulfillment, defeat sin in their lives, and be transformed by focusing on the glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ.  The title is based on a story in Numbers 21, in which the Israelites in the wilderness have been bitten by venomous serpents and find healing in looking upon a bronze serpent.  They looked at the bronze serpent, and they lived.  In John 3:14, Jesus likens that bronze serpent to himself.

My impression is that Papa holds to the Reformed tradition of Christianity.  Although he quotes C.S. Lewis and a variety of other figures (including comedian Louis C.K.!), the main influences on Papa appear to be Reformed: Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, and Tim Keller.  Papa also emphasizes such things as the sovereignty and glory of God, and he accepts the concept of God’s predestination of the saved.  At the same time, Papa is probably from the branch of Reformed thought that focuses on God’s love rather than God’s wrath (even though he does say that we all deserve hell).  In one of my favorite passages of the book, Papa questions how many Christians act as if God’s holiness is in opposition to God’s love when they say that God is loving, but also holy.  Papa argues that God’s holiness is about God being one of a kind, unique.

I have heard or read the sorts of things that Papa says in this book from other Christian teachers: that everyone thirsts to worship something and to get more out of life, that only God can fulfill us, that disaster results when we look to something or someone other than God for ultimate fulfillment, and that victory over sin comes, not through trying harder, but through looking to Jesus and falling in love with him.  Such a message may not resonate with everyone, but it has long resonated with me, since I do realize that I idolize many things (i.e., approval from others) and that this leads to disappointment.  I find looking to Jesus and being primarily enamored with him, however, to be easier said than done.  What I appreciate about Papa’s book is that he acknowledges this, and he offers tips on how to pray and read the Bible so as to cultivate an appreciation for God’s glory and beauty.  Moreover, while Papa does say that looking to Jesus is better than simply trying harder, he acknowledges validity in the objection that such a perspective may undermine the motivation to obey God in the believer’s life.  Papa states that obedience itself can be a means through which a person comes to know and to appreciate God better: did not Jesus say, after all, that the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8)?

Papa is open about his weaknesses, and he provided a number of stories and analogies that effectively illustrated his theological points.  Papa also did well to support from Scripture his argument that people need to taste God’s love and grace before they are motivated to obey: Paul often emphasized God’s grace in Christ first, and Jesus in Luke 19 reached out to the tax collector Zacchaeus before Zacchaeus decided to morally change his life.  In my opinion, people hungry to read about the love and the grace of God will enjoy this book.  I jotted down notes on a number of pages!

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Love Sermons----I Should Expect Them!

At church this morning, the pastor preached a love sermon: a sermon about how we should love other people.  That’s not my favorite kind of message, but I should expect it!  That sort of message is a salient part of the Christian tradition!

The pastor said that we cannot love God in the Christian sense if we have anything against someone else.  He also read something that paraphrased Matthew 5:23-24, while combining it with I Corinthians 13: if someone has something against you, and you don’t have enough love for that person to go to him or her and be reconciled, then (such-and-such, I forget what) is worthless.

So I can’t have anything against somebody else?  And I have to make sure that nobody else has anything against me?  Is that even possible?  Do Christians—-even those who think that we should live this way—-actually do this?  “How about you focus on whether you are obeying the requirement, James, rather than on if others are obeying it?”  Because, if the requirement is so freaking unrealistic that NOBODY is doing it, why should I beat up on myself for not doing it?

I was thinking of I Corinthians 13.  Are knowledge and giving to the poor really worthless without love?  On knowledge, even if I am not the most loving person in the world, knowledge benefits me—-it satisfies my curiosity, it entertains me, it feeds me, etc.  Maybe it can benefit others, too, but it is not utterly worthless if it does not.  On giving to the poor, I am sure that the poor person would appreciate me giving to him or her, even if I have a hard time loving people.

In churches, I have continually heard that I am supposed to “love everybody.”  Is that even realistic?  Is it possible?  I remember hearing a Jewish person say that love for everybody is not possible—-that we do not have that capacity—-but that the closest that he gets to universal love is to hope that someone else (in this case, alcoholics) does not lose his or her sobriety.  Okay, I guess that is not universal love, but love for fellow alcoholics, but I get the man’s point.  When I first heard him say that, I thought, “Well, you can say that, because you are not a Christian and thus you do not have the Holy Spirit helping you out.”  But, seeing how I and other Christians act, I wonder if Christians actually do have some edge that non-Christians lack.

Then there is the whole deal about how we are supposed to love the difficult.  How?  Suppose one has a Christian blog, and an atheist troll keeps being a jerk on it, leaving comments that abuse the author and other commenters.  Seriously, is the Christian blogger obligated to allow that?  Of course, this can be switched: suppose a fundamentalist commenter gets abusive on an atheist blog.  But my focus here is on Christians who feel they have to abide by some Christian ethic to love everybody, even the unlovable.

Feel free to comment, but let me make two points clear: (1.) I will not publish any comments that disparage me or call into question my Christianity.  Oh, that’s not very loving?  Deal with it.  Find someone else to judge.  (2.) I would rather not read comments that tell me I am being hard on myself, or that I really do love people.  This post is not about me being hard on myself.  If you comment, talk about the topic of unconditional love—-whether, and to what extent, you put that into practice, or how you understand it as a Christian, if you consider yourself a Christian.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

II Chronicles 4

In II Chronicles 4:16-22, we read the following (in the KJV):

16 The pots also, and the shovels, and the fleshhooks, and all their instruments, did Huram his father make to king Solomon for the house of the LORD of bright brass.
17 In the plain of Jordan did the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zeredathah.
18 Thus Solomon made all these vessels in great abundance: for the weight of the brass could not be found out.
19 And Solomon made all the vessels that were for the house of God, the golden altar also, and the tables whereon the shewbread was set;
20 Moreover the candlesticks with their lamps, that they should burn after the manner before the oracle, of pure gold;
21 And the flowers, and the lamps, and the tongs, made he of gold, and that perfect gold;
22 And the snuffers, and the basons, and the spoons, and the censers, of pure gold: and the entry of the house, the inner doors thereof for the most holy place, and the doors of the house of the temple, were of gold.

When I first read that, nothing in particular stood out to me.  Then, I read Jimmy Swaggart’s notes in his Expositor’s Study Bible.  Swaggart was saying that, in this passage, we learn that the pots, shovels, fleshhooks, and instruments that Huram gave to King Solomon had to lose their “old identity” before they could become suitable for the Temple; Swaggart was likening this to believers in Christ being new creations, for whom old things have passed away.

Initially, I did not know how Swaggart was arriving at this conclusion from the text.  But I figured it out.  Huram in v 16 is said to make for King Solomon and the Temple pots, shovels, fleshhooks, and instruments of brass.  In v 17, however, the text goes on to say that the king—-presumably Solomon—-cast those things in the plain of the Jordan.  Swaggart seems to be envisioning this scenario: Huram makes for Solomon these brass instruments for the Temple, and Solomon melts the instruments down and recasts their brass into new instruments in the plains of the Jordan.  It’s like the brass instruments as Huram made them were not good enough for the Temple, and so Solomon needed to melt them down and refashion them.

As homiletically edifying as Swaggart’s interpretation may be, I am not convinced by how Swaggart is interpreting the text here.  What I think is going on is that Huram makes for the king these instruments by casting them in the plains in the Jordan.  They are being cast, not recast, there.  Why does v 17 say, then, that the king—-presumably Solomon—-was the one casting them?  Why couldn’t it just say that Huram did so?  I agree with John Gill’s statement that it is said that the king did so because all of this was taking place under King Solomon’s authority.  Huram may have cast the instruments in the plain, but he was doing so as part of Solomon’s project.

I have at least three reasons for my stance.  First of all, II Chronicles 2:13 highlights that Huram was a skilled artisan.  Why would that be highlighted, if Huram’s artisanship would be rejected as not good enough, and the stuff that he made would be melted down and refashioned?  Second, II Chronicles 4:15 says that Huram made the sea and the twelve oxen that were to support the sea.  I have a hard time believing that Huram made these prominent features of the Temple, and Solomon melted them down and remade the sea and the twelve oxen.  Third, there seems to be vacillation between Huram and Solomon in the text’s narrative.  V 3 says that Solomon made the sea, whereas v 15 states that Huram did so.  It makes sense, in my opinion, to say that both did so: Huram made it, but he did so under Solomon’s authority.

Actually, I would say that my first reason stands on its own.

Why did I go to the effort of trying to refute one of Jimmy Swaggart’s interpretations?  It kind of looks like taking a step forward, then taking a step back towards an interpretation that is not particularly profound: that Huram worked under the authority of King Solomon.  Well, for one, I wanted to write something about II Chronicles 4.  Second, Swaggart did well to highlight how the text was phrased, and that puzzle motivated me to go deeper.  And, third, sometimes studying the Bible is about the journey, not the destination.  I got to learn of a profound homiletical principle, even though I critiqued Swaggart’s interpretation on which it was based.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ramblings on Anonymity, Being Alone with God, and Forgiveness

Sirach 16:17 states (in the NRSV): “Do not say, “I am hidden from the Lord, and who from on high has me in mind? Among so many people I am unknown, for what am I in a boundless creation?”

The point of this passage, of course, is that sinners should not think that God does not notice their sins and will not punish them.  But the passage stood out to me because it highlights how it is possible to feel lost in the big world—-to be anonymous.

Some people feel comforted that there is a God who notices them personally.  I think of the song, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.”  But there are others who do not like such an idea: they feel that it invades their privacy, or they recoil from the prospect of being under someone’s judgmental eye all of the time.

Both ideas are in Scripture, in some sense.  Psalm 8 marvels that God notices man amidst the vast creation, and it goes on to talk about how God exalts and dignifies human beings.  On the other hand, Job, while he was suffering and thinking that God was afflicting him, was wondering why God pays so much attention to human beings (Job 7:17).  God is great and powerful, right?  Human beings are no threat to God, right?  Why, then, does Job have to be under God’s watchful eye, suffering affliction from God?

Anonymity itself can be a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, when we are anonymous, we don’t have to meet other people’s expectations.  On the other hand, when we are anonymous, we may feel lonely and unloved.

After I read Sirach 16:17, I was thinking about the concept of being alone with God.  I remembered a sermon that I heard years ago.  The pastor was referring to Max Weber’s study that showed that suicide was higher among Protestants than among Catholics.  The reason, Weber said, was that Catholics had a greater sense of community, whereas Protestants felt alone with God.  I would not say that Catholics have “community” in the manner that is pushed by evangelicals—-you have to have “intentional” community, socialize, and be vulnerable (sometimes, perhaps often, to judgmental people who may think that you don’t have the Spirit if you have certain issues).  But Catholics have a confessional where people can confess to a human being and receive absolution.  In the book that I recently read, The Sacred Year, Michael Yankoski talked about how he suggested to his Protestant pastors that they set up a confessional!

It would help me to be told by an authoritative human being that my sins are forgiven.  Trying to get that assurance in a setting where it is just me and God is difficult, especially since God in the Bible sets up so many conditions to receive forgiveness, and it is hard to know if I have truly met them: I need to forgive others, I need to repent (turn away from sin), etc.  It would be nice to go to a priest, confess my sin, and go back out feeling forgiven and trying to be good.

Of course, many have had problems with the Catholic system.  When forgiveness of sins is vested in a church, what happens when a church abuses that authority?  Consider the kings who got excommunicated by popes for not doing what the popes wanted.  Because human beings can be so judgmental, I can understand why some would like to make confession and forgiveness solely a matter of them and God: they figure that God will cut them more of a break.  And then there is the potential of abusing forgiveness.  You know of the stereotypical Catholic mafia boss, who kills others yet receives absolution because he confesses his sins to a priest.  Of course, Catholicism may say that it is not for that, that it promotes repentance and good works, and some Catholics may even say that it is Protestantism that gives people cheap grace—-the hope that they will go to heaven as long as they believe in Jesus, even if their lives are full of sin.

Anyway, those are some ramblings for today.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Sacred Year

Michael Yankoski.  The Sacred Year: Mapping the Soulscape of Spiritual Practice—-How Contemplating Applies, Living in a Cave, and Befriending a Dying Woman Revived My Life.  Nashville: W Publishing Group (An Imprint of Thomas Nelson), 2014.

Michael Yankoski was feeling empty as a Christian motivational speaker, even though his friends told him that they were jealous of him because he was making a difference.  The last straw for Michael came when he was at a Christian conference, and the featured Christian comedian was someone who had earlier acted obnoxiously on the plane Michael was on.  Michael also saw a heated argument between a band’s manager and the organizers of the Christian conference.  Michael retreated to a monastery in search of answers.

Michael would meet with Father Solomon.  The book hooked me on page 12.  Father Solomon was about to suggest to Michael some spiritual practices, and Michael was initially skeptical.  Michael said: “Most days I have a hard enough time just keeping my head above water, and, to be honest, I don’t have the strength to try and make God love me or even like me.”  Father Solomon assured Michael that God already loved him, and that spiritual practices were a way for people to become more receptive to God.  That started Michael on an adventure.

The Sacred Year covers a lot of territory: slowing down to observe one’s surroundings, prayer that breathes in the words of Scripture rather than analyzing them, Sabbath, finding wholeness in nature, God’s wrath and love, social justice and how our consumption may be on the backs of the oppressed, gratitude, service, and living in community.  In my opinion, the best parts of the book were Michael’s stories.  I especially liked the story about Michael’s interaction with Virgil, a man who had lost his wife and sister and now felt lonely, even though he could come and go as he pleased.  Michael at first did not want to have a conversation with this stranger, but he decided to listen to Virgil’s story.

How many of the suggested practices in The Sacred Year I will put into practice, I do not know.  I do, however, feel that reading this book was rewarding.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers (http://booklookbloggers.com/) book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

Jesus ben Sira on Hanging Out with Rich People and Generosity

Some Jesus ben Sira passages stood out to me yesterday and today.  Allow me to quote  and to comment.

1.    Sirach 13:9-10 states (in the NRSV): “When an influential person invites you, be reserved, and he will invite you more insistently.  Do not be forward, or you may be rebuffed; do not stand aloof, or you will be forgotten.”

These verses are ironic in light of what comes earlier in Sirach 13.  Jesus ben Sira discourages people from associating with those who are mightier or richer than them, and the reason is that the mightier or richer could use that lowly person for their own purposes, and the person would be powerless to do anything about it.  This is actually a theme that has recurred in my reading of Sirach thus far: that it’s better just to stay off of some people’s radar—-for them not to know who you are.  As I read Jesus ben Sira’s cynical description of the rich, I thought of J.R. Ewing on Dallas!  I would rather not be on the radar of someone like him!

But, in vv 9-10, Jesus ben Sira talks about what one should do if one is invited by an influential person.  So now a person can associate with a rich person?  Is there a way to reconcile all this?  Is Jesus ben Sira talking about rich people who are invited by other rich people?  I doubt that, for v 11 says that the invited one should not try to treat the influential person as an equal.  Maybe Jesus ben Sira is not giving us rigid rules but things to think about, in terms of how he understandings the realities of life.

On Jesus ben Sira’s advice in 13:9-10, it just shows how delicate social interaction can be.  One wants to be reserved—-not to appear overly eager.  One does not want to be too forward, for that can be off-putting.  But one also does not want to be aloof, because then one can be forgotten (and I’ve been guilty of both extremes).  One has to walk a fine line!  It’s not easy for everyone!

2.  Sirach 14:5 states (again, in the NRSV): “If one is mean to himself, to whom will he be generous? He will not enjoy his own riches.”

Jesus ben Sira is criticizing being a stingy miser, and he makes the interesting point that one who is not generous to oneself will be less likely to be generous to other people.  I have heard that one cannot love others if one does not love oneself, but I have never thought of this principle in relation to stinginess and generosity.

I can somewhat understand and identify with this principle, for I can envision generosity to self and generosity to others flowing from the same stream (not to mention from a sense that one has enough money to be generous to oneself and others).  I would not treat it as an absolute, since there are plenty of frugal people who give to others, and there are plenty of luxurious people who do not give to others.  In terms of myself, nowadays, I tend to be very frugal, or I try to exercise discipline.  That means that I am not particularly generous to myself or others.  I can beat up on myself for that in this post, but what would be the point?

Sometimes, being frugal actually can help someone else.  I think of trying to save electricity, eating lower on the food chain, or cutting certain things out of one’s diet because of the effects these things have on vulnerable people in the world.  But being a just consumer can also be pretty pricey, in some areas.

Anyway, I thought that Jesus ben Sira has an interesting insight, there.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jesus Ben Sira and Self-Esteem

I’ve been reading Jesus Ben Sira for my daily quiet time.  It is part of the Deuterocanonical writings, the books that Catholics accept as canonical but that Protestants and Jews do not.  Ben Sira’s book has been labelled “Ben Sira”, “Sirach”, and “Ecclesiasticus”.

I was reading a passage yesterday that touched on self-esteem.  It’s in Ben Sira 10:28-29:

“My child, honor yourself with humility, and give yourself the esteem you deserve.  Who will acquit those who condemn themselves? And who will honor those who dishonor themselves?” (NRSV)

That somewhat caught me by surprise.  For one, I had assumed that the exhortation that people have a positive self-esteem or self-image was a modern concept, not an ancient one.  Second, I had thought that the biblical writings encourage humility more than having a positive self-image.

Jesus Ben Sira is actually promoting humility.  He does not want people to be proud, to think that they are better than others, or to be so enamored with themselves that they forget God and others.  My impression is that he wants for people to look honestly at themselves and to recognize that they have weaknesses and that they have to play by the rules like everyone else.  But he also seems to think that people should love themselves: they should remember that they are people of value and should treat themselves well, rather than sinning against or dishonoring themselves.

I think also of a saying attributed to the first century Jewish leader Hillel: if I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Hillel, too, believed that people should have regard for themselves.

I was trying to remember if there are any other passages in the Bible about self-esteem.  So many biblical passages encourage humility, but do any promote having a positive self-concept?  I thought of what Samuel told Saul after Saul sinned: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (NRSV).  A lot of times, pride is the downfall of kings, but, in Saul’s case, his low self-esteem arguably was.  Samuel was telling Saul that, while Saul may not have a very high opinion of himself, his actions and inactions actually carry a lot of weight, for he is the king.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Write-Up: Darwin's Forgotten Defenders

David N. Livingstone.  Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987.

Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders is about evangelical Christian reactions to the theory of evolution in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It profiles many figures, including James Orr, B.B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge.

Livingstone essentially argues that, until the early twentieth century, many evangelical Christian thinkers did not object to evolution on biblical grounds.  Some may have believed that there was not sufficient evidence for evolution, or that questions were unresolved.  Some objected to attempts to present evolution as something that undercuts the idea that the earth and life on it had a designer.  But many evangelical Christian thinkers believed that there was no contradiction between the truth of Christianity and evolution.  Some said that the days of Genesis 1 could have been longer than 24-hours and that God could have used evolution as his method of making the different animals.  Some maintained that God creating human beings in his image could have entailed God providing humans with a soul at a particular point in time, meaning that Genesis 1 was not necessarily incompatible with the existence of early man.  In the early twentieth century, however, a greater commitment to literalism emerged, as many Christians in America sought to protect their culture from certain trends.  Interestingly, Livingstone notes that a book by prominent young-earth creationist Henry Morris about scientists who believed in creation actually (maybe unknowingly) favorably profiles scientists who accepted evolution.

From my summary above, some may think that the book rehashes a debate that many already know.  Many of us are aware that there are Christians who try to reconcile Genesis 1 and science by saying that a day could have been longer than 24-hours, or that some (such as Pope John Paul II) posit that God could have put a soul into a form of human beings at a particular point in time.  While the book does repeatedly present people who held to those ideas, it has so much more.  There was the difference between William Paley’s model of design (the divine watchmaker) and other models of design (i.e., did God fashion animals according to their environments or simply use common models for them?  Should we focus on the structure of animals or laws?).  There were those who believed that God performed unique creations throughout history.  There were those who sought to reconcile evolution with original sin, saying that evolution does not necessarily imply progress, or that evolution’s emphasis on heredity is consistent with human beings passing down original sin to their descendants.  Some believed that there were parallels between evolution and Calvinism, since evolution could inspire thought about determinism and freedom.  There were different versions of evolution: Darwin’s model, which saw mutations as random and not necessarily heading in a specific (or better) direction, and Lamark’s model, which held that evolution was innately progressive and that animals could consciously adapt to their surroundings.  (What’s more, according to Livingstone, Darwin actually came to lean towards the Lamarkian model!)  There was the relevance of evolution to racism; while evolution was used to support racism, so was creationism, and some Christian thinkers actually critiqued racism by appealing to evolution.  There was the question of whether Christ could have died for pre-Adamic man or space aliens, as some maintained that Christ’s atonement could have been extended to them, even if they were not involved in the Fall of Adam.  There were people who criticized evolution from a perspective that was not even distinctly Christian; one person did so on the basis of German idealism.  And there is Livingstone’s thoughtful final chapter that reflects on creationism, arguing that creationists raise valid concerns about the application of evolution to non-scientific realms (i.e., politics, philosophy), and referring to an article questioning whether the Left should side with the scientific establishment over creationists, with all that the scientific establishment does that is inimical to its aims.

If I had a favorite character in this book, it was Charles Darwin.  Darwin was someone who had tried and failed at many things in his life, but he met an academic who saw his potential and believed in him.  Darwin was willing to reach out to those who did not entirely agree with him.  And Darwin honestly admitted that his own theory was not perfect and contained unanswered questions at the time (i.e., missing links, the question of how a mutated animal can bring about mutation in the body of animals, etc.), even if he believed that it had enough evidence and explanatory power to be valid.

The book did not really address, as far as I could see, the question of whether evolution was inconsistent with Adam’s Fall bringing death into the world, when death is an important aspect of the theory of evolution.  After all, the evolutionary model holds that there was death millennia before Adam supposedly lived.  Maybe the Christian thinkers did not address such questions.  I will not rule out that they did, though.

Good book!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Write-Up: The River of Life, by Lee Harmon

Lee Harmon.  The River of Life: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet.  Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2014.  See here to purchase the book from Amazon.

In The River of Life, Lee Harmon talks about what he believes as a liberal Christian.  He actually says what his religion is on the last page of the book: “Participatory Eschatology.  This is my religion.  This is Jesus’ dream, and it is happening.  The world will become what we, through the help of God and the inspiration and example of Jesus our Savior, transform it into.”

Essentially, Lee Harmon maintains that Jesus was preaching a this-worldly religion, rather than one that focused on having a good afterlife.  Harmon argues that, when Jesus preached about Gehenna, he was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., not hell.  When Jesus spoke of the forgiveness of debts, Harmon says, he may have been talking about people forgiving literal debts—-debts that pushed people into poverty—-as part of the Jubilee that Jesus was inaugurating.  Jesus also went about doing good, freeing people of disease, and he emphasized giving to the poor.  As Harmon notes, there are different eschatological views within the New Testament.  The synoptic Gospels have an eschatology that holds that Jesus will soon return in power to establish a literal rule on earth.  The Gospel of John, however,  has a realized eschatology, which regards Jesus’ giving of the Holy Spirit to his disciples shortly after his resurrection as his second coming.  There are also different understandings within the New Testament about who exactly Jesus was (e.g., when Jesus became divine).  In any case, Harmon holds, there is a common notion throughout the Gospels that Jesus in some sense brought the Kingdom of God in his ministry on earth, a Kingdom that does good and alleviates suffering.

Harmon does not reduce religion to social justice or community service, however, for he does talk about personal piety and experience of the divine.  He says in one beautiful passage, “I have sat in the churches of various denominations and seen strong people reduced to emotional puddles and then lifted into radiance” (page 2).  He talks about his personal prayer life and how he prefers to pray to the Spirit that positively influences the earth: “With this focus, I feel silly praying selfish petitions—-a universal Spirit somehow transcends my selfish ambitions—-so my prayer naturally steers toward renewing my purpose to contribute to the Kingdom of God” (page 33).  He has quotations of prominent liberal Christians and spiritual thinkers about the definition of faith and how it may differ from (or mean more than) having prescribed beliefs or accepting something without proof.

Harmon is also honest about his own religious questions, about such issues as what we can know about God, whether God is personal, and whether there is an afterlife.  He says that he is not trying to encourage people who believe in an afterlife to abandon that belief, for he recognizes that believing in an afterlife gives comfort to people; he just wants to stress that Jesus’ mission was focused on this world.  I appreciated Harmon’s approach here because he was presenting himself as a fellow pilgrim giving us something to think about, and he was expressing acceptance of people with different perspectives.  He was communicating that one does not have to agree entirely with him to get something out of his book.

I found Harmon’s thesis about Jesus’ mission to be convincing, overall.  I agree with him that Jesus wanted to improve the conditions of people in this world.  On whether the churches of New Testament times were like that, however, I would say that it was rather mixed.  On the one hand, the early Christians in the Book of Acts and Paul appear to focus on encouraging people to repent and believe in Jesus in light of a coming judgment, and, while they were concerned for the poor, their concern appears to be rather insular—-for poor Christians.  On the other hand, Jesus’ apostles in the Book of Acts do continue Jesus’ practice of delivering people from disease and demon possession, and one could argue that Christians in New Testament times sought to have a positive influence on the world by demonstrating an alternative society—-one in which the needs of the poor are met and people from different social backgrounds embrace each other as family.

Harmon’s book encouraged me to think about the issue of Gehenna.  I acknowledge the possibility that Jesus may have been referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. when talking about Gehenna, and yet there do seem to be some voices in the New Testament that posit a dreadful place for the wicked in the afterlife.  I think of Matthew 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28, which say that many will sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom, while others will be cast into outer darkness, amidst weeping and gnashing of teeth.  In terms of Harmon’s discussion of Gehenna, I wish that he had fleshed out more the significance of Gehenna to Jesus’ mission: Why was Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, what did that have to do with his Kingdom mission of beneficence, and what does the destruction of Jerusalem say about the character of God.  Harmon in one place seems to suggest that salvation is not really about deliverance from God’s wrath, and yet does not the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. imply that God has wrath, according to the Gospels?  In some places, Harmon appears to touch on the significance of 70 C.E.—-that it was about the end of the old covenant (and I wonder if this would conflict with Harmon’s view that the earliest Christians were Jewish Christians who valued the Torah) or was part of the pangs that accompany the Kingdom—-but I was hoping to see more about the significance of Gehenna, especially as it relates to Jesus’ Kingdom mission.

Overall, though, I found Harmon’s book to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.

My thanks to the author, Lee Harmon, for sending me a review copy of this book.

Book Write-Up: James the Just

Dr. David Friedman and B.D. Friedman.  James the Just Presents Applications of the Torah: A Messianic Commentary.  Clarksville: Lederer Books (a Division of Messianic Jewish Publishers), 2012.

Dr. David Friedman and B.D. Friedman are Messianic Jews—-Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah and who observe Jewish laws.  This book is a Messianic Jewish commentary on the New Testament Book of James.  Its argument is that the Book of James is a record of James’ teachings about Leviticus 19, which were originally delivered orally in Mishnaic Hebrew and were translated into koine Greek and written down so that they could be delivered to Messianic Jews in the Diaspora.  According to Friedman and Friedman, Messianic Jews in the Diaspora would value what James had to say, for James was a prominent leader and judge in the church, whose headquarters were in Jerusalem.  Friedman and Friedman not only seek to convey the distinct Jewish nature of the Book of James, but they also contend against those who maintain that there is a rift between faith and works, and between Paul and James.  For Friedman and Friedman, James supported the Jewish idea that obedience to the Torah flowed from faith, and Paul deferred to James rather than acting in opposition to him.

This book makes interesting arguments.  Its most interesting argument is that the prayer of healing that saves the sick in James 5:15 refers to the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6).  Friedman and Friedman note that the Greek word often translated as “prayer” refers to a vow in Acts 18:18 and 21:23, and they refer to Josephus’ statement in Wars of the Jews ii.15.1 that people in distress made vows.  Another interesting argument Friedman and Friedman make is that Peter at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 had prominence because he was a “Tamid Hakam,” a rabbi’s chief pupil who was an example to other pupils and who carried on the rabbi’s teaching after the rabbi’s death.  (In this case, the rabbi would be Jesus.)  Friedman and Friedman do not offer evidence for this, or for the “Tamid Hakam” being a first century phenomenon, but the notes refer to a book that discusses this issue in greater detail.

I did not entirely agree with some of the Friedmans’ connections between the Book of James and Leviticus 19 or Judaism, and some of their parallels were between elements of the Book of James and things that existed after the first century C.E., the time of the Book of James (which, to their credit, they sometimes actually acknowledge).  Still, as they note, other scholars have argued that the Book of James reflects a distinctly Jewish perspective, and at least one other scholar, Walter Kaiser, has contended that there are parallels between the Book of James and Leviticus 19, so the Friedmans’ thesis is not implausible.  Moreover, while the chapter of the book that argued that the Book of James reflects the Torah rather than Hellenistic thought jumped to conclusions, in my opinion (since even New Testament letters to Gentiles draw from Jewish Scriptures, and there is no rule that a document cannot draw from both the Torah and Hellenism), it did well to highlight how the Book of James could have drawn from the Torah and Jewish life in Israel.

If there is one question that I would ask Friedman and Friedman, it is whether they believe that only Jews are obligated to obey the Torah, or if Gentiles should, too.  They call the Torah the “Heavenly blueprint for human life,” yet they go on to say that it is “the communicator of truth for the entire Jewish people worldwide” (page 93).  I should also note that some of the books advertised in the back of the book are by authors who believe that the Torah was intended to be kept by Jews only, meaning that Gentiles are not obligated to follow Jewish rituals.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Testimony and a Desire for a Miracle

At church this morning, one of the people from the congregation gave the message.  He has been coming to our church for about two years.  He was baptized this past June, as I write about here.  In his message, he was giving us his testimony about how he became a Christian.

He told us that he long had feelings of aimlessness, depression, and anxiety, and those were hurting his relationship with his girlfriend.  One day, when he was at the mall, he received a phone call from someone he did not know and with whom he had no connection.  The phone call was from a Christian lady telling him that she felt that he needed the Lord, and she proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer with him.  For about a year, he did not think much about that, but his girlfriend left him and started seeing someone else, and he felt that he had hit rock bottom.  The Christian lady on the phone sent him a book, which offered a Christian perspective about various emotions, such as anger.  He would read that every night before going to bed, and that made him feel better.  He decided to find his happiness in the Lord, whether or not he and his girlfriend got back together.  Over time, they did, and now they are engaged.  He says that he has seen his prayers get answered before his eyes, and that he has had dreams at night that have come true in reality.  He also said that God has a plan for him and for everyone.  He still has to conquer fear, he told us, but he asked us why we should be afraid, when God is watching over us.

He also said that many of us when we pray rush to the “Amen” at the end of the prayer, but he said that we should not be in such a hurry because God wants to help us.

One of the ladies at church is losing her hearing, and she found the young man’s insight about prayer to be helpful to her.  She said that, for her, prayer is often a routine, and she felt convicted that she should put more effort into it.  “Then, maybe I will get my hearing back!”, she said.  In my mind, I was somewhat questioning what seemed to be her picture of God—-as someone who needs to be appeased.  That seemed to differ, in my mind, from what the young man was saying: that God is there to help us, but we need to make ourselves available to him.  But who exactly am I to question where the lady was coming from.  It may not resonate with me, entirely, but obviously she hopes for a miracle from God, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Moreover, my impression is that she is the type of person who will continue to love and serve the Lord, even if she loses her hearing.
In terms of the young man’s sermon, I liked the fact that the Christian lady on the phone not only walked him through the sinner’s prayer, but also provided him with tools of discipleship: how to live a better life, how to see the world in a better way, etc.  There is much more to being a Christian than the sinner’s prayer!  There is walking with God.

I, too, have anxiety and get depressed.  I do not know if it is clinical, but it is still difficult.  Having Asperger’s Syndrome is difficult.  I also can have a hard time trusting in God, since I wonder why I should believe that things will turn out well for me, when they don’t seem to turn out well for a lot of people on earth.  Where is God in their lives?  I don’t go so far as to say that God is not in their lives, though.  Anyway, faith is not always easy for me, but I still pray.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

II Chronicles 3

II Chronicles 3:13 is talking about statues of cherubim in King Solomon’s temple.  V. 13 states in the King James Version: “The wings of these cherubims spread themselves forth twenty cubits: and they stood on their feet, and their faces were inward.”  As I look at the Masoretic Text on my Bibleworks, I see that what the KJV translates as “inward” is literally “to the house.”  The faces of these cherubim were towards the house.

There is actually debate about what this passage means.  Matthew Henry says that the faces of the cherubim were towards the Ark and they were not looking at whomever entered the sanctuary.  Henry draws from this the practical lesson that we should worship with angels rather than worshiping angels.  We, like the angels, should worship, serve, and direct our attention towards God.  According to this interpretation, the angels are not directing attention towards themselves by looking at us (or, rather, whomever enters the sanctuary), but they are looking at the Ark.  Others, however, maintain that the faces of the cherubim indeed were facing outward towards the sanctuary rather than the ark, such that one who entered the sanctuary would see the faces of the cherubim looking right at him.  “To the house” here is taken to mean “towards the sanctuary.”  Why would the cherubim face outwards toward the sanctuary?  Because they are guarding it, as the cherubim guarded the Garden of Eden (IVP Bible Background Commentary).

Then some go the route of compromise: they say that the faces of the cherubim are positioned between the ark and the sanctuary.  They are facing somewhere in between, according to this interpretation!

An issue that troubles some of the rabbis is that the cherubim of the ark of the covenant actually face each other, according to Exodus 25:20, and so they think there is an apparent contradiction between that and II Chronicles 3:13.  A couple of Christian commentators astutely note that this is not a problem at all.  The cherubim of the ark who face each other are different from the cherubim of II Chronicles 3:13, who are further above the ark.  Still, some rabbis attempt to come up with a harmonization.  The harmonization is that the cherubim face each other when Israel is obedient, and away from each other when Israel is disobedient.  Notes that I have read say that this is because, when the cherubim face one another, that indicates harmony between them.  When they face away from each other, that indicates alienation and love that is not requited.

Okay, but then my question would be how Israel was disobedient when Solomon was building the Temple, which is what II Chronicles 3:13 is about.  Some scholars have argued that, in I Kings, Solomon’s path towards sin was occurring in the early years of his reign, when he brutally rose to the throne, made some of the Israelites into servants, and intermarried with foreign women.  But many scholars say that the Chronicler, unlike I Kings, does not have this perspective but rather idealizes Solomon.  Maybe that is the case.  Still, I think back to II Chronicles 1:17, which depicts Solomon as a horse and chariot broker for other nations.  God repeatedly affirms that Solomon is to be a man of peace, which is why God is allowing Solomon but not David to build the Temple.  Yet, here Solomon is, being a broker for other nations’ wars.  Could that be the Chronicler’s irony?  Or maybe the Chronicler thinks that Solomon being a war-broker is a positive thing: Solomon does not have to worry about Israel’s security during his reign of peace, so he can turn his attention to helping other nations fight their battles, while bringing profit to Israel.

Meanwhile, was Israel at peace or obedient to God when the cherubim of the Ark faced each other, at the construction of the ark in the time of Moses?  Well, not always.  Israel rebelled often.  But maybe the rabbis would say that the cherubim faced away from each other during such times.

I think that Matthew Henry and the rabbis offer decent homiletical lessons.  Still, in terms of the cherubim in II Chronicles 3:13, I think they were facing the sanctuary, and that they were doing so as decorative guards.  This would highlight the majesty of God.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Reading Fiction Books

Here is a question for me to ramble about today: Why am I prejudiced against fiction?

Or am I?  I can think of some fiction books that I enjoyed.  After I finished them, I felt as if I had eaten a wholesome meal.  Some of them stayed with me for a while.  I think of such books as Stephen King’s Insomnia or The Stand, or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or Frank Peretti’s The Visitation.  

But there is a part of me that feels that, when I am reading a fictional book, I am wasting my time.  I feel more like I have accomplished something after reading a below-average non-fiction book, than I do when I have read an average or slightly above-average fiction book.  Maybe part of my problem is that so many fiction books these days are written at the sixth-grade level, so I feel as if they are a waste of my time.  Maybe I want to appear smart to others, and I fear that they would not be impressed with my reading of certain popular fictional works.  Or maybe my problem is that I think fiction-books present a made-up situation and made-up characters, and I prefer what is real.  (Of course, postmodernists can have a heyday questioning my assumptions, there!)  Another consideration: so many fiction books look the same.  They have similar characters, plots, etc.  I say this from my limited standpoint.  Imagine what people who have read a lot of fiction books for years might think!

For some reason, I do not have the same problem with movies or TV shows.  The reason could be that I am seeing and hearing the characters, and that makes them seem real to me.  I don’t know.  The thing is, books may actually present a more realistic picture because they look at characters’ thoughts and feelings.

I can probably argue the opposite—-in favor of fiction over non-fiction.  There are plenty of non-fiction books that cover things that I do not care about.  They can be really dry.  There is a part of me that likes to read about the human—-human struggles, human virtues, human vices.  When I can identify with a character or person, that is even better.  There are non-fiction books that explore this territory.  There are fiction books that do this, too.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Internet Discussions

I sometimes get annoyed by Internet discussions: people who think that the whole world revolves around their opinion, or who think that they’re so witty when they point out what was probably already on all of the readers’ minds, to begin with.  It’s not all comments that I dislike, though.  When people share their stories and are vulnerable, I tend to value those comments.

Nowadays, I usually read Internet discussions rather than participating in them.  Granted, I miss out on learning when I do not participate, when I do not ask questions or make points and see how people answer them.  At the same time, some discussions are just fruitless.  I was one time on a progressive political site, and I was talking about Pat Buchanan’s writings that criticize the decline of the American middle class.  A commenter was belittling me and did not believe that Pat Buchanan had such a concern or compassion for those struggling to get by.  That’s when I was thinking: You know, Pat Buchanan’s column is online.  One get buy his books on Amazon or check them out of the library.  Why, then, should I waste time trying to convince this jerk, when his mind is already made up?  If he’s interested, he can consult the resources that are out there.

Of course, people may be annoyed with me, too.  And there’s the question: Is my problem with Internet discussions, or is my problem that I simply don’t like people?  I’m not asking this as a way to search my heart, as if I will believe that I am a bad person if I arrive at the latter conclusion.  I just wonder.  The thing is, though, as I said, I do value reading people’s stories.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Write-Up: D.L. Moody----A Life

Kevin Belmonte.  D.L. Moody—-A Life: Innovator, Evangelist, World-Changer.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.  See here for Moody Publisher’s page about this book.

Dwight L. Moody was an influential Christian evangelist in the nineteenth century.  He started schools, preached, and worked to bring Christian literature to people.  Kevin Belmonte tells the story of Moody from Moody’s birth to his death, drawing on primary sources, including the recollections of people who knew Moody.

A lot of the book read like a hagiography, and I was not always interested in certain details about Moody’s life (although Moody probably accomplished more in one lifetime than I would in two!).  Moreover, while Belmonte’s prose was good, and he obviously communicated his enthusiasm for his subject, the prose did not always grab me as a reader.

I really started to get into the book, though, when I got to the last third of it.  Belmonte was talking about Moody’s character, the type of man Moody reportedly was: humble notwithstanding his fame and renown, affable, a lover of learning, one who admitted his mistakes, and a builder of bridges.  I admired Moody when I read the stories about how he positively influenced people who were indifferent towards or even mocked him and his religion.  In Belmonte’s narration, Moody was a man who was making a lot of money as a businessman and walked away from that when he saw that God could use him.

My favorite passage in the book was on page 244.  Belmonte was talking about how Moody would meet new students of his school when they arrived, and Belmonte speculated that perhaps Moody’s own humble background may have influenced him to do this: “Long years before, when he arrived at seventeen without a penny in Boston, there had been no one to collect him at the train station.  He could be the friend to offer a welcome he never received.”

I suppose that the fact that Moody was admired by Presidents and heralded by major newspapers is impressive, but what made Belmonte’s book interesting and edifying was his descriptions of Moody’s character.  Belmonte also quoted Moody’s insights about the spiritual life, and that, too, made the book worth reading.

My thanks to Moody Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

Today's Entertainment Trends

I’ve been thinking about entertainment trends recently.  Not long ago, I referred to Rosie O’Donnell’s statement on The View that disgraced actor Stephen Collins was this generation’s Michael Landon.  That made me think about whether this generation even has a Michael Landon: someone who makes and acts in wholesome family programming, which likely has a religious or moral message.  Then I was asking myself where wholesome family programming is, these days.  It seems to me that, often, you find it on Christian or family-oriented channels, and they play old shows, like Little House, Highway to Heaven, Christie, Touched by an Angel, Dr. Quinn, or (until recently) 7th Heaven.  In some cases, these channels have original shows or movies, but the wholesome family programming appears to me to be on these channels, not on the main networks.

What exactly are the television trends these days?  Well, we have forensic cop shows.  Cop shows have long been around, as far back as I can remember, and even before then (I think of Dragnet).  Nowadays, there are shows that have a greater forensic focus.  There are raunchy cartoons.  Of course, Family Guy has been around for a while, and the Simpsons has been around even longer.  But now there are additional cartoons, like Bob’s Burgers and American Dad.

If there is anything that sets nowadays apart, it seems to me, it would be the proliferation of superhero shows.  Of course, Smallville was on throughout the 2000’s, but now we have so many more: Gotham, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the list goes on.  Add to that supernatural-like shows, such as Sleepy Hollow (I’m only guessing it’s supernatural, since I never watched it) and Under the Dome.

I wonder what exactly it is about our times that is making these shows popular.  Is it escapism?  A desire for a hero, amidst the chaos of life?  Something else?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Write-Up: From God to Us

Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix.  From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.  See here for Moody’s page about this book.

In From God to Us, Norman Geisler and William Nix talk about the inspiration, canonization, transmission, and translation of the Bible.

On the Bible’s inspiration, Geisler and Nix reject the idea that God mechanically dictated the words of the Bible to human beings, for that model of inspiration is inconsistent with the different writing styles within the Bible; they still hold that the Bible contains the words that God wanted it to have, however, and they seem to believe that God arranged this by forming the personalities of the human authors.  Moreover, while Geisler and Nix acknowledge that the Bible uses figures of speech that were not always intended to be taken literally, they believe that the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate.

On canonization, Geisler and Nix defend the Protestant canon, which excludes the Deuterocanonical writings from the Hebrew Bible.  Regarding the Bible’s transmission, they maintain that many of the manuscripts and versions of the Bible are similar, and that accurate readings (in terms of closeness to the original texts) can be discerned through methods of text criticism.  On translation, they do not privilege the King James Version, for they argue that the Byzantine tradition on which the KJV is based is not the best, for there are earlier textual traditions.

Overall, From God to Us is an encyclopedia of theology, history, manuscripts, versions, and translations.  One will not find a whole lot about modern biblical scholarship in it, for modern biblical scholarship often rejects traditional ideas of biblical authorship and emphasizes redaction, whereas Geisler and Nix go in the opposite direction.  Still, From God to Us is useful and informative in other areas.

I cannot say that I agreed with Geisler and Nix on everything.  For one, while they reject a mechanical method of God dictating words to human authors and them writing those words down, the Bible often seems to present such a model.  Granted, the model has problems—-different writing styles within the Bible, and, I would argue (though Geisler and Nix might not), diverse ideologies.  Geisler and Nix could have done a better job in explaining how God’s words got from God to us, and how that is consistent with the Bible’s presentation of the way that it happened.  Second, while Geisler and Nix are correct to highlight that the biblical writings have a high view of inspiration—-sometimes holding that the very words of a biblical writing are inspired—-they should have explained why biblical writers felt free to quote from different versions of the Bible (i.e., the LXX, the MT), some of them contradictory with each other.  Third, Geisler and Nix dismissed New Testament allusions to or quotations of religious books that they do not consider canonical, such as the Deuterocanonical writings or I Enoch.  They said that this was like Paul quoting the pagan poets on Mars Hill: that Paul was quoting them but did not regard them as Scriptural.  I did not find that argument particularly convincing, however, especially since Jude seems to treat I Enoch as an authoritative prophetic voice about the Lord’s coming.

In addition, in their discussion of the external criteria of text criticism on pages 248-249, I wish that Geisler and Nix explained why those criteria are valid, rather than just telling us what the criteria are.

If I have a favorite part of the book, it is something that Geisler and Nix say on pages 83-84.  After discussing possible evidences of the Bible’s inspiration and honestly admitting (to my surprise) that these evidences are not conclusive, they say: “Do these arguments prove that the Bible is inspired?  No, these are not proofs with rationally inescapable conclusions.  Even an amateur philosopher can devise ways to avoid the logic of the arguments…Rather, they are evidences, testimonies, or witnesses.  As witnesses, they must be cross-examined and evaluated as a whole.  Then, in the jury room of one’s own soul a decision must be made—-a decision that is not based on rationally inescapable proofs but on evidence that is ‘beyond reasonable doubt.'”  I had to appreciate the display of humility in that passage.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

Wisdom of Solomon and Insecurity about Life

I’ve been reading the Deuterocanonical Writings for my daily quiet time.  The Deuterocanonical Writings are part of the Catholic canon for the Bible, but not the Protestant and Jewish canons.  Protestants call the Deuterocanonical Writings the “Apocrypha.”

I am enjoying the Deuterocanonical Writings this time around more than I did the last time that I read it.  One reason, I think, is that I have been paying closer attention to the text this time around.  Another reason is that I appreciate how some of the Deuterocanonical Writings reason things out.  In the Book of Judith, Judith offers reasons why the Israelites should trust God—-why that is the best practical solution.  In Wisdom of Solomon, the writer offers arguments for why idolatry is senseless, whereas the worship of God is right.  Are their arguments perfect?  They can probably be nit-picked.  But they seek to explain and to offer reasons why something is the case.  My guess is that this is because many of the Deuterocanonical Writings were written in Hellenistic times, and you know how Greeks loved philosophy!

I came across a puzzling statement in Wisdom of Solomon recently.  Wisdom of Solomon is trying to explain why there are righteous people who die young.  The writer offers a reason in vv 11-14 (and I am quoting from the New Revised Standard Version):

“They were caught up so that evil might not change their understanding or guile deceive their souls.  For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.  Being perfected in a short time, they fulfilled long years;  for their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness.”

This took me aback, a bit.  God takes the righteous young so that they do not give in to the pressures of wickedness?  That reminded me of a deconversion story that I read a while back—-someone’s account of why she left fundamentalist Christianity and became an atheist.  She grew up in the Church of Christ, which believes that Christians can lose their salvation.  After she accepted Christ as a child, she prayed that God might take her life so that she would go to heaven.  If she stayed alive, she reasoned, she might be tempted to leave the faith or to live a sinful lifestyle, and she would then go to hell after she died.

I have problems with the insecurity in this mindset.  Granted, I acknowledge that human beings can fluctuate in their beliefs and their behaviors, and those who think that one has to believe and do the right things to go to heaven and avoid hell may find that frightening.  There are Christians who believe that God will safeguard the Christian faith of the elect, such that true Christians persevere in the faith rather than abandoning it.  The problem is: What if a person doesn’t know whether he or she is part of the elect?

I try to appreciate, though, the context in which Wisdom of Solomon was making its argument.  Good people were dying young, and that was puzzling Jews whose traditional idea was that God would bless the righteous with longevity.  Moreover, there were pressures on Jews to compromise who they were: to embrace paganism and to try to be less odd in the eyes of others, especially those who persecuted them.

I believe, overall, that God wants us to plow through life.  Will things come along that will tempt us to do wrong?  Yes.  The question then is how one should go about meeting those challenges.

Do I think that God may take righteous people when they are young to spare them from temptation?  Oh, maybe he does.  I don’t know.  I still have problems, though, with the insecurity about life that such an attitude conveys.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak"

Yesterday at church, we sang a hymn that stood out to me.  It’s called “Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak.”  The fourth stanza says:

“O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
“The precious things Thou dost impart;
“And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.”

I used to identify with that sentiment, and there is a part of me that still does: the idea that God will bless our words and use them to bring other people closer to God.  That sentiment makes me feel like I can do something significant, as part of something bigger than myself.

The problem, of course, is that pious platitudes are not always what people need to hear.  Those platitudes can sound rather insensitive, actually.  I think of Job’s friends, or well-intentioned attempts to comfort others that end up making the person listening to us even angrier at God.

The Pastor Emeritus in his sermon yesterday was talking about visiting shut-ins, people who have no visitors, or those down on their luck, and offering them words of encouragement.  That is a good thing to do.  If I were to bring religion into such an interaction, though, I would probably pray for the person that he or she might experience God’s comforting presence, or wish God’s blessing on that person.

I’ve been thinking of those Lynn Austin books that I have been reading about Israel’s post-exilic period: The Restoration Chronicles.  In those books, you have religious characters who believe the right things (or what the author and the writers of the Hebrew Bible would consider to be the right things), and they continually preach to their less-than-enthusiastic—-or even downright hostile—-friends, neighbors, and relatives.  Sure, these religious characters may be planting seeds, but they’re not having much of an effect on their hearers.  What truly impacts their friends, relatives, and neighbors is when the religious characters put aside their legalistic need to be right and show grace to them, or when the friends, relatives, and neighbors have some experience of their own that changes their outlook.  Before that—-yes, it’s good that the religious characters are expressing their own point-of-view and putting it before others for consideration—-but they sound like sounding brass, or a cymbal (I Corinthians 13:1).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Church at Work

At church this morning, the Pastor Emeritus was conducting the service, since the pastor and his wife are on vacation.  We had a guest speaker who was talking about his church’s coming Thanksgiving.  This speaker told about a woman who called him who wanted to have a Thanksgiving dinner with her kids, but she did not have enough money.  The speaker said that his church ordinarily did not bring Thanksgiving dinners to people, and so he recommended that she try Catholic charities.  But then he decided to give her some of the leftover turkeys, and people brought her potatoes and other things.

That’s the church at work.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Write-Up: Keepers of the Covenant, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Keepers of the Covenant.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

Keepers of the Covenant is the second book of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles, which is historical fiction about Israel’s post-exilic period (the time after Jews returned to the land of Israel from exile).  Whereas the story in the first book, Return to Me, took place in the sixth century B.C.E. and featured biblical personalities such as Daniel, Zechariah, Haggai, and Zerubbabel, Keepers of the Covenant is set in the fifth century B.C.E. and features Ezra and Esther.  One can read, understand, and appreciate Keepers of the Covenant without having read Return to Me, but I do recommend reading Return to Me first.   Hodayah, the half-Samaritan girl who grows up and joins the community of Israel in Return to Me, is an old woman and a prominent character in Keepers of the Covenant.

Keepers of the Covenant is set in three different locations throughout a lot of the book: the land of Israel, and two cities in Babylon.  What unites the three settings is the Persian king’s decree that Jews throughout the Persian empire (which includes Babylon and Israel) can be slaughtered by Gentiles.  In the final third of the book, the only setting is Israel, for Ezra and other Jews from Babylon are allowed by the Persian king to go to their homeland.

Some of the same themes from Return to Me recur in Keepers of the Covenant: the tension between justice and mercy, and between Israel’s mission to bring all the nations to God and her exclusivist attempts to protect her godly culture.  As in Return to Me, the characters have their own reactions to Israel and her God, for their own reasons.  A theme that is more specific to Keepers of the Covenant, however, is how people can grow to love those whom they did not love before.  We see this with three characters: Ezra’s wife, a Jew whose mother adopts an Edomite girl, and a renegade Jew who learns to love the God of Israel.

Although I wish that the book had a greater number of sympathetic Gentile characters, it mostly does present characters who have understandable reasons for doing what they do, and who struggle to define and to do what is right.  There is an Edomite girl who lives in Israel for a while and wants to return to her own people, since she believes that she owes that to her family.  And there is Ezra, who struggles with his own hatred of Gentiles, yet is pained when he compels Israelite men to divorce their Gentile wives, some of them wives for a long time.

Lynn Austin is a compelling writer, and the story of Keepers of the Covenant was moving.  The part of the book in which the leaders of Israel are judging a marriage between a Jew and an Edomite girl who converted to the worship of the God of Israel was quite tense.  Some scholars may question the picture that Lynn Austin portrays: her assumptions about the dates of the biblical books, and the question of whether conversion was a viable option that was known to Ezra.  It is still a riveting portrait of spiritual journeys and the attempt to make sense of the tensions within the Hebrew Bible.

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

II Chronicles 2

In my study of II Chronicles 2, I read scholarly arguments that the Chronicler in II Chronicles 2 conforms history to his own ideology.  Here are three examples, along with my comments:

1.  King Hiram of Tyre recommended that Solomon use another man named Hiram for the task of constructing the Temple.  In I Kings 7:14, this latter Hiram is from the tribe of Naphtali and is the son of a widow, and his father was from Tyre.  In II Chronicles 2:14, however, Hiram’s mother is from the Israelite tribe of Dan.  According to a note in the HarperCollins Study Bible (and others have made this point as well), the Chronicler is making Hiram into a second Oholiab: Oholiab was the artisan who played a key role in the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, during the time of Moses, and Oholiab was from the tribe of Dan (Exodus 31:6; 35:34).  Oholiab had similar skills to the ones that Hiram had, according to II Chronicles 2:7: “Send me now therefore a man cunning to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in iron, and in purple, and crimson, and blue, and that can skill to grave with the cunning men that are with me in Judah and in Jerusalem, whom David my father did provide” (KJV, compare Exodus 38:23).

Was Hiram from Naphtali or from Dan?  Those who try to harmonize the Scriptures say both.  According to the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, a rabbinic solution is to say that Hiram’s father was originally from Naphtali, whereas his mother was from Dan.  According to this line of reasoning, Hiram’s father was not an actual Phoenician but rather was an Israelite from Naphtali who lived in Tyre, and that is consistent with the claim in I Kings 7:14 and II Chronicles 2:14 that Hiram’s father was a man of Tyre.  E.W. Bullinger in the Companion Bible has a similar idea: Hiram was a Danite by birth but a Naphtalite by marriage.

I wondered if there was another way to explain the apparent discrepancy: That Dan and Naphtali are very close to each other, and maybe Hiram was from a place where it was ambiguous which tribe had claim.  All of these harmonizations are possible, I guess, but are they likely?  If Hiram’s father was from Naphtali, why couldn’t I Kings 7:14 or II Chronicles 2:14 just say so?  And can one really say that Hiram’s Israelite tribe was ambiguous because Hiram lived in an ambiguous area?  The tribe one had pertained to more than where one lived, but it included who one’s ancestors were: a Danite was (purportedly) descended from Dan, and a Naphtalite was (purportedly) descended from Naphtali.

In any case, both critical and religious interpreters compare Hiram with Oholiab.  Critical scholars tend to maintain that the Chronicler wrote the story and made Hiram into a Danite in order to make him a second Oholiab.  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, by contrast, notes that Hiram was a Danite, like Oholiab, and actually thinks that Hiram was a second Oholiab.  The larger point is that both men contributed their talents to a divinely-sanctioned enterprise: constructing a sanctuary for God.

2.  In I Kings 9 (vv 15, 20-22), King Solomon used resident aliens rather than Israelites for the construction of the Temple.  Resident aliens were foreigners who lived in Israel.  II Chronicles may have a similar idea to that of I Kings 9, for II Chronicles 2:17 notes that Solomon used resident aliens, plus the Chronicler omits I Kings 5:13-18, which states that Solomon used Israelite workers.  Raymond Dillard in the Word Biblical Commentary finds this picture unlikely and thinks that Solomon also used Israelite workers.  His reasons are the following: I Kings 5:13-18 states that King Solomon sent Israelite workers to Lebanon, the Northern Israelite Jeroboam supervised the forced labor of the house of Joseph (I Kings 11:28), Northern Israelites asked Solomon’s successor Rehoboam to lighten their load and stoned a corvee officer when Rehoboam refused to do so (I Kings 12:3-4, 18-19), and Samuel warned the Israelites who wanted a king that a king would use Israelites as forced laborers (I Samuel 8:10-17).

There is a message in I Kings and II Chroniclers that Solomon used foreigners rather than Israelites as forced laborers, even though there are indications in I Kings that Israelites were used, too.  Why the attempt to deny that Solomon used Israelite workers?  For one, perhaps the writers sought to portray Israel as dominant over her foreign enemies, due to the blessing of God.  The foreign enemies, who had once scorned Israel and her God and had proven a thorn in Israel’s side, now were building a house to honor Israel’s God.  Second, there is a notion in the Hebrew Bible that God delivered the Israelites from slavery, and thus Israelites should never again be slaves.  Any Israelite slavery was supposed to be temporary, whereas Gentile slavery in Israel could be permanent (Exodus 21; Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15).

At the same time, there have been scholars who have maintained that part of I Kings takes Solomon to task for enslaving fellow Israelites, that I Kings depicts the roots of Solomon’s eventual downfall—-his disobedience of God—-taking place early on, when Solomon’s reign is at its height in glory.  Perhaps there are different voices in I Kings: one voice depicts Solomon as righteous and obedient, whereas another says that Solomon was disobedient to God’s standards early on, even when Solomon was building God a Temple.

3.  David Rothstein in the Jewish Study Bible notes differences between how I Kings and II Chronicles depict the relationship between King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre.  Whereas I Kings portrays their relationship as a mutual agreement, highlighting Solomon’s wisdom in dealing with another nation, II Chronicles presents Solomon as the superior party, almost as if Solomon is telling Hiram to help out in constructing the Temple.  II Chronicles also portrays Hiram as a monotheistic Gentile, one who acknowledges that the God of Israel was the creator of heaven and earth.

According to Rothstein, the Chronicler was leery about agreements with foreigners, thinking that a king would prosper simply by trusting God to meet all of his needs.  In II Chroniclers, God does meet Solomon’s needs: Hiram is subordinate to Solomon and even acknowledges the supremacy of Solomon’s god, so Solomon can tell Hiram to provide Solomon with the resources that he needs to build the Temple.

Comments: What should I, as a believer in God who looks to the Bible for religious guidance, do with this information?  I was watching the movie Rudy recently, and, in one scene, a priest was defining God’s inspiration of the biblical writings as God placing a theological concept in the writers’ minds, and the writers then fleshed that concept out within their own historical contexts.  The priest said that the Bible’s historical inaccuracies should not trouble believers, for we can still hold on to the Bible’s theological ideas about God.

In considering II Chronicles 2, there is a sense in which what the priest says can work for me.  I sympathize with the Chronicler for likening Hiram to Oholiab, for Hiram was like Oholiab: in both cases, God provided the right person for the job, one whom God endowed with talent and ability.  I can also sympathize, on some level, with the Chronicler’s view that one should trust God rather than trying to get things done by making alliances, but I would balance that perspective out with other perspectives in the Bible: that, sometimes, God helps us out by enabling us to take practical steps to achieve our goals.

At the same time, I am not entirely comfortable with every aspect of the Chronicler’s ideology: that it is all right for a nation to enslave foreigners but not citizens, or that it is acceptable for one nation to tell another nation what to do.

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