Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sam Brownback

Today, I will start an off-and-on series on the presidential candidates. I will profile various candidates and say what I like and dislike about them. I won't always be consistent, but that is often the case when I am thinking through the issues.

I will start with Senator Sam Brownback. Why him? Because I don't know how long some of these candidates will stay in the race. I want to comment on them while I still can.

When I first read about Senator Brownback, I saw that he was called "the darling of the religious right." That should certainly make him my kind of candidate.

And, overall, he appears to be a godly man. I remember reading him confess that he used to hate the Clintons because of their ideology, but that he changed when he became a Christian. I understand what the old Sam Brownback was feeling. I find myself hating the Clintons more than twice a week.

But Brownback's confession reminded me of two things. First, one can be a right-wing conservative without being a Christian. Even crusaders for conservative Christian causes can find themselves trapped in the desire for money, power, and sex. Jesus, however, told us to have different priorities. Second, we should love everyone, even those who differ from us politically, even the corrupt and the immoral.

Something else that I liked about Brownback's confession was that it showed how his Christianity helped him to grow as a person. We hear all sorts of candidates profess Christianity, but we don't often hear how their Christianity affects their day-to-day lives, or how it has made them more Christ-like. Sam Brownback is an exception.

And Brownback has been willing to grow some more. At the Tavis Smiley debate, he said that he voluntarily spent a few days in prison to see what it was like. He talked with the inmates to get a sense of their exeriences and backgrounds. He is willing to learn from different people and to allow that learning to make him a just and compassionate leader.

As far as his positions are concerned, my feelings are mixed. He is solidly pro-life on the abortion issue, and that is good. From what I have heard, he caved in on the recent immigration bill, and I do not like that. Maybe he thought that the bill was better than nothing, but I prefer a candidate who does not compromise on conservative principles. For Iraq, he supports the three-state solution, which would divide Iraq into three regions, Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish. I'm open to that idea. When I first heard Senator Joe Biden propose it, I thought, "You know, I don't like Senator Biden, but that idea makes some sense." Apparently, another Republican thinks so too.

In terms of persona, he is not overly impressive. He usually does not leave a great impression on me when I watch the Republican debates. Is this superficial? Yes, but a Republican candidate will need presence and charisma to defeat Hillary and her smooth-talking husband.

So I like Brownback, but I probably won't vote for him.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ebal: A Place of Celebration and Cursing

In Deuteronomy 27, God commands the Israelites to set up stones on Mount Ebal. On the stones, they are to write the commands of Deuteronomy. They are also to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings on an altar, as they rejoice before the LORD. The Israelites are to make the altar of whole stones, and they must not use an iron tool in its construction. Then, some Israelite tribes are to stand on Mount Ebal to utter curses on those who disobey the law (often secretly). Others will stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the faithful.

So Mount Ebal is a place of both celebration and cursing. Why?

The evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer offered an explanation. In Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History, he tried to interpret Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 (where the Israelites carried out Deuteronomy 27) in light of the doctrines of the substitutionary atonement and justification by grace through faith alone. These doctrines state that all are sinners and deserve God's wrath, but God sent Jesus Christ to experience that condemnation on our behalf. By accepting what Christ did, we become righteous in God's eyes. We cannot trust our good works to impress God, however, since we are sinners.

Similarly, for Schaeffer, the Israelites relied on the altar on Mount Ebal for their survival. God's law condemned them, since they were sinners. They deserved to die. But the burnt offerings, which atoned for their sins, allowed them to enjoy fellowship with God in spite of their violations. By sacrificing on Mount Ebal, Schaeffer argued, the Israelites acknowledged that they deserved the curses that were pronounced on that mountain. But they received blessings, not curses, on account of the slain animals that foreshadowed Christ's work on the cross. And, in the same way that humans cannot earn God's salvation through their human actions, the Israelites could not add anything of their own to the altar. They could not use a bronze tool.

Maybe this proposal has some merit. It certainly presents the Gospel that I trust for salvation. But is there another way to read Deuteronomy 27?

First, Evangelicals often assume that animal sacrifices always foreshadow the substitutionary atonement. They have a point, since Leviticus 1:4 says that the burnt offering makes atonement for the person bringing it. But there are other sacrifices that focus specifically on sin, such as the sin offering and the guilt offering. If Deuteronomy 27 wants to emphasize the substitutionary atonement, why not have those? Burnt offerings were ways to invoke God's presence by presenting to him a sweet savour. Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 may be saying that the Israelites were to celebrate in God's presence the fact that God had just brought them into the Promised Land. The Israelites were saying "thank you" to God by giving God something he liked, a burnt offering. And, through the peace offering, they shared a meal with God.

Second, in Schaeffer's scenario, the atonement is the end of the story. The Israelites sinned, and so they needed atonement to satisfy the curses of the law. In essence, Schaeffer views the atonement as the goal and main point of Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8. But, in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8, the sacrifices occur before the blessings and curses. Why would the Israelites need to be told about curses once their sacrifices had already satisfied the penalty for sin? Plus, if the passages really wanted to make Schaeffer's point, wouldn't they have presented the curses before the sacrifices?

So here is an alternative way to see the passages: the Israelites celebrate what God has done for them, but, in the midst of their celebration, they remember that God has placed certain responsibilities on their shoulders. While they rejoice in God's presence, they see the stones that have the Deuteronomic laws written on them. The laws are a testimony to them that God will punish transgression. Do the Israelites want to continue their enjoyment of God's blessings? Well, they will have to observe the law to do so. Deuteronomy often stresses that the Israelites will live through their obedience to the Torah (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:1; 5:33, 8:1; 12:1, etc.). They will do so because God punishes disobedience with death (Deuteronomy 29:19).

Why does all of this occur on Mount Ebal, the mountain of cursing? Because God wants the Israelites to focus on the curses of the law. He wants them to remember the threats and be warned. Look at how much Deuteronomy 27-28 emphasizes the curses! Deuteronomy 27 only lists the curses for transgressors. In Deuteronomy 28, the curse section is longer than the blessing section, and it is enough to give people nightmares! The Israelites were to celebrate God while keeping the curses in mind.

So, in my opinion, Deuteronomy 27 offers a point of view that is not exactly evangelical, at least in the Francis Schaeffer sense. But it is not entirely consistent with Judaism, either. In rabbinic Judaism, the Torah is seen as a blessing. God gives the Torah to Israel so that she can know him, have wisdom, and improve herself morally. And, sure, Deuteronomy has some of these concepts (Deuteronomy 4:6). But, overall, Deuteronomy presents the Torah the same way that Paul does: as a ministration of condemnation (II Corinthians 3:9).

The Israelites still needed God's forgiveness. In the Torah, they often received it through sacrifices, Moses' intercession, and repentance. But I think that Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 focus on other issues.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Ebal: The Place That the LORD Chose?

The Book of Deuteronomy often commands the Israelites to sacrifice in only one sanctuary: the place that the LORD shall choose. Where was that sanctuary? When I was in Israel this last summer, I heard a lecture from Sandra Richter of Asbury Theological Seminary. Professor Richter argued that Mount Ebal was the central sanctuary of Deuteronomy. One reason she offered was that Deuteronomy 27 mentions an altar on Mount Ebal. She also presented archaeological evidence for the existence of an altar at that site.

When I first heard her presentation, I thought, "How can people miss this? It is right there in Deuteronomy 27!" When I did my weekly quiet time in Deuteronomy 27, however, I could see how scholars missed it. Jeffrey Tigay, for example, argues in his Jewish Publication Society commentary that the altar was intended to be temporary, for a brief ceremony. In Deuteronomy 27, God commands the Israelites to set up stones on Mount Ebal and to put plaster on them. They are to write on the plaster the words of the Deuteronomic law. They are also to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings on an altar as they rejoice before God. Tigay points out that rain can erase the words on the plaster, so he concludes that the stones, the plaster, and the altar were all part of a brief ceremony. He does not seem to believe that the altar was to be part of a long-standing central sanctuary.

Interestingly, however, there are scholars who believe that Deuteronomy 27 contradicts the prevalent theme of Deuteronomy: that Israel is to sacrifice only in the place that God shall choose. In the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on "Ebal," Adam Zertal states the following:

"Although the biblical passages attesting to the Mt. Ebal ceremony are clearly Deuteronomistic (and therefore late), their reference to an important ceremony outside Jerusalem and in the heart of N territory is in sharp contrast with the so-called 'main theme' of the Deuteronomistic historian: namely, the centralization of the cult in Jerusalem. Thus, many scholars assume that the historical witness of these texts is generally authentic[.]"

But, if the altar was only part of a brief ceremony, why should we assume that Deuteronomy 27 contradicts the emphasis on the central sanctuary? Couldn't Deuteronomy assume that the Israelites would do the brief ceremony on Ebal to celebrate God's goodness and remember the law, and then the central sanctuary rules would apply?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Feast of Tabernacles 2007

Today is the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which is known in Judaism as "Sukkot" ("booths," or "tents").

I kept the Feast of Tabernacles when I was growing up in a Worldwide Church of God offshoot. Or at least I thought I was keeping it, since many Jews may not count my "observance" as actual observance. During this time of year, my family would pack up and go to a distant location, such as Panama City, Florida, or Williamsburg, Virginia, any place we liked that the Church designated a "feast site." We would go to church every day, and we would have fun as a family. One year, we visited historical sites. Another year, we swam a lot. The Feast was also a time for exchanging gifts. We did not keep Christmas (which we considered pagan), so the Feast was our Christmas-substitute.

As far as the festival's significance was concerned, we believed that it meant a lot of things. First, we thought that it foreshadowed Christ's millennial reign on earth. As I mentioned before, the WCG connected the Feast of Trumpets with the second coming of Christ, since Christ will return with the blast of trumpets. If you interpret the festivals chronologically, and Christ's millennial reign succeeds his second coming, then you might conclude that the Feast of Tabernacles depicts the millennium. As the Feast was a time of great joy (Leviticus 23:40), so will Christ's earthly rule be a period of peace, prosperity, and happiness.

Second, we interpreted the Feast in light of II Corinthians 5:1-4. There, Paul likens our earthly bodies to tabernacles. For Paul, our current tabernacles (bodies) are temporary in the sense that we will one day possess incorruptible heavenly bodies. Similarly, during the Feast of Tabernacles, we stayed in a temporary dwelling, which, in our case, was a hotel room (sometimes good, and sometimes not so good). The Israelites dwelt in tents for seven days to remember their experience in the wilderness prior to their entrance into the Promised Land (Leviticus 23:42-43). As the Israelites lived in tents temporarily while hoping for something better, so Christians endure this troublesome earthly life in hope of a glorious eternity. As Stephen Curtis Chapman said, "Don't be content to stay. We are not home yet!"

Third, at some stage in our Church's history, the Feast became more than our Christmas-substitute. It became our actual Christmas, as Garner Ted Armstrong proclaimed that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles. He based his argument one of E.W. Bullinger's appendices in the Companion Bible, and possibly other sources. In addition to the calculations about when Zecharias was in the temple, the season of John the Baptist's birth, and the precise date 33 and 1/2 years before Jesus' death, the sources relied on John 1:14, which one can translate, "And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us." So there you go!

To be honest, I do not entirely know what the Feast of Tabernacles means in Judaism, though I have read some things. I once read Harold Kushner's To Life, which is his introduction to Judaism. He offered a historical-critical interpretation of the festival. According to Kushner, Israelites (or maybe he said Canaanites) used to pitch tents in their fields when they were harvesting their crops. Kushner may believe that the Bible historicized an agricultural practice when it related the tents to Israel's wilderness experience.

A rabbi at Harvard once said that the sukkah's vulnerability reminds us of our dependence on God. This, I believe, is the lesson that the Torah wants us to learn from the festival. For the Israelites, the wilderness was a time of humility, dependence on God, and dwelling in vulnerable tents. After the Israelites entered the Promised Land, grew crops, and became prosperous, God wanted them to remember their humble origins. Pride can easily accompany prosperity, so God gave them a ritual reminder that they needed him to arrive at where they were. God wanted them to celebrate and enjoy his blessings, but also to keep in mind that they were his blessings.

I also read Irving Greenberg's The Jewish Way, a detailed description of the Jewish festivals. According to Numbers 29:12-34, the Israelites offered seventy bulls during the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles. For Greenberg, the Israelites did so on behalf of the seventy nations of the world. Michael Brown makes an interesting statement in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus:

"In b. Sukkah 55b (see also Pesikta deRav Kahana, Buber edition, 193b-194a) we read that the seventy bulls that were offered every year during the Feast of Tabernacles...'were for the seventy nations,' which Rashi explains to mean, 'to make atonement for them, so that rain will fall throughout the world.' In this context--and in light of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.--the Talmud records the words of Rabbi Yohannan: 'Woe to the nations who destroyed without knowing what they were destroying. For when the Temple was standing, the altar made atonement for them. But now, who will make atonement for them?'" (Volume 2, 152-153).

Within Jewish tradition, the Feast of Tabernacles was a reminder that God loved all of humanity, and that Israel had a responsibility to be concerned for other nations.

So the Feast of Tabernacles means a lot of things to me: memories, Christ's coming kingdom, hope, blessings, dependence on God, and concern for others. Hopefully, it will gain more meaning as I continue to grow.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How Will They Know?

Throughout the Book of Ezekiel, God says that various people shall know that God is the LORD. Usually, the context is God's wrath. In Ezekiel, the ones who will know God's identity include the people of Judah and other nations, such as Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and Egypt.

I can understand how Judah would recognize that God is the LORD, especially after her calamity. After all, Judah had a tradition of Yahwism. Once Judah fell and asked how she got into her mess, one possible answer would be that she displeased her national god. Her answer would be based on elements of her own national tradition, which was her filter for interpreting events.

But why would the other nations know that God is the LORD after their calamities? If Babylon invaded them, wouldn't they have their own way of interpreting the events? They may say that Babylon was stronger, or that the Babylonian god was too powerful, or that they displeased their own national deities. Why should they conclude that they fell through offending the LORD, the god of another nation that fell? Why did Ezekiel believe that the nations would interpret history as he did?

One reason may be that the other nations had a history with Israel's God. Throughout the Bible, nations such as Egypt, Moab, and Philistia experience God's power. They see God's supremacy as they suffer or lose battles at the hands of the Israelite deity. And they were Israel's neighbors, so Israel's relationship with the LORD did not exist in a vacuum. Consequently, when these nations fell, one explanation that may have entered their minds was that they had offended the God of Israel. And they could point out examples in which that was the case. The Ammonites, the Edomites, the Moabites, and the people of Tyre actually rejoiced at the destruction of Jerusalem and the LORD's temple, and they tried to take advantage of the situation. That made God angry. At their own destruction, the nations may have thought, "I think we're being punished for hurting Israel. You've heard the stories about their powerful God. Well, I guess those stories are true. Scratch that! I KNOW that they are."

Another possible reason is that Ezekiel expected the people of other nations to hear God's message. Ezekiel 26 is actually directed to Tyre. I doubt that Ezekiel actually went there, but could he have sent a representative? Jeremiah had his representative, Baruch. Plus, some prophets, such as Jonah, went to foreign countries. When the Gentiles heard the prophetic message in the name of the LORD and experienced its fulfillment, they would hopefully conclude that the God behind the message was the true God.

Or maybe Ezekiel thought that the nations would hear God's message after their destruction. Babylon may have taken Israel into exile with other nations, meaning that Jewish exiles could have interacted with exiles from other countries. In Ezekiel 12:15-16, God says that he will scatter the Israelites among the nations. According to the passage, the result will be that Israel will testify to them about her punishment at the hand of the LORD. Afterwards, they (presumably the nations) will know that God is the LORD. In exile, the Jews may have said to the exiles of other countries, "We were destroyed for offending the LORD, and so were you." Why would the nations believe them? I don't know. Maybe they would be more inclined to believe the Jews after Israel's national restoration. Or perhaps God would confirm in their hearts the truth of the Jews' message.

One last possibility: the nations would know that God is the LORD in the afterlife. Ezekiel 26:20 says that God will send Tyre to the pit, to the people of long ago. Isaiah 14:9-11 has similar imagery, as former mighty men taunt fallen Babylon in Sheol. In the afterlife, maybe people knew the truth about the true God's identity and other matters. Or at least Ezekiel may have thought that to be the case.

Any other possibilities that come to your mind?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Good Argument Against Inerrancy NOT

Is the Bible inerrant?

I'm not going to answer that question, but wait! Don't go! I want you to read my critique of a popular argument against inerrancy.

You probably know how the debate goes. A fundamentalist says, “The Bible has to be inerrant for you to trust it. After all, if the Bible is wrong in one place, then how can you be sure it isn't wrong in other places?”

And here is a common liberal or non-fundamentalist response: “The Bible doesn't have to be without error for you to trust it. You trust things every day that are flawed. That chair is not perfect—it can collapse! The phone book is not infallible, but you trust it. The news is not 100% accurate, yet you rely on it to tell you what is going on. Why do you demand that the Bible be totally without error?”

Have you ever heard that argument?

I think it is comparing apples with oranges, myself. The examples that our fictitious liberal friend cites relate to the seen world. The phone book and the news contain information that is verifiable or falsifiable. You can check the facts to determine when they are true and when they are false. The same is true of a chair. You can tell whether or not a chair will collapse by looking at the chair itself. Is it in good condition, or is it broken?

But is that the case with the Bible? I'm not sure that you can totally verify its message. It relates to the unseen world. I cannot prove God's intentions because I do not see God or directly hear his voice. I have to trust what a book tells me about him. How can I verify what is correct in the Bible? How can I identify what is wrong? There does not seem to be any criteria. So on what basis can I believe one part of the Bible and not another? On the basis of my personal preferences? Why should I trust them?

This is just something to think about. I do not discuss here certain relevant and important topics, such as apologetics, archaeology, and evolution. I'm not even totally opposed to apologetics. I just want to reevaluate the popular liberal argument that compares the Bible to a chair, a phone book, or the news.

I don't think they're entirely the same.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Humble God in Ezekiel 22

One of my favorite shows is Highway to Heaven. In the series, Michael Landon plays an angel named Jonathan Smith, who helps people. He is assisted by an ex-cop, Mark Gordon, who is played by Victor French. I got the first season on Amazon for five bucks! Michael Landon had issues, but he tried to make the world a better place.

There is an episode that always gets to me. It is called “A Child of God.” In the episode, there is a woman who is terminally ill, and she has a daughter. She wants to reconcile with her parents so that they can raise the child after her death. Her father is a pastor, who does not forgive her because she had the child out of wedlock. When he discovers at the end that she is dying, he reconciles with her. He gives a sermon at the end in which he says that we should judge less and love more.

What always gets to me is this one part of the sermon. The pastor says that an atheist who does good deeds will go to heaven. According to him, God is not interested in receiving recognition, but he wants us to do good to others. I reckon that this part of the sermon was Michael Landon's religion: God wants us to do good, whatever we believe.

I've had a variety of reactions to the sermon, some hostile (“that's liberal hogwash!”), some sympathetic. My problem is that it's not exactly what the Bible teaches. According to the Scriptures, God desires recognition. I'm reading Ezekiel right now. How many times does God say “And they shall know that I am the LORD”? Many.

On the other hand, I like the idea of a humble deity, whose sole aim is to teach us to do good. As I said before, the biblical God appears on the surface to be rather proud. The great C.S. Lewis himself wrestled with this issue.

Ezekiel 22 strikes me as relevant to this issue in two ways. First, let's look at vv 6-12. God is lambasting the princes of Israel for various sins: murder, dishonor of parents, violation of sabbaths, slander, lewdness on the mountains, sexual immorality, usury, and extortion. Then, after this long list, God adds what looks like an afterthought: “and you have forgotten me, says the Lord GOD.” You would expect that to be first on the list. Instead, it is the last item. And there isn't much drama attached to it either. The other sins are described elaborately, like they're part of a powerful jeremiad (or Ezekiel-iad) against human vice. After all this thunder, you have the diminutive “and you have forgotten me.”

Then, there's v 16. Based on certain manuscripts (Gk Syr Vg), the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse: “And I shall be profaned through you in the sight of the nations; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” The Hebrew says that Israel will be profaned. Whichever is correct, there is a sense in which God allowed himself to be profaned in the sight of the nations in order to teach Israel a lesson. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, other nations probably said that the LORD was not a powerful god. After all, his people lost. To the nations, that meant that God could not protect them. Moreover, God allowed the temple, his palace on earth, to be destroyed. The Babylonians were not showing the God of Israel any respect when they burned down his earthly house. God tolerated their brazen irreverence.

God suffered this indignity because he wanted to teach his people holiness. Sure, he was still concerned about his reputation, for he says throughout Ezekiel that he will restore Israel in order to magnify his name among the nations. But his reputation was not his only concern. He wanted to make known his character, not only his power and position. His goal was to do that through Israel, who would be holy as he was holy and demonstrate the justice of God's ways. Unfortunately, the Israelites only demonstrated oppression, selfishness, greed, and moral laxity. God saw a need to correct this.

God put his reputation second place at another point in human history, when he became Jesus Christ. At the incarnation, God made himself of no reputation (Philippians 2:7). At the crucifixion, he endured mockery, disrespect, and indignity.

So when God appears to vaunt himself in Scripture, he's not doing so out of pride. He does so because he knows that a relationship with him is an indispensable part of goodness. And he is willing to endure indignity to bring that relationship into existence.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

But It Is My Tradition, Too

Should people incorporate elements of other religious traditions into their own beliefs and practices?

I've actually encountered this issue a few times in the blogosphere. First, there was a post by my Hebrew Union College colleague, Angela Roskop Erisman, at Imaginary Grace. Her post was entitled "Interfaith Dialogue," and she discussed a Christian pastor who considered herself both a Christian and a Muslim. She also raised the issue of Messianic Judaism, which blends Judaism and Christianity.

Then, on September 21, Kevin Wilson posted an entry called "Humanism's Ransacking of Religion." He criticized a humanist Harvard chaplain who feels free to take part in religious festivals and use them for humanist purposes. Like Angie, Wilson brings up the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. He states:

"What he is advocating would be something akin to me holding a Seder, even though I am not Jewish. I will happily attend a Seder when invited by Jewish friends, but for me to hold my own would be improper. I am not Jewish. My faith is part of the same family tree as Judaism, but that tree branched 2000 years ago. And a Seder is so much a part of Jewish identity that it is wrong for Christians to cannibalize it. I would not want a synagogue to hold a Eucharistic service, since doing so would take the Lord’s Supper and strip it of its central meaning."

Lest Wilson think that everyone at Harvard feels like that chaplain, I'd like to refer him to an article by Jon Levenson that expresses the same concern that Wilson does. It is called "The Problem with Salad Bowl Religion." I heard it in a lecture he gave entitled "The Jew and the Christmas Tree." His lecture had more jokes that made fun of Unitarian-Universalism (with UUs in the audience), but, alas, the article was all I could track down on the Internet.

Here are my perambulations. I partly disagree with Wilson, and I partly see his point.

Here is where I disagree: What exactly is wrong with Christians holding a seder, or incorporating elements of Judaism into their faith life? The Exodus is part of the Christian tradition as much as it is part of Judaism. And, sure, there are things that the Exodus means to Christians that it does not mean to Jews, such as the Passover lamb pointing to Christ's sacrifice. But why can't a Christian celebrate God's activity in history on behalf of his people Israel? And why can't a Christian do so while acknowledging that the Exodus story has specific significance for him, a Christian?

As far as the humanist chaplain goes, I'm not entirely sure why he would celebrate a seder. Maybe he wants to highlight the theme of liberation, even though he may not believe in the liberator of the story, namely, God. And, I'll admit, he probably leaves out other important details that the Jewish tradition has about the Passover. In Judaism, the Passover is more than about liberation. It is about the Jewish people becoming servants of God (through Torah) rather than slaves of Pharaoh.

Jon Levenson has downplayed that the Exodus story is really even about liberation. For Levenson, God in the Exodus story heard the cries of the Israelites because they were his chosen people and he had made a promise to them, not because they were oppressed slaves. Levenson raises an important point, but I think that the Exodus teaches humanitarian values. How often does God in the Torah tell the Israelites to treat others with compassion remembering that they themselves were slaves in the land of Egypt? And, if a humanist wants to point to the Exodus as a story teaching justice, what is wrong with that, as long as he remembers that Judaism sees the Exodus as more than that?

Here is where I agree with Wilson: I do not consider myself a salad bar practitioner of religion. I do not take elements of Buddhism and elements of Judaism and elements of Christianity to create some New Age sort of faith. I believe that Christ died for my sins and rose again. I place myself specifically in the Christian tradition.

But I believe that other religions have things that can teach me, a Christian. Yesterday, I said that I fast on Yom Kippur. Now, I do not observe the day the same way that many Jews would. I do not believe that I gain atonement on that day, since Christ is my atonement. Unlike some orthodox Jews, I also do not maintain that swinging a chicken over my head brings me forgiveness. But I think that Yom Kippur helps me appreciate things that are also in my Christianity, such as humility, repentance, and reconciliation. And Yom Kippur is part of my tradition too, since it is in my Bible. Can I appreciate certain aspects of Jewish traditions that enhance my faith life, as long as I recognize that I do not do them entirely for the same reasons that a Jew does?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Day of Atonement 2007

Today is the Day of Atonement, which is known in Judaism as "Yom Kippur." I am fasting on this day because I believe that the ritual has much to teach me, a Christian (see also Jim West's post on Yom Kippur). I have treated Yom Kippur as a time for fasting, rest, reflection, prayer, and Bible study for many years.

Why do I fast? Jesus himself acknowledged the importance of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he said "when you fast" (Matthew 6:16-18). Was he telling the disciples that they had to fast? I'm not entirely sure. The Greek word translated as "when" in the KJV is "hotan," which can mean "whenever." Jesus may be saying to his disciples that fasting is not a requirement, but that they should fast a certain way when they choose to do so.

What is interesting is that v 17 seems to conflict with certain Jewish Yom Kippur rules. Jesus tells his disciples to anoint their heads and wash their faces whenever they fast. Mishnah Yoma 8:1, however, prohibits Jews from anointing or washing themselves on Yom Kippur. They are truly to afflict themselves on that day. Jesus may not have been discussing the Day of Atonement in this passage. After all, he says that his disciples should not appear to men to fast. For Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, fasting should be strictly between the faster and God, not a means to impress others. On Yom Kippur, however, all Jews knew that every other Jew was fasting, so there was no need to keep it a secret.

But Jesus acknowledged that his disciples may wish to fast. The Day of Atonement is really the only time that I have to do so. I have a hard time fasting when school is in session, since I cannot concentrate on my work with intense hunger or thirst. So I set aside a day when I get to fast and focus on God in the process.

Why fast? For the Jews, Yom Kippur was the day when the sins of Israel were expiated and removed. God was holy and righteous, so he would not dwell with Israel when she had moral corruption. God was also removing physical impurity that accumulated onto his sanctuary. Anything associated with a loss of life or strength (e.g., corpses; a loss of semen; even childbirth, when a mother risked her life and lost blood) could defile God's sanctuary. Maybe God wanted to disassociate himself from death in such rules. This may sound evangelical, but perhaps he was saying that death and pain in childbirth were not a part of his original creation (Genesis 2-3). Could God have been reminding Israelites of original sin on Yom Kippur, in addition to the sins that they themselves did? And, ironically, God dissociated himself from sin and death through death, that of an animal. Likewise, according to Christianity, God defeated sin and death in part through the crucifixion of Christ.

But the Israelites fasted to demonstrate their serious response to what was occurring. If they were acknowledging that the world was fallen, then they were communicating that this was serious and tragic indeed. And they were showing their sorrow for their own sin. As a Christian who fasts on the Day of Atonement, perhaps I can learn that this world breaks God's heart and is not entirely what he desires it to be. That is why we pray "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And I can acknowledge that I myself need God to forgive my sins.

Interestingly, many evangelicals say, "God cannot tolerate sin." And even I said above that God would not dwell with a morally corrupt Israel. Yet, he often did. Jacob had idols in his camp, but God blessed him. Northern and Southern Israel were around longer than the United States was a nation, even as they did things that God clearly hated. Still, there was a time in both situations in which God hit the podium and said, "You need to deal with your sin, now! I hate sin, and so should you." The Day of Atonement was a time to focus on that message, and to do so with solemnity.

Fasting also has other benefits. I can focus on God more because I do not have to spend time eating. Fasting also reminds me that I am a fragile creature, something I often forget in my youth.

Well, I have ten minutes left before my fast is over. Writing this has helped me reflect on lessons that I can learn from the Day of Atonement. Hopefully, this post has also edified you.

God bless you!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

God Brings Them to Repentance

The discussion on Ezekiel and TULIP at John Hobbins' website has transported me back in time.

When I was at Harvard, I was taking an Intro to Hebrew Scriptures class. We had an assignment: to contrast certain passages from Deuteronomy, Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The passages related to Israel's restoration from exile, and we were to highlight the different perspectives of the biblical authors.

I was more of a right-winger then than I am now (if you can believe that), and so I resisted the assignment. “These liberals are always looking for discrepancies in the Bible,” I thought. “The passages all say the same thing! God will restore Israel to her land, and Israel will be righteous.”

To be honest, I've not totally changed. There are still times when liberals see discrepancies where I see harmony. I also think that some biblical scholars try to pigeon-hole parts of the Bible, when the parts do not always correspond to their representations. How often have we heard “J teaches this” (back when most scholars believed in J), “this is P's theology,” “the Deuteronomist believes this, unlike that other author,” or “these are John's themes”? The problem is that the generalizations do not always work. There can be exceptions to the pigeon hole. Of course, I guess the logical course then is to posit that an editor added his own two cents to the text.

Despite my latent conservatism, I acknowledge now that Deuteronomy, Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have their own emphases. Deuteronomy stresses that Israel's repentance will return her to the Promised Land; there, Israel seems to make the first move. In Second Isaiah, God makes the first move, as the author of Isaiah 40-55 focuses on God's love for Israel and invites her to respond to God's saving act. I'm not sure how to characterize Jeremiah: maybe “Your seventy years are up! Get moving! And God will write his laws on your hearts so you don't lose the Promised Land again.” And Ezekiel has God restoring Judah for the sake of his name, not for her sake. Through her exile and restoration, God makes Israel ashamed of her sins.

Some time in the future, I may discuss how people of faith should approach biblical diversity. Right now, I want to address a point that John Hobbins made in his discussion on Ezekiel and TULIP. He says, “I don't think Ezekiel construes God's actions there either as a response to repentance from Israel's side. The self-loathing and repentance Israel is to engage in, the very fact that they will pass under the shepherd's staff and be brought into the bond of the covenant, is presented as something God brings about obtorto collo (that's colorful Latin phrase which means 'against [their] will').”

One some level, I agree. Unlike Deuteronomy, Ezekiel does not really present a scenario in which Israel repents and God responds. But I also do not think that Ezekiel has God forcing the Israelites to repent, for he presents Israelites who will rebel even after the exile (Ezekiel 20:33-38). God obviously did not make them repent against their will, in the sense of changing their attitudes by fiat.

But, overall, God did place the Israelites in a situation that was conducive to shame and repentance, in the same way that God may give us an environment (often hostile) that can help us build character and make us receptive to certain virtues. God is the one who creates such a situation, but we have a choice about whether or not to cooperate with him. Some may respond to trials by becoming more faithful and patient. Others may choose bitterness and hatred.

Similarly, in Ezekiel, God places the Israelites in exile and restores them when they do not deserve it. The natural reaction should be shame and gratitude. But not all Israelites react that way. Rebels will often pursue a path that makes no sense. That is their stubbornness at work. And the only thing that God can do then is judge them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Grandma and Mr. Rogers

I was watching Mr. Rogers recently, and he seemed to be speaking directly to my situation. Has that ever happened to you in church—you feel like the sermon is directed right at you, and yet you realize that the pastor cannot know about your specific problem? You may conclude that God is speaking through the message to help you face your challenges.

Well, I'm not going to be that dogmatic, but Mr. Rogers was giving good advice. He was drawing a house with some scenery, and he said, “Let's color the sky blue.” Then he said (and this is my paraphrase), “Notice that the sky did not become blue by my wishing or daydreaming or talking. I had to make it blue.”

I've been working on this paper, and I really do not enjoy writing it. I don't know what the problem is. The topic is not terribly boring, as far as topics go. I'm just not in the mood to sit down and write a paper. In writing, I have to make sure that everything is phrased smoothly, that all my facts are correct, that I document every detail, and that I cover as many bases as possible. Plus, I have to plow through 103 pages of my notes. I'm just not motivated at the moment. But, as Mr. Rogers would say, we do not create something through wishing and dreaming; we have to work.

Mr. Rogers also said that creating something makes you feel good, whether or not others like your creation. On some level, this is true. I always have a feeling of pride and accomplishment whenever I finish a paper. But, I admit, I am twice as happy when others like my work or give me a good grade.

Something else that Mr. Rogers emphasized was the value of the process. He said that he is not good at drawing, but what is important is that he tries, enjoys himself, and creates something. I can see his point. I want an A on this paper, but I will have a sense of accomplishment after completing it, even if it is not the best paper in history.

Later that day, I was talking to my grandma on the phone. She does not watch Mr. Rogers, but she is reading a book. She was sharing with me some insights from her reading. She said, “This is your paper, and you are a unique person. Just do things your own way and write what you think is important. You don't have to please everyone else.” She was giving me similar advice to what Mr. Rogers was saying. Could this be a sign?

I'm not dismissing the importance of turning in quality work. But I am going to take my time and enjoy the process. That is better than burdening myself with the pressure to be perfect.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Self-Hatred in Ezekiel

Immediately after my high school graduation, I read John MacArthur's The Vanishing Conscience. I always found his prose engaging, so I gave the book a shot. In that book, MacArthur argues against pop psychology's emphasis on self-esteem. To support his position, he cites Ezekiel 20:43: “There you shall remember your ways and all the deeds by which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed.” MacArthur states, “In other words, when we truly see what sin is, far from achieving self-esteem, we will despise ourselves” (p. 108).

I'm not going to discuss self-esteem in this post. I will say, however, that MacArthur probably doesn't want people to be down on themselves for the rest of their lives. He has affirmed that human beings are valuable to God and that Christians can find a sense of worth in Christ's love. He's just saying that repentance is necessary for salvation. For him, the modern emphasis on self-esteem runs counter to the doctrine that all have sinned, which is the first principle of the Gospel.

I want to relate Ezekiel 20:43 to my recent discussion on Ezekiel and monergism. This has been a series that has included my last three posts. I am wrestling with such issues as free will and regeneration in the Book of Ezekiel. My conclusion so far is that an unregenerate person can repent and recognize his need for God, but only in a short term sense. After the exile, the Israelites who acknowledge their sinfulness and cry out to God will receive a new heart and enter the holy land. The new heart will permanently incline them to God's commandments so that they can stay in the land forever. By contrast, those who stubbornly continue their rebellion against God will not enter the Promised Land, for God will destroy them. This is my interpretation of Ezekiel 20:33-38.

God's judgment on the rebels seems fair. I mean, what kind of people in their right mind would continue to defy God after experiencing what they had? Let's look at what God has already done when the Israelites are in the wilderness, about to enter the Promised Land (after the exile). God has confirmed the words of his prophets. He has demonstrated that he is God and that the other deities are not. He has shown his power to redeem Israel. He has manifested his continued commitment to his people. The logical reaction to all this is for the Israelites to bang themselves on the head and exclaim, “I've been so stupid! Look where my actions have led me.” I think that is partly what Ezekiel means when he says that many Israelites will loathe themselves.

He also means that they will hate their sinful deeds. Some analogies come to mind. There is a scene in the Every Man's Battle where one of the authors talks about a fight he had with his wife. His wife was making beans, and he deliberately knocked over the pot. After his wife left the room and he came to his senses, he resolved to treat his wife with love and respect from that point on. I think about an alcoholic who gets behind the wheel of a car and kills someone. He was content with his selfishness and alcoholism, until it led to a horrible outcome. After the exile, many Israelites get a good look in the mirror. They recognize what the prophets told them all along: that they have betrayed the God who loves them and have hurt defenseless human beings. They see themselves as the whores and monsters that they are. They loathe themselves. That is the prerequisite for a new beginning.

But not all of the Israelites take this route. And what can God do? Will he let them back into the land so they can make it a moral cesspool once more? If they haven't responded to him up to that point, is there much hope that they will ever respond to him? As his last resort, God judges them.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Calvinism and Short Term Repentance

Most Calvinists who read my last post are probably shaking their heads in disappointment. I can picture their reaction: “Are you saying that the Israelites could turn to God from their own free will? Don't you know that the unregenerate cannot turn to God? They do not even seek God (Romans 3:11).”

I'm not going to thoroughly engage the Calvinist position in this post. I'll save that for another day. I believe that both Calvinists and Arminians have biblical texts that appear to support their positions. That is why their views exist.

But let me say this: Even the Calvinist Jonathan Edwards implied that an unregenerate person can make a short term repentance. Over six years ago, I read Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections. His goal in the book was to distinguish the true Christians from the false ones. A religious revival was occurring in his time, and there was a lot of craziness that surrounded it. Jonathan Edwards wanted to define true Christianity to cleanse the revival of the craziness.

Edwards said that an unregenerate person can be afraid of God. An unregenerate person can even repent in a short term sense. But what separates the unregenerate from true Christians is that the latter genuinely love God and his ways. Spiritual things are like honey to their palates. And this love is perpetual. For Edwards, such a love could only come from God, for the human heart does not truly desire the spiritual. The unregenerate may change their ways to avoid disaster (e.g., hell), but they do not really love God.

Last time, I pointed out that there are people in the Bible, such as the people of Nineveh, who make a short term repentance. Well, Calvinism says that those with a truly regenerate heart will persevere in the faith: their repentance will be continuous, not short term. That must mean that the people of Nineveh repented with unregenerate hearts. But their repentance was not lasting. It was probably the best that an unregenerate heart could do.

I think that Ezekiel is saying that God will meet the Israelites where they are. Those who recognize their need for a new heart will receive it. But God will destroy the Israelites who are rebellious, the ones who want absolutely nothing to do with him and his ways. God can at least do something with unregenerate repentance. He cannot work with continual stubbornness.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Help Me, Lord!

Last time, I discussed monergism and synergism in Ezekiel. The issue gets thornier! Stay with me here.

In Ezekiel 20:33-38, there is another detail in Israel's post-exilic restoration: God will bring the Israelites to the wilderness before he leads them to the Promised Land. The wilderness will be a place of judgment, where God will separate the wheat from the chaff. God will kill the rebels who transgress against him, while he will allow the others to enter the holy land. So there are righteous people and there are wicked people in the wilderness.

Here is the thorny part: God said that he would give the Israelites a new heart after they entered the holy land (Ezekiel 36:24-26). So how are there righteous people in the wilderness, before they have even entered it? Can a person be righteous without a new heart?

We know from the Bible that there is short term repentance. The Israelites repented under Hezekiah and Josiah, but they soon relapsed into their old ways. The people of Nineveh turned to God at the preaching of Jonah, but they became wicked again. That was why Nahum predicted their destruction. But, if a person has a new heart, will his or her repentance be short term? I do not think so. Last time, I said that God will give the Israelites a new heart so that they can dwell in the holy land forever; the implication is that they will obey God forever. A new heart means permanent repentance. But a person with an old heart can perhaps repent in a short term sense.

Another relevant issue: a person with a hard heart can cry out to God. In Isaiah 63:17, the Jews cry out, “Why, O LORD, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you? Turn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage.” Here, the Jews look at themselves and see sinful hearts. They cry out to God for a new beginning. Their prayer is similar to what David said in Psalm 51:10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

Back to Ezekiel 20:33-38. Here is what I believe will distinguish the Israelites in the wilderness. One the one hand, there will be those who hate God and want nothing to do with his ways. God will destroy them. Other Israelites, however, will loathe their sin and desire a clean heart. On their own, they may not be able to practice righteousness consistently. They are like a recovering alcoholic who gets thirsty whenever he passes a tavern, or a man who resolves not to lust until a pretty woman suddenly walks by him. These Israelites are saying, “Lord, I cannot be righteous on my own. Temptation is out there. My nature is capricious. Paganism is in my system, and yet I see the destruction it has brought. I need your help!” And God helps them. He gives them a new heart.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Who Does the Work?

How does one become born again? How does a sinner become transformed into a new creature who loves God and his law? Does God alone transform him (monergism)? Or is regeneration a cooperative work between God and the human being (synergism)? Does human free will play any role at all in a person coming to God (synergism)? Or is the human will so marred by sin that it cannot turn to God without divine intervention (monergism)? This is the Calvinist/Arminian debate.

Ezekiel has both views. Its monergist passages are Ezekiel 11:19-20 and 36:24-28. There, God says that he will return the Jews to their land after their punishment in exile. After he does so, God will place his spirit within them and give them a new heart, causing them to walk in his statutes. Here, regeneration is a unilateral work of God. The people have a heart of stone that is hardened to God's ways, so they need a new heart in order to obey God's commandments.

I think that these passages make the same point as Jeremiah 31:32-33 (the new covenant, where God writes his laws on the Israelites' hearts): God wants the Israelites to dwell in the Promised Land, since his covenant with Israel is unconditional. At the same time, their doing so is contingent upon their obedience to God. God, after all, is holy and will not dwell with the Israelites in a moral cesspool. God, therefore, makes the Israelites walk in his statutes so that they will dwell in the land. God gets to keep his promise, and the people fulfill the conditions for remaining there. Everyone is happy! So monergism is God's way of keeping the land promise.

A synergist passage is Ezekiel 18:30-32. There, God emphasizes free will. He tells the Jews to repent so that they will avoid death, since God does not want them to die. God says, "Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" Here, the people themselves acquire the new heart. God does not program them for obedience. Their will is free, and the future is open. If they repent, they will live; if they rebel, they will die. And God wants them to repent and live.

How can one harmonize these passages? An evangelical approach is to maintain that God knew all along about the Israelites' inability to obey his law. In this scenario, God was trying to show that the law does not give life because people cannot keep it. They need a new heart, which was to become available through Christ. This proposal has merits, but why would God tell the Israelites to do something that was impossible for them? Was his impassioned plea for them to choose life a mere game?

Another possibility is that different rules applied to different times. Before the exile, there was free will. The Israelites could obey God, or they could rebel. But after the exile, God went the programming route. He saw that entrusting his covenant to the Israelites' free will was not a sure thing. They could obey, but there was always the possibility that they would not. The problem with this proposal is that it presents God as a trial-and-error sort of deity.

Any thoughts?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Was Mr. Rogers Evil?

I had a hard time sleeping early one morning, so I turned on the TV to flip through the channels. I saw that Mr. Rogers was about to come on. I haven't watched Mr. Rogers that often. For some reason, my family did not have public television when I was growing up, so I missed out on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I decided to see what I had missed.

I really enjoyed the show! Mr. Rogers had a soothing, friendly personality. I probably won't get up early on a regular basis just to watch him (I love to sleep), but I think that his program is good therapy. He's the type of person who can provide me with the solace I need before I go out into the jungle. Well, Mr. Rogers plus extra prayer.

As I read about him on the Internet, I came across a Fox News story entitled, “You're Not Special and Mr. Rogers Was an Evil Man.” I never thought of putting “Mr. Rogers” and “evil” in the same sentence, so I checked the story out. The anchors argued that Mr. Rogers gave an entire generation of kids a sense of entitlement. By telling them they were special just the way they are, Mr. Rogers implied that they did not have to work to become special. As a result, there are people who expect good things (e.g., grades, money, recognition, etc.) without working for them. The ultimate result is disappointment, since the world doesn't give people goodies that they don't deserve.

The Fox News story is probably accurate in its characterization of many young people—or so teachers have told me. But was Mr. Rogers evil? The program that I watched emphasized self-discipline. Mr. Rogers said that he once tried to learn the clarinet, but he did not practice. He thought that he could become a master clarinet player through osmosis, but he found that the world doesn't work that way. That convicted me somewhat. I hope to get a flat stomach, but I don't want to do the daily sit-ups that can bring me to my goal. I want to ace my comps, but I will not do so if I do not study. Like many people, I seek short-cuts that do not exist. Mr. Rogers definitely taught kids (and me) that if they want something, they have to work for it.

But our value does not depend on our accomplishments. That's what Mr. Rogers meant when he told kids they are special just the way they are. What bothers me about the Fox News story is that it links people's value with how hard they work and what they achieve. But our value is intrinsic. God made each of us in his image. None of us is unnecessary or superfluous in this world. We all have a purpose and a unique contribution that we can make.

The problem is that the world does not see things that way. We judge people according to the impression that they make on us. To make our mark on the world, we have to impress people. In that, the Fox News story is right. But, fortunately, God is not the world. God loves us even though we do not impress him. His love is unconditional.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Feast of Trumpets 2007

I said in my first entry that I grew up in an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God. The WCG was founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, who promoted the observance of Old Testament laws, such as the Sabbath, the holy days, and food regulations. Today, I do not entirely believe in Armstrong's doctrines, but I still honor the Sabbath and holy days as special times. I do not do my school work on those days, and I use the time to draw closer to God through prayer and Bible study.

Today is the Feast of Trumpets, which Jews call “Rosh Hoshanah” (“the head of the year”). On some level, its meaning escapes me. While the Bible defines the significance of Passover, Sukkot, and Yom Kippur, there is no biblical passage that explicitly says what the Feast of Trumpets means. The Torah simply commands sacrifices and the blowing of trumpets on that day (Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6).

The WCG always tied the Feast of Trumpets to the second coming of Christ, since Christ will come with the blast of trumpets (I Corinthians 15:52; Revelation 8). Jewish exegetes have also interpreted the trumpet of Rosh Hoshanah in light of other biblical passages on trumpets. For example, Isaiah 27:3 says that the Jewish exiles will return at the sound of a trumpet, so some Jewish interpreters said that Rosh Hoshanah concerns the Jews' restoration under the Messiah. There is a ram in Genesis 22, the story where Abraham almost sacrifices his son, and a ram's horn is the trumpet blown on Rosh Hoshanah. Not surprisingly, the Genesis 22 story is a huge part of the Rosh Hoshanah service.

Judgment is a big theme in Jewish Rosh Hoshanah liturgy, and the trumpet performs a variety of functions. The blast is designed to shake the people from their complacency so that they will repent of their sins. After all, Rosh Hoshanah to Yom Kippur is a time of reconciliation with God and neighbor. The ram's horn also reminds God of Abraham's faithfulness in Genesis 22. As Christians rely on Christ's righteousness for justification, many Jews ask God to spare them from wrath on account of Abraham's devotion.

As a new year's festival, Rosh Hoshanah may also relate to the maintenance of order in the world. My midrash professor once said that the blast on Rosh Hoshanah was designed to get God's attention so that he would send abundant rain. Rosh Hoshanah was the seventh month, yet it was a new year's festival because it kicked off the agricultural year. Autumn was the time of the former rain, which was crucial for the agriculture of ancient Israel. On Rosh Hoshanah, Israelites asked God to bless them with the food that they so desperately needed. They also repented of sin, since sin against God could lead to drought and famine (Leviticus 26).

So what can I learn from the Feast of Trumpets? The festival is about divine judgment in both WCG and Jewish traditions. As a Christian, I can reflect on the need to stay in relationship with God. In the same way that Jews lean on God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 22, I must rely on the love, grace, and righteousness of Christ to survive the judgment that I so richly deserve. That judgment will come when Christ returns. I also should remember my dependence on God for my other wants and needs, including food, a job, academic success, relationships, etc. The trumpet was designed to get God's attention. For the Christian, prayer does that (Luke 18).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why I Am a Christian

There are many reasons that I am a Christian, so I cannot exhaust the topic in this entry alone. This post should be part of a series, and it will be, only the series will be scattered. What I mean by “scattered” is that I'm not going to chain myself to this topic over the next several days, especially when there are other subjects that I may want to discuss. I probably will not write Part 2 tomorrow and Part 3 the next day, but I will write them when I feel like writing them. Still, I will put “Why I Am a Christian” under “Labels” in case someone wants to read the series consecutively.

Why am I writing this? Christians are supposed to give an answer for the hope that lies within them (I Peter 3:15). A non-believer may put me on the spot and ask, “So why are you a Christian?” In such a case, I will want to give an answer. There are reasons within me that I am drawn to Christianity instead of other religions and philosophies, but I have not completely articulated those reasons to myself. And if I have not articulated them to myself, how can I explain them to others? This blog gives me a chance to do some good old-fashioned journaling, to work through and clarify my thoughts and feelings. And I do so with you as an audience, whose reactions, stories, and insights are always welcome.

One reason I am a Christian is that there is a gap between the way I want to be and the way that I am.

In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is the way that I want to be. I wish that I could love people who are mean to me rather than hating them. I crave a strong sense of inner peace rather than fear and insecurity. I would like to be patient instead of flying off the handle when things do not go my way. I desire meekness as opposed to parading myself to get attention. I want to be happy for others in their successes rather than envious and resentful.

Unfortunately, my thoughts and feelings gravitate more towards the works of the flesh. I like the fruit of the Spirit, but they are not exactly “me.” Is there hope for me? Can I arrive at the spiritual characteristics that I so desperately desire?

Christianity answers “yes.” In Romans 7-8, Paul says that my dilemma is the problem of every human being. God has a law that is holy, righteous, and good, and human beings are too weak to keep it. So I am not alone. I do not have to feel that I am better or worse than another person, since we are all in the same boat. And the answer to my problem is not within myself but in God, who decided to save us when we were weak and sinful.

So why am I a Christian? One reason is that it offers me the hope of receiving the life that I want. I depend on an outside source, God, to have love, joy, peace, patience, and goodness. Right now, those attributes are small parts of my character, but hopefully God will bring me to a place where they are dominant. And God is eager to help. He showed us that when he sent his Son to die on the cross. God is not out to condemn us. He is on our side.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

God and 9/11, Part 2

Okay, I admit, I haven't finished my paper yet. I'm organizing my research as I catch up on the Star Trek: Voyager episodes that I taped, plus I have a cold. Hopefully, I will feel stronger and more motivated tomorrow.

I came across an interesting article today entitled "Where Was God on 9/11?" The article argues that God was protecting people and giving them strength on that tragic day. There were several who did not show up for work at the World Trade Center due to traffic jams. After the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, a full half hour passed before the buildings collapsed, allowing those on the lower floors to escape. The buildings fell inward rather than toppling over, preserving the lives of more people. Many could have travelled on the fateful planes that day but chose not to do so. Those who received calls from passengers did not report panic or screaming in the background, and the passengers on one of the planes even managed to overcome the hijackers. According to the article, God gave them strength.

As I said in my last post, I have problems with the view that those who survived 9/11 were more righteous than those who perished. Jesus explicitly said that dying in a disaster does not make one a greater sinner. At the same time, can I deny God's providential care for those who survived? If I were one of the survivors, I would be humbled and grateful that I could live another day. And I wouldn't be thanking time and chance, but God.

Why did God preserve some and let others to die? Who knows? Maybe he had a mission for the survivors. Some of them may have taken life for granted before 9/11 and gained a new purpose after barely escaping death. I'm not being dogmatic on this. But so many religious people assume that the ones who survived were more righteous than those who died. That may not have been true in every case. Perhaps some of the ones who died were more ready to meet God.

What I like about this article is that it looks for God in one of history's bleakest moments. Wherever we are, however bleak our situation may be, God is present working things out for good.

At the same time, we should not allow our belief in God's will to blind us to the reality of evil. God may have allowed people to die for his righteous purposes, and yet their deaths at the hands of the hijackers were evil. Children lost their parents, spouses lost their mates, and friends lost the people they loved. And, whatever the terrorists had against the United States, the Americans who died on 9/11 were not directly responsible for the problems in the Middle East. The Bible acknowledges that there is a sovereign God who rules the world according to his wise will, and yet it also commands us to oppose evil. Is this a paradox? Yes, but it is the truth.

Monday, September 10, 2007

God and 9/11

I will be working on a paper tomorrow, so I will post my comments on 9/11 tonight.

I was registering for classes at Harvard when 9/11 happened. I didn't know what was going on, but I could sense from the people around me that something was out of the ordinary. I learned later that morning that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

How did I react? I wasn't exactly shaken. I had heard about tragedies on the news before, and I already knew that there were terrorists in the world who hated the United States. This time, some of them managed to hijack planes and hit an American target. A reason for my response was that I did not know anyone who died in 9/11. If I had, I probably would have reacted as Ann Coulter did when she heard that her friend lost her life in the disaster.

I heard a variety of religious responses to the tragedy. Overnight, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson became the scum of the earth (or, in the eyes of the left, were further confirmed as such). Their offense was suggesting that 9/11 was a divine punishment on America for its rejection of school prayer and its support for homosexuality and abortion. Ironically, I heard students and professors at Harvard turn right around and say the same sort of thing. They, however, asserted that America deserved 9/11 because of its racism, materialism, and support of Israel. Their paradigm was the same as that of Falwell and Robertson. The only difference was the vices that they attacked (as if support of Israel is a "vice").

Then, there were the evangelicals at Harvard who tried to distance themselves from Falwell and Robertson. One of them circulated an article stating that God does not punish nations as he did to Old Testament Israel, since God does not have the same covenantal relationship with them. The article was a nice try, but it was wrong. God also punished Gentile nations in the Old Testament, and he pours out his wrath on nations in the Book of Revelation.

At church, I heard people talk about Christians who left the World Trade Center right before the planes hit. They acted like that was divine protection. I heard one woman say, "Everyone God wanted out of there got out of there." I suppose she was implying that those who survived the attack were more righteous than those who perished. But, in discussing two tragedies, Jesus denied that the Galileans and Judeans who perished were greater sinners than other Galileans and Judeans (Luke 13).

A Christian professor of mine and Alan Keyes (when he visited) offered their theological thoughts on the issue. They argued that the terrorists on 9/11 violated an objective, God-given morality. Yes, the existence of such a morality is actually disputed at Harvard.

When I moved to New York and experienced a post-9/11 world--with its color codes and bag searches--I still heard comments on 9/11. For one, I heard a variety of people testify in lectures and speeches that they actually saw the event. Maybe they did, I don't know. It just seems that lots of public figures want to get mileage out of being witnesses to the tragedy. Second, in a theology class at JTS, we wrestled with how God could have allowed 9/11. But why does God allow any suffering? I disagree with those who act as if we should dump the traditional concepts of God because of the Holocaust and 9/11. As tragic as those events were, people in ancient times suffered like people today. The ancients did not possess the cures for diseases that we have. They had their wars and tyrants and disasters. Yet, they believed in a higher power. Why shouldn't we?

9/11 was a horrible event, and people have tried to make sense of it through their theological constructs. In many cases, like Job's friends, they propose absolute "answers" to complex questions.

Do Christians Have Rights?

When I was an undergraduate at DePauw University, I was part of a weekly Bible study group. The leader of the group once said that Christians have no rights, but that all of their "rights" are subordinate to Christ. After eight years, I still do not entirely understand his statement. At the same time, I can look at the statement itself and find good principles.

American society is often litigious and contentious. We are concerned about our rights and our dignity. But the New Testament says that there are higher principles. In I Corinthians 6:7, Paul says that a Christian should suffer wrong rather than take his brother to court. Jesus told his disciples to turn the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount. In Christian morality, love for our brothers and our enemies is of higher value than us getting our due.

In a way, the same principle also appears in the Old Testament. For my weekly quiet time this week, I read Deuteronomy 24. The passage is about how creditors should treat the people who owe them. In the ancient world, creditors would do a variety of things to make their debtors pay. They would confiscate the debtors' valuable belongings, or they would intimidate them in their (the debtors') own homes. The Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East had laws that required the creditor to consider the debtors' survival. For example, according to Deuteronomy 24, a creditor could not take the debtor's millstone, which was necessary to make food. Every evening, a creditor had to return the poor debtor's coat, which the debtor needed on a cold night. Deuteronomy 24 also required the creditor to respect the dignity of the person who owes him. For example, a creditor could not go into the debtor's house to collect collateral, since that would humiliate the debtor.

In Deuteronomy 24, love of neighbor surpasses the value of getting paid back. On some level, I can understand why the creditor did what he did. He probably thought, "Maybe this guy should go without his coat or food for a while--THAT will encourage him to get off his hump and pay me back!" But the Torah teaches that respecting the life and dignity of someone else is more important than receiving one's due.

At the same time, saying that people have no rights is going too far. The Old Testament does present a court system, after all, and it emphasizes the rights of victims and the oppressed. Without a conception of rights, the strong will walk all over the weak.

When should Christians assert their rights?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

What Do the Nations Think?

God is especially concerned about his reputation in the Book of Ezekiel. He really cares about what the nations think about him. In Ezekiel 36:22-23, for example, he says that he will deliver Judah for the sake of his own name, not for the sake of Judah. Why does God care about his reputation among non-Israelites?

I first thought about this issue in high school. I was reading the Book of Isaiah, and God appeared to be rather pompous. Here we humans are--we are supposed to be humble and modest--and the very God we are commanded to imitate is bragging about himself.

Over the years, I have found ways to deal with this concern. C.S. Lewis actually tried to tackle it in Mere Christianity and Reflections on the Psalms. His conclusion was that God exalts himself for our benefit. God knows that he is the only one who can give people happiness and fulfillment. Therefore, God exalts himself to convince us of his supremacy so that we will turn to him.

Theologically speaking, there is merit to this proposal. After all, why would a being as great as God care about what puny humans think of him? Would a human fret over what an ant thinks? Unless we want to say that God is insecure, we have to believe that God exalts himself for a reason other than pride.

Moreover, Lewis' proposal often works from a Scriptural standpoint. Why does God care about his reputation among the nations? One explanation is that God wants the nations to worship him. That works for some biblical books, such as Isaiah and Psalms. Solomon also expressed such a sentiment when he mentioned that a foreigner might come to the Temple to worship God, after he has heard of God's mighty deeds (I Kings 8:41-43).

But I do not think that Lewis' proposal works as well for Ezekiel. Unlike Isaiah, Ezekiel does not focus on all nations coming to Zion to worship Yahweh. His focus is on Israelites worshipping him after their restoration. Moreover, in Ezekiel, God tells certain nations that they will know he is the LORD immediately before their destruction (Ezekiel 35:3-4; 39:6). If God magnifies himself so that the nations will worship and serve him, then destroying them after they discover he is God seems rather imprudent.

God may just be saying that he will have the last laugh. The nations who lightly esteem Israel's God may be laughing now, but they will learn the truth at their destruction. Maybe that fits into the perspective of Ezekiel, but would God invest so much energy in preserving his reputation among the nations if he just wanted to gloat?

What do you think?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Madeleine L' Engle (November 29, 1918-September 6, 2007)

I never finished Madeleine L' Engle's Wrinkle in Time. The first book of hers that I encountered was not even in that series: it was about a shy girl at a new school, and that drew me because you usually do not see shy people as the main characters of books or movies. But, overall, I had difficulty getting into her fiction.

But her Genesis Trilogy knocked my socks off. It was my spiritual food during my second and third years at Harvard. Basically, these three books were her ruminations on the Book of Genesis. But that was not all. She loved to go on tangents, talking about her day-to-day life, current events, her thoughts on God, and her late husband, who played a doctor on the soap All My Children. She was probably the most open author whom I have ever read. She shared her struggles to live a Christian life and to become a better person. Like many of us, she tried to love the unloveable and value everyone as God does. And, like me, she wrestled with shyness. I remember her story about her first lecture and how she literally grabbed the podium throughout her speech. But she eventually concluded that her shyness was a form of selfishness. I am not sure if I would totally apply that to myself, but I should think about the extent to which the shoe fits.

The first book of the Genesis Trilogy that I read was about the Joseph story. What intrigued me was that she tried to write from the perspective of the characters. There was Reuben, the neglected firstborn who had a romance with Jacob's maidservant. There was Dinah, a woman drawn to paganism who did not understand her father's male God. There was the priest of On, who worshipped the sun and yet was intrigued by the God whom Joseph served. And there was God, who was with the characters throughout the entire journey.

One part of the trilogy that often enters my mind is her comment on Gad. She was discussing the twelve sons of Jacob, and she came to Gad. She said that we do not know much about Gad, but we do know one thing: he had access to the divine logos that permeated the world. She was obviously grasping for straws--she had to say something about Gad--but she was revealing her theology: she viewed God as one who loves, binds, and has a plan for every human being, and even all creation. As her critics pointed out, she flirted with universalism, and I cannot accept such a doctrine as Scriptural. But I have problems with the conservative Christian view (or one CC view) that God is not lovingly involved in the non-Christian world.

She made me think about this issue. She related that she was talking to a group of Southern Baptists, who were grilling her on her universalism. She asked them if they were perfect, and she challenged them to make two columns: one that had Bible passages about God's wrath, and another that had Bible passages about God's love and mercy. She thought that the second list would outnumber the first. At the time, I was reading Ezekiel for my weekly quiet time, and my reaction to Madeleine was "Not so fast!" I think the wrath passages slightly outnumber the love passages.

Some day, I might give a Wrinkle in Time another shot. We like the books that speak to us where we are, and a book that I did not like a few years ago may speak to me in this stage of my life. But the Genesis Trilogy touched me during my Harvard years. For that, I'd like to say to Madeleine L'Engle, "Thank you."

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Other Side's Voice

When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a class called "Classics of the Jewish Tradition," and the first classic that we covered was the Bible. The professor said that the Bible represents the side that won out, namely, the "worship Yahweh only" position of the Deuteronomist, the prophets, some priests, and others. But we occasionally see the other side, the voice of the people whom the prophets criticized. The professor's example was Jeremiah 44:17-19, where some Judeans assert that everything was going all right when they were worshipping the Queen of Heaven. Since that activity stopped, they say, there has been disaster. Here, we see the other side of the majority biblical position. The Deuteronomist presents kings who put a stop to idolatry as heroes; the people of Jeremiah 44:17-19, however, had a different perspective.

The other side also emerges with some frequency in Ezekiel, where the prophet responds to proverbs that were common in his day. What I mean by "the other side" is the voice of the people who are criticized in the biblical tradition. Interestingly, the people were responding to Ezekiel's message (or their situation) in a variety of ways, some of them contradictory. For Ezekiel, of course, the proverbs had one thing in common: they were all wrong. Here are some of the proverbs or arguments that Ezekiel addresses:

1. "The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land" (Ezekiel 8:12). Some Judean officials were actually using this argument as an excuse to sin.

2. "The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing" (Ezekiel 12:22). What the Judeans probably mean here is that life continues to go on normally, regardless of what the prophets of doom-and-gloom have said. They may also be saying that there have been many prophecies that have not come to pass, so why trust Ezekiel?

3. "The vision that he sees is for many years ahead; he prophesies for distant times" (Ezekiel 12:27). Here, they are like Hezekiah: "Who cares if my grandchildren will suffer? At least I will be safe. These bad things will not happen in my lifetime" (my loose paraphrase of Isaiah 39:8).

4. The most famous one: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Ezekiel 18:2). Here, the Judeans admit that bad things are happening, but they deny that they are at fault; they are suffering for their parents' sins. And, surprisingly, they believe that children suffering for their parents' sin is actually just (see v 19).

These proverbs contradict each other. In one breath, the people acknowledge that they are experiencing bad times and that the LORD is the one afflicting them. In another breath, they do not believe that God will punish Judah. A third position is that God will punish them but only in the distant future.

And then there is the position that Jeremiah tries to refute: that God will deliver Judah from Babylonian dominion (Jeremiah 14:13; 28). People were saying different things. Maybe their mood was based on whatever ups and downs they experienced; there were times when Babylon appeared to be a formidable threat, as when it took King Jehoiachin and others into exile. And there were times when the possibilities appeared more hopeful to Judah, as when Egypt had Babylon on the run (Jeremiah 37:5).

Another possibility is that the Judeans were grasping at whatever straws they could. Perhaps they thought, "Who cares if our excuses are consistent? They are all possibilities. And, in any case, why should we assume that Jeremiah and Ezekiel offer the only possible way to understand the situation?" Unfortunately for them, history sided with Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Judeans could tell themselves all sorts of things as they were falling, but reality sunk in once they hit the ground.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Ann Coulter, Do You Go to Church?

I asked her this question tonight at Xavier. Okay, I'm slightly disappointed that she didn't sign my copy of Treason. She wasn't signing autographs this evening, as the event ended pretty late. After the lengthy (and entertaining) Q and A session, she was whisked out of the room by security and College Republican escorts. But I am glad that I got to ask her a question, especially one that was about Ann Coulter the person. Most of what we got this evening was Ann Coulter the right-wing political pundit, and there were new things that I learned even from that (e.g., her past support of Pete Du Pont and her preference for fair trade over free trade). But I was curious about what Ann Coulter's personal religious life was like. I always assumed that she was like a lot of conservative pundits: they think that religion is good for societal morality, but they themselves do not practice. I found her to be a lot like me: a religious mutt with an evangelical edge who is nonetheless searching.

She said that she is half Catholic and half Protestant. If my memory serves me correctly, I think she related that her dad was Catholic and her mom was Protestant. She emphasized the importance of church attendance because it keeps people from fluffy New Age spirituality (or at least that's the case with her). As far as her personal church attendance is concerned, she said that she goes to churches that are close to her (wherever she is) and that have good sermons. One church that she has attended is Redeemer in New York, and those who have read my first blog post know that I am a big fan of Redeemer and its pastor, Tim Keller. And, no, Redeemer is not a Republican church, since I have debated with liberals there (right before the church service) and have seen people in the congregation wearing John Kerry shirts. Redeemer emphasizes the power of the Gospel of grace to change a person's life, and it is quite apolitical, at least from my experience. But, back to the main subject. She told us that she has gone to Redeemer services with her Jewish boyfriend, and that she listens to Redeemer tapes about C.S. Lewis. And, interestingly, like me, she also goes to Catholic services. Overall, she said that going to church really gives a person a good perspective for the week, and I heartily agree.

She also compared and contrasted Catholicism and Protestantism. She said (if I recall correctly) that Catholicism emphasizes the church and rituals, whereas Protestantism focuses on one's personal relationship with Christ. She herself leans towards Protestantism but has not completely abandoned the Catholic church. I like the way that she evaluates religious issues.

The event itself was enjoyable. I was expecting a bunch of rude leftist protesters to be disrupting everything, but the Xavier students were very polite, even the ones who disagreed with her. Ann herself commended their polite behavior. And I also liked the fact that there were people from the wider Cincinnati community at the convo. These are salt of the earth people--old people, middle aged people, and political hobbyists. They heartily applauded Anne's conservative stance on the issues. And I discovered a breed that I did not know existed (or that I considered one of the endangered species): a right-wing professor who writes poetry and scholarly books. I thought we were all ignoramuses! At least that's what I've been told.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

D. James Kennedy (November 3, 1930-September 5, 2007)

As a youngster, I would get up on Sunday mornings to watch televangelists. D. James Kennedy was one of my favorites. I first watched him when he gave a sermon on "Thou shalt not kill." He argued that "Thou shalt not kill" actually means "Thou shalt not murder," so capital punishment was acceptable. That impressed even my dad, who normally does not like televangelists. I was also impressed by the long list of degrees that appeared at the end of his program. And, interestingly, I do believe that I once saw Bob Dole sitting in his congregation. A lot of people criticized him as pompous, and many on the left saw him as downright scary. But I admired his attempt to promote morality in America and to teach Christians how to share their faith. I am saddened that so many people whom I have taken for granted as part of the national landscape are dying. First it was Jerry Falwell, and now it is Dr. Kennedy. I hope that the younger generation can produce strong leaders for the Christian conservative movement.

My Oath

In Ezekiel 17, God discusses Judah's relationship with Babylon and Egypt. Judah swore an oath to be a vassal to Babylon, and then she broke that oath when she turned to Egypt for help in an anti-Babylonian rebellion. In vv 19-20, God actually takes this personally, for God says that Judah has broken his (God's) pact and covenant. God also says that he will punish Judah for her trespass against him (God).

The commentaries that I consulted agreed on why God took this personally: King Zedekiah of Judah had sworn a loyalty oath to Babylon in the name of God (or, more accurately, he swore by God; 2 Chronicles 36:13). God does not like for his name to be used lightly. That is one of the ten commandments. Therefore, God took Zedekiah's disregard of the oath as an affront on his (God's) name.

I thought about the excuses that Zedekiah could have used for breaking his oath. 2 Chronicles 36:13 says that the king of Babylon made him swear by God. Zedekiah could say that he swore under duress or compulsion, so the oath should not count. He also could have said that he was breaking the oath for the welfare of his nation. After all, doing so would give him a chance to overthrow Babylon!

God wouldn't have bought the latter excuse, since God emphasizes repeatedly that Israel's security rests in him, not in foreign alliances. But I asked myself if God would ever allow someone to break an oath or vow that was made in his name, especially one that was extreme. My hunch is no. Jephthah, after all, sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a vow. But, then again, perhaps he should have asked God, "Is this really what you want me to do?"

In Numbers 30, we see that vows and oaths were not absolute, if they were made by certain women. If a wife or a daughter made a vow, her husband or father (respectively) could nullify it. Men had to keep their vows, however. I wonder what the rationale for this was. Some may say, "Well, the Bible is sexist, and that particular writer thought that women would make some pretty dumb vows that could hurt the entire family." And, interestingly, I hear something similar in certain evangelical sermons on Numbers 30: "God made the man rational, and the woman impulsive and emotional, so God allows the man to nullify the woman's promises." But the Bible presents men who make some pretty impulsive vows and oaths. Jephthah was one. So was Saul (I Samuel 14; interestingly, Saul broke his oath, and the writer does not say whether that was right or wrong).

As I was thinking about Ezekiel 17, my mind wandered to Judaism. I used to attend Yom Kippur services (the reform ones, since they had more English), and I vaguely recall that there was a ceremony in which the Jews nullified the vows and oaths of the previous year. That sounds reasonable. After all, most people, men and women, make stupid promises that they do not keep. Should God hold that over their heads forever? Is there no room for a fresh start? At the same time, I am not an observant Jew. I am more of a Protestant, who looks to the Bible for religious authority. And the Bible appears pretty inflexible on this subject, wouldn't you agree?

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Like the Other Nations

As I read Ezekiel 16 this past weekend, my thoughts went back to a quiet time that I had nine years ago. I call my quiet times from back then "my Harvard quiet times," since I was working on my M.Div. at Harvard Divinity School in those days. During that time, I was continuing to develop my habits of personal Bible study that I had started at DePauw University, of having a daily quiet time and a weekly quiet time. As many of my readers know, my quiet times continue to this day, and God has made them worthwhile. In those three years at Harvard, my daily quiet times covered I Thessalonians-Philemon and Deuteronomy-I Chronicles, and my weekly quiet times included Acts, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Lamentations, and Hosea. I treasured those times. I would take long walks at night to local parks, and often I would walk around a campus library that was virtually empty. Many didn't like the library for that reason, but I loved the solitude. These would be my times to commune with God, to focus on the positive, to learn new things, and to renew my mind with Scripture. They were times of rest and stability in the midst of my usual chaos.

I am actually amazed at how often I have remembered my Harvard quiet times this past month. I mean, seriously, I do not have a photographic memory. There are times when I cannot remember what went through my mind last week, let alone several years ago. An obvious reason for my recall is that I am reading some of the same books now that I was then. Right now, I am studying Ezekiel for my daily quiet time, and I was reading it for my weekly quiet time when I was at Harvard. Still, I am surprised that I am remembering that long ago. The experience is similar to what you see on Kung Fu episodes, where Caine thinks back to the lessons that his master taught him.

Anyway, I was reading Ezekiel 16, and I noticed that God condemns Judah for being a whore. Actually, that is the whole point of the chapter (and much of the Old Testament). But God says that Judah does not receive pay for her services. Rather, she pays others to accept her favors. To me, what this means (at least in part) is that Judah worshipped gods that did nothing for her. God delivered her out of Egypt. What did Baal ever do for her? The LORD was the God whom Israel knew; she had a history with him. By contrast, she probably just found out about Baal when she entered Canaan.

Israel also played the whore with other nations. I know that, in part, this means that Israel relied on other nations for security, whereas God wanted her to rely on him. But I think that she also wanted to impress the other nations. Hezekiah apparently had such a motive when he showed the Babylonians the treasures of Jerusalem.

As I thought about Ezekiel 16, my mind went back to my Harvard quiet time on I Samuel. I vaguely recall that I had just finished a rough Hebrew exam, and I was in the science center for lunch, meditating on the passage in which Israel requested a king. The Israelites wanted a king because that would make them like all the other nations. Israel wanted to be cool. She desired to be like everyone else. She craved the respect of other nations. She thought that other nations had cool gods. She admired their institutions. She craved their acceptance. That, in my opinion, is why she was a whore who paid others to receive her services.

Some may think that my interpretation sounds rather high-schoolish, for it relates to high school concerns such as cliques and the desire for acceptance. Maybe, but do people really grow up when they're out of high school? Even adults want to keep up with the Joneses and achieve notoriety in society. The world tells us that certain things give us status--money, jobs, sex appeal, fancy cars--and one reason that we want these things is to feel accepted. Like Israel of old, we want to fit in.

Yet, God had a better plan for Israel, as he has a better plan for us. God desired to include Israel in a plan of cosmic proportions. Through Israel, God would make his glory known to the nations. He would show the nations that he is God, one who is powerful, just, loving, and wise. Israel would display God's character through her obedience to his commandments, which reflect God's right to rule and his righteous attributes. Israel wanted to conform to the trends around her in order to be cool. God wanted her to set the trend for his glory.

In the end, Israel's idols proved to be a disappointment, just as God said they would be. The other gods did not deliver Israel, and, when the Babylonians invaded, Israel's ally Egypt fled the scene to save her own hide. God, however, was faithful.

One reason that I (unfortunately) value the acceptance of other people over that of God is that I can see the other people; by contrast, I do not see God, and I am not even 100% sure that God exists (though I choose to believe that he does, and for good reasons). Israel, however, succumbed to this temptation knowing that God was real. Strange, and yet it shows the power of social pressure.

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