If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

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The Gospel of Joshua

It’s been a long time since I read Joshua. Given it’s horrific violence, it doesn’t show up in many devotional reading lists, so it may be a while since you’ve read it too. The story line centers on the genocide of the local residents so God’s people can have the land. (Not a story that matches our modern sensibilities.) And yet Joshua, the leader of this merry band of pirates, has long been considered a type of Christ.

For this to make sense we must remember that the ancient church didn’t venerate the book because it was history. This is not to say that they didn’t believe the book to be true. The fact that we tend to equate truth and history says a lot more about our distorted and reductionist modern sensibilities than it says about the ancient church. They no doubt would have found our tendency to reduce “truth” to these tiny little boxes (scientific method, historical method, textual criticism, empirical evidence, etc.) bewildering. So it is indeed the case that for most of history the church has considered Joshua to be primarily a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. (They even share a name, Joshua being a Semitic form and Jesus being a Greek form of the same name.) Just as Joshua cleansed the Land of evil, so Christ cleanses us of evil. Just as Joshua led the people from wandering into the promised rest, so Christ does the same thing.

Joshua not only foreshadows Christ, the book shows us something of what the church should be. We need to have a “take no prisoners” attitude toward our corrupted nature and thinking, our mixed loyalties, and our fondness for our culture. Every time Joshua and the army compromised on the “take no prisoners” policy, things started going bad. This, according to the tradition, is the picture of our Christian life. Any sort of compromise will eventually lead to some sort of failure or downfall.

Aside from these two traditional themes, there is something else to be learned from Joshua: God seems quite comfortable being the God of really nasty and not nice people. And I’ll go one step farther. God is far more comfortable with really nasty and not nice people than we are. My perspective might be shaped by the congregations I served, which were mostly aging, midwestern, and quite proper socially, but I think it is true of American Christianity in general that we tend to conflate manners, niceness, and social acceptance with Christian maturity. We tend to confuse business acumen with wisdom. In the language of Joshua, we’re less interested in taking the Promised Land of our soul and more interested in letting Christ move in next door … as long as he’s a nice and polite neighbor.

One of the dangers of our sensibility is that it tends to blind us to our own nasty-and-not-niceness. As long as everyone stays polite and fits in with the religious culture, we tend not to be self-critical. This is one of the few “blessings” of radical Islam. They can see our failures to which we are blind. They look at the Western churches that reside fairly comfortably in Western consumer culture, and what they see is the corruption. They are horrified and are pretty sure that a real god would have no interest in being the god of infidels like us.

But it is precisely at this point that the divine grace of God’s eternal covenant reveals itself. It turns out that we have more in common with Joshua and his merry band of pirates than we’re comfortable admitting. Amazingly, in spite of the denial of our own predicament, God remains faithful to his covenant people “to the thousandth generation” (see previous post). This overwhelming reality of divine grace then gives us the space to safely admit that we have failed spectacularly. And this is the first step to true repentance and the process of rooting out all that is evil in the Promised Land of our souls.

I think I’ll call it “The Gospel of Joshua.”

 

To the Thousandth Generation

To prove that I actually was paying attention at worship on Sunday (see previous post) I heard something that had never quite registered in the Ten Commandments when the Old Testament lesson (Ex. 20:1-17) was read. “You shall not bow down to [other gods or idols] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vv 5f).

That phrase “to the third and the fourth generation” has been part of my consciousness for as long as I remember. Of course I’ve heard preachers talk about it, but I’ve also heard psychologists and crime experts use the phrase when talking about a whole host of societal troubles being generational. But on Sunday it was the following phrase that jumped out at me: “But showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I wish I was still in an academic community, or at the very least still had access to a good theological library because I have a hunch. When that sentence is viewed as a whole, the first half has the feel of folk wisdom. I wonder if that’s not how the people viewed their world apart from any divine revelation. The sort of troubles that were self-inflicted not only affected you, but also your children and grand-children to the third and even fourth generation. I’m wondering if that’s not just how people viewed (and still view) the world. I want to be very clear that I’m not offering an interpretation; I’m speculating. I’m speculating that the explanation of this first commandment begins with a bit of popular wisdom: things you cause have consequences “to the third and the fourth generation.”

Let’s assume I’m correct for a moment and the explanation for this commandment begins with how people think about the world. God then starts with that assumption and expands (or explodes) it beyond all recognition. Let me rephrase it as follows: “You tend to think in the negative. You think that if you break the covenant it will have consequences not only for yourself but for your offspring for several generations. But your perception of me (that is, God) is backward. The covenant is everlasting, and if you worship me instead of other gods, I will show you unwavering covenant love for a thousand generations (ie, for as long as you can imagine).

We tend to think, “What are all the ways that this can go wrong?” It’s human nature. But I suspect that God is rejecting that sort of thinking and telling us to replace it with a different question: “What are all the ways this can go right beyond our imagination?” We can imagine a lot of bad things. In contrast to our imagination, God is offering us unwavering covenant love beyond what we can even imagine.

So, if there’s any actual Old Testament scholars out there who have the tools to research this stuff, I ask you if I’m on to something. Is the whole “third and fourth generation” thing actually a bit of folk wisdom, or am I completely off base? Whether it is or not, this first commandment is a remarkable statement of divine mercy. Thanks be to God.

 

Have You Ever Seen a Picture of Jesus Cleansing the Temple?

The sermon I heard on Sunday, based on the Gospel lesson about Jesus cleansing the Temple (Jn 2:13-22), caught me completely off guard. We were reminded that we see copies of the Ten Commandments for sale everywhere, even the grocery store (the Old Testament lesson) and images of the cross are ubiquitous (the epistle), but, according to Fr. Jay, you’ve probably never seen a picture of Jesus with a whip in his hand cleansing the temple. At this point I don’t know where the sermon went because I found the statement completely at odds with my experience.

Actually, this image was one of the more common in my childhood. It wasn’t in our home—being fairly hard-core iconoclasts, we didn’t have pictures of Jesus in our home—but it was common throughout the education wing of the church building. Our denomination was quite horrified by all that stuff we thought was idolatrous and for the most part, the only images that were acceptable—pictures for the kids in the education wing—tended toward the dramatic and led to a good story: Adam, Eve, and the snake, Moses with his staff over his head, the Ark with the Animals streaming in, Jesus with the sheep (actually, that one was in the sanctuary, so go figure), and of course, Jesus at the temple, driving out the animals, money changers, etc.

While I don’t know about denominational policies and practices as a whole (I was just a kid, after all), I know that even in college this image (by this time, not a picture on the wall, but a mental image—we were iconoclasts after all) of Jesus, with whip in hand, driving the money changers from the temple was a big deal. For the rest of the sermon (which after this was sort of like Charlie Brown’s school teacher going “Wah, wah, wah” in the Christmas special) I pondered why this image was so central to the tradition of my childhood.

The answer was actually rather obvious. The Bible Church was a weird confluence of the Reformed and Holiness traditions. I call it weird because on theological grounds we rejected holiness doctrine in favor of a Reformed view of salvation (salvation by grace alone through faith and not of works) but at the same time, on practical, everday grounds, being holy was a very big deal. (“We don’t drink, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do,” to quote the popular doggeral.) Drinking and smoking (illegal drugs like heroin and legal drugs like opiods weren’t much of a thing yet, so those weren’t on the list) weren’t allowed because the body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. That image of Jesus, whip overhead, cleansing the Temple, was the icon par excellence of our Christian life.

This whole question of whether I’d ever seen an image of Jesus with a whip above his head cleansing the temple was so arresting to me because I’ve been pondering the book of Joshua. (Speaking of weird, that’s a weird turn for this essay to take, but stay with me. Oh, and I suspect there’s an essay on Joshua coming up eventually.) I recently read Joshua and this trip through the book I was taken by how violent the story is, what with all the genocide, etc. But the church of my youth didn’t treat Joshua primarily as a history. I know that’s odd. The denomination completely missed the point of the early chapters of Genesis, treating them as history, but tended to focus on Joshua and Judges as stories that were types of Christ. We didn’t revel in the violence, we saw in the violence the profound difficulty in living a holy life. If you don’t stamp evil out completely in your life as in the Promised Land, that evil will come back to haunt you.

Similarly, the image of Jesus snapping the whip and driving the money changers from the temple was the image of the danger of allowing the secular world to impinge on the sacred. It was the summation of the tragedy described in Joshua and Judges. It was the single picture of the whole Old Testament story of promises to God undercut by our failure to root out the evil in our lives.

I wonder if anyone else remembers that Sunday School picture in the same way I do.

It’s not so much a picture of violence as it is of purity. As Mt. 11:12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Caveat: I’m no longer sure this is the correct interpretation of this verse, but this was certainly how we viewed these words of Jesus at Bible College. It was a description of the difficulty of living the pure life that John the Baptist embodied.) As a result, after I became a Presbyterian and started doing those things that so horrified the Bible Church of my childhood, finding this text at the midpoint of Lent seemed not only natural, but inevitable. It’s at this point, when all of our good intentions have been revealed for what they are, that we are faced with this icon of purity, of Jesus in our hearts driving out the impurities that we have come to accept with thoughtless ease.

So that’s what I got out of church this week. … I still sort of wonder what Fr. Jay was talking about after the part about the picture of Jesus and the whip in the temple. 🙂

Moses Pt. 3: He Actually Is Quite Special

Moses and Joshua together prefigure Christ; because they prefigure Christ, they also prefigure the Christian life. There is genius in distinguishing the two story arcs in the Pentateuch and Joshua Because each pictures something quite different that is happening in our life. We experience it at the same time and therefore tend to merge the two into a single experience. But they are not; one is Moses and the other is Joshua.

In the first essay of this series I said, “Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. But this is not say that Moses was not a believer, that he didn’t follow God, nor is it to imply that he didn’t go to heaven. The Book of Joshua emphasizes that he did clearly and redundantly. “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f). He’s not just “Moses,” he’s “Moses the servant of the LORD.”

This is why I needed to insert an essay on eternal security between the first essay and this one. When I insist that Moses is a model of pride and anger rather than holiness, and when I make a big deal that Deuteronomy tells us clearly that Moses was not allowed to enter the rest of the Promised Land because of his sin, I am not saying that Moses isn’t going to heaven. That sort of logic is rooted in a misunderstanding of sin and the meaning of salvation. Rather, I am saying that Moses prefigures one aspect of our Christian life. Joshua (a name that means “The LORD is the Savior”), on the other hand, prefigures another aspect of our Christian life. We ought not to confuse the two. (Thus, the genius of creating two distinct story arcs with these two saints.)

Salvation is accomplished (“It is finished,” Jn. 19:30). Jesus Christ and Christ alone has overthrown death and the devil and opened the gates of Sheol. Our salvation is assured by God’s eternal promise. That is Joshua. At the same time, we struggle with our sin. We are not perfect and all attempts to be perfect fail miserably. The church—the redeemed people who gather to worship and serve God—is for the most part a hotbed of evil. This is God’s Servant Moses. As Enid Strict, SNL’s Church Lady, would say, “Well isn’t that special!”

There is, as I have said, a tendency to conflate these two distinct facets of our salvation. When we do, odd doctrines can result. On the one hand, we might think that we don’t need to worry about Moses at all and just focus on Joshua. Christ is our righteousness, there is nothing left for me to do. This tendency has troubled the church for so long and so consistently, it has a name: antinomianism, which means “opposed to rules.” But as Paul asks, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom 6:1f). On the other hand, there are those who believe that keeping all the rules is required in order to be saved. (This also has a name: legalism.) But these two polar opposites miss the point completely because they conflate Moses and Joshua.

How do we serve the Lord (ie, Moses)? We do it by serving others. We also do it by struggling against sin our life. This struggle typically results in us becoming more holy over time. Let me be clear that it doesn’t result in becoming holy in the absolute sense, but rather in becoming more holy. As we struggle against sin the light of Christ which shines within us is incorporated into our very being and we become more like Christ, that is, we become more holy. But this is all “Moses, the Servant of the Lord” stuff. It happens in the wilderness, on the left side of the Jordan. This is not the stuff that’s going to get us saved. It’s rather the stuff that makes us “the servant of the Lord.”

Returning to the genius of the Old Testament story, the fact is, we are not going to do this very well. When our lives are viewed from the “Moses the Servant of the Lord” perspective, we will end up being defined by our sins and our passions. And that will give those around the opportunity to view us with a cynical eye and repeat with the Church Lady, “Well isn’t that special!”

But God, unlike the Church Lady, actually did think it was special. So even though Moses, when viewed from the end of his life, was defined by his anger and unbelief, God emphatically calls him his servant. There is a danger that we think a successful Christian life is defined by success rather than service, and when that happens we will become discouraged. But success is not the point. Success is not even an option. Moses knew from the day he wandered away from Meribah that he would not be entering the Promised Land. Our life of servanthood, our life of effort to throw off sin and put on holiness, is our life of the wilderness. None of it will get us across the Jordan. It might get us to the top of Mt. Nebo where we can gaze at the Promised Land (Deut. 34)—the Fathers call this the vision of the Heavenly Light—but like Moses, all that effort and the accompanying results will ultimately die in the wilderness.

For all the futility of being a servant (it is represented by wandering around the desert in circles for forty years, after all), when viewed with humility, that would be enough. If we choose to embrace such a role and seek to struggle in putting off sin and putting on righteousness, we can be sure that we will on occasion drink from living water gushing forth from the rock, we will eat the heavenly food of manna, we will even see the glorious heavenly light from afar on Mt. Nebo. Yes, that would be enough. This, in fact, is essentially the vision of life offered by the Greek Stoics as well as a view of secular holiness presented by someone such as Jordan Peterson . For some it is a satisfying vision, but there can be far more.

Side by side with the story of God’s servant Moses, is the story of our Savior, Joshua. Beyond the wandering in the desert, there is the hope of the Promised Land. Beyond the struggle against our passions and the corruption of life, there is the promised rest experienced in the Kingdom of God. “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f).

What more can be said about this? This is our inheritance.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:11-14)

If we try to “harmonize” these stories we will end up with a bastardized religion with either legalistic or antinomian tendencies. We will be frustrated because of our lack of success. We will confuse our “Servant of the Lord Moses” efforts with the “Joshua, our Savior” gift that God has promised. But the genius of Deuteronomy and Joshua is that they keep the stories separate. The genius is the honesty of making Moses a symbol of our anger and unbelief, and by extension, all the rest of our passions. Because of that I can say with complete confidence, while seemingly trapped in my failures, passions, and corruption, that God accepts me as his servant. I am God’s servant Jim. And in spite of the cynicism of the Church Lady, that actually is quite special.

 

Moses, Pt. 2: Eternal Security

On Reddit I follow a couple of Orthodox subreddits and a question that comes up repeatedly is that of eternal security. How can I know that I am saved? Do the Orthodox believe in eternal security? Or some other variation on this theme. In the Protestant group in which I grew up (and it seems this is pretty typical of Protestantism) eternal security was summed up by the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Very early I realized that there was a loophole in the logic that nullified the doctrine at a practical level, and the keepers of the faith regularly used the loophole. If a person went off the rails and became particularly wicked after “getting saved” and being a good church member for a while, someone would inevitably raise the eternal security question. The answer that I heard on many occasions was, “Oh, that person was never saved in the first place.”

So while Protestants, and the Reformed flavor of Protestants in particular, celebrate eternal security, the doctrine remains a nice theory with little real significance in everyday life. The doctrine is logical trap because when salvation is mis-defined as an event—a specific time when one crosses over into divine favor—questions will inevitably remain about this event we call salvation. When actual life is lived in the wold after Adam and Eve, the doctrine salvation as an event creates a morass of questions and ambiguities.

I am particularly fond of the pre-Reformation approach to the question. The Orthodox understanding is typical of this classic view. It begins with the affirmation that no one can escape the presence of God. Even in Sheol, God is there and “accessible” (See the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 as well as Ps. 139). The enduring reality for all creation will be the light and love of God. For those who love God, this will be experienced as light and life, for those who love themselves far more than God, that same light of God’s presence is experienced as fire and judgment. Within this context, heaven and hell and “being saved” means something rather different and far more profound than the rather simplistic binary of “saved” or “not saved” by which it is typically described in the modern world.

What determines my eternal fate is not a particular set of actions nor is it the repetition of a simple little prayer (ie, the Sinner’s Prayer). My eternal fate is to be with God, no matter what. Whether I experience this eternal destiny as heaven or hell does not rest in any particular action, nor whether I happen to be living “in grace” or “out of grace” at the moment of my death, but rather in my attitude shaped by life-long thinking and acting. Thus all the hand-ringing over whether I am saved or not is to rather miss the point. The question is, “Do you love God? And I answer, “Of course I do!” And then my spiritual guide and confessor begins to probe my life and I begin to discover that there are quite a number of things I love more than God. (The Orthodox combine all of these earthly loves into a big group and call them the passions.) The trouble with the heart is that it is very deceitful and it even deceives us, disguising the passions as good things. But as these passions—these things I love more than God—are revealed to me, I can seek to put them aside and come to truly love God. Within this framework, salvation is the path of discovering my passions, confessing them, and turning again and again toward God.

Within the classical way of thinking that was normal long before the Reformation, salvation wasn’t a noun as much as it was a verb. It was not a question of whether you were saved or not saved, for those aren’t the two options, but rather if you were working out your salvation (Phil 2:12). Salvation isn’t a moment where you cross a line from one side to another, it is more akin to a process. It is not an instant transformation as much as it is a slow change.

Within this classical framework, eternal security is rooted in three things. First, is the sure knowledge that God loves us, looks for and longs for us like the father of the Prodigal Son, just waiting for the opportunity to run to us and embrace us. Second, is the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has opened the way to salvation. There are no hindrances to my salvation other than my own pride and stubbornness. Third, in order to be utterly secure in my salvation, all I have to do is continue loving God and learning to love God anew every time I discover an area where I love something else more than God. There are no magic words nor mathematical formulae. Eternal security is not a mental affirmation, but a path to travel, knowing full well that along the way I’ll fall back and have to start anew.

There is a famous icon (see the top of the page) that many Protestants find horrifying because of the tendency to think of salvation as binary. As people climb the ladder to the light of Christ (on the left, note that heaven is on the right), demons are trying to pry them off, making them fall to the ground. My Protestant eyes look at that and see people losing their salvation. But that is not what is pictured. Look closely. The people are not falling into hell, they’re falling back to earth. Such a fall is not the end of the story, it’s a description of how life is actually lived. They’ll just get back on the ladder and start climbing again. The only way to “lose one’s salvation” is to utterly reject it. The danger is not accidental or secret sin, but rather despair (or “despond,” as John Bunyan described it. It would require that one begin to hate rather than love God. This scenario is never considered in this icon. It is rather a picture of the Christian life where we climb the ladder of spiritual maturity, fall off, and start climbing again.

With this more proper context in mind, I will return to Moses and his passions in the next essay.

 

Moses, the Dark Side

For all of his good qualities—Lawgiver, mediator between God and the nation, organizer of the Exodus—Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. That incident began with a big problem.

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. (Num. 20:2)

Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting asking for a solution to the water problem and God told them,

Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock. (v. 8)

What Moses did was a bit different.

So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. (vv. 9-11)

Moses’ anger and lack of self-control shines through in these sentences. He demeans the people by calling them “you rebels.” Rather than speaking to the rock (as he was told to do), he scolds the people with a biting rhetorical question. And then, with no word to the rock, he whacks it twice with his staff. It is the image of a child striking out in helpless anger because he feels there are no options left. While immature, out of control, and childish, Moses’ response is understandable; the nation was out of water and everyone was mad at him. In spite of our sympathy with Moses, there is a big “but” involved.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (v. 12)

These petty outward actions reflect a deeper problem. God’s intent was to show his holiness. Moses, because of his uncontrolled passion and resulting outburst, diminished the moment to an embarrassing demonstration of his own failings. God was pushed into the background while Moses stole the limelight. The text then closes with these tragic words:

These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and by which he showed his holiness. (v. 13)

God’s holiness was still demonstrated but it was demonstrated through the lens of the people’s mistrust and Moses’ pettiness. Throughout scripture we see that God prefers to clothe his glory in some created form, and especially in human form. Once again God clothes his glory in his servant Moses, but Moses’ antics are such that what we remember is less God’s glory and more Moses’ uncontrolled passions. The place isn’t named for what should have been memorable, “God Provides,” or “God Shows His Holiness.” Instead it’s named after what was actually most memorable; it’s called “Quarrel” (or “Meribah” in Hebrew).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). This was the rub for Moses. He was a slave to his passions. When he tried to serve the Lord his passions took control and he ended up despising God’s holiness in the process of serving his own anger. Because no one can serve two masters, and because in this incident Moses demonstrated for all to see that his master was still his own passion, God told Moses that he would be incapable of crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and entering God’s rest.

By the end of Deuteronomy the people are near the edge of the Promised Land, but in a sort of limbo. They aren’t moving forward nor are they traveling to any particular place. And then we turn from Deuteronomy to Joshua and discover that everything changes.

After the death of Moses, the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. (Josh. 1:1-2)

Now that Moses is gone, the nation is finally free to “enter the place of rest” as Joshua calls it (v. 13). What are we to make of this? First (and this is the bit of the story that I have been emphasizing here), Moses represents our passions. 1 John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (2:15-17). As the years went by Christian teachers began to describe what 1 John is talking about, along with related issues, with a single term: the passions.

One of the gifts God gave us as part of his image is an unquenchable desire to fellowship with and ultimately to commune with God. One of the consequences of sin is that our original innate connection with God was broken and God became a stranger. But the unquenchable desire remained, and it attached itself to created things. In 1 John it is described as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life.” The Fathers and Mothers of the church recognized that anger, intellectualism, and other excesses of life were the same thing with different faces. When this unquenchable desire is pointed directly at God it draws us inexorably toward him. But, as is typical with sin, when this unquenchable desire is pointed at things other than God, it prevents us from drawing close to God.

This is Moses in the story arc that stretches from Meribah to his death in Deut. 34. He, and the passions he represents, had to die before the nation could enter the Promised Land. Similarly, before we are able to enter into God’s rest, it is necessary for our passions to be reigned in and redirected toward God and God alone. Paul calls this dying to the flesh. This battle with the passions is therefore at the center of our Christian life and our struggle to enter into fellowship and union with God.

Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to the scripture text and are now thoroughly annoyed with me because of the reductionist manner in which I have read the text. This is a more complex story than what I have described, but I suspect we can’t appreciate the complexity without looking at the different threads individually. I will explore another thread of the story in the next essay.

Karl Barth on Samuel, Saul, and the Divine Condescension of Election

Divine sovereignty and election are the manner in which God reveals his humility in contrast to, and as a solution to, human pride, according to Karl Barth. He offers an illustration in his exegesis of 1 Samuel 8-31 (found in the Church Dogmatics, IV/1, pp. 437-445). The people went to Samuel and demanded a king. But “from 1 Sam. 8 we see clearly that the existence and function of a human king in Israel are alien and indeed contrary to the original conception of the covenant … The Judges of an earlier period, of whom Samuel was the last, were called to their work directly by God and as the need arose” (p. 438). Given that kings are contrary to the covenant (a claim which Barth defends quite extensively), it is surprising that God agrees to their demand. “Indeed Yahweh Himself undertakes the election and appointment of a king for Israel, and Samuel, for his part, can only be the instrument of this election and appointment which obviously contradict everything that has gone before and the Law which Israel has followed” (p. 439). The text makes clear that God is not changing his mind about the covenant (Barth cites 1 Sam. 15:29f), rather,

According to 1 Sam. 8:18 even God’s connivance and condescension to the people in this matter are simply an act of judgment: “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” God gave them up (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) to their own hearts’ desire, to their perverted judgment. He punished their sin by their sin, simply letting it take its course. But that is not good at all, and it is not the decisive point. The grace of God is not extinguished or withdrawn in this His apparent concession. He knows very well what He is will and doing when He accedes to the perverted judgment of Israel its place and possibility. Even in accepting Israel’s plan He can master it. (p. 439)

Even in the midst of his condescension (and we might add humiliation) in the face of the request, God continues with his plan.

[T]he kingship was to express the monarchy and the sole lordship of the grace of God. This was the purpose of the divine concession to Israel’s sinful and perverted demand. It is a concession in which Yahweh not only maintains His control but exercises it in a new way. He does not give up His will and plan. He carries it through in the face of and in opposition to Israel’s sin.

Of course Saul didn’t carry out his side of the deal and (as Barth goes on to explain in no small detail). Rather than serve the people, he began to make demands of the people so that the people began to serve the institution. Saul even sought to usurp the prophetic role. This ultimately leads to Saul’s downfall and death (in stark contrast to Aaron, who did as the people told him and led them into apostasy, but never usurped the role of Moses). Although we have the interlude of David, the second king who was also elected by God and anointed by Samuel, Saul, not David, was the precursor of things to come. The monarchy turned out to be a disaster for Israel.

What is the meaning of this turn of events? “Again, it was the sin of Israel not to be satisfied with the old form. This is the shadow which lies from the very first on the new form of the covenant, the Israelitish monarchy. It did not need to be darkness. It could mean even higher and deeper grace, like the covenant, which, although it had become something stern and hard because of the sin of the first man, had not been destroyed, but had become all the higher and deeper grace in antithesis to the sin of man” (p. 442). In the end the people were required to serve the king (and institution) rather than the institution serving the people.

The king (and lurking in the shadows of Barth’s critique of “the Israelitish monarchy” is his critique of the papacy, which he clearly sees as a parallel rejection of God’s covenantal structure for the church) would demand difficult and burdensome things of the people. The king would even, on many occasions, lead the people in the direction of great evil. But this did not mean that the people of Israel should cease being Israelites and go out and form a new nation that followed the covenant. Because God’s grace could be expressed in “the higher and deeper grace” of God’s humble activity “in antithesis to the sin of man” in spite of the burden and corruption of the institution, those still committed to the covenant could gladly remain faithful to the covenant, in spite of the false and unnecessary institutional burden being placed on them.

Furthermore, Barth’s recommendation is not that Protestants cease being Protestants and just return to the Roman Catholic Church. What’s done is done and there is always the mystery of God’s higher and deeper grace in our current fractured state. But he is making the point that even when we are part of an institution (whether monarchy or papacy or other institutional church, such as the German Reformed Church that served the purposes of the Third Reich during Barth’s lifetime) that is corrupt, God remains working actively in antithesis to human sin, but in a condescending and hidden manner. Our primary job as people is first to be faithful. Our faithfulness may happen to fix the system, but it usually does not. But it is not our job to fix the system, our job is to remain faithful to the covenant in the situation in which we find ourselves.

It is striking that Barth never left the German church. (Yes, he was in northern Switzerland, but the body he was a part of was part of the German church and not an independent Swiss Reformed body.) It is also striking that while he never condemned Bonhoeffer for his act of treason against Hitler that ultimately led to Bonhoeffer’s death, neither did Barth praise it as the normative model of faithfulness. He certainly never called Bonhoeffer a martyr, for he died, not because he was a Christian, but because he was a traitor to the Reich. In the end, while Bonhoeffer’s action has remained a shining example of Christian resistance, it had little effect on the church beyond his example. Barth’s path was different. He remained in the German church. Since he was in Switzerland, he “fought” with the Allies against the Nazis as a city guard in Basel, and he wrote theology. His body of writings, over the next generation, was key to transforming the German church as it confessed its complicity with the Nazis and moved forward into a new era of self-understanding.

I have a number of friends and colleagues who have remained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in spite of its many problems and its ongoing decent into heresy. Although I never thought of it in the context of Barth’s exegesis of 1 Sam. 8-31, I find my attitude toward them as well as toward those who left the denomination (including me, I should note) in much the same way Barth seemed to react to Bonhoeffer. I neither praise nor condemn, I simply assume that they continue to be faithful to God’s covenant in the path that they have taken. Similarly, I am appalled by the racism enacted in Christian bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America, as they turn a blind eye to the rising violence against people of color and too often censure those who do speak out. (This is the reason I waited until today, the ML King holiday here int he States, to post this essay.) But as with my colleagues in the mainline churches, so with my acquaintances in these Evangelical bodies: I have no reason to think they are not being faithful to God’s covenant in spite of the abysmal levels those denominations have sunk. The utter mess and confusion of human perversion makes the correct path forward difficult to see. In the midst of the confusion and perversion, what I am absolutely convinced of is “the higher and deeper grace” of God in Christ in the midst of the modern world.

 

Karl Barth on Aaron and the Golden Calf

Karl Barth has a most interesting and provocative exegesis of two Old Testament stories in two excurses in Church Dogmatics IV/1. The first one concerns Aaron (Exodus 32) on pp. 423-432. The second is about the rejection of Samuel and the rise of Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 8-31) on pp. 437-445. The exegesis has to do with the culpability of leaders and organizations in contrast to the culpability of the people the leader is leading. In both he circles around the subject of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am surprised I did not notice this passage when I read it back in the late 80s or early 90s, but it could be that Barth’s insight may require the perspective of an old guy looking back rather than of a Young Turk just looking around.

Barth was no fan of the papacy. In these two excurses he manages both to critique the institution quite harshly while at the same time provide a way of being Roman Catholic while remaining faithful to the deeper call of the Gospel. His critique is not only about the papacy, but about all systems where power (or possibly more accurately, authority) is concentrated in a small group. He never mentions Hitler by name, but his life context of the Third Reich and the German church whispers throughout this whole section of the Church Dogmatics. (It’s entitled, “The Pride of Man.”)

Exodus 32 is part of the story of the giving of the Law. Moses is on Mt. Sinai and has been gone a very long time. There is concern, then grumbling, then an assumption that he’s dead and never returning. The people talk Aaron, Moses’ brother, into forming an idol, the Golden Calf, which they can worship in place of Yahweh. Moses does eventually come down the mountain, is horrified by what he sees and breaks the tablets of the Law. God tells Moses that the people have broken the covenant they promised to keep and they therefore will be destroyed. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and even though many people die and everyone suffers, ultimately God forgives the breach of covenant and things return to as normal as it can be after such an apostasy.

Barth argues that the respective roles of Moses and Aaron (in relation to God and the covenant) are important if one is to understand the story. Moses is the prophet and is thus the one who has been appointed to be the mediator between God and the people. Aaron, on the other hand is the priest and is not a mediator. He rather speaks on behalf of the people and organizes the religion.

[Note: This association of “mediator” with prophet and not priest might be hard to defend on exegetical grounds. I haven’t studied it a great deal. But if there is a problem, it is not in the idea but rather in the manner which Barth expresses it. His analysis of Moses and Aaron is indeed what Exodus describes. Moses is the one who talks with God, after all, not Aaron. Barth’s motivation becomes clear when we get to the second excursus. Samuel, and all the prophets who proceeded him (that is the Judges), are clearly the mediators between God and the people. But the people wanted a king who served them, not a prophetic Judge who served God. Barth is making a parallel between the two stories. On pp. 438ff, Barth proposes that Samuel’s function is parallel to Moses while Saul’s function should be more or less parallel to Aaron.

The part of the Golden Calf story that is so striking to Barth is what doesn’t happen to Aaron. About 3,000 people died that day (Ex. 32:28) but Aaron, the high priest of the new religion, is not among those who died. Moses’ rebuke of Aaron is shockingly mild. “What did this people do to you that you have wrought so great a sin upon them?” (v. 21). It’s as if Aaron is not responsible. “What did this people do? not, “What did you do?” This is where Barth observes that Aaron’s role is to speak on behalf of the people and thus do their will (in contrast to Moses who speaks on behalf of God). “The one who receives and mediates the divine revelation, the friend who speaks with God as an equal, is Moses himself. Aaron and all the others are only witnesses” (p. 428).

What is Aaron then? He is “a type of the institutional priesthood” (p. 428). “He is the man of the national Church, the established Church. He listens to the voice of the soul of the people and obeys it. He is the direct executor of its wishes and demands. He shows the people how to proceed and he takes the initiative” (p. 429). The problem is not with Aaron, it is with the people. The institution can and should certainly play a role in teaching and guiding the people back to the truth, but ultimately when things go wrong, it is not the fault of the institution, it is the fault of the people. (And this sentiment is the heart of Barth’s nuanced critique of the Roman Catholic Church; it is what the people want.) “The priestly art as such—building altars and celebrating liturgies and ordering and executing sacrifices and proclaiming feasts of the Lord—is a neutral activity which can turn into the very opposite of all that is intended by it. The priest as such can always be a deluded and deluding pope” (p. 429). In Barth’s mind, “Aaron (and any priest or pope for that matter) is not without blame, but because the institutional priesthood (of which Aaron is a type) faces the people and reflects their wishes. It is the prophet, on the other hand, who guides them.”

[Note: at this juncture it is well worth noting that in the classic Reformed tradition of which Barth is a part, clergy should not be thought of in the priestly role because Jesus Christ is our priest, clergy are rather modeled on the prophetic role. It is, I suspect, why proclamation of the Word tends to overshadow administration of the Sacraments although they are technically equal activities. Ministers are not “priests” but “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”]

The relationship between Samuel (the last prophet leader, or Judge, of Israel) and Saul (the first king of Israel) is similar to that of Moses and Aaron. Samuel is the prophet and thus the mediator between God and the people. Just as with Moses and Aaron, Samuel serves God on behalf of the people while Saul, as king, should serve the people on behalf of God. This pattern is not God’s ideal because the institutional side (ie, Aaron and Saul) can become overbearing as they cease to serve the people’s will and begin to lord over the people. That tendency is much more clear in the story of Samuel and Saul and will be explored in the next essay.

 

Judgment and Mercy

I have talked about the problem of translating “justice” (Hebrew is mishpat) previously in essays such as My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors, The Really Hard Part, and Oppressed-a-non. I want to revisit this topic in more depth as a starting place for this series of essays because we tend to turn the meaning of mishpat on its head. The familiar words of Amos 5:24 offer an example. The translation of record of mainstream Protestantism, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This translation makes it sound like Amos is offering a hopeful vision of the future, a glimpse of the Kingdom.

But this is not what Amos has in mind. The King James Version (KJV, translated long before our modern sensibilities of social justice) says that “judgment” (not “justice”) will roll down. In case we are confused by the meaning of judgment and who will be judged, Amos continues by describing its nature: “Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus” (v. 27).

Another word found frequently alongside mishpat is tzedakah, translated “righteousness” above in v. 24. When mishpat is rendered as “justice” rather than “judgment,” righteousness can also be misleading. The word is similar to mishpat, but again our contemporary usage of “justice” will too easily get in the way of understanding what’s going on. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin says,

From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.

Teluskin goes on to quote Maimonides,

There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree … is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people.

What Teluskin describes is something quite different than what comes to mind when we say righteousness will flow down. The English word that comes far closer to this sensibility is “mercy.” In fact the same word tzedakah is one of those multi-purpose Hebrew words that is so rich in variation that there is no good single English equivalent. It certainly means righteousness, but not in the Calvinistic sense of something that only God has the ability to give, rather it is a description of the moral life. When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning of [the Torah]? … Then you say … If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right (tzedek)” (Deut. 6:20, 25). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b) says: “Tzedakah [and the Bava Bathra seems to have mercy or charity in mind] is equal to all the other commandments combined.”

What is striking is that neither Hebrew word actually includes the idea that we should fix the root problem of poverty (the current conception of social justice). Alms-giving and the righteousness that grows out of that lies at the heart of both the Old Testament and Talmudic system. This is not surprising when we put the words mishpat and tzedakah into a political context. The nearly universal form of government in the ancient near east was monarchy. This is also the context of the New Testament which was written within the borders of the Roman Empire. There were exceptions (and Teluskin describes “self-governing Jewish communities” as an example), but for most of history, fixing the system was not an option; you either helped the poor by giving them food or money (tzedakah) or you got involved in a plot to overthrow the King or Queen (mishpat).

The equation seems rather different today. Most of us in the Western world live in a country with some variant of a representative democracy. Switzerland is the only country I’m aware of that is close to a true democracy, but most of the rest of us have at least some say indirectly through our representatives. This new political environment was not envisioned by the writers of scripture. Political theology today recognizes there is a third way beyond the traditional meanings of mishpat and tzedakah; we can work to change the system to be more friendly to the poor and oppressed. Our newer understanding of “justice” reflects this, and I suspect that this is why the word mishpat is now almost universally translated into English as “justice” rather than “judgment” and tzedakah as “righteousness” rather than “mercy” (although the latter remains a bit curious).

Unfortunately, this hope that we can fix the system, while a nice theory, has not worked very well. While the poor and oppressed are incomparably better off today than they were in the first century, the systemic problems of poverty and oppression persist. Sadly, three centuries or more of enlightened governance has changed few of these realities. For those in power there is always a loophole. Furthermore, the rich and powerful continue to appear to be ignorant and unresponsive to the fundamental needs of society. Here in the United States tzedakah as “righteousness” is not, nor has it ever been the righteous system that supports everyone, rhetoric of the City shining on a hill notwithstanding, rather tzedakah as “mercy” or “alms” remains the only practical way forward as we seek to become a righteous people of God.

Although the Talmud does not speak to this issue to my knowledge, I have one more observation about social righteousness: It is tempting to try to fix others or fix the system in place of fixing myself. There are at least two reasons for this. First, fixing others is a necessarily public action and we receive praise and increase our stature for such public actions. Fixing myself is (or should be) a private affair that should remain between God, me, and my confessor. It’s harder to get excited about something for which we don’t receive praise. Second, fixing myself is an extremely difficult task. Even though actual progress can be made on fixing myself and even though there is little historical evidence that fixing others is or ever has been an effective strategy, we tend to follow the path that leads to little resistance and lots of praise, while ignoring the historical evidence.

Next essay: Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.