And Something I’d Missed from Leviticus 21…

Did you ever notice that in Leviticus 21:10-11, the high priest is forbidden to tear his clothes or to put himself into an unclean state (i.e. for mourning purposes, e.g. with dirt on the head, presumably) even if it was his nearest and dearest, his father or mother who had died!

But in Matt 26:65 and Mark 14:63 we’re told that at the trial of Jesus, when Jesus responded to the insistence, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” by saying,

You have said it yourself. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mat 26:64 NET),

the response of the high priest is to tear his clothes! I’m not even sure how that is done, if those clothes are at all robustly made, e.g. the classic one-piece linen robe I understood the high priest wore. But assuming it’s possible, should we see this as an act of utter desperation at this apparent blasphemy? Something implicitly worse than the death of father or mother, a dent in the honour of Yahweh?

Surely a Jewish-Christian author such as Matthew knows that the high priest has done something technically illegal for the high priest, and I think he can assume that it’s common knowledge amongst his Jewish audience. What is his implicit commentary on the action? Is it that the high priest, in condemning Jesus, is in the act of doing something that breaks the law himself? Or should we interpret it simply as high emotion?

Over to you, dear reader!

Jesus and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Heard a great sermon at my parents’ church in Coffs Harbour, in mid-north coast NSW, Australia last week. (Coffs is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and a great place for a summer holiday.) It’s actually a rather old-fashioned church in worship style, but I respect the pastor, David Mitchell, and he was on the money last Sunday.

His talk was based on Matthew 27:16-26:

16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.
17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matt. 27:16-26 NIV)

In light of the Lindt Cafe hostage drama a couple of weeks prior in Sydney, and then only a few days before he spoke, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, David’s angle was to use the text above to help us think about how the Christian should view sacred vigilantes or holy war.

The message was simple. This episode in Jesus’ final trials presents to us alternate ways of advancing a cause: the way of Jesus, and the way of Barabbas. Barabbas is the partisan, the vigilante, the sicarius or dagger bearer. He was willing to kill for the cause and had such kills chalked up already. Were they Romans, or were they Jews who had co-operated with the Romans? It’s funny how the vigilante ends up killing his own people so freely where they are perceived to co-operate with the enemy. They are easier to reach, for one thing.

David admitted with simple honesty that Christians (or Christendom, we might say) had used this approach in the past to try to advance the cause, infamously during the Crusades. But the Crusades did not have good theological justification from the New Testament and specifically from Jesus’ teaching. If you want to run a Christian (military) crusade, you really need to ignore many parts of the New Testament. (Is the Old Testament a different story? Let’s hold that off for the next post.)

The way of Jesus is not the way of the sword. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of Jesus’ disciples decided it was time for a heroic last stand, and took a swipe at the arresting party with a sword (Matt. 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51).  John’s Gospel alone identifies the wielder as Peter, and he probably wasn’t just aiming to remove the guy’s ear. As a soldier, he made a good fisherman.

Each Gospel reports that Jesus brought this final resistance to an abrupt halt, while casting Jesus’ reply and reasoning rather differently. But Matthew offers the most detail. “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52 NIV). Jesus continues there by saying that if he wished to resist his enemies, he would sooner use heavenly troops and weapons. But that was not his purpose in any case. His victory would come ironically by way of abject defeat and death, followed by unexpected return from death.

A spiritual kingdom cannot be won and defended with human weapons (John 18:36), even if its citizens live in a human world. The Crusades were not only barbaric in practice but were theologically ill-conceived. The way of Jesus is not the way of Barabbas. The New Testament defends the secular government’s right to ‘bear the sword’ for purposes of maintaining justice in society, and arguably, for national defence, but it never authorizes the use of force or violent militancy to advance the Christian cause.

Jihad can never be the tool of the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus never has permission to kill for the cause.

The disciple of Jesus simply has permission to die for the cause. Indeed, where necessary, the obligation so to die.

But if it came to that, would I be willing to die? I hope so. Would I retaliate? I hope not, but when we’re angry, reason takes a back seat. Would I reneg? I don’t know. I hope I would join the great and honoured ranks of the martyrs.

What would you do?

Next post: Joshua and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

The Lord’s Prayer – An Alternate Illustration of Structure

Some time ago I posted a self-guided PowerPoint intended to demonstrate how the Lord’s Prayer is careful Greek poetry as well as profound theology in the form of a prayer: seen here. Here’s a screenshot of the main screen when complete:

Lord's Prayer S'shot

I was pleasantly surprised to read an article recently and find out that a scholar in the U.S. had attempted the same thing. Her focus is more on syntax (sentence structure), whereas I was focusing on sound, i.e. rhyming, and semantics (meaning). And she illustrates differently, e.g. using indentation. But the basic idea is similar. So here is her effort, from an appendix at the end of her article,

Pfeiffer, Cara. ‘The Contour Methodology: Teaching the Bible in the Digital Age’, Conversations with the Biblical World 31 (2011), 204–216. (This is available in the ATLAS database, held by many Bible colleges.)
Lord's Prayer Contour Rendering - Cara Pfeiffer
She has been constrained by the limits of what’s possible within the strict confines of a journal article, but notice her use of colour coding and her sensitivity to poetic structure. Encore!

There Was Morning, and There Was Evening: Wistful Reflections on the Cultural Rise and Fall of an Iconic Biblical Text, the Creation Story of Genesis 1

There is light at the end of the tunnel: I have almost completed the indexing, the last stage of preparation of my first book:

The Days of Genesis: A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

I conclude the book with three main observations from the long and complex story of the interpretation of this seminal biblical text.  I’ll spoil only one here: I find that it is the story of a trajectory, a rise and fall…meaning that Genesis 1 rises from obscurity in the consciousness of the Christian church until it, like the church itself, comes to cultural dominance in the West by about 400 CE/AD.  Then it rules the Western mind for more than 1200 years, becoming the repository for all knowledge and speculation about the world, visible and invisible.

Then as the modern era unfolds, say from 1600–1900, its dominance is steadily eroded, until the 20th century sees it largely forgotten in the West, treasured only in the special place, and at the same time (or so it feels in Australia) the cultural ghetto that is the Christian church.  I won’t try to explain the reasons for this here.  I have to leave something in the book!  But I can characterize them as a whole using a proverb spoken by Jesus:

“We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.” (Matt. 11:17)

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be metaphysics, but it didn’t quite want to be metaphysics.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be a mystical key to reality, but it didn’t really work like that.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be an all-embracing philosophy, but it didn’t aim to be philosophy.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be history, but it wasn’t really history in the normal sense.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be science, but it wasn’t really trying to express science.

The West finally reluctantly allowed that Genesis 1 could simply be poetry, but anyone who knows how Hebrew poetry works knows plainly that Genesis 1 is not Hebrew poetry.

Genesis 1 would not dance the requested dances, and now it stands at the wall, unwanted.

An unappreciated beauty.

Creation Week as Menorah

It had its morning, its cultural high noon, and now its long sunset.

But we stand reminded that in the seventh day, when God finally gets to rest, when the world is as it should be, there is only a morning, and no evening.

Your Kingdom come.

Cybersex and the Sin Superbug

It has been discouraging to hear the news today via BBC channels that the worst of western society has been cultivating an ugly but alluring financial temptation in one eastern society.  Westerners have been paying to watch children in places like Cebu City, Philippines, being sexually abused via webcam, and certain poverty-stricken Filipinos have taken the bait.  It seems to me that wherever accountability structures are light or absent, and many online environments fall into that category, something sinister in human nature seems to flourish like a cancer or a superbug.

I think of superbugs because in my previous occupation as a Baptist pastor of a small country congregation, I knew a lady in our congregation who had a superbug resident in her respiratory membranes.  It was kept under control through drugs; but it could never be eliminated.  It remained imprisoned, as it were, but was ever capable of doing drastic damage if left unsupervised.

There is something like that resident in human nature.  Christian theologians have long talked about what some in modern times have called the ‘sin nature’.  I’m not always happy with how it is described, as if the newborn baby and Hitler at his legendary worst are pretty well on the same level of evil.  That is not how the world that I have witnessed works.  But I don’t see myself as a rosy optimist concerning human nature, and this reported evil does not surprise me.  Whether it be the common person or the high-profile politician, there is a tendency in human nature to indulge baser instincts to the extent that societal pressures permit.  ‘Power corrupts’ precisely because power removes the usual mechanisms of visibility and responsibility.

I am also suspicious that we are better at identifying the besetting sins of other societies than of our own.  Jesus was on to this, was he not, when he said, counter-intuitively, not to judge others in Matthew 7:1-5.  He in theory still allows the appropriateness of judging in verse 5, but points out our ability to see the ‘speck’ in another’s eye while ignoring the log in our own (verse 4).  A French version we have in our home describes the speck aptly – “le brin de paille,” which translates as a ‘bit of straw’.  Racism essentially is this further weakness indulged: we are not only prone to sin, but we’re prone to see the sin of others and not our own.  Racism then attributes sin, or certain sins and faults, to other societies as if inherent to and limited to those societies.  It is simplistic and self-satisfying.  And Jesus would say, it’s a deception.  No-one’s eye is clear, though the size and nature of the intrusive objects might be different for different eyeballs.

Instead of judging, then, there’s forgiving, another counter-intuitive practice for human beings.  Back a little in Matthew 6:12, the Lord’s prayer includes asking the Father to “forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us” (Good News Translation, bilingual English/French edition).  I had never noticed it before, but the most famous piece of Christian Scripture there is, the Lord’s Prayer, here acknowledges the universality of human sin, but rules out judging attitudes as the solution.  It’s really because of the universality of the sin superbug that judging isn’t the answer.  In fact, every one of us is forced to pray, “deliver us from (the) Evil (One).

Christmas Foray #3 – The Guiding Star

Lastly and most provocatively on this nativity theme – what about the guiding star?  Christmas plays always present the star as sitting over the stable (that wasn’t)… I have never understood this.  A star is a giant thermonuclear explosion going off in space.  You can’t let them get that close to your stable, they ignite the hay.  What are we talking about?  One in the sky?  Over a specific house in a specific town??  I challenge you to pick a star in the sky and walk to the exact house that is directly under that star, knock on the door and say howdy.  Good luck with that.

A shooting star?  I.e. a meteorite?  Effectiveness at picking out a single house is inversely proportional with safety.  I’m not sure it’s that, either.  If you saw the Russian meteorite strike not so long ago, you’ll know what I mean.

No, these were astrologers.  They saw stars as portents, and read their positions against the constellations they appeared in to find their significance.  We’re not talking ordinary stars here, because they are ‘fixed’ with reference to Earth and keep their constellation arrangements on the scale of human lifetimes.  The only ‘stars’ that move are the other planets of our solar system, which the ancients regarded as ‘movable stars’, and occasionally comets.  Some have suggested a nova. Here’s some help from a Bible Dictionary:

“To relate a newly rising star to a king in Israel, the star would have to appear in the constellation governing the “land of Israel” (Matt 2:20-21), that is, the Roman province of Syro-Palestine. This constellation was Aries, the springtime constellation, the first-created, celestial Lamb of God.”  (Bruce J. Malina, ‘Star of Bethlehem’, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 5.371-2)  I don’t know how certain that is, or whether we can choose between a planet or planetary alignment, a comet or a (super)nova, or whether God miraculously put something on display for the magi.  But I do know how they discovered signs.  It wasn’t that they followed the star through the desert.  It’s that the ‘star’ appeared in the right quadrant of the sky, the right constellation, that when it appeared above the horizon for the first time, they interpreted it to refer to the rise of a new king.  And evidently that’s exactly the message God wanted these otherwise (if I can be so bold) fairly deluded guys with a great knowledge of the stars to get.

What about the stopping of the star over the place where the child was (Matt. 2:9)?  This may not go down so easily, but the Greek word for ‘stopped’ is quite a common word, ‘histemi‘ (long ‘e’) that can mean ‘stand’.  I quote from John Walton now, from his article ‘Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds’, in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. K. Vanhoozer, p. 44:

“The Mesopotamian celestial omens use words like “wait,” “stand,” and “stop” to record the relative movements and positions of the celestial bodies.”  He is actually talking in that context about the ‘standing’ of the sun and moon in Joshua’s day in Joshua 10.  He understands it to refer to the rare event where the moon is still above the horizon in the west when the sun is just coming up in the east, called ‘opposition’, and probably understood as a portentous omen in that time.  He finds that “Josh. 10 operates in the world of omens, not physics.  We cannot ask what these terms mean to us; we must ask what they meant to an Israelite in their cultural context.”  Well, you may or may not like that, although I found it a breakthrough, and when you look at a map, it makes tremendous sense of the reference to the sun standing over Gibeon and the moon over the Valley of Aijalon – very plausibly the eastern and western horizons for the Israelite army in its position at the time!

The magi were in fact in the same part of the country in the time mentioned in Matthew 2.  Herod’s palace of the time, I understand, was Herodium, virtually an artificial palace in a hill that Herod had built, and you can still google it up for a look here.  From there Bethlehem is just a few kilometres to the NW and about 50m higher in elevation – a modest walk up the hill.  So I’m not positive how the ‘star’ could guide them to a particular spot, and there must be other clues out there for discovering.  But we probably are dealing once again with “the world of omens, not physics.”  We may not be comfortable with that yet.  But Matthew flagged it for us in nearly unmissable terms, when he told us these guys were magi, astrologers.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” said William Cowper!  All to lead some superstitious Gentiles to the Anointed.  ‘Kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) also to us.