Saturday, October 25, 2014

II Chronicles 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ramblings on Anonymity, Being Alone with God, and Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, those are some ramblings for today.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Sacred Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus ben Sira on Hanging Out with Rich People and Generosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jesus Ben Sira and Self-Esteem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Write-Up: Darwin's Forgotten Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good book!

Monday, October 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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