Friday, May 29, 2015

Ramblings on Historical Connection

I would like to follow up on my review of the book Theology as Retrieval, by W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers (see here).  This will be a rambling post.  If there is a central theme of this post, it is the extent to which I, or my religious background, has established or felt a connection with Christian thought and practices throughout history.  Buschart and Eilers say that a number of evangelicals today have adopted traditional or liturgical practices because that gives them a deeper historical connection.  How have I approached that kind of issue?

As Buschart and Eilers argue, there are different ways that Christians have approached historical Christianity.  Some believe that the early church was a golden age that had the truth, but that things got corrupted, and yet the truth was later recovered with the Protestant Reformation.  There are Roman Catholics who would say, by contrast, that the Holy Spirit was active prior to the Protestant Reformation, and who would even go so far as to teach that the traditions of the church are, in some sense, authoritative.

As I have said before on this blog, I was raised in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God.  How did Armstrongism address these sorts of issues?  Well, it held that the first century church had the truth, and that things got corrupted early on.  I have heard that Herbert Armstrong believed that he was the one who recovered the truth, which, on the surface at least, would express a pretty low opinion of Christianity between the first and the twentieth centuries.  At the same time, the Worldwide Church of God did produce a pamphlet that contended that God’s true church has existed throughout history—-that there have long been groups of Christians that have kept the seventh-day Sabbath.  They said that the Waldensians fell into this category, but that has been disputed.  Moreover, my understanding is that Armstrongites did draw from church fathers and historic Christian thinkers whenever doing so suited them.  I recall an Ambassador College Correspondence Course making the point that Martin Luther disagreed with the immortality of the soul (which Armstrongism rejected).  Within Armstrongite circles, people read Seventh-Day Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi’s From Sabbath to Sunday, and this book said that Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, supported the observance of the Passover, which resonated with Armstrongites, who believed in the observance of the Old Testament holy days.

I suppose that a related question is, “What is a Christian?”  My understanding is that Armstrongism held that true Christians obey God’s commandments, and that would include the seventh-day Sabbath.  The Christianity of the world was not of God, according to this view, and Catholics and Protestants were presenting another Jesus, not the true one.  Again, this view would not encourage people to draw from the resources of historic Christianity.  This view was not necessarily held with iron-clad consistency, though.  I remember hearing a sermon that referred favorably to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Bunyan was not a seventh-day Sabbathkeeper—-actually, Bunyan wrote against the view that Christians had to observe the seventh-day Sabbath.  But the person preaching that message may have felt that there are so many resources from the past that can encourage and edify people as they try to live the Christian life, so why ignore them?

Where have I fallen on these issues?  Well, reading different things in high school certainly made me open to the thoughts of Christians who observed Sunday.  I came to identify with Martin Luther and his thirst for grace.  For a while, although I liked Augustine, I tended to recoil from the writings of the church fathers, for they struck me as legalistic.  I have come to enjoy their writings and sermons even more, though, for there is a side of them that embraces God’s love and grace, and the ones who champion solitude definitely speak to me, as one with Asperger’s.  In terms of my religious practice, I am currently not the sort of person who thirsts for some sense of historical connection.  I really don’t care if my church recites the Nicene Creed—-if it does, that’s fine, but whether it does so or not is not particularly important to me.  I do not practice Ignatian spirituality.  Maybe I will at some point, but I am hesitant to dive into that unfamiliar territory right now.  As I said in my last post, though, I respect Christians of the past as people seeking intimacy with God and a virtuous life.  I overlap with them in that sense, even if I do not agree with everything that they said and did.

I would like to say something about that whole scenario of the early church being some sort of golden age, and of the church being corrupted.  On the one hand, that does not resonate with me.  In the New Testament, there are warnings about wolves entering the church, but I think that it is a stretch to go from that and to say that the wolves will become the church, which is kind of what I got from Armstrongism!  On the other hand, I cannot deny that there have been abuses throughout church history, and that ritualism can lead to a spirituality that is not particularly vibrant.  Still, who is to say that the Spirit was not active even then, drawing people into a deeper relationship with God?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Write-Up: Theology as Retrieval

W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers.  Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

“Retrieval” occurs when Christians draw from the thoughts and practices of Christians from the past.  It includes reading church fathers’ interpretations of the Bible, reciting the Nicene Creed in church services, evangelicals forming monastic communities and drawing on the wisdom of past (non-evangelical) monastic communities in so doing, and other phenomena.  According to W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers, a growing number of evangelicals are drawing from the past in search of a deeper historical connection, and also because they do not consider what the present offers to be adequate for their spiritual growth and needs.

There are challenges when today’s Christians attempt to retrieve aspects of the past and to employ them in the present.  People in the past were different.  The Christians whose thoughts are being retrieved lived in a different historical context from the context of those retrieving their thoughts today, and, in a number of cases, their version of Christianity was different.  This is especially the case when evangelicals draw from Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.  Would today’s evangelicals truly honor and respect those Christians of the past were the evangelicals to cherry-pick what they like from church history and use it for their own ends?

On some level, Buschart and Eilers navigate this issue the way that one would expect sophisticated Christian academics to do so.  They endorse a humble approach to the past.  They suggest that Christians remember the difference in context between themselves and those whose thoughts and practices they are retrieving.  They do not think that Christians should blindly accept the past but should evaluate what thoughts and practices fell by the wayside in history and why, and yet they maintain that Christians today should be challenged by the past.  Essentially, they are for dialogue with the past, and they are for retrieval, as long as those retrieving reflect on what they are doing and why.  Not too many surprises there.  What Buschart and Eilers say about retrieval is similar to how a number of liberal Christians approach inter-religious dialogue: remember the different contexts, allow the other to challenge oneself and to highlight the peculiarities of one’s own beliefs, etc.  What basis do Buschart and Eilers offer for retrieval?  Why should I retrieve, say, what the church fathers had to say, or what the Puritans had to say?  For Buschart and Eilers, God has been at work in history, and the past can be a source of wisdom about how people have interacted with God.  We do not have all the answers, so why close ourselves off from the past?

Not many surprises, and it largely makes sense to me.  I suppose that one could come back and ask what the boundaries should be in retrieval.  Should I accept, for example, the church fathers’ allegorical interpretation of the Bible, even though that interpretation violates what the biblical texts originally meant?  Does such an approach open the door to eisegesis?  Should I adopt the mysticism of Christians of the past, even if that appears to be foreign to the Bible?  And is the past authoritative?  People can probably draw different conclusions about whether Buschart and Eilers tackle these questions head on and sufficiently.  I will admit that they did try, but I did not finish the book entirely satisfied.  I will say, though, that the book does teach me to respect the spiritual walks of Christians in the past, as they sought to have a deeper relationship with God and to live a virtuous life, whether or not I always agree with what those Christians said and did.  In addition, the book did inspire some thoughts.  Personally, I thought that its chapter on Scripture was wishful thinking—-that it was trying to see the Bible as a Christian document, even though the historical-critical method raises the possibility that the Bible has diverse theologies (many of them pre-Christian).  Still, Buschart and Eilers do say that God has been at work in the past, and perhaps that insight can lead me to appreciate that those diverse theologies reflect, in some way, God’s interactions with people throughout history, even if I am hesitant to put them through a Christian grid.

The book is an excellent catalog of how Christian thinkers and authors have addressed the topic of retrieval.  That would make it useful for scholars and laypeople who are interested in this topic.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pagan Miracles and Pseudo-Philo

Pseudo-Philo is a first century C.E. Jewish work that interprets and expands upon stories in the Hebrew Bible.  In Pseudo-Philo 25, we learn about luminescent Amorite stones in the Amorite sanctuaries that had the power to heal disease.  V 12 states that “even if one of the Amorites was blind, he would go and put his eyes on it and recover sight” (D.J. Harrington’s translation).  The Israelite judge Kenaz, eager to destroy the remains of Amorite religion in the land of Canaan so that they do not become (or remain) a temptation to Israel, finds a way to dispose of the stones.

We see pagan miracles elsewhere in Pseudo-Philo.  In Pseudo-Philo 34, there is a magician named Aod from the Midianite sanctuaries, and he is able to make the sun appear at night.  Aod has been sacrificing to the angels who are in charge of magic, and the angels, in the past, had transgressed by revealing magic to human beings.  I got a similar sort of message when I read I Enoch: that the transgressing angels, in revealing astrology to human beings, were not revealing something that was a total lie; rather, they were revealing something that, on some level, was true, but that God did not want people to know.  Perhaps God did not think that humans were mature enough to handle that knowledge, or he wanted for people to focus on him and thought that knowledge of astrology could detract from that.  It would be similar to the story in Genesis 3 about God not wanting Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Yes, the tree had real effects—-it enabled Adam and Eve to know good and evil, like God.  But God did not want for them to eat from that tree.  He may have thought that they were not yet ready to know good and evil, or that they should not seek the knowledge of good and evil apart from a relationship with God.  Less charitable interpretations say that God was being greedy, or that God saw the knowledge of good and evil as his sole prerogative.

But back to pagan miracles!  The reason that pagan miracles interest me is that they can potentially cast doubt on miracles being a sign that God is at work.  In the New Testament, Jesus’ miracles are a sign that God is at work.  People are supposed to be able to recognize that God is at work on account of miracles.  There are apologists today who hold that miracles attest to the truth of the Bible.  But what if the bad side can do miracles, too?  The Bible, as far as I know, does acknowledge that to be a possibility.  Pharaoh’s magicians could do some of the same miracles that Moses did.  Jesus in Mark 13 (and parallels) talks about false Christs and false Messiahs performing signs and wonders.  In the Book of Revelation, people marvel because the Beast died and came back to life.

But one could come back and nitpick those miracles that the bad side does.  The magicians were able to do some of the same signs that Moses was?  What does that prove?  If they wanted to demonstrate that they or their gods were more powerful than Moses and his god, then they should have tried to reverse the disastrous effects of Moses’ miracles—-to purify the water that had been turned to blood, to make the frogs and the locusts go away, etc.  Jesus in Mark 13 does not explicitly say what miracles the false Messiahs and false prophets will perform.  And some may take the Beast’s resurrection in Revelation as symbolic rather than as a literal miracle, saying that it could symbolize the resurrection of the Roman empire.

Jesus in Matthew 12:22-32 casts a devil out of a man who was blind and mute, and that results in the man’s healing.  When Jesus’ enemies say that Jesus cast out demons through the power of the prince of demons, Jesus finds their accusation to be absurd, for why would Satan undermine his own power by enabling an exorcism?  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was on the move, people were being healed, and Satan was not supporting this, but was on the other side, and it was actually in Satan’s interest to be on the other side.  Does this imply that, for Jesus, the bad side cannot perform exorcisms or heal, that those are things that only God can do?  And yet, in Pseudo-Philo, we seem to get another perspective: that pagan Amorite stones had healing properties.

I realize that Christians have tackled this issue, or at least have tried to do so.  Some distinguish between magic and miracle, seeing the latter as part of a larger redemptive purpose rather than as a mere fluke.  Some say that Christians do more miracles than non-Christians do.  Some say that Christianity is one of the few religions that has miracles, whereas other religions (i.e., Buddhism) only talked about miracles at a later stage.  Some will call the pagan miracles magic rather than miracles.  Some say that the pagan miracles are not true miracles—-that they only appear to be miraculous, but that they have a natural explanation.

I don’t know.  I have a slight bit of sympathy for the claim that Christian miracles are part of a grand story of redemption.  So the Amorite stones could heal.  What does that prove?  I suppose that it could prove the power of an Amorite god, or at least of the stones, but where is the grand story of redemption?  Plus, even if the Amorite stones can heal, the Amorite religion could be pretty cruel, at least if you accept what the Hebrew Bible says (and there are people who do not, seeing that as a caricature, or as demonizing the other).  But people can come back with other points: Christianity could be cruel, too; and, are the Amorite stones that different from ancient Israelite religion, or the religion that writers in the Hebrew Bible promoted?  Both may have seen miracles as a sign of their own god’s power.

I have been talking as if the Amorite stones were historical, and that is far from certain.  I wonder how the story came to be.  The note in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha about Pseudo-Philo 44 states that Pseudo-Philo’s depiction of Micah’s cult (as in the Micah from Judges 17) may be based on the Mithras sanctuary.  Could something similar be going on with the Amorite stones in Pseudo-Philo—-that they were based on something within the pagan religion of Pseudo-Philo’s day?

I’ll stop here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Write-Up: C.S. Lewis, by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath.  Eccentric Genius.  Reluctant Prophet.  C.S. Lewis: A Life.  Carol Steam, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

C.S. Lewis was a teacher at Oxford and Cambridge, a scholar of English literature, a Christian apologist, and the author of fantasy, the most famous of his fantasy works being The Chronicles of Narnia.  There is so much in Alister McGrath’s biography about Lewis, that this blog post would become a book were I to mention everything that I got out of it.  Here are some items, though.

1.  Although Lewis could be a bit pretentious, McGrath’s narration of Lewis’ struggles in life certainly made him sympathetic to me.  Lewis struggled with the death of his mother, difficulty in getting along with his father, an alcoholic brother whom he still loved, horrible boarding schools, employment prospects, alienation from some of his colleagues, and feelings of inadequacy as a Christian apologist, especially since he could not convince the people closest to him to embrace Christianity.  Plus, the challenge to one of his arguments by a student expert on Wittgenstein made him feel intellectually inadequate to continue argumentative apologetics, though, as McGrath notes, Lewis did not abandon apologetics completely, for it is in the Chronicles of Narnia, on some level.  (Lewis would later say that he preferred enjoying Christianity to defending it.)  Even when Lewis was at the height of his fame, he could not really become pompous about it, on account of the struggles that he continually experienced.  Why do I say that he could be a bit pretentious?  Well, he did prefer students whom he considered interesting, and he did not always care for teaching on account of what he considered amateurish questions from his students.  I suppose that this is understandable for a well-read scholar such as Lewis, but it does sound somewhat elitist.

2.  I gained more insight into Lewis’ atheism from this biography.  I knew from Surprised by Joy that one factor behind his atheism was the death of his mother.  But, according to McGrath, Lewis also had intellectual reasons.  Lewis read old myths and wondered what made Christianity and its claims any different from them.  I am a bit vague, however, about the precise reason that he became a Christian.  Lewis was searching for joy, and he became convinced that Christianity contained the true, historical myth to which other myths were pointing, on some level.  In addition, other prominent authors were becoming Christians around that time, and Lewis felt that added a depth to their writing that was absent from certain secular works.  Lewis was coming to believe that Christianity offered a compelling way to look at life.  McGrath denies that Lewis became a Christian out of wishful thinking or primarily for emotional reasons, however, for he characterizes Lewis’ theism as rational.  Lewis himself said that it was almost as if philosophical arguments were becoming embodied before him as he thought about them, and those arguments pointed to theism.  Lewis also felt as if God were pursuing him: he mocked the platitude about man’s search for God by saying that, in his case, that would be like saying that the mouse is searching for the cat!  Did Lewis ever come up with philosophical arguments that proved the existence of God?  Not that I could tell.  I long thought that, in Mere Christianity, Lewis was trying to prove the existence of God by saying that there is a moral law, and thus a moral lawgiver, but McGrath contends that Lewis in that case was not trying to prove God’s existence.  Rather, according to McGrath, Lewis was saying that the existence of a moral law is consistent with what Christianity and theism have to say.  I respect Lewis’ spiritual journey, but I am somewhat reluctant to exclude wishful thinking as a factor behind it.  Maybe spirituality does not need hard-core proof in order to be valid, though.

3.  Many books have been written about Lewis, but what sets Alister McGrath’s book apart is his redating of Lewis’ conversion to theism and to Christianity.  McGrath questions Lewis’ own dating of those things, as well as the dating that many biographers accept.  McGrath makes his arguments by looking at Lewis’ letters.  If Lewis was becoming a theist and attending chapel in 1929, for example, why did he not mention those things then, especially after noteworthy events, such as the death of his father, occurred in that year?  But Lewis does mention those things in 1930.  While McGrath does present instances in which Lewis could fudge the truth, he does not think that Lewis does so when it comes to the dates of his conversions.  Rather, McGrath argues that Lewis simply was not good at dates, and that this problem was accentuated after he became less faithful in keeping his journal.  (Eventually, Lewis stopped keeping a journal altogether because he thought it was self-absorbed.)

4.  There were parts of the book that made me laugh at loud!  Lewis wrote a lady and told her that the trenches of World War I were better than his experiences in boarding school.  That expert on Wittgeinstein who challenged Lewis?  According to McGrath, A.N. Wilson suggested that Lewis based the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on her.  McGrath does not buy that, though!  And, in his later years, Lewis wore a device due to his health problems.  McGrath says on page 350: “The frequent malfunctions of this improvised device caused inconvenience and occasionally chaos to Lewis’ social life, as at an otherwise dull Cambridge sherry party which was enlivened with a shower of his urine.”

5.  The scenes that especially touched me in the book were ones in which people whom Lewis did not particularly like, or who did not care that much for Lewis, ended up helping him.  Lewis did not care for the taciturn husband of Maureen, the daughter of Mrs. Moore (who may have been his lover in his young, pre-Christian days), but he helped Lewis out when Lewis was in need.  Lewis was alienated from some of the Oxford faculty on account of his Christianity and his popular works, but one scholar (whom I vaguely recall was rather critical of Lewis) turned down a position at Cambridge so that it could go to Lewis.  Lewis did not care for the poetry of T.S. Eliot, but Eliot helped Lewis to make his Grief Observed (which is about Lewis’ grief after the death of his wife) more anonymous, which is what Lewis wanted.  (Interestingly, people recommended A Grief Observed to Lewis, unaware that he wrote it.)

6.  Lewis took meticulous notes in the books that he read.  McGrath refers to someone who contrasts that with the ease with which scholars today can do a search and find what they are looking for in a book.  Something is missing in today’s approach, that person was saying.  Back then, a person could be surprised by something in a book that he did not notice before, or that made an impression on him that it did not previously make, whereas such surprises are less likely to occur today.

7.  McGrath offers thoughts about Lewis’ relationship with various religions.  He discusses his reception within Catholicism and evangelicalism.  McGrath also tells about how Lewis encouraged the desire of one of his step-sons to convert to Judaism.  I was hoping that McGrath would explore further the aspects of Lewis’ thought that disturb some conservative evangelicals, such as Lewis’ views on the Bible and the atonement.  But McGrath did make an interesting point in discussing Lewis’ approach to the atonement.  McGrath suggests that perhaps some scholars are barking up the wrong tree when they try to place Lewis in a certain theological school, or to ascribe a particular view of the atonement to Lewis.  McGrath doubts that Lewis was deeply conversant with theological nuances about this, for Lewis’ field was English literature.  McGrath believes that medieval plays about Christ’s death, ransom of people from the power of the devil, and harrowing of hell are more helpful for understanding how Lewis depicts the atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  That is an interesting thought, and there may be something to it.  I do believe, however, that Lewis was conversant with theology and theological nuances, on some level, for he did write an introduction to the church father Athanasius’ work on the incarnation (which I do not recall McGrath even mentioning).

Excellent book!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Genesis 2 and Pentecost

I attended the Methodist church again this morning.  I particularly enjoyed the sermon because the pastor referred to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, and also looked at the Hebrew of Genesis 2.

The pastor was saying that she doubts that the ancient Babylonians or the ancient Hebrews interpreted their creation myths as literal, factual, historical accounts.  She then went on, however, to talk like they did: she said that they believed that their stories were etiologies to account for how things came to be as they are—-to explain why people till the soil, why women suffer painful childbirths, why people get married, etc.  But her conclusion about the significance of Genesis 2-3 may be more consistent with not seeing Genesis 2-3 as necessarily historical or factual: she said that the creation story was about humans’ place in the world, in light of how ancients understood it (i.e., tilling the soil), and that the Bible is about whether there is more to this life than working the soil and trying to get through the day.  See here and here for some links on whether the ancient Hebrews understood their creation stories as literal and historical.  And see here for the Stephen Curtis Chapman song, “More to This Life”!

Today is Pentecost for a number of churches, and Pentecost relates to the story in Acts 2 about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a group of the early Christians.  The pastor was tying Genesis 2 with Acts 2.  She was noting that, in Genesis 2, God breathes his breath into the earthling, and it becomes alive.  She said that the lesson from this is that God is as close to us as our breath.  I was unclear if she was suggesting that everyone has the Holy Spirit.  I can understand a person arriving at that sort of conclusion, even if Paul seems to believe that Christians are the ones who have the Spirit of God inside of them, and the reason is that, in the Hebrew Bible, ruach can mean spirit or breath.  In a sense, God’s own breath is inside of us, according to Genesis 2.  Is that different from God’s spirit being inside of believers?  Is there diversity within the Bible on this topic?  In any case, the pastor’s conclusion on this seemed to be that God’s spirit has been around and active for a long time in history.

The pastor made a point about marriage in Genesis 2, and that made me think.  She said that, in Genesis 2, ha-adam is split apart when God makes the woman; through marriage, however, human beings unite again, for the man and the woman become one.  That raises some questions in my mind.  First of all, does that suggest that full humanity comes in marriage?  What about singles?  I know that Paul in I Corinthians sees the single life as acceptable, and even preferable for him in terms of his mission.  But is there a sense in which marriage makes people more fully human?  I vaguely recall a rabbinic saying that implied precisely that.  Second, does this insight (about men and women coming together in marriage) imply that men and women are certain ways and complement each other?  Third, does it indicate that marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman, who bring their own ways of doing and seeing things into the union?  My impression is that this church is rather liberal—-it is sensitive to historical-critical insights about the text, it reads Marcus Borg, etc.—-and thus would be more on the pro-marriage equality side than the anti.  Would the pastor say that same sex couples, too, reflect the union of humanity that heterosexual couples do?  I would ask her, but I did not want to barrage her with difficult questions about controversial issues after the service!

The pastor made another point that I kind of liked.  She shared with us a prayer of St. Augustine.  She said that Augustine was big on original sin, so he is not the type of person whom she ordinarily reads, but that he has great prayers!  I could identify with this approach.  I am probably more sympathetic towards Augustine on original sin, even though I do not care for his belief in infant damnation (and yet I respect that he struggled with that).  But, as with the pastor, there are things that resonate with me, and there are things that do not resonate with me so much, and yet I am open to whatever encourages me to live a healthy spiritual life.

The service this morning was calm and laid-back, and I liked that.  There was a peaceful quality to it, a calm in the atmosphere, if that makes sense.  The pastor’s sermon did inspire some questions inside of me, but I do appreciate any sermon that is thoughtful and scholarly, and hers certainly was.  I am eager to hear her thoughts about other biblical texts in future sermons, and maybe even in Sunday School, once I start to attend that (which may be a while—-it will be sometime after I get my own key to our apartment).  Last week, I inadvertently sat in someone else’s seat in the back row, and I noticed today that she sat in another seat before I arrived; she may not have been intentionally giving me her seat, for she probably just became accustomed to her new seat, but I was glad to sit in that seat in the back row.  Something else that I like about going to this church is the thirty minute walk to the church, and the thirty minute walk back.  There are churches that are closer to me, but I really enjoy the walk to this particular church.  It is a good time for praying, and the scenery is beautiful.  I talked with someone this morning who walks an hour to church!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

II Chronicles 34 (Rambling)

II Chronicles 34 is about the reign of King Josiah of Judah.  The Chronicler considers Josiah to be a righteous king, as does II Kings 22.  II Chronicles 34 and II Kings 22-23 tell Josiah’s story differently, however.

In II Chronicles 34, Josiah seeks the LORD at an early age, and that leads him to eradicate idolatry and false worship in Judah and Northern Israel.  (According to Raymond Dillard in the Word Biblical Commentary, Josiah could exercise control over Northern Israel because the Assyrian empire was on the decline.)  Josiah decides to repair the neglected Temple, and, in the process of this repair, the Torah is found there.  The Torah condemns Israel for disobedience and idolatry, and Josiah tears his clothes in dismay.  The prophetess Huldah says that God will bring evil against “this place” but will delay the punishment because Josiah humbled himself.  Josiah then leads Judah and Jerusalem to make a covenant of obedience to God, and forces Northern Israel to serve the LORD.  II Chronicles 35 is about Josiah’s Passover celebration.

In II Chronicles 34, Josiah is conducting a religious reform before the Torah is discovered.  II Kings 22-23, however, seems to depict Josiah’s anti-idolatry reform as occurring after the discovery of the Torah.  That is followed by Josiah’s Passover celebration.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  Why did the Chronicler depict an order of events that differed from the order in II Kings?  Dillard refers to M. Cogan’s view that the Chronicler wants to present Josiah’s piety as early and “self-motivated” (Dillard’s word), and Cogan mentions an Assyrian inscription about King Esarhaddon of Assyria’s piety as a youth.  That could be, and yet the commentator in the Jewish Study Bible raises a question: What exactly changed after Josiah discovered the Torah?  Josiah was already doing what the Torah commanded before the Torah was discovered.  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary mentions the view that the outcome of the discovery of the Torah in II Chronicles was the Passover celebration.  There may be some truth to that, as far as the Chronicler’s presentation is concerned, and yet what disturbs Josiah in II Chronicles 34 after the discovery of the Torah is the Torah’s statement that God will punish Israel for idolatry.

One can ask another question.  How would Josiah know what pleases God before the Torah is even discovered?  Perhaps Josiah was tutored by the people of the land, those who killed the assassins of his father and elevated Josiah to the throne (II Chronicles 33:25).  According to the Artscroll, Halevi maintained that Josiah started his reform at age 16 rather than prior to that age because he was under the influence of the people of the land, whom Halevi says supported the wicked policies of Kings Manasseh and Amon.  But perhaps the people of the land were righteous, according to the standards of the Chronicler, and they taught Josiah to uphold exclusive Yahwism and to oppose idolatry.  Or maybe Josiah was familiar with the policies of his grandfather Manasseh after Manasseh had repented—-Manasseh’s policies of trying to overturn idolatry—-as well as the anti-idolatry policies of his great-grandfather, Hezekiah.  Or could Josiah, in seeking the LORD, have learned directly from the LORD what is pleasing to him?

In II Chronicles 34, after the Torah is discovered, Josiah fears for his nation, even though Josiah had already eradicated (or begun to eradicate) the idolatry that the Torah condemned.  Why?  Is this plausible?  Maybe Josiah questioned whether God truly forgave past sins.  I remember a Jewish theology professor saying that, in the Torah, the idea is that Israel has to pay her penalty for sin, then she can receive a new beginning (see Deuteronomy 30:1-10).  There may be something to that, as far as the Torah goes.  There is atonement for sin in the Torah, yet God takes a tough stance against high-handed sins (Numbers 15:22-21).  Even in II Chronicles 34, we see the idea that Judah must still be punished, and yet God postpones Judah’s punishment on account of Josiah’s humility.  Maybe Josiah did not feel entirely clean, his reforms notwithstanding, or he thought that he and the people needed to get serious and make a deeper commitment to God and God’s law, which he would lead.  Josiah had a relationship with God, but he still felt a need to be under the authority of the Torah after its discovery.  Even if Josiah was already on the right path in II Chronicles 34, the Torah still shook him.

2.  Josiah led Judah and Jerusalem to make a covenant with God, but he actually sought to force the Northern Israelites to serve the LORD.  Keil-Delitzsch say that this repentance was not heart-felt and did not last.  Was Josiah right to try to force Northern Israelites to serve God?  Serving God is right, so was not Josiah right to compel the Northern Israelites at least to go through the outward motions of desisting from idolatry and performing rituals of worship for God?  Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah, in II Chronicles 30-31, likewise took forceful action against idolatry and commanded people of Jerusalem to give the priests and Levites what the Torah said was their due.  Yet, Hezekiah did not try to compel the Northern Israelites to attend the Passover but resorted to persuasion and appeal, saying that God will restore the Northern Israelites’ exiled relatives if the Northern Israelites turned to God (II Chronicles 30:9).  Some Northern Israelites mocked, but some humbled themselves and accepted Hezekiah’s invitation.  Maybe Hezekiah would have been more heavy-handed, like Josiah, if Hezekiah had more power.  Interestingly, according to II Chronicles 30:12, God gave the people of Judah the heart to cooperate with Hezekiah’s religious reform.  The fact that so many Judahites were on board was an indication to the narrator that God was behind Hezekiah’s endeavor; yet, strangely, God did not move every Northern Israelite to cooperate.

I cannot judge whether or not Josiah was right or wrong in his context to enforce the worship of God.  I do not believe that such a policy should exist in the United States, for I respect religious freedom—-the right of people to follow their conscience (albeit not when it hurts someone else).  There is something authentic about following one’s conscience—-about doing what is right because one loves what is right, not because one is forced to do what one does not believe.  That, which may be inspired by God in certain seasons (or always), is more likely to effect lasting change than compelled outward obedience—-and we see in the story of Josiah that compelled outward obedience did not result in lasting righteousness.  While I believe in religious freedom, though, I, as a Christian, have to admit that when Jesus Christ comes to rule the earth, everyone will worship God.  Many will want to do so; some may not.  Some believe that those who choose not to do so will be in hell; some universalists, however, think that God even then will try to persuade them and woo them to follow him, as Hezekiah did with the Northern Israelites.  Hard-core Calvinists can simply say that some people are not chosen and that is why they do not follow God, as the Northern Israelites who mocked Hezekiah’s invitation were not given that heart for obedience that God gave to the Judahites.  Maybe the time of Hezekiah was just not the right time, though, for the Northern Israelites to repent; they were not ready yet, and they did not have the heritage of godliness that Judah had.

3.  II Chronicles 34:12 states that the musician Levites were supervising the repair of the Temple.  Why does the Chronicler mention the detail that they were musicians?  Dillard says that the “use of music during a construction project is well attested from the ancient Near East”, but he seems to prefer the idea that the Levites’ musical ability is mentioned to highlight that the Levites were the ones supervising: music was a mark of a number of Levites.  Matthew Henry says that the Levites’ musical ability meant that they had aptitude in mathematics, and that qualified them to supervise the repair of the Temple.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Between Me and God

I have been reading the first century Jewish work, Pseudo-Philo.

In the biblical Book of I Samuel, Hannah is barren, and she mumbles before God at the sanctuary, asking God for a son.  Pseudo-Philo elaborates on this.  According to Pseudo-Philo, Hannah did not pray aloud because she did not want to give her enemies or the enemies of God occasion to blaspheme.  She realized that what was important to God was not offspring, but rather doing God’s will, so she was open to the possibility that God may say “no” to her request.  But she did not want to be public in asking God for a son, for then, if God answered “no,” enemies would taunt her, and maybe even mock God in the process.  Consequently, Hannah sought to keep her request between her and God.

There are a lot of things that I keep between myself and God.  There is a place for testifying to God’s goodness—-for telling people about prayers that we feel God has answered.  We see that sort of thing in the Book of Psalms.  People can be encouraged to have faith in God when they hear about answered prayer.  When we were moving to the west coast and were looking for a place to live, people at my church were praying for us.  Of course, I told them when we finally found a place to live!  That was an occasion to testify, and also to acknowledge their concern for us.

But I am hesitant to testify to everyone about things.  Unless the event is earth-shakingly dramatic, a number of atheists can dismiss one’s testimony as a recounting of coincidence, or luck, or something that did not require divine intervention and could have happened anyway, or with enough effort.  There are people who may mock one’s faith when things appear to go wrong, as Hannah feared.  And some people who suffer, or whose loved ones suffer, may not want to read or hear someone trumpeting one’s good fortune.  If one person’s father recovers from a disease, for example, whereas another person’s father dies, would the latter want to hear the former praising God for healing her father?

Something I should note is that, while Hannah wanted to keep her request for a son between her and God, ultimately, the matter did not remain between her and God.  In Pseudo-Philo, the point is made that Samuel would be a light to his people, Israel, a leader.  Psalm 99:6, where Asaph mentions Samuel, is taken by Hannah to be a prophecy about Samuel’s birth—-and I do not entirely understand this, since my understanding was that the Asaph of the Book of Psalms lived later, during the time of King David, according to I Chronicles.  Maybe Pseudo-Philo thinks that Asaph lived for a long time!

I am not sure what to do homiletically with that thought that Hannah’s request ultimately did not remain between her and God.  One reason that Christians may encourage testimonies is that they want us to think beyond ourselves and things turning out well for us—-to consider larger issues, such as more people coming to faith in God.  I could identify, though, with why Hannah wanted her request to be private.  Christians are often exhorted to testify, but maybe we do not have to testify about everything we believe God has done for us.  Maybe it is sometimes all right to keep things between us and God.

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