“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 8

I spent the first half of the year portraying the Bible as the freeing thing that it is instead of the enslaving thing that we’ve made it. And I’ve spent the second half of the year working on your spirituality becoming more earthy. So today we’re going to tackle what you surely have been thinking is the most obvious question.

Why was Jesus baptized?

(didn’t see that coming, did you?)

The Bible provides little about Jesus’s life until the day he went to the Jordan River to visit his thunderous but mysterious cousin, John. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke inform us that John was immersing large crowds in the Jordan River in a “baptism of repentance.” Jesus traveled among the crowds to participate in these baptisms. Now, before I go any further, let’s stop right there and pay attention to what should be a nagging problem.

According to all the atonement theory I heard growing up, God needs stuff to die when we sin and Jesus could perfectly atone for our sins as a sacrifice only if he himself was a perfect sacrifice. Yet, the only baptisms we find in the New Testament are John’s baptism of repentance and Peter’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. According to Paul, when we are baptized we enter into Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. And, of course, we read that to mean: I’m a wretched sinner, but Jesus as the sinless sacrifice means I get my sins forgiven! I’m saved! Hallelujah!

We baptize thousands of frightened young teenagers in summer camps all over the country by convincing them that that one time they masturbated means God now views them as a loathsome spider, and they will spend eternity in a scorching and searing torture chamber—unless they accept the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ!

(and we wonder why kids leave their upbringings with all kinds of psychological problems)

Except . . . wait a second.

Wait just one second.

If Jesus was the perfect atoning sacrifice who never sinned—who never needed to repent of anything—then what was he doing at his cousin’s baptism of repentance extravaganza in the Jordan River?

Of course, the church of Christ (my tribe) has a quick theological answer for this (as we always do when we get backed into a theological corner). In order to protect our tight biblical scheme, we like to say that Jesus would never ask us to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself, and so he set the example to emphasize that we either do that little thing in water or else burn in fire for eternity. And that does it. We swiftly move on from the temptation in the desert through the rest of Jesus’s life—not asking too many questions about what we find there—until we reach the writings of Paul where we really stop and savor good old atonement theology.

But, really. Is that it? Is that really the point of the whole baptism story? Is that the point of Paul’s writings on atonement? Is that the whole point of life? Believe in Jesus and get in some water and you’ll be saved from fire?

(Really, this is a point for another post, but if conservative Christians understood Paul’s writings more critically, I’m convinced we’d use them nowhere near as much as we currently do.)

Well, I think that is a miserable understanding of Jesus, Jesus’s baptism, Paul’s letters and the years you’ll spend on this planet of coral reefs and glaciers and swamps and rainforests and beaches and mountains and deserts and sunsets and wind and rain and sunshine. The good thing is there’s a better way of understanding the story—a way that doesn’t suck all the life out of the thing. But it requires more critical reading than we usually bring to the Bible.

The first thing you need to notice about the story of Jesus’s baptism is what Luke does immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, that thing is the very thing that your attention-sapped brain is almost certain to ignore: a genealogy.

Not just a genealogy.

But a long one.

Full of names you don’t know.

Or care about.

(And—most importantly—one that has nothing to do with what one must do to get out of Hell.)

Do not ever skip a genealogy. Never ever, ever. If ever there was a sin worthy of being consigned to the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness, skipping a genealogy in the Bible might be that sin. You need to understand that every time you read your Bible and it suddenly forces you to read a genealogy—a long one full of names you don’t know or care about and you think “this has nothing to do with what I must do to get out of Hell”—what your Bible is really doing is making an important argument about something.

When Jesus comes out of the water, the story tells us that a voice comes out of Heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” In the baptism story, God announces from the Heavens that Jesus is the son of God. Remember that when you read the genealogy, which states as follows: “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli . . . [skipping a lot] . . . the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

That’s very interesting. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus gets baptized, God announces Jesus as the son of God, and, immediately after that, we read a genealogy in which Adam is named the son of God. And if you’re wondering whether Luke wants you to connect those two things, you are absolutely right. Luke wants you to connect Jesus with what happened in the Hebrew creation myth of Genesis.

On day one, God saw what he made and said that it was good (“tov”).

On day two, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day three, God saw what he made and said that it was good. (twice actually)

On day four, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day five, God saw what he made and said that it was good.

On day six, God made plants, animals, and humans, and God saw what he made on that day and said that it was very good (“tov meod”).

Very. Good.

The story of the Old Testament is the story of how God made everything in the beginning to be tov but greedy systems of oppression, injustice, inequality, poverty, war, and empire (played out in the narrative of the Old Testament and symbolized in the garden story that itself is a repurposing of important national myths from the mighty Babylonian empire) separated humanity from God’s adama tov (“good earth”). It should be no surprise then that Jesus’s baptism took place in the same river where the Israelite’s historical myths recorded that they entered the land of Canaan (and slaughtered everyone they found). Jesus’s baptism is in one sense a kind of redo. A kind of lets-start-from-the-beginning-and-try-again. A return not just to the entry into the promised land but a return to the original blessing that all created things are good.

Luke wants you to think of Jesus as the new Adam.

Not as one who came so we could separate ourselves from the Earth. Or who came to announce that we should live in accordance with only those things that fit into neat religious categories.

No.

God loves the Earth. He loves the cherry blossoms in Japan. The Grand Canyon in Arizona. He loves the Northern Lights in Iceland. The sequoia redwood trees in California. The Alps of Switzerland. The rice fields of Vietnam. The cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.

He loves brown bears. And antelope. And hippos. And kangaroos. And eagles. And alligators. And lions. And big dogs. And small dogs. And those little bitty dogs in the toy category of the National Dog Show. And maybe a few cats.

He loves humans. And human culture. He loves the English language. The French language. The Chinese language. The Swahili language. He loves the riddled poetry of T.S Elliot. The literary triumphs of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He loves the Delta Blues songs that were sung on Saturday nights by black plantation workers in Mississippi and the gospel music songs that were sung by those same plantation workers on Sunday mornings. He loves the paintings of Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko. He loves the heartbreak of Beethoven’s symphonies and Shakespeare’s sonnets. And plenty more.

Dance.

Food.

Wine.

Exploration.

Discovery.

Science.

Government.

But what God doesn’t love are the systems of Caesar, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar. Systems that work for some but don’t work for most.

This is what John the Apostle meant when he wrote “do not love the world or anything in the world.” When John wrote those words, he wasn’t questioning the first chapter of Genesis. He wasn’t arguing against God, who said it was good. He wasn’t arguing with Jesus who said that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it. He wasn’t saying that what Jesus really meant was God sent his only son to save us from it. No, he was warning us not to love the systems of power he observed in the world that had not yet been reconciled in the image of Christ (which he calls “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”). He was warning us against systems that seduce us into feelings of power, but ultimately bring about suffering to most of the world.

And this is the sin from which Jesus repented when he made the long hike down from Galilee to the Jordan River. We confess that Jesus committed no individual sins, and I have no qualm with that.

As we confess that Jesus saves us from our sins, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan calls us to question what exactly that means. I think Jesus’s baptism is a recognition that our primary sin is the sin we do as a group—as a nation—as a planet. A recognition that we are all in this together. A recognition that you cannot separate the individual from the system. Jesus lived in systems that separated the mass of humanity from the good creation that the poets of the post Babylonian exile described in Genesis. He grew up in and lived in them.

And because—as John’s words reverberated throughout the countryside—the kingdom of Heaven was at hand, Jesus repented of the system.

I’ve been talking about systems for several posts now. God’s care for them is central to a proper and complete understanding of the Bible. It is central to what Jesus calls “abundant life”. Yet, most conservative, atonement-theory Christians simply aren’t good at this. We lump all of life into (1) things that fit into our atonement-for-sins-so-we-don’t-burn-in-fire theology and (2) everything else. Once we’ve successfully placed everything into the holy and the profane (or “spiritual” and “worldly”) we celebrate the one and neglect the other, thinking we’re being godly.

We aren’t.

I’m calling Christians to a more earthy, more Jewish theology. A theology in which everything is spiritual. A theology of rocks and trees and soil. Of sweat. A theology of wine. A theology of justice. A theology of peace.

I’m calling Christians to turn their gaze away from some invisible place beyond the clouds (where nothing is changing) and return it down to God’s adama tov.

The amount you can learn about God from trying to use your Bible to escape this world pales in comparison to what you will learn by sitting in the mountains, reading great literature, listening to Delta blues, eating strange foods with foreigners, and involving yourself with the most vulnerable people in your midst.

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The Bible That Borrows Part 4: The Pharisee Bible

We think of Jesus as that guy who opened up God to people of every nationality, but on one occasion a non-Israelite woman pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus couldn’t have seemed less interested.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” said the Lord and Savior of all humanity.

Let’s take a moment and admit to our souls that this is extremely weird.

Matthew calls this woman a “Canaanite”, which is an interesting choice. By the time of Matthew, there shouldn’t have been any Canaanites wondering around.

The Law of Moses instructed the Hebrews to kill them all.

Yet, when Matthew’s so-called Canaanite woman begged Jesus even harder, Jesus doubled down: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

The dogs.

This was a mother in misery.

And Jesus called her a dog.

Now can we admit that this is weird?

This is the same Jesus who on the night his betrayal told Peter to put down his sword against Roman soldiers (which, as an aside, why did Jesus wait until that night to say anything about Peter’s sword?). This is the same Jesus who gave us the Good Samaritan. Who gave us the new covenant in which there is “no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male nor male and female, for we are all one in him.” Right? Jesus calling someone a “dog” sounds a lot like comments I read underneath Youtube videos, but not a lot like Jesus.

So, what’s going on here? That’s what we’ll cover today. As usual, we have some ground to cover.

Jesus, The Rabbi

Last week, we talked in detail about the Essenes, and I briefly mentioned the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Today, we’re circling back to the Pharisees.

As I said yesterday, if someone in the first century was a rabbi, that means they would have aligned with the Pharisees.

Jesus was a rabbi.

If you don’t believe me, ask his friends and enemies:

  • Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Matthew c26 v49
  • Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Mark c9 v5
  • “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Mark c10 v51
  • On one occasion a Pharisee stood up to test Jesus. “Rabbi,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke c10 v25
  • “And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Rabbi, rebuke your disciples.’” Luke c19 v39
  • “Then there came to him some of the Sadducees…and they asked him, saying, ‘Rabbi…’” Luke c20 v27

Jesus is identified as a rabbi in every one of the four gospels.

Jesus’s disciples called him a rabbi.

The Pharisees called him a rabbi.

The Sadducees called him a rabbi.

Even a blind man called him a rabbi.

So, what’s a rabbi?

Pay attention to the details of this next part. To me, they’re everything.

In the towns of Galilee, Jewish children around the age of five or six entered Bet Seferessentially Jewish elementary school. By the age of ten, most of these children, starting with B’eresheit bara Ehohim (where have you heard that?), would have memorized the entire text of the Torah.

Which is freaking amazing.

The children who excelled in Bet Sefer (because memorizing the Torah apparently isn’t by itself amazing) graduated to Bet Talmud. By the age of fourteen, most children in Bet Talmud would have had the entire Hebrew text memorized.

(Which is double . . . triple . . . quadruple . . . infinity amazing)

And again, the teenagers who excelled in Bet Talmud would have a chance to move further. The final stage of Jewish education was called Bet Midrash. Before you could be accepted to Bet Midrash, you would present yourself before the rabbi whose group of disciples you hoped to join. After all, it was through Bet Midrash that Jewish children would become rabbis themselves.

As I pointed out last week in our discussion of the Essenes, the rabbis also understood that texts are pliable things. Flexible things. Things that look different from different angles.

Texts have to be probed.

Interpreted.

Questioned.

Deconstructed.

Viewed from different perspectives.

Applied in different circumstances.

Sure, any literate person can read the words of a text, but the Pharisees correctly understood that that is just the beginning. Once a text is read, the reader has to decide what it means, and whether its mean the same thing now as it did when it was written. Sure, the Torah instructs Jews not to work on the Sabbath, but how does one follow this command? The Jewish Mishnah is full of commentary on this, and there were many splits of opinion on this issue and many others.

Can you walk? If yes, how far can you walk? If you drop something while you walk, can you pick it up? If you can pick up something you drop, can you pick up other things? How many other things? How far? Is there anything you cannot pick up? How much weight can you pick up and carry? How far can you move something you pick up? Does it matter if the load you pick up is shared by others? Are there any exceptions for emergencies? Are there any other Jewish laws that supersede Sabbath laws?

(You may pass this off as legalism, but violation of the Sabbath is punishable by death, so figuring this out was important work.)

If you were to compile a list of a particular rabbi’s interpretations of the law, the prophets, and the writings, the list you would end up with was called that rabbi’s “yoke.”

A rabbi’s yoke could be understood by making a list in two columns. In one column, you would list the things on any issue of the Torah that a rabbi did not allow. In rabbi speak, these things were said to be “bound”. In another column, you would list the things that a rabbi allowed. Things that were allowed were said to be “loosed.”

Where have you heard this language?

Usually, rabbis would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them, who would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them. If you followed the trail long enough, you would go back to a kind of exceptional rabbi of the Tanakh who had reached such a stature that they were conferred the authority to make new interpretations of the text. A rabbi with authority to reinterpret the text was and is said to have s’mikhah, the Hebrew word denoting authority. The ceremony of giving s’mikhah would involve two rabbis already with s’mikhah who would place their hands on the new rabbi, thus vouching for their exceptional competence.

When the best of the best of Bet Talmud presented themselves before a rabbi to be accepted to the final stage of Jewish education, Bet Midrash, the question of greatest concern to the rabbi was whether this disciple had what it took to propagate the rabbi’s yoke—that rabbi’s way of living out the Torah, the Nevi’im, and Ketuvim (the law, the prophets, and the writings).

If you have to re-read what I just wrote, do so because this is the key to everything ever taught by that son of a carpenter from poor Galilee.

Remember last week how I showed how John the Apostle depicted John the Baptist in a way that would have appealed to the Essenes?

Even despite John the Baptist’s Essene connections, John the Baptist also took on the title “rabbi”, and this detail is not an accident.

So much debate has been devoted in our time to why John baptized Jesus. Understanding the baptism scene requires understanding the Essenes and the Pharisees.

Notice the convergence of influences that Matthew brilliantly paints together. John laid his hands on Jesus, and became Jesus’s first witness for his s’mikhah. At the same time that John baptized Jesus, God came down on Jesus as a dove. Any Pharisee reading Matthew would instantly recognize that Matthew was making an argument.

God was Jesus’s second witness, and Jesus now had s’mikhah.

The text was now his.

He had the “keys to the kingdom.”

Notice in the text how many times his s’mikhah gets emphasized in the gospels.

  • When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. Matthew c7 v28-29
  • Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. Matthew c21 v23–24
  • Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Matthew c28 v18
  • The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authorityMark c1 v27

Matthew places the “sermon on the mount” almost immediately after Jesus gets his s’mikhah and calls his first disciples. Notice how much of the sermon on the mount takes the form of “You have heard that it was said [old teaching on the Torah] but I tell you [new interpretation of the Torah].” There is a reason Matthew arranges his gospel the way he does. He is tying together all these elements of Jesus’s rabbinical identity as a Pharisee with authority to reinterpret the text.

And when you view Jesus as the Pharisee that he was, other texts start to look different.

Notice what happens when Jesus is asked where his s’mikhah came from.

Jewish children who go through Bet Midrash are trained to respond to questions with questions. In fact, the answer to the original question is usually in the responsive question itself. As you will see, Jesus’s answer is that his s’mikhah came from (1) John the Baptist and (2) God. But notice how he answers:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Matthew c21

Do you see it? Matthew depicts a carpenter’s son from Nazareth as both (1) possessing s’mikhah and (2) dominating the Jewish leaders in the kind of discourse that would have been mastered only at the highest level of Jewish education.

But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.

As I said earlier, a disciple wishing to study under a particular rabbi would present themselves before the rabbi for a kind of oral exam on steroids. If the student passed the test, the rabbi would tell the student, “come follow me.” So, the rabbi would drill the candidate with an excruciating barrage of questions about the Hebrew text—about the law, the prophets, the writings, the oral law, prominent rabbis’ interpretations of the text, and so on. The goal was to weed out students who would not effectively carry on the rabbi’s way of living out the Torah. After all, to choose a disciple was to make a serious time commitment.

But Rabbi Jesus did something altogether different.

Right after Matthew records John the baptist and God giving Jesus his s’mikhah, Jesus took the extremely rare step of presenting himself to his new disciples—rather than the other way around.

Of course every once in a while, you are presented with a childhood prodigy. Mozart, Pascal, Picasso, and even Tiger Woods were undeniable childhood prodigies.

But Matthew wants to eliminate any doubt that Jesus’s disciples were not like them. When Matthew tells us that Peter and Andrew were fisherman, he is telling you that at some point in Peter and Andrew’s Jewish education, they had to go back to their family to learn the family trade because they were not good enough for any of the rabbis.

When you read that Peter and Andrew “dropped their nets”, this is what you’re reading. Not that Jesus’s long hair and blue Swedish eyes would put people into a trance—as depicted in every Jesus movie. Or that “there’s just something about Jesus”—as I’ve heard in so many sermons.

People, no.

When Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “come follow me,” this was the first time in their whole life that a rabbi had told them that they were good enough.

Which gives a wholly different meaning to Jesus’s words, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.

While Jesus and his disciples were camped outside Caesarea Philippi, he told his disciples that they were given “the keys to the kingdom.” This may not mean much to you. But I promise it did to them.

Someone given the “keys to the kingdom” was given the authority to make new interpretations and judgments about what is permitted and not permitted.

This is s’mikhah.

Jesus told his disciples that they had the power to bind and loose.

And then he told his disciples to make more disciples.

Who would continue to bind and loose.

Don’t believe me, read Acts 15.

Matthew is doing something never before heard of.

Matthew is arguing that people in the “Jesus movement” would be given authority to make decisions about what is right and wrong, what is allowed and not allowed.

When we read Jesus telling his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” what he is doing is giving us our compass. He is setting the parameters of this authority. BUT, as I have taken great pains to demonstrate, we—like the Jews have done for centuries—get to decide in our day what that commandment means.

Jesus has great faith in his disciples to determine what to loose and what to bind.

Especially the ordinary disciples who don’t spend their free time writing blog posts.

This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand church. This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand being a Christian.

Do you need a glass of water?

Water

Jesus did a lot of reinterpreting.

The seventh and final yearly festival of the Jews is Sukkot (Sue-COAT), or the “Festival of Tabernacles.” The weeklong festival commemorates the Old Testament story of the Hebrews exiting slavery in the Nile-lush Egypt and living dependent on God in the barren desert. The  festival-goers construct a sukkah—essentially a big tent made out of branches—and have a weeklong religious camp festival.

Dancing.

Singing.

Wine.

Clapping.

Drums.

Flutes.

Shouting.

And—to commemorate the Hebrews’ former life in the Sinai desert—passionate sermons about water.

The Hebrews’ story of the wandering in the desert is all about relying on God’s provision. Water is everything. Water is dependence on God. Water is thirst for God. Longing for God. Desperation for God. It is what came out of some rock that God miraculously provided in the Sinai desert. When we get to John c7 in the New Testament, these details are the subtext of what must have been a remarkable scene.

Jesus, we are told, had been hiding out all week during the festival, but by the end of the chapter it was the seventh day—what Jews to this day call the “last and greatest day of the festival.”

The last day has a certain ritual. First, the priest would assemble all the people and read aloud from Jeremiah:

Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.

After reading Jeremiah, the priest would pour a pitcher of water and wine on an alter (what Leviticus calls a “drink offering”) while these people who had been dancing and drinking wine for a week would shout, “HOSANNA, HOSANNA!” And as the crowd became more and more inebriated, they would get louder and louder.

And this is when Jesus finally came out of hiding.

After all the build up, John tells us that Jesus yelled at the top of his voice:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.

By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.

Cinematic perfection.

And a totally new way of understanding Sukkot, not to mention the prophet Jeremiah. The Pharisees had been talking about the Holy Spirit before Jesus arrived on the scene. I’ll talk more about this in Part 7, but the Pharisees understood the spirit of God on a limited number of occasions to enter people and give them divine revelation. But the Holy Spirit was not given to the masses. What Jesus said during this Sukkot was revolutionary.

Before we end, I mentioned some rock…

Some Rock

As I said, the Israelites left Egypt and “wandered” around the Sinai Desert for forty years. They began their journey in a place called Rephedim, where the writer of Exodus tells us there was no water. It is in Rephedim that Exodus says God miraculously provided water from a rock.

Their story in the desert continued for forty years, but the narrative made no mention of how they continued to get water during that time.

Until their last year.

In a different book, Numbers, we are told that the Israelites are at the end of the forty years when they come to a place called Kadesh. At Kadesh, a familiar story emerges. There was no water. The people panic. And, again, God provided water from a rock.

Apparently, this bothered some Pharisees who were intimately familiar with the barrenness of the Sinai desert.

Reasonably, so thought the Pharisees, the Israelites drank water in the forty years of wandering in the desert.

I think we would all agree with that.

But the only mentions of them having access to water were in Rephedim in year one and in Kadesh in year forty. There really isn’t much water in the Sinai desert and the text speaks to nothing in between years one and forty.

(Remember our discussion about problematic doublets throughout the Old Testament text?)

So where did they get their water in the forty years of wandering in the desert between Rephedim and Kadesh?

After some debate, the rabbis decided—in all seriousness—that the rock in Rephedim and the rock in Kadesh must have been the same rock.

But Rephedim and Kadesh are hundreds of miles apart. So, how did the same rock from Rephedim forty years later appear in Kadesh?

They concluded that the rock must have followed them.

Haha.

I laughed just typing that.

Here’s a second century text that describes the view from Jesus’s time.

So the well, which was with Israel in the wilderness, was a rock of the size of a large vessel, and was oozing out and rising as from the mouth of this flask, traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys. Wherever Israel encamped, it encamped opposite them before the door of the Tabernacle.

-Tosephta Sukkah

Okay.

This is silly.

After all, the writer of the account of Kadesh really went out of his way to show that the Israelites had no idea where they were going to get their water from. If an “oozing” watering rock for forty years had just been “traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys”, the Hebrews wouldn’t have been panicked in year forty about where they would get their water.

So, it’s a good thing that Jesus came down to Earth to clear up all that Jewish nonsense, right?

Not quite. Here’s Paul. You could say he wrote some parts of the New Testament.

Our ancestors were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them. I Corinthians c10 v2-4

Uh oh.

Paul is one of us, right? He’s not supposed to engage in this tortured reading of the sacred text, right?

But he went even further. The next line: “And that rock was Christ.

That rolling rock—which is not in the actual text—but which a bunch of Pharisees haphazardly one day just imagined up . . . was Christ?

Christ was a rock? That rolled around in the desert?

What does that mean?!?!

Paul?!?!?!

Shadows

By now you’ve seen this enough times: Jesus, Paul, Matthew, John, Peter, and the rest of their gang were Jews. And the ancient Jews weren’t as interested in the original intended meanings of their text as you are today. What you read when you read the Bible is a mix of new ideas and realizations that come into contact with old upbringings. Paul was thoroughly a Pharisee. When you read his letters, you are reading the thoughts of a man who sees the old lessons from his rabbi with his new conviction that it was all rushing towards Jesus.

John does this.

Matthew does this.

Luke does this.

Peter does this.

This trips people up when the New Testament uses the words that “[such-and-such event] ‘fulfilled’ some text in the Old Testament.”

A better way of understanding the word “fulfilled” is probably more like “resembled”.

The New Testament book of Hebrews puts it this way: “The Torah is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”

Each author of the New Testament would interpret the story of Jesus differently because they all grew up perceiving different shadows. In other words, as Jews, each New Testament writer grew up with different perspectives on the Torah. This is one reason why modern Christians who expend so much effort to argue that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself are putting their energy into the wrong line of questions.

I think Jesus was interested in the Old Testament text, but not for its own sake. The New Testament depicts in Jesus a complete disinterest in the Old Testament’s priestly cult, tribalism, the Temple in Jerusalem, purity regulations, the history of Israel, and so on.

Unless, of course, something in the Old Testament was useful to make a point about something else.

What Jesus was and is interested in are humans. Humans as they are right now. Humans with all their problems and contradictions. Humans who don’t fit neatly into boxes.

And the stories that humans would write down from time to time as they tied to understand themselves and their place in the cosmos. And as they tried to understand God. And how they relate to God.

So, let’s circle back.

We started this discussion with Jesus ignoring a desperate woman for the sole reason that she was not a Hebrew. And then he called her a dog.

When Jesus called that Canaanite woman a “dog”, he was speaking as a Pharisee as part of a debate that Pharisees were having among themselves. I have no idea whether Jesus said this to her face or not. But I do know this: The woman was his secondary audience. Jesus’s primary audience was the people in his vicinity who had been reared up to hate anyone who might challenge Israel’s occupation of its “promised land.” He said what he did because he knew she was about to do something that would defy Hebrew expectations.

Read what happens next.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

We assume that our enemies gloat over us. That they hate us as much as we hate them. That they despise us. Look down on us. Don’t believe me? Listen to any Donald Trump speech.

We don’t think of our enemies as vulnerable. As humble. That they would eagerly wait like a dog to eat the crumbs that fall off our table.

And this woman was just that.

Her words were among the greatest to have ever been spoken. And this story is one of the greatest to have ever been written down.

Jesus’s life took place in a time when the Jews were wrestling with how to think about outsiders. For a moment, Jesus appeared to take one side of the argument. But he did so in a way that would advance the other side. He allowed the woman to do something that would advance the human race.

He allowed the woman to show that the grace and goodness of God can be found even in the people we hate the most. Even in the people we imagine gloating over us.

I believe that Jesus could have chosen any ancient religion through which to use human understandings of God and the cosmos to point to himself, but you would be hard pressed to find a more oppressed group in all of history than the Jews.

So he chose the Jews.

And to push them forward, he took possession of some of the harshest ideas of their language.

Because, as the Bible says, he became them.

That Jesus, a champion for oppressed people anywhere, would choose the Jewish people in Israel should not be surprising. Though, I think Jesus has a heart for the Muslims just as he does the Jews. The point of the Old Testament is not what it literally says, but how the first century writers thought it pointed to something better.

Paul would later do the same thing in Greece, and it is the Greeks whom we’ll talk about next week. If you can believe it, the Bible borrows from them too. And WAY more than it borrowed from Babylon.

Part 1 Part 5

Why I Spend My Free Time Reading the Old Testament

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post, like many old things I’ve written, reflects a “this world is not my home” view that I don’t affirm anymore. Nevertheless, I’ve kept it to show where I come from.

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I spend most of my free time either hiking or studying the Old Testament. That’s kind of weird.

The other day a friend of mine took me out to lunch, and he made a statement I get a lot: “I get why you love the Old Testament. It’s because you’re a lawyer and the Old Testament is full of laws.”

Yes, because as a lawyer I love nothing more than converting to long-term memory the intricate, never-ending instructions for cutting open bulls and heifers and waving their internal organs before an altar, quarantining people with skin diseases, what you can and can’t do on the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and who or what you can’t have sex with. Like most lawyers, it tickles my fancy that the atonement cover is only two and half cubits long instead of a full three cubits.

And can you believe the curtains of the tabernacle are all the same size and dyed red? I know, you only live once, right?

No, I don’t get excited to read details like that.

Guys.

I like football.

I like beer festivals.

I like Bass Pro Shops.

But I don’t like reading about that kind of stuff. There are too many things to distract me, such as, well . . . anything.

“I think Chris secretly wants to make us all Jewish.” That’s another thing I hear from time to time.

Several centuries before a Jewish rabbi named Jesus was born, a prophet named Jeremiah foretold the coming of a new covenant. Sometime later, a Jewish Pharisee named Paul wrote that “apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” When he wrote that—and I’m glad he did—he no doubt had in mind Jeremiah. I firmly believe we live under that new covenant today and that the new covenant is better than the old one.

Why? Because Jeremiah described the new covenant being “written in our hearts,” as opposed to an endless list of rules and regulations we would have to memorize. It’s no wonder that when Jesus described his yoke (all rabbis had “yokes,” which were their interpretations of how to live out the Torah), he said it was “easy.”

Because the Torah is not easy. I have no desire to rack my brain over the Jewish controversies concerning when, whether, and how to wear a Tzitzit. Or how much electricity I can use on the Sabbath.

Also, I like bacon.

I simply want to love God and treat my neighbor as I would like to be treated, which I get to do as a follower of what the New Testament calls “the Way.”

So, if I don’t follow the law of Moses, why do I read the Old Testament? Why do I teach the Old Testament? Who puts themselves through so much torture? I do, and for two reasons.

Jewish Authors, Jesus

First, Jesus was Jewish. Not just Jesus, but everyone who wrote anything in the New Testament. And most of the people they were speaking and writing to were Jewish. Take a moment to let that sink in. These people did Jewish things, said Jewish things, thought Jewish things, debated Jewish controversies, and told jokes that everyday Jews were telling. Meaning, to understand what did or didn’t push Jesus’s buttons, you sometimes need to step into the world of ancient middle-eastern poets.

If you don’t know what people did all week during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, you probably will miss at least half of Jesus’s message when he shouted at the top of his lungs to a boisterous and inebriated crowd, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as [Jeremiah 17] has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

See what I did there? Got your interest, didn’t I?

Power

The second reason is this satellite photograph of Egypt and Israel.

Egypt.001There are two visibly green spaces along the Mediterranean Sea in this picture. The left one is Egypt; the right one is Israel (formerly called “Canaan”). As you can see, Egypt has the Nile River Valley and so does not rely on rainfall, but Canaan does not have that luxury and is extremely vulnerable to the rain seasons. When four thousand years ago Abraham settled in Canaan, he was told that he and his descendants would be given that land forever. Only problem was every time Canaan had a drought, either Abraham or his descendants would have to decide whether to leave Canaan and go to Egypt because Egypt would be the only place with grain. There are three droughts in the book of Genesis. It turned out well for Isaac when he braved the drought and stayed in Canaan.

But it never turned out well for anyone who sought the comfort of Egypt.

Four generations later, after abandoning Canaan and settling in very good land near the Nile, the Egyptians forcibly enslaved them and would hold them as slaves for more than four centuries. Of course, slavery is terrible. And the work they did was terrible. But the thing you can’t miss is that while they were slaves in Egypt they never went thirsty. They never went without food. Their food source was the Nile, a thing they could see.

So, when this mysterious God named YHWH sent Moses to free them and bring them back to Canaan (the “Promised Land”), the problem was that getting their freedom meant going back to a land where they would once again be vulnerable to the seasons. As odd as it may seem, not many of them were happy about leaving slavery and returning to Canaan, especially since getting there required living in the Sinai desert for a long time.

So, at the end of Moses’s life, just as they were about to resettle Canaan, God gave through Moses this promise:

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

I read the Old Testament because I believe Hebrews 10:1 (and many other scriptures) says that the purpose of the Old Testament—in all its weirdness—is a physical picture of the invisible world of YHWH. For the Egyptians, the Nile meant that the weather didn’t control their fortune; they did. The Nile gave the Egyptians a lot of power. And our lives are a lot like that. We like power, and we like control.

Like Abraham and his descendant, we  have a way of abandoning things that rob us of control. We even have a way of wanting to return to things that enslave us, but feel safe.

We behave this way, and yet what the Bible really is all about is living life in sync with the power structures of the invisible world and not this one.  The first covenant was entirely about the physical provision and security of the Hebrew ethnic group in Israel (see Deuteronomy 11 and 28). In the same likeness, the new covenant is about spiritual provision and power.

I teach the Old Testament because I see far too many people who profess to be followers of Christ and yet they live in lock step with the power structures of this world. Jesus demonstrated the new way when he said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

This means that the things we do to be powerful here on the Earth demonstrate our lack of faith in God’s power in the spiritual world, and ultimately separate us from God. We’re stingy with our resources; we’re greedy; we’re prideful; we give our time and energy to people and things that benefit ourselves, but not to those who cannot; we avoid danger; we’re hyper-sensitive to our safety; we retaliate when people wrong us; we tell mistruths to manipulate people and get what we want . . .

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

If you want to see what living in a kingdom not of this world looks like—if you want to follow Jesus—read the Old Testament.

Why You Need Jesus: Part IV

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles reflects an “atonement theory” of Christianity that I now reject. I’ve kept this series to show where I come from.

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The Law of Moses commands Jews to attach a tassel to the corners of their garments. You probably didn’t know or care about this, but the word for “corner” in Hebrew is kanaf. Bear with me.

About 400 B.C., a prophet named Malachi spoke about a coming savior: “The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” The Hebrew word Malachi used that we translate “wings” is kanaf, and out of that quirky Hebrew wordplay, a Jewish tradition grew that God’s coming chosen one—the “Messiah”—would have healing power in his tassel.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

Fast forward more than four centuries. Jesus is walking through a smothering crowd, and among the people in the crowd is a woman who has been fighting an incurable bleeding illness for 12 years. This woman is unclean, and is breaking the law of Moses just by being where she was. Yet she pushed through the crowd until finally she touched the corner of his cloak.

She was healed that instant.

But when Jesus turned around to see who had touched him, she immediately fell to the ground and trembled in fear. She had acted in desperation, but was now in a big trouble, and she knew it. Here, in front of the whole crowd, is a great Jewish teacher, and she—an unclean woman—had actually just touched him. This woman who for 12 years had suffered under the care of doctors who couldn’t cure her and who had spent all her money trying to recover ironically was now in the most vulnerable state of her life. But Jesus looked at her and spoke these immortal words: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

Go in peace. That she did.

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom, a word that’s hard to do justice when we translate it into English. Peace as we think of it is merely an absence of conflict, a still, a calm. But Shalom is bigger and more comprehensive than that. Shalom is a complete holistic wholeness. Shalom is a wholeness of mind, body, and soul.

On another occasion, Jesus encountered a man who was paralyzed, and laying on a mat. These two were not alone. With several Jewish rabbis in the vicinity, Jesus—never one to avoid controversy—announced: “Your sins are forgiven.” Of course, under the Law of Moses, only God has the authority to forgive sins. The rabbis fumed.

Then there was Jesus and the tax collectors. For at least three reasons, Jews thoroughly despised tax collectors. First … taxes. Okay knocked that out. Second, they had earned a reputation of corruption, taking more than was owed and pocketing the difference. Third, they worked for the Roman Empire, which was holding Israel under occupation (I’ll get back to Rome in just a second). So what did Jesus do? In full view of the religious elite, he went to dinner parties with tax collectors and taught them. And, predictably, the religious leaders fumed again. Jesus was associating with people whom proper religious people are supposed to completely avoid.

Jesus was popular among the downtrodden, the sick, and the sinners, but he was challenging the limits of permissible conduct as a Jew—he described his authority in ways that dangerously appeared to encroach on the province of God. A recurring question Jesus would receive in his ministry was “who gave you this authority?”

It began when one night when an angel came and told Mary that, despite her being a virgin, God would cause her to conceive and have a son. Mary was engaged to a carpenter from a poor town named Nazareth, but, like a good Jewish couple, they had never had premarital sex. God made her pregnant anyway. God, who made the biological rules of human reproduction, apparently reserves in himself the right to break those rules.

Now, if you’ve just put on your skeptic hat, consider that about 7 centuries earlier a prophet named Isaiah made this modest prophecy:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

And the Bible says it happened. In a stable. Next to barn animals. To poor parents.

For a second, I want you to set aside my claim that this prophecy came true. Instead, take a second to be amazed that this prophecy was made in the first place. Because of Isaiah’s ludicrous prophecy, the validity of the entire Jewish religion depended on someone somewhere (actually, based on other prophecies, only in Bethlehem) being born to a virgin. You just don’t do that kind of thing. You foretell easy things. Reasonable things. Likely things. You know: Brown hair, laughs a lot, born in the springtime, can’t stand Justin Bieber.

Instead, Isaiah predicted something impossible. And I believe it happened.

Jesus’s name in Hebrew is Yeshua, which means “Savior.” In this identity as a savior, Jesus met our deepest need. All of us are in a broken state. Satan, as I explained yesterday, has in some way or another has fooled each and every human into a false sense of his or her own power. We act selfishly, as if there is no God. Each human needs a savior because the invisible war against evil is too much for us. Evil is on us, and eternal death is always the result of that. So we need a savior, because we need shalom.

The word Immanuel means “God with us.” For thousands of years, God was unapproachable. He was that terrifying invisible trumpet noise above the lightning, smoke, and thunder on Mount Sinai. You just didn’t have a relationship with this God. So when Isaiah prophesied that son of the virgin would be called Immanuel, he was saying that God himself was coming to Earth and would pitch his tent among humans.

One place in the Bible describes it like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The word “Word” here is another big word (can you say “tongue twister”?). It comes from the Greek word logos, which means the comprehensive logic and order of everything. So by saying that God is the logos, the writer is making very big claims not only about both God, but also this man whom God would send to the Earth. Also, the text challenged the very notion of what God is. How could God be up above in the spiritual world and also be down below on Earth?

One day, Jesus described himself to the religious leaders using the phrase “I AM”, the same phrase that God used to introduce himself to Moses and the Hebrews who were enslaved in Egypt. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well. As in, they would later make an oath not to eat or sleep until they had killed him.

Jesus is God.

And despite all the majesty of God, all the power of God, all the bigness of God—God came to Earth as a humble man. The God who sees all of time, who created all of space, who terrified the Jews for 2,000 years knows exactly what it’s like to be human.

However, not everyone liked Jesus. It was a popular belief that the Messiah would free Israel, a people very proud of their independent national heritage, from Roman occupation. The insecurity that Israel faces from its neighbors today has a long heritage in Jewish history. Today, its Iran. Yesterday, it was Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece, and Rome. The problem in the Jewish mindset has long been invading neighbors. The solution was the “Messiah”.

But instead of being for Israel a freedom fighter, Jesus told Jews to pay their taxes to the Roman government, to not rebel against the Roman government, to submit to the Roman government, and to do even more in service to the government than was even asked. Jesus was introducing new ideas about power, and this put a sour taste in the mouths of Jews who for years had been expecting revolution.

Others went beyond dislike. Others hated Jesus on a level of wanting to kill him. Under the law of Moses, many Jews acquired powerful positions as its teachers and administrators. They were wealthy, and they were respected. So when Jesus came around talking about the old law being replaced with a new covenant (because, remember, the ritual-based Law of Moses was always just a “tutor” for the eternal spiritual realities), it was the religious establishment who had everything to lose. It turns out, power did not just now begin corrupting people in the last 100 years.

The Jews conspired against Jesus to be treated as a criminal under Roman law. And, without answering any of his accusers, he was hung on a cross. Jesus was born, he lived, he died. He lived a great life. He healed people, he taught persuasively about the kingdom of God, and he shook some cages.

But, okay. So what? He lived, he did nice things, said nice things, died, and you claim he is God.  Why is Jesus someone I need?

There’s this scene when Jesus was still alive in which he was passing through the temple grounds. While walking through the grounds, he observed what had effectively become a marketplace for animals that were to be used for the sacrifices under the Law of Moses. Have you ever observed Christian endeavors that have become commercial enterprises? Ever watched TV on a Sunday morning? Does it bother you? Well, it bothered Jesus. He went ballistic on them, overturning the tables that were used to exchange money and driving the animals out of the temple area (did I not say that Jesus was unafraid of controversy?).

When the Jews once again asked him to show his authority to do such a thing, Jesus responded: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Of course, to anyone listening this was preposterous. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed before, when Babylon sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. However, once the Jews began reconstructing the temple, they didn’t finish for another 46 years.

And now this crazy lunatic comes and claims that he will rebuild it in 3 days.

In the center of the temple is the “Holy of Holies.” The Holy of Holies is where God lived in the temple. It was a room in which no human except the High Priest (and only once a year) could enter. Later, various contributors to the Bible (again, in the patter of using physical images under the law to explain spiritual realities) would say that your body is a temple. Under the new covenant that Jesus was proclaiming, God would begin living inside humans the way he was then living inside the temple of Jerusalem. This is what Christians mean when they refer to the “Holy Spirit.”

So when Jesus said, “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”, he was referring to his body (though not surprisingly, his accusers would later claim that Jesus was threatening to actually destroy the temple). Jesus was saying that he was going to be killed, and then come back to life in 3 days.

Jesus died on a cross, and came back to life in 3 days.

You read that correctly.

I proclaim that Jesus died and came back to life. I proclaim resurrection. I proclaim this despite the fact that I’ve never seen the spiritual world on which all of this depends. I proclaim this because of ants. I proclaim this because impossible things happen in this world. I proclaim this because resurrection is all around me and has validated itself in my life. Death had to be defeated, and Jesus defeated it. He defeated it because, unlike every other human who has ever lived, Jesus never sinned. Death then, as the Bible says “had no mastery over him.” Jesus defeated death, and today allows us to join in that victory just by believing in him and his power. As you have probably heard from the popular verse:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

This is the good news, and this is why you need Jesus. There is an evil world of evil and there is an invisible world of life. Your sins make you unapproachable to God—not because God wanted that, but because that is God’s nature. And yet he loves you even despite the truly treacherous things you’ve done in your life. He loves you despite all those things that shame you, that you hide out of embarrassment. God knows each one of them, and affirms you despite them all.

Yet, in the true nature of shalom, you are holistically transformed—mind, body, and soul. Death no longer has mastery over you, and you no longer live for your own selfish desires. You live your life with the mindset of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You live your life as one dependent on the power of God. It’s a humble life on this temporary Earth, but a powerful one in the eternal world outside the universe.

Tomorrow morning is Christmas morning. Honestly, you might be shocked to know I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas. You will not find it in the Bible, and it has really become a commercial behemoth. But I choose to take time in the Christmas season to remember Jesus, and this year I want you to know Jesus and his resurrection.

Shalom.

Why You Need Jesus: Part II

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles reflects an “atonement theory” of Christianity that I now reject. I’ve kept this series to show where I come from.

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In the last post, I ignored one of the most ingrained instincts of the western world and advocated that you should give up your rights, your liberty, your autonomy, and your pursuit of happiness so that some distant overlord can pursue his. All this to an audience whose national heritage involved rebelling against a distant King George and English Parliament in order to pursue our . . . well . . . rights, liberty, autonomy, and pursuit of happiness.

Since I’m already well behind, I have nowhere to go except . . . further backward. I argue in this Part II, that you should put all your trust—risking everything—in something that can’t be observed, measured, experimented on, or subject to the scientific method. Because that’s a lot easier.

Today and tomorrow, I’m going to talk about the world of the invisible.

There’s a scene in the book of Exodus that sets the ball in motion. The context is that an ethnic group of Hebrews are enslaved in Egypt (the first instance in what would be a recurring theme in the history of the Jews—even into the last century). The Egyptians have subjected the Hebrews to daily lives of brick making since the death of Joseph, son of Israel (two important figures in Jewish history). Today: Bricks. Tomorrow: Bricks. 25 years: Bricks. So on this background, God appears in Palestine to a Hebrew man named Moses.

And how, you ask, did God appear to Moses? In a burning bush, of course. (Hint: If you’re writing a screen play and want to introduce a supernatural being, this is a poor way to go about doing it.) God, in this weird burning bush scene, tells Moses that he has long heard the cries of the Hebrews, and now is the time for Moses to go face down Pharaoh and liberate them. It turns out that God, in addition to feeling feelings of jealousy, as I described in Part I, feels a profound compassion.

To understand what happens next, it’s important to realize that at this point, neither Moses nor the Hebrews are very acquainted with this burning bush God, if at all. Really there is little to suggest that anyone in the world is. And to succeed, Moses has to obtain the trust of a people who over the course of five centuries have known nothing but slavery, who probably have no imagination, no hope, no idealism, and who will want to know what makes this bush god different than all the other household gods in Egypt with whom they are familiar.

This concern led Moses unknowingly to ask possibly the most important question in the whole Bible.

Moses:

Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?

God:

I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”

Okay. There’s a whole lot of weird stuff going on right here. But two things in particular tell the reader a whole lot about the nature of this god.

First, the bush thing. Why does God not just appear in the sky in all his glory like he does to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The answer is that, notwithstanding Morgan Freeman’s character that you saw in Bruce Almighty, God’s presence never fails to be absolutely terrifying to humans. Fast forward from this scene to the not-too-distant future and God has rescued the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt. While in the Sinai Peninsula, God calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai in order to give the famous “ten commandments” (which are really just the famous part of what was a much larger legal system). As Moses begins up the mountain, God instructs Moses to prevent anyone from following him. Not that they even wanted to. The mountain is a blazing furnace, covered in smoke and peppered by claps of lightning. And coming out of all this storm is the clear and overpowering voice of God “like a trumpet.”  And, of course, the Hebrews are perfectly calm about it:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

Yeah, in fact, any pride they brought with them to the base of the mountain fizzled immediately. You must understand that the image of God as a rosy Santa Clause breaks down the minute you open up a Bible.

And God’s angels? They’re no picnic either. The Bible includes virtually no account of people—good or bad—who are visited by angels and don’t fall to the ground in unmitigated fear. Everything about the spiritual world is alien to us. It is an incomprehensible existence, and it’s visible presence does nothing for humans but scare us witless. The distance God keeps is for our own good.

But in a later scene, Moses tells God that he is frustrated with the distance. Out of his frustration, he makes a bold demand that he probably didn’t understand. He asks God to show him his glory. And God responds:

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. . . . “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

You will find few people is the Bible whose intimacy with God even remotely approached Moses’s. Yet, even Moses wasn’t allowed to see God. His mortal mind would have died on the spot. So instead of God appearing in all his glory, the almighty creator of the greater universe appeared to Moses as a bush on fire.

Second, let’s talk about God’s name. As I said above, Egypt had many gods. And the Hebrews, whose identity with God had probably dissipated over the five centuries since the death of Joseph, probably would have been more familiar with them than with this “God of Moses.”

The gods in Egypt and Mesopotamia actually were a lot like humans. They were born, they grew up,  they fell passionately in love, they plotted against each other, they got their hearts broken, went to war, got made and withheld rain, created planets, and died (okay, not all of that is like humans).

But, the God of Moses was different. When God proclaimed I AM, he was saying something revolutionary. His message essentially was I am not trapped in time and space like you are. In one glance I see everything that has been, everything that is, and everything that was. I created the world, but there is a much bigger world than the one of which you are aware. It is big and indescribable. And terrifying to you. But over the next several thousand years—through prophets,  through calamity in which you will find yourself, through the times I will rescue you, through signs, wonders, and a whole bunch of stuff you’re not going to understand at first—I’m going to describe it to you as best as you are capable of understanding it.

All this from two very short words. God hardly lacks efficiency.

By the way, a certain carpenter man named Jesus came along later and would also proclaim “I AM”. People threw stones at him for saying that. (But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

So, while the God of eternity is invisible, he does quite a bit to make himself known. If you read Part I, I think you’ll agree that God wants to be known. First, he sends people to speak for him. He sent Moses to Egypt, Elijah to Israel, Isaiah to Judah, Jonah to Nineveh, Daniel to Babylon, and Paul to Rome.

Oh, and God sent Jesus. (And I’m getting ahead of myself again.)

Lastly, his fingerprints are all over things that are not invisible. His presence moves nature all around us. To those of you who don’t believe in God, does it ever bother you—even if only a little—when you think of ants? The sophistication of ant society requires a collaboration exceeded only by humans. First, lets talk about the ants themselves. Some ants have mandibles that are adapted to cut grass. They cut grass into small bits all day, every day—without weekends. Other ants are adapted to carry grass, carrying 20x their body weight! This is the equivalent of a 2nd grader carrying a car. Once the courier ants bring the grass snippings into the colony, another type of ant is adapted to chew on the grass and convert it into a fungus farm. And this fungus farm is the ants’ food source. Meanwhile, inside the colony, there are ants who guard the fungus farm, and ants who guard the queen. And the queen ant—she just makes babies all day. In most colonies, the queen ant is the mother of every ant. She will live an average of thirty years—the longest life span of any insect in the animal kingdom. Once the queen dies, the colony has about a month or two before it completely dies.

What a fascinating society right under our feet.

And that’s to say nothing of the colonies. If there is a true mystery in nature, it is ant colonies. They usually begin with the queen, who digs a vertical tunnel and then a chamber for herself. Then, as if on autopilot, the newly born ants, according to their classification, begin the process of constructing horizontal tunnels, more vertical tunnels, and chambers. They even build an air vent to keep from asphyxiating from the carbon dioxide created from the grass fungus.

Scientists are observing that each of thousands of species of ant has a specific nest design. Yet, ant colonies have no leader. Instead, the complex structures of ant life are programmed into ants through a set of rules that scientists are not even close to delineating. Seriously, take a look at this recent video on Youtube.

I believe in many components of evolution, which frequently puts me at odds with fellow believers. Natural selection causes animals to adapt biologically. It causes carpenter ants to have excellent mandibles for eating wood. It causes some moths to be camouflaged. It allows some finches to have large beaks for large nuts and other finches to have small beaks for small nuts. Natural selection is both observable and logical.

But frankly, isn’t evolution incredibly unsatisfying when it comes to these ant colonies? Convergent evolution explains how animals develop similar useful features. Divergent evolution explains how isolating populations leads to genetic rifts. I don’t believe Ant colonies fall well into either of these categories because their differences are of a cause of unity, rather than the result of disunity. It’s also worth pointing out that an ant, beyond its specific task within a colony, is not all that biologically advanced. An ant cannot solve complex problems. And yet, there is a synchronizing force that guides each ant within the colony — a force that unifies each worker towards the construction of such wondrous underground worlds.

I believe this guiding force is invisible. And I believe in an invisible world. And I believe there are invisible beings that live there and have major effects on what happens right here. While this is a world I don’t completely understand, with beings and forces I don’t completely understand, I’m convinced they’re all there.

I believe God is there even though a math equation will never isolate him. The God who created the universe doesn’t live in the universe, and is beyond the reach of the scientific method.

Jesus didn’t come simply to make Earth a better place. He came mostly because we are powerless against the invisible world. Tomorrow, I’ll describe that world.

Part III

Why You Need Jesus: Part I

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles reflects an “atonement theory” of Christianity that I now reject. I’ve kept this series to show where I come from.

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For better or worse, I’m prone to criticize modern Christianity. Read this blog or spend much time around me and you’ll hear me complain about an ever-growing variety of things that seem to saturate the modern church: neglecting the poor to finance extravagant church buildings, judging people outside the church more harshly than we judge ourselves, using the Bible to push political agendas, belittling scientific professionals when their work contradicts our already questionable scriptural interpretations, the very real racial segregation among churches, petitioning our government to suppress religious minorities, and our American martyr complex. On no shortage of issues, I find myself a distinct minority among church people—even siding with nonbelievers. If you are a nonbeliever who criticizes what you see among Christians, believe me, I’m often right with you.

This article, however, is less for Christians and mostly for the rest of you. Whatever you think about churches, you need Jesus badly, and I’m going to spend the next four days telling you why. Merry Christmas.

Only, before I can talk about Jesus, I have to talk about a whole bunch of other stuff. Power. Control. Jealousy. Love. Science. Death. Sub-Atomic Particles. Invisible things.

Yeah. Invisible things.

Then, once you know where to look for Jesus, we’ll talk about Jesus.

Today, we begin with power—by which I mean all the ways humans attempt to control their surroundings. I’m going to argue that you care a lot more about power than you think you do. The desire for power comes in many varieties, but it is the universal desire among the human race. I start here because your desire for power is basically why Jesus.

In 1944, about 4 to 5% of the U.S. adult population held a degree from a four-year college. 1944 was the year that FDR signed the GI Bill, and more or less created our modern-day middle class. The most recent census numbers put the percentage of college graduates at 30% (but don’t be too impressed: Canada leads the world at 56%). It’s no secret why more people are going to college. Education gives your life more options, and we like options because they empower us. They give us more control over what we do in the future. And your desire to control your future doesn’t end there. To preserve future options, you keep your resumé up to date, you work overtime hours, visit your financial advisor, open up savings accounts, and purchase assets that build equity. Each of these are examples of stockpiling, and they give you remarkable ability to make choices. Take these away and your life will dictated on someone else’s terms. Ask anyone living in poverty.

You’re tempted to lie sometimes. Sometimes you do lie. Or you just tell some of the truth, but neglect important details. You lie to defend, you lie to advance, you lie when you are trapped. Lies, too, are about power.

When you move to a new city, you find the nearest and soonest networking opportunity. It doesn’t matter whether it’s yoga, a college fraternity, a softball league, the glee club, the chess club, the country club, or Rotary. If you have the luxury, you will invest in people who benefit you and avoid people who take from you. And researchers have found virtually no limit to the ideas you will pretend to agree with if everyone else at a party is doing so. Being alone makes you vulnerable.

And speaking of vulnerability, you generally keep the embarrassing details of your life to yourself. You hide the mistakes, amplify the accomplishments, and downplay your failures. Being in control requires that other people believe you’re in control.

You’re also vulnerable when you find yourself in unfamiliar circumstances—when you’re engaged in something and can’t know the outcome. You feel this vulnerability when you move to a new city, so you ask everyone what they know about the city. You feel it when you start a new job or business, so you talk to everyone you know who has run a business. You feel it each time you go on a first date, so you engage in the timeless act of Facebook stalking. The desire for predictive power is what keeps fortune tellers and economists in business.

However, when you are out of control, when you feel uncomfortably powerless, your body triggers a powerful control mechanism called fear.  If you’ve ever asked someone out, you know this feeling acutely. Your anxiety is an acute realization that you are vulnerable. You’ve given someone else control that you once had.

(Let me be clear, some people suffer from anxiety for other reasons—namely neurological disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. These require professional help and certainly are not what I’m talking about here.)

Virtually everything people fear has this in common. Take public speaking. You can’t control the everyone’s reaction, so your body goes into overdrive, and the nervous rush of adrenaline makes your body focus intensely. Fear is your body’s way of of making up for the control you lack around you, and it can paralyze you. Most anxiety comes in the form of “don’t screw this up.” The things you fear are the things you can’t control or predict.

You are obsessed with power.

It’s no wonder that General Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—which was written simply as a war treatise for the Chinese Kingdom of Wu—is both widely read and applicable to virtually every human endeavor. You treat your body as if it were an army, and your life as if it were a war. You stockpile, form alliances, break alliances avoid uncertainty, hide your weaknesses, project your strengths, and sometimes go on the offense to manipulate the things or people you can control—those less powerful than you—all for the purpose of becoming more powerful.

When you boil it down, your life is little more than a daily attempt to control what you can. And the Bible was written for you.

The book of Genesis records a story about a civilization in Mesopotamia that, lead by a ruthless warrior named Nimrod, decided to build a huge tower “into the Heavens”. This “Tower of Babel” was meant to  strike fear in their neighbors and consolidate control of the region. The Mesopotamians projected power the same way you do. Each time you’ve falsely told people “I’m fine”, or turned your head to see if people noticed your new car, or worked on your body in the gym, or worked all weekend to have a front yard in step with the yard across the street, or spent ten minutes taking, re-taking, and refining your Instagram picture—you were projecting power like the builders of Babel. You were displaying: “I’ve got it together, and I’m in control.”

What’s interesting is that not long after construction began, construction stopped. The story says that God came down and caused what was once a linguistically unified civilization to speak different languages. God more or less zapped them, and construction stopped. To summarize thousands of years of Biblical history—from Abraham, to Moses, to Joseph, to Gideon, to Samson, to David, to Elijah, to Daniel, to Jesus—God continues to go around with this zapping act. Anytime humans amass power for themselves, God unflinchingly tears them down. Even today.

Ever been humbled? Is it not almost always right after your moment of euphoria? When you reached the top and felt invincible? Yep. God humbled the proud then, and does so today.

And this is the God I worship.

But why? From what you’ve seen so far, it probably just seems like the Bible portrays a bearded man in the sky with an ego trip. And you’re probably not too thrilled with such a God. In fact, let’s be real. God has a big ego. A REALLY big one. Here’s a dandy from the book of Job:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

God is mocking. And mocking well.

If you spend much time in psychiatric wards, you’re bound to hear similar delusional bravado. But God does not simply proclaim his power. God even insists that we acknowledge his greatness too. God wants us to revere him. He wants us to be raving mad about him. On one occasion, God says to Moses:

Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

God actually names himself Jealous. I mean, who does that? Anyone who believes in God has to become comfortable with the fact that jealousy is God’s nature; he has nothing short of a passionate, burning, searing desire to be the center of attention.

Have you ever dated someone like this? Wasn’t it miserable?! No one likes a narcissist. And a God like this can be very hard to warm up to.

Let me just say this: With what you know at this point, I’m actually pleased if you do not immediately want to worship this God. So, to understand why I love this God, we need to conduct a thought experiment. In this thought experiment simply assume that the following statements are true, and we’ll see where that takes us.

Everything God has said about himself actually is true.

God actually is perfect.

God lives in a world outside of time. He sees the entire history and future of the universe in one sight.

God created the universe. And let me expand on this. The observable universe currently boasts a diameter of about 93 billion light years. God created everything in that expanse.

God created everything in you. And all the billions of other people with the same things that compose you. Except not exactly you. And different from every other person. And when the Bible says “the very hairs of your head are all numbered”, that is actually true (When this phrase was first written, the Jews had no concept of cells, atoms, and sub-atomic particles, so to describe big quantities that only God could count, they used images like “hairs on your head” and “sand on the seashore”).

God is aware of every sub-atomic particle. There are about 100 trillion atoms in a single human cell. And there are about 40 trillion cells in your body. And there have been about 100 billion humans who have ever lived on planet Earth. God in one moment is not only aware of the entire history of all 93 billion light years, but also the entire history of every sub-atomic particle of all 100 billion humans.

In this thought experiment, would this god be justified in bragging about himself? The answer is yes.

But the jealousy? Why would such a God care about the opinions of beings such as this petty bunch of homo sapiens? After all, we don’t occupy the smallest speck of the smallest speck of the mighty universe. If you’re asking this question, it turn out that 3,000 years ago, King David—quite the biblical hero—asked the same question in a poem:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

The mystery of God’s searing jealousy for humans goes to the perhaps the most profound question of all: Why did God create humans in the first place?

There’s this image of Heaven in a book of the Bible called Revelation. In this scene, God is surrounded by 24 “elders” who worship him all day, every day (remember the megalomaniacal unfettered jealousy thing?). And here’s what they say when they worship him:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”

We translate the word “will” from the Greek word “thelema” (if you can believe it, Shakespeare didn’t write the Bible, nor was it written in English). Thelema means a desire derived purely from pleasure. This means that the answer is the theological equivalent of God created humans because he wanted to. Paul, a very prominent man who lived at the tail end of the biblical narrative, said this to a group of philosophers in Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

God doesn’t need us.

He wants us.

I don’t know why he wants us, and the Bible doesn’t say why. God’s desire for humans is not comprehensible to this universe. It is beyond our finite minds. I expand on this thought in Part III, but for right now I want to apologize for every time that Christians have had an answer and explanation for everything. The truth is, there are so many questions that the Bible doesn’t answer, and we need to do a better job of throwing our hands in the air sometimes. Really, our lack of knowledge shouldn’t be surprising in the context of this God who’s portrayed as powerful as he is.

So God wants us to love him, and he wants us to know our place in the universe. And this is why God sabotaged the great plans of the Mesopotamians. The power they thought they had was simply way out of whack with what they actually had.

The religion I affirm is a recognition that the power we want and the power we often believe we have is not even close to what’s real. When God tells us to believe in him, he is mostly telling us to give up our lust for control, and rely on his power and the promises he has made about his power. In so doing, we transform our lives on Earth from masters of all to servants of all. We substitute our wants for the wants of others. We make ourselves very, very vulnerable. Here’s a sampling from the “Sermon on the Mount”:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”

“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

“Love your enemies.”

“Do good to those who mistreat you.”

The religion I affirm is about relying on God. God commands us to give rather than to stockpile, associate with those who have nothing to give, lower defenses when attacked, be honest about weaknesses, and build up rather than manipulate. These commands are scary because all of them require making yourself vulnerable. They require trusting in the good promises of an invisible God. They require faith.

So, tomorrow and the next day, I’m going to talk about the invisible. It’s going to get a bit weird.

Part II

You Are Jerusalem

The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” Judges 7:2

Life is mostly about understanding how little you know about power.

About four-thousand years ago, people started moving. This is notable because, by the oft-poetic account of Genesis, most of these people had never moved before. A fertile valley on the Persian Gulf was the two-hundred-year’s home of virtually everyone who descended from the inhabitants of Noah’s ark. Little did they know how true their coming disruption would foreshadow the story of the Jewish people. And even less could they fathom how closely their disappointment would relate to our lives in modern times.

Mesopotamia was prodigious, comfortable, familiar, unified, autonomous, and increasingly renown—all the hallmarks of power. As a spectacle of that power, the people began construction on what would later be called the “Tower of Babel”, a spiraling staircase into the heavens. But God intervened. The thriving nation that originated from the small band that exited the ark on Mount Ararat was forcibly segregated into multiple language groups and nations, none of which would ever permanently exercise dominion over the Earth.

Why?

Because they had all the things that make people feel powerful, and the creator of the universe (not to mention Babylonia) from the very beginning has demonstrated nothing but a sheer obsession with impressing in our minds that we aren’t at all powerful like we think we are—that we are utterly dependent upon some Being that we have never seen before. This is the truth; and while I don’t know exactly why it’s so important that we ascent to that truth, it appears important enough that God allows us to be subject to considerable pain learning it. There is something mysterious in the air around us.

My experience having taught in depth on the Old Testament is that most modern-day Christians treat it as merely a long text that pointed to the coming of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, God did point the way to the coming of Jesus, and in compelling ways. But there’s a lot more to the Old Testament than prophecy about the messiah and about a cumbersome law we no longer follow. If the whole point was Jesus, it would have cost many fewer human lives to skip all the Old Testament’s war, destruction, genocide, and terror and just go straight to the love and mercy stuff.

Jesus actually is a comparatively small function of the Old Testament. Yes, you read that correctly.

Because for every prophecy about Jesus, another theme gets ten times as much treatment. The Old Testament is the story, told in the context of a different covenant, of how God teaches his people to rely on him. The way God taught a nation of Hebrews living on the easternmost banks of the Mediterranean Sea is the same way God teaches every one of us today. The story of the Jews is your story. While our covenant involves spiritual things as opposed to physical things, and while our covenant is eternal rather than temporal, we learn the basic truths of the real but invisible spiritual world through the physical and observable stories of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is almost entirely about the true nature of power.

Abraham

Among the early migrants from the tower of Babel was a man we know as Abraham (who’s name then was Abram). Abraham moved from the Tower of Babel as a youngster and settled with his father in the land of Harran for about seventy years. Despite the early disruption in his life, things were becoming comfortable again. Then God told him to leave everything: his extended family, his land, his people, his familiarity, his safety—everything that rooted him. God not only told him to leave, but, in a time when the Earth couldn’t have been mapped very well, didn’t even have the courtesy to tell him where he was going. Abraham left his life’s worth of sweat, toil, and reward because of the command of an unknown and invisible god (Abraham and his family, like everyone from Mesopotamia had many carved gods).

Power is control. We exercise power when we conform our surroundings in accordance with our will. We lose power when we are put in unfamiliar situations. The less predictable the outcome, the less power.

And because we all want power, familiarity becomes an obsession for most people. God wanted Abraham to know unfamiliarity. Again, I don’t understand the power and role of faith in the spiritual world—mostly because I don’t understand the spiritual world—but I do understand that all the rewards of that power require aligning yourself to a faith that makes no sense. The rewards for Abraham were coming, though they took awhile.

God stopped Abraham in Palestine and made a great promise there—that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. Keep in mind, Abraham was almost eighty-years old and childless when he received this promise. And his wife, Sarah, was much too old for children. So, given these obstacles, Abraham did what any even-headed and rational man would do in that situation—have sex with his wife’s servant girl, Hagar (because what could go wrong with having sex with your wife’s servant girl?). Hagar indeed had a child, Ishmael. However, as Abraham would find out, the child was not the one through whom the promise would be carried out. Ishmael and his descendants became a nightmare for the Hebrews. And as if it had to be said, Abraham’s relationship with his wife seemed to suffer for the next decade.

However, after years of agony following Abraham’s decision, Sarah was empowered to do the impossible: She gave birth to Isaac, culminating twenty years of waiting on God to fulfill his promise.

Abraham initially pursued a desired outcome by the only means that made sense to him. He hadn’t yet learned to let go of the seductive power of the familiar. God put Abraham, and so today puts us, through the unfamiliar in order to demonstrate the powerlessness and frustration of the cause-and-effect world around which we naturally base our decisions. God says to each of us today “I am bigger than your scientific mind.” (disclaimer: this is not an article against science)

But God was really was just warming up.

Joseph

Fast forward several generations. Joseph, the youngest of twelve sons of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, had two specific dreams, both of which suggested that his family was going to serve him in the future. Of course, in a primogeniture society such as his, this was ridiculous. The youngest child would inherit next to nothing and be charge of next to nothing. Further, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to an Egyptian.  Then he was put in jail by his master’s wife on false sexual assault charges.

Joseph, who while enduring the lowest time of his life, by the direction of God was then abruptly made second in command of all of Egypt. In his position, he effectively staved off the effects of a regional famine and later was able to humiliate this brothers who came to Egypt in search of food.

Joseph is an example of how God defies the human instinct to pursue status as a means of empowering ourselves. We go so out of our way to liked, to be admired, and thought well of, mostly because of its utility in obtaining what we want. So God, of course, picked the most unimportant person, put him in the most humble and humiliating of circumstances, and then elevated him to the top. For me, the following New Testament verse, among many others, comes to mind:

“God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” Paul’s First Letter to Corinth

Moses

Joseph died and so did Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s successor took the Hebrews captive and made them the slaves of the Egyptians for what would end up being recorded as five-hundred years. This was the first of three liberations in the Bible. More on this below.

God inflicted the famous “ten plagues” on the Egyptians before the Egyptians finally freed the Hebrews. God chose Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, but sometime after they left, Pharaoh changed his mind (or rather, his mind was changed for him) and sent his soldiers to trap the Israelites against the Red Sea. The Hebrews, perhaps understandably, began to blame Moses. Moses, however, who had experienced God in the wilderness, reached out to God. And God split the waters, which allowed the Hebrews to cross on dry land. Of course, the waters violently rushed back once all the Egyptian soldiers reached the sea floor.

The Hebrews on the banks of the Red Sea demonstrated something that is probably familiar to everyone in some unique way. You free yourself from something that enslaves you, but it pursues you and traps you again. And, overpowered like the Hebrews, you see no option but surrender. God, however, speaks loudly through this story: “You aren’t trapped at all. I am more powerful than the thing you believe is trapping you. I am more powerful than your chains and I am your way of escape.”

Joshua

Joshua led the Hebrews after Moses’s death, beginning the controversial war section of the Bible. This is where many non-believers claim a contradiction in the love and non-violence of Jesus that would come later—from where many non-believers decide not to believe. Christians pay too little attention to this part of the Bible to our detriment, because the concerns of non-believers are genuine. Let’s be very real: God ordered genocide. Men, women, and children—combatants and noncombatants—all were put to the death by the order of God. It was genocide.

I have more to say about this later in the article. Keep reading.

Jericho was a major impediment to the Hebrews obtaining the nation in Palestine that was promised Abraham. So, God had Joshua organize the Hebrews, but not according to the most tried-and-true military logic. The Hebrews were to march around Jericho, which was fortified by high walls, once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. On the seventh day, after the seventh lap, they were to simply shout. Yes, just shout.

So they went about it. And on the seventh day, God caused the walls to come down. Pay close attention to what God says:

“I have delivered Jericho into your hands”

No kidding! No one could brag about conquering Jericho. There would be no stories about brilliant military planning and execution. No, they simply marched and yelled. And God showed his power.

Gideon

Gideon has a similar story. During his time, the Israelites had become subject to the much more powerful nation of Midian, who treated them oppressively. Gideon was not exactly a fearless warrior. Yet, God’s messenger bluntly instructed him to lead the Israelites against Midian. He even addressed Gideon as “mighty warrior.”

Gideon assembled an army of thirty-two thousand, but God told him that he had too many. So twenty-two thousand were sent home—an incredible act of faith against such a vast Midian army. But, God wasn’t satisfied. So more were sent home. By the end of the purges, only three hundred soldiers remained.

Against an army described as more numerous than the “sand on the seashore”, the battle plan was simply to blow trumpets, burn torches, and smash pottery. This was the ultimate of vulnerability. Yet, according to the account in the Old Testament, God caused the Midianites to turn on each other out of fright from the startling noise. In the end, the Israelites didn’t have to fight; the Midianites had defeated themselves.

Sometime after Gideon, Philistia met Israel for war. Among their number was a giant man named Goliath. The nine-foot tall man announced that the Philistines would become the servants of the Israelites if an Israelite were to beat Goliath in one-on-one combat. The combatant? Young David, the shepherd boy who won the battle and would soon be made king of all of Israel.

David

Sometime into King David’s reign, David decided to conduct a census in order to know how many Israelites were on hand to fight. Strangely, the text says that David was conscience stricken as soon as he got the census numbers. And immediately thereafter, God sent a plague on Israel resulting in roughly seventy-thousand people dying. I found this whole thing strange at first. You can read the whole law and not find anything to forbid taking a census. The words “Thou shalt not take a census” simply do not appear.

So why was this such a big sin? Well, ask yourself: why was the size of David’s army relevant? It was never relevant before. Re-read Gideon’s story if you don’t believe me. So, the fact that David was concerned with the size of his army tells you all you need to know about David’s faith at that time. And so, because of the collective nature of the old covenant, lots of people died.

Are you seeing a pattern? First, God’s power is greater than our earthly conception of power. None of those stories make sense: Joshua defeated Jericho by marching around it; David, who had barely hit puberty defeated a nine-foot tall warrior; and Gideon an insecure man with an army of three-hundred defeated a Midian army of hundreds of thousands. Absent the power of God, no one would do these things. Second, tapping into God’s power requires us to forego our Earthly conception of power. When we talk about faith, this is what we’re talking about. Again, no army with any hope of winning a battle would do what Joshua and Gideon did; no teenager would be sent to fight a giant like Goliath; and no military strategist would go to battle without knowing his troop count. But they did so in reliance upon an invisible and nonsensical power. When they did these things, they saw God work.

Destruction

I’m skipping a whole lot, but the cycle of mistrust and destruction followed by deliverance continued. Sometime after David’s reign, Israel was split into a northern kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern kingdom (called “Judah”). Assyria, one of the most oppressive nations in recorded history, conquered Israel in the 8th century BCE and Babylon conquered Assyria and Judah in the 6th century BCE. Babylon, having consolidated its conquest, sent the Jews all over the Babylonian empire, the first diaspora since the Tower of Babel 1,500 years prior.

The importance of the second diaspora is that the entire Jewish paradigm was thwarted. The Jewish law is fixated on and the Jewish mindset is obsessed with access to the temple in Jerusalem. While complicated, the law was really just a codification of the means by which a person would remain “clean” so as to be able to enter the temple, where God resided. The diaspora then literally separated God from his people.

The people of God, utterly helpless as slaves, ironically were restored to their place in Jerusalem when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. Three-hundred years before King Cyrus, a polytheist, was born, the prophet Isaiah identified Cyrus by name and said that God would “make all his ways straight.” Cyrus is famous for his universal declaration of human rights, which was  the most far-reaching compilation of rights the world had seen at that time. In executing his declaration, Cyrus allowed and even financed the Jews to return to and rebuild Jerusalem.

What the Jews could not do for themselves some foreign pagan king did for them instead. Once again, no one would ever be in a position to take credit or boast for their redemption.

Modern Times

[N]ot all who are descended from Israel are Israel. . . . [I]t is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. Romans 9

We have everything in common with these stories. The spiritual warfare you fight is the physical warfare they fought. The terrible carnage of the Old Testament teaches us how we can win against sin, which, make no mistake, is more powerful than you are.

We are like those Mesopotamians who were frustrated despite their pride and determination.

We are like Abraham who was forced to give up the power that comes through familiarity.

We are like Joseph who was made powerful despite his low status.

We are like the Hebrews leaving Egyptian slavery when, despite how powerless we may feel to overcome it, we are rescued by God.

We are like Joshua when God orders us to do something that makes no sense.

We are like Gideon and David when our understanding of size and numbers is made meaningless. We are like them when we become more powerful by becoming more vulnerable.

We are like the nation of Israel when, like the Mesopotamians with their tower, our faith in our own power frustrates us. We are like the nation of Israel when our sin separates us from God.

We are like the nation of Israel when God rescues us despite how little we trust in his power. God rescued the Hebrews from Egypt, the first liberation. He rescued the Israelites from Babylon, the second liberation. He rescues us today from sin, the third liberation. These are the three liberations I promised above.

I also promised a discussion on the genocide in the Old Testament. You are like the nation of Israel, who had to destroy everyone in a conquered place in order to keep the small remnant of survivors from infiltrating the Israelites and corrupting them. When they didn’t do this, and when they later intermarried with foreigners, the result was always that their hearts were turned to other Gods. This is a harsh lesson, but its the perfect illustration of the power of sin.

Make no mistake: sin is a spiritual power that we can’t overcome, even in small amounts. Sin always comes in and grows. And so we have to be ruthless in allowing God to defeat it, just as the Israelites had to be ruthless in allow God to defeat foreigners who would and did turn their hearts away from the requirements of the covenant that existed at the time.

As you can see, the story of the Israelites is your story. You have everything in common with them. And yet, the Old Testament is so neglected in our churches. We put our power in our finances, our government, our status, our comfort zones, our reputation, and our intellect.

God is more powerful than each of these.