God Loves and Accepts the LGBT: Part 3

Regular people don’t spend their time thinking about Manasseh, but I’ve been thinking about him for years.

Manasseh was an Old Testament king of Judah and one of the Bible’s most perplexing characters. I guarantee you every observant Jew in Jesus’s time thought about him a lot, and there exists no universe in which Jesus and his disciples didn’t know his story verbatim. If today was the first time you’ve ever heard this name, you might pause before deciding you have nothing to learn on the topic of this series.

In part 1, I talked at length about school buses. I made no argument other than this matters to many people, and you should read part 2. I’m pleased at the feedback I received from that. In part 2, I looked deep into the opening poem of the Bible and explained the driving motivations of its writer. To the extent that you frame your questions about LGBT relationships within the lens of what is “biblical,” you need to orient the questions you bring to the Bible around the questions that its own writers brought when they wrote it.

This part 3 is about Judaism and its moves.

So, who Is Manasseh?

The Old Testament book II Kings is well known for its repetitive and, frankly, tedious recounting of Israel’s and Judah’s history—one bad king at a time. However, it informs the reader that of all the kings who “did evil in the eyes of the LORD,” a certain Manasseh was the single worst and most evil. In fact, according to the writer, his wickedness made God so angry that he caused Babylon to destroy Judah. Even five decades after his death and even though his grandson, Josiah, reversed what he had done during his lifetime.

Manasseh offered children as sacrifices to various gods and was a murderous tyrant king. No one disputes that his deeds were horrible. But what to make of a God who reacts to Manasseh’s evil by fifty years later destroying a whole nation?

In part 2, I wrote that the Jewish religion has long been devoted to the question of how to survive in a world in which big kingdoms used their resources to dominate small kingdoms. Manasseh’s story is important because it reflects an early and primitive answer to that question. As I’ll show you, it is one interpretation of Israel’s history of desolation. Under this interpretation, God and his Torah are fundamentally and irreversibly retributive: they provide safety and prosperity for those who do good, but total disaster for those who do bad. Telling Israel’s story this way, then, kind of got God off the hook. Israel wasn’t destroyed because God lacked the power to save it; it was destroyed because God must punish evil.

And a whole chunk of the Old Testament arises out of this understanding of God. The book of Deuteronomy starts out by imagining a time many centuries prior to its writing. In this time, the writer explains that God gave his law to a man named Moses, and then the writer provides that law (which, not coincidentally, closely resembles the form of treaties that the kings of Assyria would impose on people they conquered in war, and Israel was one of those nations who lost to Assyria in war). Not surprisingly then, the “Law of Moses” is finely tuned to argue why God caused Babylon to destroy Israel.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:

You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.

The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you.


However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:

You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.

You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.

The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.

Deuteronomy c28

This contractual relationship to God, as you can see, is described philosophically from the beginning to the end of the book of Proverbs.

Good people obtain favor from the Lord,
but he condemns those who devise wicked schemes.

The wicked are overthrown and are no more,
but the house of the righteous stands firm.

No harm overtakes the righteous,
but the wicked have their fill of trouble.

Proverbs c12

Again, this is the philosophy that God sends good things to good people and bad things to bad people. And an interpretation of Israel’s and Judah’s history that is rooted in the law of Deuteronomy and the wisdom of Proverbs is painstakingly recorded in the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings. The descriptions of God in those books are so consistently harmonious with the Deuteronomist perspective that scholars explicitly call them the “Deuteronomist” voice.

I bring this up and speak about it this way because the Deuteronomist voice is not the only voice in the Bible. This is important. Not only are there multiple voices in the Bible, but they are usually at odds with each other.

Which brings me back to Manasseh.

I and II Chronicles have probably been read in the last century by a grand total of five real human people (I kid, but seriously). It’s an achievement by itself to get all the way through the books of Kings (unless reading that Jehoahaz, Jehoakim, and Johoachin did “evil in the eyes of the LORD” is fun to you), but when most people then get to Chronicles, they see the torture they just endured in the books of Kings as just starting over. Not to mention that Chronicles begins with nine brutal chapters of nothing but genealogy.

But those who do stick it out eventually reach the story of Manasseh again, and something interesting happens in this second telling. Specifically, the second account of Manasseh tells us that he was actually not the reason Babylon destroyed everything after all.

I know I’ve gone several paragraphs through wonky Bible stuff, and perhaps you missed that. Let me repeat. The story of Manasseh is found in two books of the Bible. In one book, Manasseh was the sole reason that Babylon destroyed Judah. In the other book, he wasn’t. And you don’t have to be an Oxford scholar of Biblical languages to appreciate that those differences aren’t small.

And it gets even more interesting. Details are added to the story, and they take it in a bizarre new direction. In the old account, Manasseh was evil from start to finish, and his story was not complicated. He engaged in child sacrifice, he was murderous, he engaged in the worship of other gods, and he died. But the retold story informs the reader that Manasseh went through a wild  set of events that led to him actually changing every wrong thing about him. The story goes that the Assyrian army invaded Judah, captured Manasseh (and, strangely, only Manasseh), brought him to Babylon to become a slave (which makes absolutely no sense historically), Manasseh humbled himself while in slavery there, came back to Judah, and repented of his sins. Because . . .


These additions are remarkable for multiple reasons. First, the story by itself is wild. Second, there is no way any of it really happened historically. The Assyrian army never successfully invaded Jerusalem, never captured Manasseh, and never would have given him over to their bitter arch rival, Babylon, even if it did. These things just didn’t happen. I don’t know how else to say this to you.

But most shocking than this . . . unexpected . . . addition in the new story is that it changed one of the most important conclusions of II Kings. It changed the whole explanation for the war.

In other words . . .

The Bible argues with the Bible.

And it does this a lot.

And it’s awesome.

More Moves

Let’s go back to Proverbs. Remember how certain its writer was that the righteous prosper and the wicked are destroyed? Well, the best way to understand the writer of Ecclesiastes is to say that he thinks the writer of Proverbs was a complete moron. Here’s a sampling from both. You be the judge.

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.



For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?

Now there lived in a city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.

Do not be too righteous, neither be too wise—why destroy yourself?


If you read the first set of quotes, you will notice that it is nothing like the second set of quotes.

As I said earlier, the Deuteronomist voice, which was elaborated on in Proverbs, arose out of the need to get God off the hook for what must have felt like a failure on his part to protect his people from Babylon. It lead to a whole philosophy in which good is surely rewarded and evil is surely punished. It provided a clear argument for what Israel needed to do to be safe. And the first writers of Israel’s history wrote its story with this assumption.

The problem with this worldview is it’s a bad worldview.

Life doesn’t work that way, and they soon figured it out (by “soon,” I mean after several centuries). As generations of ruthless, unmerciful, immoral people continued to do well at the expense of everyone else, the words of Proverbs became reduced to a shrill sound. The teachers of Judaism could no longer defend its absolute assurances.

So Judaism moved.

A new history of Israel and Judah were written, and the new and sometimes wild details in the new account were crazy but also ingenious. This is what and II Chronicles are. Whoever wrote and II Chronicles had the original stories in front of him (or her), but the writer had better ideas than the ideas of the old stories and so the writer made new versions of those stories to reflect those better ideas.

Like when the old story of Israel’s history says that God caused King David to conduct a particular census that ended in disaster, but the new story says that Satan caused King David to conduct it.

(Haha, please don’t try to harmonize those two accounts).

And other new and clever stories were imagined and written—stories that moved the religion forward. One such story involved an ancient man named Job, who had lost his family, his health, and his fortune. The story informs the reader early on that Job was a righteous and just man, but for more than thirty chapters Job’s friends thoroughly apply the philosophy of Proverbs in an effort to convince Job that he was suffering because he had done something evil. Job’s friends are exhausting, and you cannot read Job without hating them. It’s not humanly possible. And that’s because the writer was an expert in the Deuteronomist philosophy and effectively used Job’s friends as a vehicle to personify the flaws of that philosophy. The book isn’t just a story with a moral at the end. It’s part of the Bible that argues against a different part of the Bible.

And the Bible showcases without censorship plenty more of these Jewish moves.

Imagine the discomfort when the prophet Hosea announced on behalf of God, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Or when the Psalmist declared: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire . . . burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.” I’ve read the Old Testament book of Leviticus several hundred times, and nowhere does it make optional its commands to offer burnt offering and sacrifices. I can hear some ancient Israelites hearing the Psalmist and saying, “Oh, yes, they are required. I’ll show you where it says so in the Bible!”

Or imagine the discomfort when the story of Ruth finished with King David being the grandson of a Moabite, considering that Deuteronomy prohibited any Moabite or descendant of a Moabite from entering Israelite society. I can hear their protests: David can’t be a Moabite. The same God who appointed David to be our king also forbade any Moabite from living in Israel. It’s in the Bible!

Or imagine the discomfort when the story of Jonah described as good all the people in the city that had just gone to war with Israel—and described as bad the only Israelite in the whole story. Anyone who had read the story of Nahum knew that everyone there was irredeemably evil and that God would destroy them.

Or when Psalm c89 cleverly, but in no uncertain terms, accused God of breaking the promise found in the books of the Dueteronomist voice that King David and his line would always be on the throne in Israel.

The Moves of Judaism

Modern-day Christians are prone to reduce Judaism to being stuck in legalism and tradition, but I hope to change your mind. The reality is different. Judaism’s vocation, as I discussed in part 2, was to usher in a just world in which the weakest and lowest are not laid to waste by the world’s powerful empires. In pursuit of that vocation, it is and always has been a religion on the move.

The Hebrew Bible is more or less unified in pursuit of the world in which swords are made into plowshares.

In which the wolf will live with the lamb.

And the infant will play near the cobra’s den.

This is the world born of the imagination of the prophet Isaiah.

Where the Hebrew Bible is not unified is its ideas on how to get to that world. To me, one of the most inexhaustibly fascinating qualities of the Old Testament is how openly it presents conflicting ideas that the most brilliant thinkers of its religion offered at different times in its history.

Which means that when you open your Bible, the thing you are reading is not a small target. It’s not a thing to aim at and better hope you don’t miss, lest you burn in the outer darkness for eternity. It’s not a how-to guide to get to Heaven when you die. The Bible is a trajectory. It’s the journey of history’s great suffering people as they lived Hell and had to courage to imagine and insist on something better.

Coming Next

It’s possible that you have in mind that my strategy in all of this is to take the Bible and weaken it. That’s wrong. I want to strengthen the Bible.

But if you want to take the Bible in all its power, you need more than a deep knowledge of its verses and stories. What you really need is a deep knowledge of its moves. This requires first identifying its competing voices and then learning to place them in their historical context to understand their motivations. Over time, Judaism increasingly developed from primitive rituals that were practiced in the countryside to highly formalized rituals practiced in a powerful and authoritarian temple order. Along the way, and oftentimes in tension with the other movements, came movements that introduced increasingly progressive social arrangements that were committed to the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members. The interplay of these movements become clear when you learn to enter into and sit for a time in each of the different voices that the Bible presents.

Once you understand (1) the Jewish vocation, (2) the movements of Judaism, and (3) the rabbinical system that arose between the testaments—which we will talk about in part 4—you will be in a great place to understand Paul and how he relates to the whole Jewish project that Jesus fulfilled.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the heart of the matter.


Why Isn’t the Old Testament Written In Egyptian?

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

The central driving force of the Old Testament is the exodus story. The phrase yatsa erets Mitzrayim (“out of the land of Egypt”) is written 142 times, and it is from this memory that the first command of the Torah begins.

According to the Old Testament book of Exodus, the Hebrews lived in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. But in light of that reading of the story, several odd things happen when they leave. First, you have to accept the fact that there is virtually no record of the Hebrews living in Egypt. That’s simply an archeological fact. Of course, I’ve heard Christians say that the pharaoh must have scrubbed any record of them in order to save his reputation, and I guess that’s a possibility. But there are plenty of things in the Egyptian record, so to speak, that memorialize bad things happening to Egypt. You can find plenty in the Egyptian record of lost battles and humiliating defeats. Further, no other nation records the Hebrews living in and escaping Egypt.

And let’s be clear about the scale we are talking about: The biblical account of the exodus describes a Hebrew community that was at a minimum one million people. That is a truly huge movement of people and stuff. In light of the fact that the number of Egyptians living at the time was also about one million, I simply don’t find it plausible that there would be no record of the Hebrews ever living in Egypt. And if, when you read the Old Testament books of the Torah, you expect simply a videotaped version of history, there’s another problem with the exodus story.

The Hebrew slaves whom Moses delivered through the Red Sea didn’t leave Egypt speaking Egyptian.

Four centuries is a long time to live in a new place and not pick up a language. If that doesn’t mean much to you, consider that the Hebrews were captives in Babylon for only about fifty years, and yet they left Babylon speaking Aramaic. Further, not only did they leave Babylon as Aramaic speakers, but the language turned out to be durable. In fact, more than five centuries after the exile in Babylon, Aramaic was the primary language that Jesus spoke.

Genesis and Exodus are a great history of the Israelites if you want to understand their understanding of Yahweh and their neighbors when they came back from Babylon (which is when and why those books were written). They are a terrible history if you expect a literal reading to reveal their actual origins.

So if the Hebrews didn’t come out of Egypt, where did they come from?

The best theory on this question begins with the striking similarities of Judaism to Canaanite religion that was practiced in the coastal plain of Israel around 1400 BCE to 1100 BCE. This was also an area that Egypt sought to control, though never with complete success. Over time, as some Canaanites moved away from the coast and further inland toward the then largely unoccupied mountainous center of Israel, they began to establish a distinct identity from the coastal-dwelling Canaanites and Philistines. They became Hebrews. Further, to the extent that Egypt also sought control of that coastal region from which they came, you could say there was an “exodus” of sorts—though it wouldn’t have been anything of the scale you read in Exodus.

This, by the way, is called the “Canaanite Origins Theory”. There are other theories, but this is the dominant theory and the one I find more persuasive than the others.

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.


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.


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?


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.

The Most Important Verse In The Bible

You probably don’t love the Bible as much as you wish you do. Here in the “Bible Belt”, glowing references to the “Good Book” saturate conversation and every form of media. Yet, for all the hoopla, few people read it much at all, and most people find it exhausting. There’s a gap between the praise directed to the covers of Bibles and the attention given to their pages.

If you’re being honest, do the things you privately say about the Bible sound a whole lot like the things you say about . . . flossing?

I wrote this article because I think I know why.

I didn’t always enjoy reading the Bible. Sure, I carried one to church every Sunday and sang all the Bible propaganda (“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me!”), but it was always this huge book, and when I read it I had no idea what I was looking for. Beneath the surface, the Bible—particularly the Old Testament—was disconnected and incomprehensible.

And I refuse to believe I was the only one who has ever felt that way.

Ask yourself: Why did Jesus wait thousands of years after Adam and Eve sinned to come to Earth? Wouldn’t it have been a whole lot easier if, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God just sent Jesus to the Earth to die on a cross right then? Sure would have saved a lot of time. Instead, you have to read four thousand years’ worth of weird and seemingly irrelevant material (that you probably won’t read) and then finally you can read about Jesus. You have to read about Abraham wandering in the wilderness and God’s promise of many sons. You have to read about their slavery in Egypt. You have to read genealogy after genealogy. You have to read about Moses talking to a burning bush. You have to read how God ordered the genocide of every man, woman, and child living in Jericho. You have to read prophecy after prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem. You have to read about a law that we are no longer commanded to follow, but which just goes on and on and on and on….


Did God just stumble onto this sin problem and at the last minute cook up a man named Jesus to forgive our sins? If not, then what in the world was God doing for 4,000 years?

If you can’t answer these elementary questions, it’s really no wonder your experience with the Bible is so vapid. You’re missing everything. You’re missing the thing that makes the Bible rich, cohesive, mysterious, and—above all—RELEVANT. If you’ve just accepted that the Old Testament is there, but never questioned why, you are missing out on the uncensored passion and genius of God—not to mention the meaning behind virtually everything in the New Testament. If you don’t find the Old Testament relevant to your life today, you’re not just missing out on the first half of the Bible; you are missing the whole Bible.

Lucky for you, one unsung verse in the Bible tells you how to read the Old Testament and bring life to the New Testament; one verse makes the Tolkienesque stories of the Old Testament more than stories; one verse makes the Law of Moses more than just a very, very odd law; one verse connects the Old and New Testament in ways that will make the seemingly huge Bible into something you will only wish was bigger.

Hebrews 10:1 won’t be found on many VBS posters. It won’t be quoted by anyone seeking office. You won’t even hear it in many sermons or read about it in many books. Yet, while it receives little attention in most church circles—let alone popular culture—I’ve concluded that it’s the most important verse in the whole Bible. Start your journey there and, even in the most notoriously boring parts of the Bible, you will find wonder through the end of your life. The verse reads:

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.

Really, Chris? That’s what you made me read this whole thing for…for that? Yes, that’s the verse. And here’s how to read it.

When the writer refers to the “realities”, he’s talking about the spiritual world. Even before the scientific age, humans have been in the business of drawing conclusions from observing the physical world. But the Bible from page one insists that the spiritual world—not the physical world—is what matters. This would be fine if we could see or test on the spiritual world to draw conclusions about it, but we can’t. It’s invisible. And that leads to the genius of Hebrews 10:1 (and, by extension, the whole Old Testament). Hebrews 10:1 essentially says that the Old Testament is an analogy. It shows us in physical terms what the spiritual world is like. Perhaps you don’t find this to be huge.

But it’s huge.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts, just consider how long the Old Testament is. 39 books covering thousands (or, in my opinion, billions) of years. Now understand that Hebrews 10:1 is saying that ALL of it is an analogy to the spiritual world. I’m not going to cover each of the connections that the Old Testament has to the New Testament. Really, I’m not going to even come close. Between the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life in Heaven, there are thousands of connections. In this article I’ll talk about maybe three. Or four, depending on how excited I get.

So, let’s start with the Law of Moses. Like any law, the Law of Moses has context. The beginning of the Law starts with a preamble that God repeats over and over in the Bible:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Of all the Hebrews’ worries during their lives as slaves in Egypt, rain was not one of them. Thanks to the Nile and a sophisticated irrigation system installed during the Middle Kingdom dynasty, the Nile River Valley in Egypt basically remains fertile all year. When God rescued the Hebrews from the ironic comfort of slavery, he led them into the vulnerability of desert.

The Hebrews suddenly depended on rain.

Have you ever been a slave to something? Has the familiarity of that thing strangely felt more desirable than the vulnerability and uncertainty of leaving it? Have you ever left something you hated, but it pursued you? Have you even wanted to return to it? The Hebrews did.

Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians”? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!

So God promised that if they followed the Law, he would provide rain. Deuteronomy 11 makes it explicitly clear that the Law of Moses was a prosperity gospel (read it if you don’t believe me). The whole covenant was based on rain, food, and security (and there are still many here in the Bible Belt who talk about Christianity this way).

Now turn to John 7. Seriously, do it.

The Jews are celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles, which occurs each year right after the long dry season. The eight-day feast, in which the Jews construct and live in small branch shelters, commemorates the way God took care of the Jews who escaped Egypt even through their uncertain life in the desert. Not surprisingly, during the eight days, the High Priest preached on and on about water. Each year, he would read the following passage from the prophet 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.

To the Jew, this was just a recitation of the Law: Obey it and God will give you rain; disobey it and you’ll get dust.

But Jesus was about to activate Hebrews 10:1.

As the festival progressed from one day to the next (and as the crowd consumed more and more wine—yes, wine), the crowd got louder and louder. On the last and greatest day of the festival, the high priest would pour wine and water over an alter and the crowd would cheer loudly “HOSANA!” (which means “God, save us!”, like by giving us rain).

On the last day of the festival, it was definitely loud. And in John 7, it says Jesus— who had been hiding the whole week—stood and said in what had to be a very loud 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.”


Let’s do it again.


Jesus—in cinematic perfection—revealed an other-wordly source of satisfaction that is incomprehensible to our senses. All this time, the Jews had relied on God for water. Now God’s people would long for something much greater. Something invisible (By the way, as an aside, ever read John 8 and wonder what Jesus wrote in ground the day after the Festival? Read Jeremiah 17 again.). God’s people would long for a life that can’t be comprehended in this universe. Water on Earth lasts until you die of thirst. Living water lasts for eternity. God’s supply of water to the Jews then was a shadow of God’s later gift of eternal life to all who believe.

More context.

Once the Hebrews left Egypt, God promised them the land generally called Canaan, a land already inhabited by various well-armed tribes and cities. The Old Testament is full of God-ordered war and that rightfully bothers people. If you are simultaneously not familiar with Hebrews 10:1 and not bothered by the war of the Bible, you are strange. The war (really, let’s be real—genocide) does bother me, but I can at least see what God is communicating. Deuteronomy 11 says from the Law:

If you carefully observe all these commands I am giving you to follow—to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him and to hold fast to him—then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you.

The pattern that shows up in the Old Testament more than any other is the weak and vulnerable defeating the strong and powerful. And this pattern is central to the whole Bible. Here are a few examples:

  • Jacob, the youngest, steals the inheritance of Esau, the oldest;
  • The Hebrews cross the Red Sea after being trapped by Egyptian soldiers;
  • Joseph, the youngest, is served by his older brothers who earlier sold him into slavery;
  • Samson defeats an entire Philistine army with a jawbone;
  • Gideon reduces his army to 300 soldiers;
  • Boy David defeats giant Goliath;
  • King Nebuchadnezzar was made to live like a wild beast after he bragged about his kingdom.

In virtually every battle, the size or skill of the Hebrew army was completely irrelevant. In fact, they were usually far outmatched. Read the Old Testament much and God seems to always put them in situations where the only plausible explanation for victory was his own power. Is anyone really going to brag about the way they defeated Jericho? By marching around it and blowing trumpets? No way!

In the same way, does anything in your life look like a giant? Are your sins too big to fight? One thing that becomes clear if you read the Old Testament with Hebrews 10:1 eyes is that your sin is never too big and your battle with sin won’t be won with human effort. The enemies of God weren’t beaten with military force. No doubt, you play a part in overcoming sin, but you won’t defeat it by yourself. Sin is a spiritual thing and it’s bigger than you. In the same way that the Jews won battles in spite of their often over-matched military, God’s power today is revealed when people trust in him despite feeling “over-matched”. It comes when we are powerless, but leaves when we are prideful. Don’t see much of the power of God? Perhaps, your heart is like Nebuchadnezzar’s. Go read Daniel 4.

While I’m on this topic, it should be said that sometimes the Hebrews were commanded to engage in more than conventional war. Sometimes they were commanded to slaughter every person in a city. And when they didn’t—when they left any trace of the city—God would abandon them and terrible things would fall upon them.

At the risk of sounding like genocide is simply an academic thing, I’m going to do my best to try to explain what I think was happening. Think of Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan. Think of the Darfur conflict. Think of Bosnia. The horror and suffering of those events is unimaginable. Killing—let alone mass killing—is traumatic. So when God commanded that of his people, it demands your attention.

In Exodus 34, God commands the Jews not to enter into treaties with foreigners and not to marry them. Otherwise, they would convince the Jews to start worshiping their gods (and when the Jews later did make treaties and inter-marry with foreigners, they did just as God predicted).

Viewed through the lens of Hebrews 10:1, foreigners in the Bible are an obvious pattern of evil in the spiritual world. It’s easy for Christians to get rid of some sin, but to hold on to just a little bit. But the lesson is this: Even one area of sin that remains in your life—even if you feel good about having gotten rid of all others—will continue to grow and destroy you. Further, by God’s nature, he cannot live with sin. So harbor sin in your heart, and you will be all alone. This is an important enough truth that God allowed countless deaths in order to teach it.

War is a shadow of spiritual warfare. It’s ugly on Earth, but it’s more ugly in your soul.

So following the Law of Moses gave water and security. But what was the Law? What did people actually have to do to follow it? In a nutshell, the Law is about things that make God’s people unclean. The list is long and really painful to read from beginning to end. It’s what drives readers mad when they get to Exodus and Leviticus.

Notice a sore on you’re skin? You’re unclean. Eat a fish without scales? You’re unclean. Touch a lizard? You’re unclean. Go out for a jog and trip over a carcass? You’re unclean. Touch a fabric that rested under a clay pot that came into contact with someone who touched a lizard? You’re unclean. Ejaculate?

You guessed it.

Jews were obsessed with avoiding unclean things. After all, unclean people had it rough. For every unclean thing, there was prescribed an elaborate and intrusive remedy to become clean again. Contract a skin disease and you would have to live outside the camp and in the wilderness until it healed, though no fewer than seven days. A priest had to inspect you before you could come back into town.

Further, an unclean person couldn’t enter the Temple—the center of all Jewish life. All sacrifices were made at the temple, and God lived in its innermost part. It was a big deal when Solomon built the temple. It was a big deal when Ezra rebuilt the temple. It was a big deal when Herod made the temple even bigger.

So it was a really big deal when Jesus told some Pharisees “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days!”

More than a millennium after Moses wrote the Law, Paul wrote “We are the temple of the living God.” Uncleanliness under the Law, which separated you from God in the temple, is a shadow of the reality that your sin separates you from God in his heavenly temple and in your body, which is a temple. But if you are clean, God will live inside of you. Jesus would say:

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.

The Law is a shadow of the holiness of God.

And in the same way violating the law always led to the death of something—usually the sacrifice of an animal—the invisible power of sin is death. Hebrews 10:4 makes clear that the blood of bulls and goats can’t stop the spiritual power of destruction that comes from sin. You sin and your soul is dead. So when you read all the grizzly details of each kind of sacrifice in the opening chapters of Leviticus, you are reading about Jesus, who died when you should have. Hebrews 9 describes it this way:

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.

Sacrifices were a shadow of Jesus.

As you’re probably beginning to see, God didn’t just create the Law and later stumble upon Jesus as the solution to the problem of human sin. He has been illustrating it from the beginning of time. I can’t see sin leading to death. I can’t see sin separating people from God. I can’t see the power of God. I can’t see the power of sin. I have no idea what eternal life in Heaven is. These things, which are the most important things, are invisible.

But they are put on full display in the Old Testament, and for that reason, the Old Testament is relevant and exciting—if you know why you’re reading it. Hebrews 10:1 will always struggle to be popular. In doesn’t give an easily consumable, quick answer to anything. Instead, Hebrews 10:1 is the beginning of a lifetime of thousands of answers. And for that reason, I believe it is the most important verse in the Bible.

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.


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.


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?


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

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.


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.


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.


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


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 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 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.


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.


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.

Safety, Security, and Mountains that Move

Why can I not move mountains? After all, Jesus said that if I had the faith of a mustard seed, I could do just that. I remember after the first time I read that, being a young boy, I wanted to try it. I didn’t live near a mountain so I focused my eyes on a nearby hill. I focused intensely on the hill—jaw clenched, eyebrows in, grip tightened. (My sister will tell you that when I focus intensely, I do this weird thing with my lips.) Well, my small neighborhood mountain never moved and for years, I thought little of Jesus’s statement.

Today, I have plenty of money to get by from day to day. I’ve never known hunger; for being a Christian I’ve never been threatened to be thrown in prison or tortured. I live in a beautiful area near the Arkansas river just outside of downtown Little Rock. The crime rate in my neighborhood is superbly low. I drive a car that I’ve had since high school, which I’m certain will fall apart in the next year, but I frequently go out to eat at nice restaurants nearby with friends that I find smart and funny and I’ve plenty of clothes and nice clothes at that. Ours is a world of diversified investment portfolios, fifty-plus-page contracts, gated communities, life insurance, liability insurance, health insurance, renter’s insurance, homeowner’s insurance, investment insurance, property insurance, unemployment insurance, and blah blippity blah blah . . . insurance. In sum, we like certainty. A lot.

There’s this passage in the New Testament where Jesus tells his followers to go out into the nearby towns to tell about him. He tells them not to bring any money, no extra clothes, no food, nothing. On their journey, they were able to do all kinds of miraculous things through the holy spirit.

There’s another passage in the Old Testament about a man named Gideon. There was nothing impressive at all about Gideon, yet God chose him to lead his army (note: There’s a lot of war in the Old Testament and this really trips people up about the Bible. I’ll write about this some other time but there’s a reason for this) against the Midianites. When Gideon prepared to lead the men into battle, they had thirty-two thousand soldiers. God told Gideon that he had too many soldiers and in the end, Gideon was left with only three-hundred. I’m skipping a bunch here to keep your and my attention but God delivered the Midianites to the Hebrews in a decisive victory. If you read the Old Testament, this basic narrative happens over and over: God’s people are put in a position of absolutely having to rely on God and God comes through.

So that brings me back to my mountain. Its really no surprise that it doesn’t move—I have no purpose for it to move. I’m by no means relying on God to move the mountain. I merely would be amused if he did. Faith is more than some kind of assent to the fact that God exists. Faith is not only believing that he exists, but utterly depending on the awesomeness of his power. After all, we’re talking about the creator the universe, the creator who has put his spirit in you and promised that you would be able to do more than Jesus ever did.

Find yourself depending on God more. Make yourself vulnerable. Do this and you will find yourself closer to God and safer than you’ve ever felt in your life. I promise. God does too.