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Category Archives: Old Testament

Musings on Old Testament books and topics.

an immense pregnancy

Why not think of God as the one who is coming, who is moving toward us from all eternity, the Future One, culminating fruit of the tree whose leaves we are? What stops you from projecting his birth on times to come and living your life as a painful and beautiful day in the history of an immense pregnancy? Do you not see how all that is happening is ever again a new beginning? And could it not be His Beginning, for to commence is ever in itself a beautiful thing.

Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet, 1903

Rainer Maria Rilke is another of those voices I love to frequent. My friend Katie introduced me to him in the Book of Hours years ago, and he’s spoken to me, blessed me, ever since.

Love these images!

God not simply as one who came, but who is and always will be coming. The Future One.

Ehyeh asher ehyeh.  ehyeh asher ehyeh

I will be that which I will be.

The Divine Name we say little and know less.

Rilke dovetails beautifully with my current readings through Exodus and Galatians. Pulls them together, even as so much of life (and religion!) seems to pull us apart.

A tabernacle and priestly system that ultimately serves practically to enshrine, to codify a God who is Past, rather than making space and pointing to the One who Will Be.

Projecting his birth, and our own, on times to come, on days yet unfolding.

We are all, along with creation, pregnant with an immense pregnancy, aren’t we? True religion, like life, offers no final product with a stamp of authenticity from ages past. It only makes space for our own glimpse, our own grasping of our common, immense pregnancy, the unfolding of our common history, a common life of painful and beautiful days.

Creation groans in the pangs of childbirth and we also inwardly groan as we eagerly wait.

Immense pregnancy!

Adoption.

The redemption of our creaking, cranky, chemoed bodies.

The revealing of the sons and daughters of God.

And we know not yet what we will be.

But we will be.

pregnancy

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2013 in Exodus, Galatians, Movies, Religion

 

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the long way home

winding road“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them the short way, through the country of the Philistines…he led them through the desert toward the Sea of Reeds.”

This text quite literally tumbled out at me during my reading this week.

I didn’t manage to get out of the way in time.

God did not lead them the short way.

We thrive on short ways, short cuts. Even if it only trims seconds off the journey, we’ll go for it. We detest shortcut_0detours and delays. Get us there quick and get it over with. What moron would choose the long way? Who wants to head out into the desert for a round about tour of nowhere? The Sea of Reeds doesn’t exactly sound like Kauai. We’ll deal with Philistines, bring on the battle, let’s get it over with. Hard and fast beats slow and agonizing any day of the week. And twice on Sunday.

God did not lead them the short way.

He led them into the desert toward the sea in a long and winding path that had Pharaoh and company convinced that they were wandering around confused and lost, “hemmed in by the desert.” I don’t think the people had to fake the confusion. If they could have left indelible marks in the sand along their long and winding road, I’m sure we would see some rather large letters roughly approximating WTH, G-D?

I want to be done with all the effects of chemo.

pathI’m ready to feel again. I’m ready to be done with shrouds and clouds and a foggy brain.

Enough already of port flushings, of scans, of labs, of procedures and billings and waiting rooms.

Enough of having to watch those I love suffering under their own unbearable burdens, their own loads. Enough of tears, of sighs, of pain that simply refuses to leave.

God does not lead us the short way.

They traveled “by stages” as YHWH directed them. So do we.road work

And most of those stages were short on water. And food. And comfort.
Sounds like our journey.

God does not lead us the short way.

It’s reality – unless you are obnoxiously blessed. Which means of course we all hate you. Just saying. We can and do respond with our own scribblings of WTH or even WTF G-D? At least when we are being honest with him and ourselves. But hopefully there is a deeper, more ultimate and intimate inscription left not only by us but within us: I will trust anyway. I will see rejuvenation in each spot of shade, in each trickle of water. And when the current stage lands me in Elim with twelve springs and seventy palm trees, I will breathe deeply, drink slowly, and be thankful for each moment. When the current stage takes me to a dead-end dry rock, I will learn to see Christ even in this hard unyielding surface and look for water to burst from its bowels. When I’m staring into the sterile, bitter pool of Marah (Hebrew “bitter”) I will remember that Jesus (Hebrew “salvation”) was conceived in Mary (like marah, Mary is bitter). Healing is borne in the womb of bitterness.

And it is not a short bearing. Or birth.

We take the long way home.

path_2

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2013 in Exodus, musings, Old Testament, Suffering

 

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babel blessing

“Do you think what happened at Babel was a curse?”

The question caught me by surprise.

I had this glorious opportunity to participate in workshop at BSU for a class in communication & religion. I first met the prof when he took one of my Greek classes several years ago. About a month ago I ran into him at Barnes and Nobles, renewed our acquaintance, mentioned to him upcoming possibilities with me teaching Hebrew, and he ended up joining my latest Hebrew class. The first night of class I shared how just learning the Hebrew alphabet can start you on a journey akin to something out of Stargate. It’s a portal not merely to another time, but to a wholly different world.

It’s one of the benefits of learning a second language. To learn a second language is to step into a whole new way of seeing and naming the world – particularly if it is a language that takes you out of our western, Indo-European language neighborhood and across the great cross-cultural divide to a place where people truly see the world differently. Hebrew can do that. It makes you read the opposite direction, for pity’s sake, and the end of a book in Hebrew is where books normally begin for us.

Sharing all this with my latest class, my prof friend from BSU, Jerry, asked if I would be willing to come to a class workshop and share my scoop on the value of learning a second language and its potential implications and insights into communication across religious and cultural divides.

So there I sat with about twenty eager young minds, listening to a discussion about text and context, subtext and pretext, along with high- and low-context cultures, totally loving every minute of it. I so could have done this all my life! One point on which I wish I hadn’t listened to my dad. Should have majored in history (or linguistics!) and pursued that teaching degree. But then, I no doubt would not have been enjoying this session – or writing this blog. So move on, Mike, move on. So I do. I share my story and spiel about learning languages, about the potential insights personally, culturally, biblically from learning Hebrew.

Lunch break comes, the class disperses, except for several students who gather to me.

And then comes the question.

“Do you think what happened at Babel was a curse?”

I honestly hadn’t thought of the judgment at Babel that way.

Think about it. If we were cursed with different languages leading to different cultures and tribes, customs and traditions, waiting for Pentecost to undo it all, where would that leave us? What that say about God and about the ultimate story he tells? No, I said. That’s not the point of the story. Diversity of culture and color and custom and language were not a curse or an afterthought on God’s part. It was one of the ultimate fruits of his direction for humanity to fill the earth. As one Hebraist has pointed out, the Hebrew word we translate “create” in Genesis literally means to “make fat.” The God of Genesis 1 “fattened” creation with a huge, swirling, swarming diversity of creatures and critters. One basic model simply wouldn’t do. The Creator entity at the center of all things thrives on diversity of shape, size and form. He was no Henry Ford.

If anyone is prone to boring sameness it is a humanity that has lost touch with the Creator heart and thrives instead on homogeneity and uniformity. One tongue. One speech. One culture. One party. One religion. One tower. Yay. Can you pass the Grey Poupon?

Seen in this light, Babel becomes a judgment on our universal tendencies towards tameness, sameness, the bland blending of all colors into an ugly, lifeless gray. At Babel, God merely jumpstarts the process humanity had/has failed to embrace: to spread out, to develop their own cultures, identity and potential in life-giving ways. To develop and relish our own unique voice in the wide world. Of course, despite the Babel jumpstart, we have still failed to do this right. The rest of the biblical tale – the still unfolding saga of humanity – is one of increasing alienation and otherness; a hostile moving away from each other in our diversities.

Enter Jesus. Enter Pentecost.

Pentecost isn’t about eliminating divers tongues. The apostolic speech was not monochrome utterance. “We hear them speak in own our tongues the wonderful works of God.” All languages are uttered here, all cultures acknowledged. Diversity is not leveled; rather the hostile momentum of otherness is reversed. The crowd gathers rather than scatters. Humanity comes home to a diverse and colorful home that we call in its ultimate form the new heavens and the new earth.

So how very sad – wait, not strong enough – how very tragic to still be playing Babel on our religious, political and cultural tableaus, feeding our deep, adamic dysfunction and momentum towards an isolating, dehumanizing sameness. A tableau of external conformity masquerading as unity or harmony or love, while souls scatter to their cloistered closets to once again hopefully catch a glimpse of the unique glory placed within them.

How long  before we wake up and embrace the blessing of Babel at the dawning of Pentecost?

What a question…

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2012 in musings, Old Testament

 

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the jewish defibrillator

Sounds like a mystery novel – or perhaps, with less imagination, like an instruction manual for a medical device. And a kosher one at that.

But it’s actually another wee gift during yesterday’s chemo infusion from my friend Gina.

No, she didn’t give me a kosher defibrillator just in case my heart stops during these infusions. She gave me the picture given to her by one of her favorite rabbis (you have to remind me of his name, Gina!).

It’s all about the biblical custom of beating one’s chest when in great hardship or grief – other expressions of grief and lament – pulling out pieces of your hair and beard, tearing your garments, sitting on the ground, loud wailing while putting dust on your head. Let’s just say that funerals in that culture were definitely, well, different.

But it’s the chest pounding Gina shared about. The rabbi described it functioning as something of a defibrillator, the idea being that in tragedy and grief one enters into a realm of numbness and death, your heart literally slowing, stopping, as it were. Pounding on your chest is getting the blood flowing again, reclaiming life, embracing hope in the midst of hopelessness, life in the midst of that valley of death’s shadow.

I thought of the publican praying at the back of the Temple, mourning and beating his chest, “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner!” The true sinner’s prayer. I’ve never stopped praying it. How blessed we are to sense the numbness in us, the darkness, the frozen heart. How we all need a good chest pounding on a regular basis. Mostly we seem most interested in pounding on others’ chests while ignoring our own frozen souls which are in such desparate need of thawing – or worse, pounding on their heads, or Nehemiah-like, pulling out some of their hair and/or beard. As Kafka said of good books, we regularly need the effective “axe for the frozen sea within us.”

I pound my chest a lot these days. And it’s not just chemo and its shroud.

It’s a deepening awareness of my own perennial deadness.

The Arctic icefloe may be melting, but the further I go in this whole God-business, the more aware I become of the frozen sea expanding within.

So come, oh holy Jewish defibrillator!

Pound on this frozen font in me.

Again.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Lamentations, Old Testament, Suffering

 

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zombified…or waiting for the turn

God, you’re my last chance of the day.
    I spend the night on my knees before you.
Put me on your salvation agenda;
    take notes on the trouble I’m in.
I’ve had my fill of trouble;
    I’m camped on the edge of hell.

Whiplash.

On every level. Emotional, physical, spiritual.

Last Saturday under a heavy chemo cloud that was simply unrelenting and suffocating, I sat out on my patio, arms extended, saying, “Take me! Come on! I’m ready! Are you enjoying this?”

Where is that fiery chariot with the divine whirlwind in its wake when you need it?

I thrust my arms upward repeatedly. Repeated jumpstarts accomplishing nothing.

Crickets chirp.

Zombified and ready to be done with it. Desperate for a turn, but that turn remaining frustratingly over the horizon, out of grasp, unattainable. No relief. No let up. “Mike, you are handling all this with such grace; you are such an inspiration.” Such encouragement turns to mockery at such times. If you could only see me now.

“I hate my life.”

I’m written off as a lost cause,
    one more statistic, a hopeless case.
Abandoned as already dead,
    one more body in a stack of corpses,
And not so much as a gravestone—
    I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
    sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.

Twenty-four hours later it was as if a switch had turned.

Life moves in again like a flood.

Oh yeah, that’s what life feels like.

And I find myself saying, “I love my life. I love my wife. Thank you for not listening to me.”

Amazing the difference twenty-four hours can make in chemoland or any land, for that matter.

My most poignant reminder yet.

Wait for the turn.

When moving into the grimy and gritty paths of significant disruption and disorientation as Brueggeman describes and the Psalms bear witness to, it’s an agonizingly dark abyss. Time seems to literally stand still, to hang limply in the air hovering over your misery, amplifying, accentuating it. There is no light, no praise, no stiff upper lip. It’s Psalm 88 territory.

I’m battered senseless by your rage,
    relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
    made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
    blinded by tears of pain and frustration.

There is no glimmer of hope expressed in Psalm 88. No countering silver lining. No other hand. No hymnlike comfort. No, “If the skies above you are grey, you are feeling so blue; if your cares and burdens seem great, all the whole day through; there’s a silver lining that shines in the heavenly land; look by faith and see it my friend, trust in his promises grand. Sing and be happy, press on to the goal, trust him who leads you he will heal your soul; let all be faithful, look to him and pray; lift your voice and praise him in song, sing and be happy today.”

Excrement.

I want to kill that hymnist.

At least I do in the land of Psalm 88. In the land before the turn.

I call to you, God; all day I call.
    I wring my hands, I plead for help.
Are the dead a live audience for your miracles?
    Do ghosts ever join the choirs that praise you?
Does your love make any difference in a graveyard?
    Is your faithful presence noticed in the corridors of hell?
Are your marvelous wonders ever seen in the dark,
    your righteous ways noticed in the Land of No Memory?

I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help,
    at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak.
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear?
    Why do you make yourself scarce?

Where are the songs of lament, of crisis, of darkness and despair in our enlightened Christian liturgies? If we mention darkness, we pass it over quickly, a quick tip of the hat, a bare glance before recommencing our triumphal choruses of flowery faith and hope and all things bright and beautiful. And in so doing we gut the suffering and short circuit true hope for that matter. Hope is always born in the valley of genuinely felt and anguished despair. Only in such places does it become more than a tenent of faith, a worshipful wish, a lark of shallow optimism that only cuts and isolates the anguished heart and makes it search for the appropriate mask of cheerful courage, of bucking up as we reach for those bootstraps – or reach for the means of actually ending it all.

For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting;
    I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it.
Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life;
    I’m bleeding, black-and-blue.
You’ve attacked me fiercely from every side,
    raining down blows till I’m nearly dead.
You made lover and neighbor alike dump me;
    the only friend I have left is Darkness.

Yep. That’s how Psalm 88 ends. Darkness. Nothing. Nada. Nil.

Such pain must be validated, not soothed; borne, not massaged. Only then can we truly help others, help ourselves.

To wait for the turn…

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Psalms, Suffering

 

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the three-beat rhythm of life

This is the intro I wrote for an upcoming week’s devotions in the Psalms. How essential to recognize and learn to move with the three beat rhythm of life – orientation | disorientation, frustration, disruption | new orientation. And there the Psalms are to be climbing companions through them.

I share this to set up some musings on what I will call “waiting for the turn.” Wait for it…

The Psalms are a strange literature to study.    ~ Walter Brueggemann 

They are more than just pretty songs.

The book of Psalms is something of an inspired prayer/song book that reflects the raw and real rhythms of human life “under the sun.” Wherever you are in life, there is a Psalm that speaks to and of that life setting.

We tend to be very selective in our reading and use of Psalms. We like the pretty and easy on the eyes images of Psalm 23 that greet us like a warm Thomas Kinkade painting. We tend to be less enthusiastic about some of the darker, downer Psalms that speak directly to issues of God abandonment, miserable circumstances from which there appears no way out or outright anger and rage that calls curses down on enemies and wishes to see their children’s brains bashed out against the rocks.

Not material for uplifting worship songs.

But this is why Psalms is so enduringly impactful in the worshipping and devotional lives of God followers across all boundaries of time, space, culture and religion. They give us words for where we live, what we see, how we feel. They reveal that an appropriate God response is not prettied up pious sounding expressions, but real, earthy, human ones.

One of the better guides to the Psalms is a theological commentary on the Psalms by the eminent Hebrew scholar Walter Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms). Brueggemann observes: “Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness. As children of the Enlightenment, we have censored and selected around the voice of darkness and disorientation, seeking to go from strength to strength, from victory to victory. But such a way not only ignores the Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience…The Jewish reality of exile, the Christian confession of crucifixion and cross, the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that must be embraced – all of that is fundamental to the gift of new life.”

The Psalms are profoundly subsersive of the dominant culture, which wants to deny and cover over the darkness we are called to enter. Personally we shun negativity. Publicly we deny the failure of our attempts to exercise control.

To reflect upon and use the Psalms as climbing companions through life’s rhythms is not escaping from or numbing ourselves to those rhythms we find unpleasant, but to fully embrace and experience them from a God perspective.

Brueggemann summarizes the life rhythms we all experience into three groups – and these groupings ultimately serve as a very valuable way to group and understand the Psalms:

  • Orientation. These are satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for God’s presence and blessing. Life is good, the world is my oyster, God is in heaven on his throne. There is a predominant sense of “Ahhhhhhh.” Psalms of orientation celebrate “the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God’s creation, God’s governing law.”
  • Disorientation. These are those anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death. Life sucks. The world is a hostile, cold place. God is nowhere. Psalms of disorientation match such seasons in ragged and raw expressions, culminating in powerful laments that provide the abrasiveness needed for such hard, dark stretches of our journey.
  • New Orientation. This is the suprising turn that life can suddenly take as we find ourselves out of the pit, overwhelmed with new gifts of God, a new experience of grace, of joy piercing through despair. Psalms of new orientation speak boldly of this new gift of God, a fresh infusion and intrustion of divine working that makes all things new, that lifts us up and puts our feet in new high places offering vistas from which all looks different, vibrant, alive.

This week we dip into the Psalms for six days with an invitation to experience Psalms speaking to each of these seasons. A psalm a day. Two days of orientation, two of disorientaton, two of new orientation. Things going great this week? Things falling apart? Things finally coming back together? Wherever you are standing at this moment in your life, you will encounter a few Psalms this week that will speak to it.

There won’t be study questions accompany the Psalms each day. No sermon notes. No small group guide. You can make your small group time a time to share how you encountered God in the Psalms. No, all you have this week is the invitation to read the Psalm of the day aloud. To read it prayerfully, meditatively. To let the Psalm take hold of you. To allow it to lead you into prayer and worship, or to experience the freedom of crying your eyes out – either in pain or in unspeakable joy.

Experience some Psalms. Experience life. Experience God.

Psalm readings:

Orientation –  145, 104, 8, 19, and the mother of all orientation psalms: 119

Disorientation – 13, 86, 35, 74, 79, 137 and the most depressing psalm ever (I dare you to make a song of this for a Sunday morning worship set, O worship leader gurus): 88

New Orientation: 30, 40, 138, 34, 65, 96

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2012 in Old Testament, Psalms

 

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I’m Achan…or…He Still Hangs with Thieves

To be connected to the church is to be associated with soundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers, and hypocrites of every description (and that’s just the clergy! mf). It also, at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race, and gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest herosim of soul…because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion. God hung among thieves.  – Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing

You could call it a Spartacus moment.

Traversing in devotions through the story of Achan – the thief nailed with stolen goodies hidden under his tent and subsequently stoned to death, then burned, and buried along with his family under a huge pile of rocks whose story you can read about in Joshua chapter 7 in your Old Testament – I was stirred.

I was dissatisfied with what I wrote in the church devotions about it.

More stirring.

Can’t really respond to the sermon preached about Achan this past week because I listened to it horizontally (call me Anemia Man). But then I read a friend’s thoughts about the story and sermon in a Facebook post. For him it was an Old Testament Smack Down with the message “Don’t be an Achan!” with blistering judgment and footnoted grace. Whether that’s a fair characterization of that particular sermon, I can’t comment on. But I know that over the course of twenty years I preached the sermon he perceived. Over and over and over again.

Blistering judgment. Footnoted grace.

Look what happened to Achan. Are you an Achan? Don’t be an Achan! Achan only suffered stones and temporal fire; for you it will be brimstone and eternal flames!

Yeah. Kinda been there. Have a collection of t-shirts, too.

Which brings me to my “Spartacus moment.”

I’m Achan.

Not because I stole candy and magazines and hid them under my bed when I was ten. We love our pastors to talk about their sins – you know, the ones that happened a decade or more ago. As long as their sins and weaknesses and dirty secrets are back there somewhere in the foggy past. We don’t love it so much when the sins and weaknesses and dirty secrets are right here and right now – like the rest of us. We might not stone them and burn their bodies. But we do fire them. But back to the point:

I’m Achan.

And more than that, so are you. That’s right, this should be a wonderfully freeing Spartacus moment for each of us. Imagine the story that way: “Are you Achan, son of Carmi?” “No, I’m Achan.” “No, I’m Achan.” The entire congregation, pastors first, rise to their feet, each in turn. “I’m Achan!”

Glorious.

Now, I know, we’re only supposed to confess our own sins, but if Paul can say, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” then I can say we are all Achans.

And we are. Each of us. All of us.

We all have things buried under our religiously tidy tent floors that we pray never sees the light of day. Like the thoughts you had just this morning or even while you were reading this sentence. That apathetic stare in the face of human need as you saw yet another one of those cardboard signs on the street corner. That anger that boiled up inside at that perceived slight – but fortunately never made it to your face. That self-satisfying pride that flooded through you when you won that argument, the doubts that plagued you, and – good God – did you see what she was wearing?

I’m Achan.

It’s said that Jack Miller, founder of World Harvest Mission, used to say that the entire Bible could be summed up with two sentences: (1) Cheer up: you’re a lot worse than you think you are, and (2) Cheer up: God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.

Not bad.

I’m Achan. Outwardly, religiously respectable – “What a fine Christian young man you are,” as my mom would always say to me when I was in my Sunday best. “Oh holy Mike” as one of my friends often sings to me (like the carol). But I’m a thief. And good thing: he hung with thieves. He still does.

He casts no lots to nail down my guilt and then to pass judgment. No stolen goods are dug up and laid before the congregation’s watching eyes. No stones. No fire. No family swallowed up with me (have you noticed the contrast? Under the ministry of death [religion] whole families were consumed, swallowed up, devoured along with the erring parent; under the ministry of life [Jesus] whole families are rescued, redeemed, healed; just a thought).

Instead, in his mercy he collapses the tidy religious tent over all that it was hiding, then reaches out his hand and says, “Come, child.” And so Achan’s valley of trouble and judgment, of bloody rocks and fire, is transformed from dead end tombstone to a door of hope. Sonship. Inheritance. Home.

And that, in a word, is the difference between Joshua and Jesus.

There.

That’s the devotional intro I should have written.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Joshua, musings, Old Testament

 

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New Year’s Reflection: Time to Cross Over

Back to Joshua again. This is the intro to the first week’s upcoming study in Joshua 1:1-9. Seems appropriate today. I’m posting the Hobbit trailer at the end because, (a) It is most cool; and (b) It fits the post and the day. There are comforts of our accustomed existence we must be willing to leave – privately, corporately, religiously, socially, you name it; comforts we must risk never returning to, or at least never returning to the same. I’m also reminded of Stonewall Jackson’s final words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Yeah. Let there be some of that in this new year too.

Warm-up: Joshua 1:1-9

“Moses my servant is dead…”

Transitions. Bridges. Crossings.

They can be fraught with uncertainty, peril, anxiety – or anticipation, hope, and adventure.

Usually all of the above.

We are so wedded to the way we were, to who and how we have always been – even when who, how, and where we have been is anything but ideal, as in the case of the Israelites.

For 400 years they had heard the promise repeated, passed down, recounted, as a nation of former slaves looked toward a land that few of them had ever even seen. Perhaps it seemed like a dream – distant, unattainable, always over the horizon, always out there.

As they trudged on through their circular desert tracks, Moses was their one constant. Moses had led them, fed them, judged them, rebuked them, instructed them, encouraged them, and finally brought them to river’s edge – to the last barrier that stood between them and home. Now the stark words come:

Moses my servant is dead.

“Get Going. Cross this Jordan River…”

And now comes the nudge, the divine push.

“In three days you will cross this Jordan.”

We usually have to be nudged or perhaps even shoved out of our paralysis as we face an uncertain shore. We may not like where we are or where we have been, but at least it’s familiar. We know these ruts, we’ve grown accustomed to these walls. We have an amazing capacity for nostalgia over even the worst of times and spaces.

Get up. Get going. Cross over.

I’m reminded of the Omaha Beach scenes from Saving Private Ryan, of green troops huddled behind obstacles amidst exploding and ricocheting shells, as Captain Miller pulled at the men around him to get moving for the simple reason that anyone who stayed there was a dead man.

Get up. Get going. Cross over.

To stay where we are is death and decay. To cross over is destiny.

And so God pushes and prompts his new man, his Joshua, in a personal charge laden with commands, imperatives, and promises; a charge he will then turn around and pass on to the other leaders around him and then to all the people. It’s time to get moving.

And so the charge comes to us – calling us out of the familiar and accustomed, out of personal and corporate ruts and embedded behaviors; calling us to get up, get going, and cross over to our own awaiting land of possibilities, dangers, and divine destiny.

Get up. Get going. Cross over.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2011 in Joshua, musings, Old Testament

 

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More from Joshua: Taking the Land

Just realized I hadn’t gotten around to posting the rest of the Joshua introduction…

“Take the land” can sound a bit militant and unsavory. We don’t even popularly in our culture view the pilgrims and explorers who came to this country and “took the land” as heroes to be lauded. They’re more like distant relatives from our past for whom have to apologize, at best.

The call to “take the land” is not a call to a new jihad for Jesus, a militant uprising in which we evict our neighbors and take over the world like some predictable James Bond villain (fiendish laugh included, preferably with waxed black mustache, a nervous twitch, and, of course, a nerfarious white cat in his lap). Let us recall that the primary image of the kingdom of God presented by Jesus (our Joshua) was not a giant nail pounded into the earth by a cosmic hammer, but rather that of a farmer sowing seed in the field. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of small seeds extravangantly, scandalously cast about in the midst of scavenging birds, weeds, and thorns. It is the tiniest bit of yeast hidden in the mother of all lumps of dough. It is the smallest of all seeds (commonly so regarded in Jesus’ culture) – the mustard seed – issuing in a plant large enough for birds to nest in.

“The good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom,” Jesus said in one of his kingdom parables (see Matthew 13:38).

As good seed, we don’t root out or evict anyone. We grow where we are planted, right along with tares. God harvests. The kingdom challenge – the challenge ultimately from both Joshuas – is two-fold: to be planted, to find where in his world you are meant to be rooted and then to grow where you are planted.

So what does this look like in practical terms?

Landa Cope in her book The Old Testament Template tells of channel surfing one day and coming upon a program featuring a British journalist who was testing the proposition that if many Christians live in the same community they will significantly impact that community for good. The greater the Christian presence, the greater the benefit to the society at large. He then proposed to look a the most “Christianized” city in America to see how the influence works out practically. Defining “Christianized” as largest percentage of the community being self-identified believers who regularly attend church, he came up with Dallas, Texas. He then looked at statistics and studies on crime, safety on the streets, the justice and penal systems, health care, infant mortality rate, education, jobs, housing, economics, homelessness, etc.

The resulting profile was appalling.

Cope was devastated by the conclusions. As she states, “No one would want to live in a city in that condition. The crime, the decrepit social systems, the disease, the economic discrepancies, the racial injustice, all disqualified this community from having an adequate quality of life. And this was the ‘most Christianized’ city in America. I wanted to weep.”

And for Cope the worst was yet to come.

The journalist then took this devastating picture of a broken community to well-known pastors and Christian leaders and simply asked them, “As a Christian leader, what is your response to the condition of your community?” To a man they gave the same essential answer: “This is not my concern. I am a spiritual leader.”

She doesn’t quote the verse at this point, but it’s what leaps out at me as I read this: “You are the salt of the earth (land). But if the salt has lost its saltiness with what can it be salted? It is then good for nothing except to be thrown outside and trampled underfoot by men (at least it can perhaps serve as rock salt on slippery winter landscapes – see Matthew 5:13).”

The challenge of Joshua, if we have ears to hear, is to take the land; to be the “salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this land” (Matthew 5:13, Message) – salt that actually makes it out of the shaker; to be the light “bringing out the God-colors in the world” (Matthew 5:14, Message). As the Message version goes on to say, “God is not a secret to be kept; we’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives.”

That is taking the land.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2011 in Joshua, musings, Old Testament

 

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Joshua Jihad: Theological Whiplash

Second section of my comments on Joshua – addressing what is a key stumbling block for many to read this book – or even to read any of the Book. I guess you could say I’m taking a stab at answering or at least reflecting on the problem.

Is there an answer here – one that will really, finally satisfy us?

What about the Canaanites? The problem of “holy war”

One day while I was teaching the Bible to undergraduates, a first year student articulated a problem succinctly that I had to write an entire book to address. I was telling the class that the Exodus is the central event of the Hebrew narrative, asserting that this story of liberation from slavery was deeply inspiring, especially in comparison to so many other foundational stories of conquest and plunder. This was, after all, not a story that described the rich getting richer, but the enslaved getting freed. I added some remarks about class consciousness and liberation theology to make the story more contemporary, and lingered over the fact that this story has now come to have urgent political force in Latin America and South Africa as it had during the U.S. civil rights movement. Then, in the midst of this celebration, the student raised his hand and asked simply, “What about the Canaanites?” Suddenly all the uncomfortable feelings I had been repressing about the Bible for years flooded me. Yes, what about the Canaanites? And the Amorites, Moabites, Hittites? While the biblical narratives charted the creation, cohesion, and calamities befalling a people at the behest of their God, what about all the other peoples and their gods? Having long seen the Bible put to uses that I could not excuse – hatred of Blacks, Jews, gays, women, “pagans” and the poor – I now began to see some complicity, for over and over the Bible tells the story of a people who inherit at someone else’s expense. – Regina SchwartzThe Curse of Cain, p. ix-x

The struggle for land is so deeply embedded in the human soul – it is so central to our way of viewing the world – and it has led to so many devastating wars, to rethink land and its value might well be another form of the gospel needed desperately in a modern age.  – Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land

So, what about the Canaanites? What about “holy war”?

The simple question that confronted an Old Testament college professor is not one to be quickly dismissed or glossed over. We feel the complicity. We sense the conflict.

We typically rebuke our Muslim neighbors for embracing a religion with such a track record of violence, past and present. And yet here we sit with Joshua. We sense that we need a little more than an evasive and condescending, “Well, that was different.”

Let’s just say that if Joshua were made into a film, it would not be a “chick flick” – and it would not be rated “G.” It is filled with violence and carnage. Men and women, young and old. Slain. Cities burned. Bodies in heaps. Vanquished kings impaled on tall spikes, their dead bodies later to be flung into the ruined gates of their demolished cities.

How can God not only “wink” at this but actually command his own “jihad” on Canaanites?

How can this be the same God that we have come to know in Jesus?

Theological whiplash.

Turning once again to Peterson’s introduction to Joshua, he well states the problem and points to a solution:

For most modern readers of Joshua, the toughest barrier to embracing this story as sacred is the military strategy of “holy war,” what I have translated as the “holy curse” – killing everyone in the conquered cities and totally destroying all the plunder, both animals and goods. Massacre and destruction. “No survivors” is the recurrent refrain. We look back from our time in history and think, “How horrible.” But if we were able to put ourselves back in the thirteenth century B.C., we might see it differently, for that Canaanite culture was a snake pit of child sacrifice and sacred prostitution, practices ruthlessly devoted to using the most innocent and vulnerable members of the community (babies and virgins) to manipulate God or gods for gain.                                                                                                                                       

Peterson’s pointing to the perspective of time, culture and history certainly is key. We need more than our current cultural perspective – we need a historical (and theological) wide angle lens. The fact is that Joshua picks up a tale that is rooted in the story and promise made to Abraham 400 years previously:

The LORD said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.  In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”  -– Genesis 15:13-16 NIV

Four hundred years prior to Joshua’s day, Abraham had walked and sojourned among the ancestors of the very people Joshua’s generation would have to confront and expel and destroy. Abraham bargained for a burial plot with some of them. He was the guest of some of their kings who turned out to have just as much integrity as he did – or more. There was even a priest of the Most High God from the ancient Jebusite city of Jerusalem with whom Abraham shared a meal and to whom he gave a tithe from the spoils of battle. But there was also the king of Sodom from whom he would accept nothing. There were the cities of the plain from which his nephew Lot barely escaped with his life. The fiery, calamitious destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was more than a localized expression of divine wrath against a few cities gone completely wild with violence, oppression and utter moral chaos – it was a warning to an entire Canaanite society that was already in serious decline. It was a warning that stood before them for four centuries. A warning ultimately unheeded as they continued their downward spiral into moral and spiritual oblivion.

The fact is the Lord is the Landlord of the entire planet (see Psalm 24:1; Acts 17:26). And he reserves the right to evict any and all tenants that abuse the land and terrorize the neighborhood. He frequently uses natural calamities to accomplish this (as, evidently, with the cities of the plain in Genesis 19) or through the instrument of war waged by other nations (as in the case of Joshua). God both roots people in places and uproots them from those same places (see Jeremiah 1:10). But he always gives notice – often four centuries’ worth of notice or more. The Canaanites being “evicted” as tenants of the land is not regarded as unique, biblically – and Joshua’s generation was specifically told to evict and uproot them and no others (see Deuteronomy 2:9-23).

But still we can feel torn at the scenes of divinely sanctioned carnage – which is a good sign for us. Much better that, than to proudly parade and use these stories and scenes to adorn our latest military, religious and political platforms of our national agendas of expansion and acquisition. We must remember the lesson Joshua learned before evicting a single Canaanite tenant: the Lord is not a nationalist – he is not on anyone’s side (cf. Josh 5:13-15).

We should remember that God doesn’t enjoy these scenes either, necessary as they may have been in the dark history of this world. He takes no pleasure in the death and judgment of the most vile and violent tenants in his world (see Ezekiel 18:32).

We should remember that in using Joshua’s generation to evict the Canaanite tenants occupying the land, God was also placing the family of Abraham in the land he had promised and foreseen for them, a land in the middle of the earth, on the highway of the nations; a land where they could be salt and light in a dark and oppressive world; a land from which they could and would utlimately bring blessings untold to all the nations of the earth in a coming Messiah and kingdom that would ultimately make any more stories like the book of Joshua unnecessary.

We should remember that in that Messiah – our Joshua (Jesus) – swords are finally beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks as the nations learn war no more; that in our Joshua hesed (divine mercy and grace) triumphs over herem (divine curse and judgment). Our Joshua impales no kings on tall spikes. He instead allowed himself to be impaled by the kings of this world, and through that cosmic act of love, he has changed everything.

We should remember that our Joshua, on the one occasion he encountered a descendent of the Canaanites divinely targeted in that first Joshua’s day, first played to and thereby exposed his generation’s shortsightedness and bigotry and then ultimately heard the Canaanite woman’s request and healed her demonically oppressed daughter and sent her home in peace.

The first Joshua did not lead people into rest. Our Joshua does.

It’a whole new way of looking at “taking the land.”

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2011 in Joshua, Old Testament

 

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