Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me: Just What do You Mean by “Gods”?

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:2-3

The first commandment in the Decalogue as presented in Exodus 20 doesn’t really establish monotheism. It simply reminds the newly freed Hebrew people that Yahweh was responsible for freeing them from slavery, and that he deserves the highest priority. “YHWH” was the personal name for God, and the vowels are really guesses, because Biblical Hebrew doesn’t include them. In addition, out of reverence the name of God was not to be spoken. I committed a major faux pas once in the presence of a nice Jewish lady who was attempting to teach me to read Hebrew. As I painfully sounded out the letter sounds for each word, I came to the tetragrammaton and said the name of God aloud. She was horrified; and immediately corrected me. When you come across the letters YHWH you are supposed to read the word as “Adonai”, or Lord., which is also how most English-language Bibles translate the word. YHWH was the special god of the Hebrew people, just as Baal was the god of the Canaanites, Dagon was the god of the Philistines, and so on. (“Elohim” was the more generic name for a god or gods, and is usually translated as “God”.) As the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land, they might be tempted to worship some of the local deities, probably in order to hedge their bets and ensure that they lived long and prospered.

It wasn’t until much later in Hebrew history that true monotheism emerged. Deuteronomy 5 repeats the list of Ten Commandments found in Exodus, but Deuteronomy 6 goes a step further by recording what has come to be known as the  beginning of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus as confirming that this is the most important, or primary commandment. “Now one of the scribes had come up and heard their debate. Noticing how well Jesus had answered them, he asked Him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The command to “have no other gods before me”  has morphed into a command to “love God with all your being”. There is only one God, and that’s the God who revealed himself to the Hebrew people as “I am”. And it is to that God that we are commanded to pledge our ultimate loyalty.

Just what does the word “God” mean, anyway?  It certainly seems to mean different things to different people, then and now. To ancient peoples, the gods seemed to have been powerful beings responsible for controlling nature, but who could be controlled by human beings who would careful to perform the correct rituals in the correct way.  Many modern atheists seem to have a similar understanding of the word, and I can joke that I also don’t believe in the same “angry sky god” they don’t believe in. I also don’t believe in a god like the ones depicted in the Greco-Roman pantheon. Those remind me quite a lot of the character of “Q” in Star Trek: extremely powerful and long-lived beings who tend to get bored and play with mortal beings for their own amusement. Some people seem to think that God is some kind of cosmic vending machine: offer up the right prayers or do the right things, and you will be rewarded with your choice from a selection of blessings. I don’t believe in that kind of god, either.

By definition, I don’t think you can define God, nor can you control God by your behavior. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he asked God “Who are you?” and received the rather cryptic answer, “I am“. When you start to try to define God, you are putting God in the box of your own understanding, and God has a tendency to break out of boxes. Although God can’t be defined, I think we can begin to understand what God is like in the human person of Jesus, “the visible image of the invisible God“. According to Genesis, all human beings bear the imprint of God’s image, but the image of God can be seen most clearly in Jesus. Using Jesus as my reference point, I understand the nature of God as a creative and redemptive force for good.

Why would it be of such importance to God to “have no other gods before me”? I think the commandment is more for our benefit than for God’s. God is not a narcissist who constantly needs us to tell him how wonderful he is. God doesn’t need anything from us, as Captain Kirk observed when he asked a god-pretender “What does God need with a starship?”  Rather, I think that God is aware of all the bad things that are caused by the messed-up priorities that result from messed-up conceptions of God. What you think is important to your conception of God becomes what is important to you. If Moloch is your god, you think child sacrifice is not only acceptable, but desirable and necessary for the smooth functioning of society. I doubt that there is anyone alive today who literally worships Mars or Venus or Bacchus,  but there are many whose goals in life are to exert power and control over others by any means necessary. There are plenty of people who are obsessed with sexual conquest, who see people not as people, but objects for their own gratification. There are lots of people who think that maximizing their own pleasure is what’s most important, even when that causes harm to others. And I won’t even get into the worship of Mammon and its credo that greed is good and the one who dies with the most toys wins. We like to think of ancient peoples as primitive and foolish, but when we think of what those gods represented to them, we see that they were not so different from people today. We still tend to place our confidence and direct our attention toward the wrong gods- things like money, power, and desire.

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is still pretty relevant today. How different the world would be if more people dedicated their time, talents, and energies toward the kind of God we see in Jesus!

 

 

 

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Tablets of Stone or Tablets in the Heart?

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Monuments in public places, and what they represent, have become a subject of debate lately. Roy Moore, the current Republican candidate for Jeff Session’s Alabama senate seat, was removed from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments commissioned by him for display in the public square. There have been similar cases in other states. Moore, and those like him, think the Ten Commandments are an essential part of the law of our land, and therefore ought to be widely acknowledged, known, and publicized. Other people believe equally strongly that the Ten Commandments are primarily religious laws, and as such should be separated from the business of government. Despite having such strong opinions, most people don’t know the commandments well enough to list them, or identify what isn’t in them.

Exactly how the commandments are numbered varies a little by faith traditions, because the Bible was originally written as a running document, with the familiar chapters and verses added long after the canon was completed.  Here is a list of the commandments in Exodus 20, divided according to the Protestant tradition with which I am most familiar:

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

2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

-Exodus 20 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5)

Exodus 31 describes God as giving Moses what came to be known as the Mosaic Law orally, but the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone by the finger of God, which God then gave to Moses. When Moses heads down from Mount Sinai with the tablets, he finds the people busily breaking several of the commandments, shatters them in anger, and makes the people drink a concoction made from their stone dust. God has to engrave a second set of stone tablets with the same commandments, which will be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and eventually be lost in the mists of time. Whether you believe that God literally used his finger to inscribe the Ten Commandments onto stone tablets, or understand this part of the story as metaphor is irrelevant to me. What I understand both to mean is that these specific commandments were set apart from other parts of the Mosaic law in a significant way. For some reason, these particular rules were given the highest priority.

Why were these particular commandments set in stone? Were they more important than the other laws recorded in the Torah? If so, it’s interesting to note what is and what isn’t included in the Big Ten, as well as how widely they are actually observed.  There’s only one sexual prohibition included in the Ten Commandments- unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. Prohibitions against theft and murder are enshrined in our legal system, but the commandment against creating images of any living thing (take that, Instagram!) seems to be pretty widely ignored in modern society, even by the most ardent proponents of Ten Commandment monuments in public places. The command to refrain from working every seventh day and to grant one’s employees and even one’s animals one day of rest out of every seven isn’t widely practiced, either. And “greed is good” seems to have become somewhat of a modern capitalist mantra.

Were they meant to be a concise summary, a sort of Cliff’s Notes of all the other laws?  The first four deal with the human relationship with God, and the remaining six deal with human relationships with other humans. The summary hypothesis makes sense when paired with these statements from Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” and “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The great Talmudic sage Hillel, who also lived in the first century, came to a similar conclusion: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

Maybe the written law was meant to function as a kind of training wheels for human beings who were only beginning to understand who God was, and how he wanted people to behave.  The  prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time when God’s laws would be internalized: The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them”, declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Paul seems to concur with this understanding, Before this faith came, we were held in custody under the Law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the Law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”

James Fowler postulated that the development of faith goes through predictable stages, similar to Piaget’s and Erickson’s stages of cognitive and psychosocial development. One of the most important concepts in understanding any developmental theory is the realization that people in the earlier stages cannot understand what is going on in the minds of people in the later stages of development. An infant can’t understand that Mommy doesn’t cease to exist when she is not visible, while a toddler knows that an out-of-sight mommy is somewhere, and may go looking for her. Parenting young children is very different from parenting adolescents, because young children operate from a literal, concrete perspective while teenagers are becoming capable of abstract thought. I used to teach science, which often necessitated a review of algebraic concepts, and found that some of my students struggled with higher math, while others did not. Usually, it wasn’t a question of intelligence, but of developmental readiness. A good teacher understands that, and tailors lessons to be appropriate for students’ developmental levels.

When my son was a young child, I once had a conversation with him about his behavior in school. He informed me that since the Bible says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, his inappropriate behaviors were justified because of the inappropriate behaviors of others. I responded that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to do good things for them instead of trying to get even. He gave me a disgruntled look and said, “Well, anybody can be wrong!” He could not comprehend Jesus’s teaching, because he was not developmentally ready to understand it.

I think God is a good teacher, and is aware of our developmental levels. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way,  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” In the “fullness of time“, when humanity had become developmentally ready to receive him, God sent Jesus to teach us how to relate to God, and to each other. There is only one law, the law of love, or as James describes it,  “the perfect law of liberty“, and if it is written on our hearts we will have no need to see it written on tablets of stone.

And that’s good news to me.

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28

The story of the Canaanite woman is both interesting and troubling. The way that Jesus behaves toward the woman seems out of character for him. At first he ignores her plea for help and then he tells her his mission isn’t to help “her kind” of people. He comes pretty close to calling her a derogatory name. Nevertheless, she persists, and seems to show more politeness toward Jesus than he does to her. Jesus responds by apparently changing his mind about who is deserving of his help, praises her for her faith, and there’s a nice happily-ever-after-ending to the story.  It reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge, which doesn’t seem to paint God in a very good light, either.

The traditional interpretation of the story- that Jesus was just testing his disciples and/or the woman in order to teach them a lesson- has always created cognitive dissonance for me. To put it bluntly, it seems cruel, and I see Jesus as being “never cruel or cowardly”.  I never have been very successful with explaining away things in the Bible which bother me, nor tossing out the bits and pieces of it that are hard to understand. Instead I wrestle with them, sometimes for a very long time, until I can come to a conclusion that makes sense to me. I often find that the struggle results in a quantum leap in my faith understanding. No pain, no gain. Like Jacob, I won’t let go without a blessing.

So here’s what I am thinking today about this passage. Orthodox theology teaches that Jesus was a paradox, fully human and fully divine simultaneously. I think that the description of Jesus as “He, being in very nature God” refers to the essential character of God, which is not omniscience or omnipotence, but love. I think that the human Jesus was a product of his culture, which taught him that the world was flat and that Jews were superior to their Canaanite neighbors. There’s a peculiar story in Genesis where Noah’s son Ham walks in on his drunken, naked father, and when Noah wakes up, he curses his grandson Canaan into slavery to his brothers.  The book of Deuteronomy has God commanding the extermination of the Canaanites inhabiting the Promised Land, which Joshua attempts to do as wholeheartedly and bloodily as any of the Game of Thrones characters.  The few who manage to trick Joshua’s invading armies into sparing them are sentenced to be “hewers of wood and carriers of water” in perpetuity. Saul loses his kingship for sparing  King Agag of the Amalekites (a subgroup of Canaanite). Jesus would have heard all these stories, and many more like them,  and I think up until this point he had not really examined them in light of his growing understanding of who he was and what his purpose was in God’s redemptive plan. I think that his encounter with the Canaanite woman was an “eureka moment” for Jesus. The persistence of the Canaanite mother changed the way he thought about insiders and outsiders.

Some may have difficulty with my explanation, arguing that Jesus was sinless and therefore could not have been prejudiced. Which is worse, prejudice or purposeful cruelty in the form of testing, even if it is supposedly “for the greater good”? Perhaps prejudice itself is not a sin; it is when we fail to question our prejudices, or when we act on them in harmful ways, that we fall into sin. I don’t think there is anyone who can truthfully claim to be completely free of prejudice, of making assumptions about people we don’t know. We are all products of our cultures, with a natural tendency to be tribalistic, to be suspicious of people who are not part of our group. But when we get to know an outsider, we begin to question our pre-judgements and assumptions about “those people”. Couldn’t that be what happened to Jesus?

I grew up a white person in the segregated South. My fourth grade history book, “Know Alabama”, imagined happy, contented slaves, portrayed the Civil War as a battle for state’s rights, and described the KKK as a necessary and good constraint on our carpetbagger oppressors. Many schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other heroes of the Confederacy. My Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers applied the “curse of Ham” story to explain that those of African descent were meant to be subservient to those of European descent. My mother, who was progressive enough to be threatened with cross-burning in her yard, once hesitated before handing me the phone to talk to a black classmate who had called to thank my father for his help in getting a job. She hesitated, but she thought about it and handed me the phone.

At some point, I, like my mother before me, and I think like Jesus in this story, began to question what we had been taught. My elementary school was segregated, but my high school was not, and I met black people who were smart and funny and kind and not in the least inferior to me. I read widely from a variety of sources, and began to see history through different perspectives. I also read the Bible quite a lot, and began to notice things my Sunday School teachers hadn’t mentioned. For example, when Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’s Cushite wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy as a punishment. I couldn’t quite follow the curse of Ham logic, either. Not only did it seem overly punitive to punish all of Ham’s descendents for what seemed to me to be a minor infraction, I didn’t see where Africa came into the picture at all. There were many other Bible stories involving African people in positions of honor and leadership, like the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Eventually my own observations and Bible study led me to the place where I decided my textbooks and Sunday School teachers were wrong. But my questioning of tradition began with my first contact with black classmates.

Jesus was no stranger to questioning authority. In fact, there are several examples of him doing that in the very same chapter in which we find today’s story. He rejects both (the misuse of) Scripture and traditional purity laws as the basis for living a life pleasing to God. So it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for me to think that Jesus, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, might have begun to question what he’d been taught about the proper place of Canaanites. He might have started out holding the prejudices common to his culture, but that’s not where he ended up, and that’s not how he behaved. His essential character overcame his learned prejudices. He healed the woman’s daughter, and he praised her faith. The writer of Luke tells a similar story, this time involving the faith of a Roman centurion.

From what I can infer, at some point in his ministry, Jesus moved from an exclusionary to an inclusionary understanding of God’s grace. Perhaps it was a direct consequence of the unnamed Canaanite woman’s persistence, although we can’t know for sure. What we can be sure of is this: No one is outside God’s grace, and there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This is made especially clear in the story John tells of the woman at the well.    Paul, whose letters predate the writing of the gospels, writes in soaring poetry, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

“Nevertheless, she persisted”. It’s a pretty amazing story to think that this woman played the role of teacher to the son of God and caused him to change his mind. I’m impressed…and encouraged. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today, lots of fear and prejudice and hate. There are people who think God’s grace is meant for them, not others, those who want to exclude rather than include.  It’s scary and depressing and overwhelming at times. But I believe that change can come, not by power and control, but by love.  Persist. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

 

Are Souls Gendered?

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Matthew 22:30

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

The BBC television series “Doctor Who” recently created controversy by announcing that the role of the Thirteenth Doctor would be played by a woman. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Doctor is an alien from a planet called Gallifrey whose species have not only the ability to travel in time, but also are able to “regenerate” into a new body instead of dying. The ability to regenerate was originally invented by the writers in order to keep the show going when the actor portraying the original doctor became too ill to continue working. (This literary tactic reminds me a bit of the “invention” of the transporter in Star Trek, which happened because it was less expensive than filming a spacecraft landing on different planets.) “Doctor Who” has been around since 1963, changing actors in the role every few years, and until now, the Doctor’s character has always been male. And some people object very strongly to that kind of gender fluidity, even in a fictional alien from a fictional planet. I have one Facebook friend, a fan of the show from the beginning, who says she will never watch it again.

One of the reasons I enjoy fantasy and science fiction is that it invites speculation about the nature of ultimate reality. What makes us human, and what is the essence of our individuality? “Star Trek”, which began its run about the same time as “Doctor Who” often dealt with these questions. In “The Wrath of Khan”, Kirk eulogizes the alien character Spock, “Of all the souls I have known, he was the most human.”  Several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” dealt with this question in the character of Data.  In The Measure of a Man”, Data’s personhood is put on trial. Is he a person or a thing? This question is revisited in “The Offspring”, where Data creates another android, Lal. He considers Lal to be his daughter after allowing her to choose her own gender and species. “Star Trek: Voyager” pushes the question a bit further in the ongoing character of the holographic Doctor. Do aliens have souls? Do androids? Holograms?  I suppose it depends on your definition of “soul”, but if you understand “soul” to mean the essence of a person, what makes “you” you, a unique individual, the answer  in all three cases is “yes”.

Fictional characters aside, what is the soul, and is gender an intrinsic part of it? The first creation story in Genesis says that humanity (Hebrew adam) was created in the image of God in both male and female variations. If God created both sexes in his own image, then either God is both male and female, or gender is irrelevant to personhood. I’m inclined to the latter interpretation as I do not understand God to be some kind of anthropomorphized hermaphrodite. “God is Spirit”, Jesus taught,  “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”. 

Matthew relates a story in which some of Jesus’s theological opponents try to entrap him by setting up a hypothetical scenario in which a woman marries seven brothers in succession in accordance with the Mosaic commands for levirate marriage. If there is life after death as Jesus claims, then whose property will the woman be? Jesus responds by saying that at the resurrection, marriage will no longer exist because people will be “like the angels in heaven” The woman won’t be anyone’s property because gender roles are apparently irrelevant in life after death.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul states that one’s relationship to Christ is not dependent on ethnic origin, gender, or social status. Faith (not intellectual belief, but trust in and loyalty to) is what is essential to that relationship. There are no second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. The kinds of things we like to use to categorize people into neat binary boxes are irrelevant.

Are souls gendered? I think not, and I’m looking forward to meeting the Thirteenth Doctor.

 

Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

The Heart of the Matter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. -Jesus

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.– Moses

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of God’s upside-down kingdom in the Beatitudes, followed by the commissioning of Jesus’s followers to be the light that shows others the way into it. Then it really gets interesting. Jesus says that “not a jot or a tittle” should be expunged from the Pentateuch, and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds an awful lot like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” But right after that, he proceeds to repeatedly say “You have heard it said of old (Scripture quote) but I say to you (different spin on the Scripture he just quoted)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What’s going on here? How can the Law of Moses both be timeless and open to such dramatic reinterpretation? I think Jesus is saying it is the principles underlying the Law which are timeless, not the rules themselves. Rules are always incomplete; they can’t prescribe what the most appropriate behavior is in every possible circumstance, and they can be twisted and misused. Any good lawyer knows that even the most carefully written rules are subject to misuse and exploitation. “Don’t lie” is a good example. A person can literally “not lie” but be quite untruthful by the skilful use of misdirection and omission. The rule may be followed, but the principle is violated. As Bill Clinton rather infamously noted, “it depends on what you mean by the word “is”.

The Law is fulfilled when its principles are followed and not just its rules. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that matters.  Obviously, murder is a bad thing and therefore “thou shalt not kill” is a good rule. But Jesus, like Yoda, reminds us that bad actions often have their genesis in the heart and mind. It is only through understanding and applying the principles behind the Law that it can be internalized, as Moses exhorted the Israelites through the use of colorful metaphor. The Bible is pretty consistent about what the two great principles of  the Law are: love of God and love of neighbor.

I was never a great fan of the “Because I said so” approach to parenting. I wanted my children to understand the “why” behind any rules I imposed, because I wanted them to develop internalized behavioral controls. Externalized controls are temporary, dependent on whether the authority figure is watching, and easily manipulated. Internalized controls are more permanent, function independently of supervision, and are can be generalized to apply to novel circumstances.  I think Jesus was saying that’s how God thinks, too. That’s what it means when Moses commands the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart“, or when Jeremiah says that God  “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”, or when Paul tells the Corinthians they are living letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 

Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill the law; that is to complete its purpose and to lead us to internalize its principles. It is not a static thing written in stone, but a living thing written in receptive hearts. That living principle is love, and as Hillel is reported to have said, “That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”

 

Zephaniah: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

 Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
er prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.

Zephaniah is bound to create a bit of cognitive dissonance for Biblical inerrantists. The writer identifies himself as  ” Zephaniah, son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah”. He then proceeds to announce impending doom coming for Judah, along with the surrounding nations, because of their continuing sins against God and neighbor. There’s nothing new about that motif; the problem is the time frame. Zephaniah’s invectives, which include the royal family,  occur in the time of Josiah. Elsewhere in the Bible, Josiah is portrayed as a very good king, in fact one of the best as measured by his singlehearted devotion to God and attempts to stamp out idol worship. The priests and prophets who are castigated as being unprincipled, treacherous, and profane would have included Hilkiah, Josiah’s mentor, as well Jeremiah and other prophetic luminaries. as  So what’s going on here?

Some more literally-minded scholars will attempt to harmonize the discrepancy by assuming that Zephaniah’s prophecies are from very early in Josiah’s reign, when he was still a minor, and before the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered during temple renovations. That doesn’t really make sense to me, especially as Zephaniah invokes judgement not on the king himself, but on the “king’s sons” And as we know in historical hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. Whether you judge them on political or theological criteria, Josiah’s sons were bad kings, and their poor leadership led to Jerusalem’s conquest and the Babylonian exile. So other scholars think Zephaniah was written after the monarchy came to an end.

I’ve always wondered why Josiah met such an early and untimely end, considering that the books of Kings and Chronicles present him in such an unwaveringly positive light.According to the prevailing traditionalist theologies of the time, that should not have happened. God rewards the good guys with health, wealth, and long life, while punishing the bad guys with the opposite. Clearly, that was and is an inadequate understanding of God and the way God works.

I see the Bible is a rich and living book not because God magically dictated every word to an auto-writing scribe, but because it contains so many different perspectives. We all try to make sense of what is going on around us, and see the world through our own lenses. Perhaps Zephaniah’s writings date from the time of Josiah, but from his vantage point things were not going so swimmingly. Perhaps they are from a later time period, one in which the exiles struggled to make sense of history. Regardless of when it was written, Zephaniah says to me is that things are always more complicated than they seem. As Paul observed, we “know in part and prophesy in part” and “see through a glass darkly”.  Or as Mulder and Scully might say, “The truth is out there somewhere”.

I appreciate the Bible as a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. For me, acknowledging that its writers were a diverse group of people, each with their own particular perspective, doesn’t diminish but enhances my faith. The details may differ, but the story is the same: There is a God; he wants us to live in love and justice with each other; and he is always working with and through us to make that happen.  And that’s good news to me.