Cyrus and Trump

There is a disturbing trend among politically-conservative evangelicals to compare President Donald Trump to King Cyrus the Great as a move to legitimize the support of Christians for Mr. Trump and his policies.

Here are links to a handful of articles on the subject:
Vox
The Guardian
The New York Times

I’ve written on some related topics, which you can find below:
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

But today, I want to focus directly on this idea that Trump is somehow a “chosen one” akin to Cyrus in the Old Testament. This idea is wrong-headed, theologically problematic on many fronts and, frankly, dangerous.

While I’m strongly tempted to start with argumentation about how the historical understanding of Cyrus and the Biblical writings of Isaiah don’t match up too well, so we ought to read the Bible’s commentary on Cyrus as making arguments and creating narrative about the Israelite people, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the right of returning Jews to land now occupied by the Samaritans, etc., etc. However, I’m going to bypass that argument, for two reasons. First, you can investigate that for yourselves and I don’t need to take lots of space to summarize here. Second, those who espouse this Cyrus/Trump connection dismiss the historical argument out of hand, coming as they do from a position of Biblical literalism. There are so many problems with that position, but for purposes of this argument, I’m going to avoid the historical argument in favor of logical and theological arguments as well as literary criticism.

Let’s begin with the ways in which Trump doesn’t seem to match the Biblical narrative of Cyrus very well.

First, God declares in Isaiah 45:13 that God will “raise up Cyrus in my righteouness: I will make all his ways straight.” So there’s an explicit declaration that God’s selection of Cyrus (again, if we take the text literally) necessarily comes with an instilled righteousness. But the evangelical comparison of Trump with Cyrus is founded on the idea that Trump, while not moral or pious, is still somehow being used for God’s purposes. But that argument puts us more in the realm of Tolkien’s Gollum than the Bible’s Cyrus. There are plenty of Biblical arguments that even the unrighteous can advance God’s plans for the world, but that’s not the argument made here in Isaiah.

Second, let’s look at Cyrus’ function in the Isaiah narrative. Cyrus does two main things: he releases the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and he decrees the rebuilding of the Temple (though that doesn’t actually happen until later). Unless you see the U.S. Embassy as somehow equivalent to the Temple that housed the holy of holies, I’m not sure where you could find a functional comparison here. Trump has not drastically changed the political landscape in Isreal (except for heightening tensions), so we have to look elsewhere for the divinely mandated accomplishments (on behalf of God’s particularly-favored people, because let’s be realistic, this argument blatantly favors the paritcular interests of the evangelicals who make it and not the good of all believers or the good of the world as a whole) of the current president if we’re to make the argument that, like Cyrus, God has personally elected Trump to accomplish God’s ends on the earth.

By my estimate, here are the accomplishments: the creation of environment more permissive to racists and the alt-right; a fear and rejection of innocent immigrants fleeing crisis; benefits to the wealthy and to large corporations at the expense of the little guy; threats of war; the disparagement and disengagement from our political allies; a lack of caring about suffering that happens to other people in other countries; rejection of truth in favor of making things up as one goes and insisting it’s the truth until people stop questioning it; decreased acceptance of people who are different; scapegoating already marginalized people as the cause of the perceived problems of the rich; a preference for political success in conflict rather than the support of democratic institutions and justice for all people.

To be fair, there is an argument that Trump is the reason that the economy is good right now. But it’s just that, an argument–and certainly not one that has much to do with righteousness. While the President often gets the credit or blame for the economy (mostly because that’s the only politician the average person can name), most economists agree that the President (no matter who it is or what party they belong to) has relatively little power when it comes to affecting the economy.

And now we come to the real issue: evangelicals believe that the government should enforce their form of morality, so action that curtails the rights of women to get abortions or be believed when they assert that they have been sexually assaulted, the rights of the LGBTQ community to exist, the rights of immigrants to have a fair go in this country matches with their view of what the country should be in order to follow their definition of Christian righteousness.

You can argue with my characterization of their goals if you’d like, but at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that evangelical Christians support Trump because they believe that Trump will achieve the type of change they want for the country. You only have to look at Trump’s policies, statements and actions to see the truth in what I’ve written.

That creates a problem for the evangelicals. They want what Trump offers them, but they also don’t want Trump, because he is amoral, narcisstic, jingoistic, self-interested and generally problematic.

Enter the Cyrus argument. This allows the evangelicals to avoid the cognitive dissonance between seeing themselves as inherently righteous and moral actors while supporting someone who is so clearly not. “Trump may not be godly, but he’s doing what God put him here to do, so we should support him.” If you’re inclined to ask about the actual morality of the policies favored by the evangelicals in light of the Gospels, don’t bother; that ship sailed a long time ago.

What makes this dangerous–for the nation, as a temptation to Christian believers and as a detriment to the Christian witness to those who do not believe–is that it again resorts to Divine Command Theory to justify what humans believe to be God’s will as absolute and unassailable truth. The “Cyrus Prophecy” argument allows the evangelicals to unquestioningly cling to a very particular interpretation of Scripture, to use an “ends justify the means” approach to their faith, and to reject outright anyone who challenges the assertions that they’ve made. Psychologically very effective. Theologically, not so much.

As I argued in my post about the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, this allows Christians to ignore the effects of the route they take to pursue their so-called righteousness. Just as the Cyrus argument requires us to selectively ignore the claim of Isaiah that God’s selection of Cyrus made him righteous, resorting to Divine Command Theory to justify beliefs and actions requires us to ignore much of Christ’s message as to how we ought to comport ourselves as Christians seeking righteousness.

To be fair, I think that there is a very good analogy in the Old Testament for Trump, it’s just not Cyrus. It’s King Saul, appointed king by God when the Israelites begged God for a king and God said (paraphrasing): “Okay, I’m gonna give you what you’re asking for, but I don’t think it’s going to be what you think it’s going to be…” Because Trump certainly isn’t the president this country needs right now, but he might be the president we collectively deserve until we take a good look at ourselves and figure out what a “great” America actually looks like.

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part IV: Psychological Problem and the Example of Homosexuality

For the previous post in the series, click here.

Psychological Problem–Separating Sin and Sinner in our Minds
The Psychological Problem is related to the Existential Problem just as the Existential Problem is related to the Epistemological Problem (I apologize to those of you who just heard a tune following those words).

According to my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of psychology, there are aspects of our conscious and subconscious mind that interact in ways that we cannot often easily detect. The point of psychotherapy, in part, is to uncover the subconcious so that it can be worked upon by the conscious. But how many of us are fully aware of all of the mental (and emotional) activities that go on when we love or hate? None, I think.

The Psychological Problem is an acknowledgment of the intrusion of emotion into our actual practice of morality in the real world. Even if we reduce the terms “love” and “hate” to cold and clinical terms of moral and upright action in supporting people and resisting evil for purposes the purposes of philosophical examination, we cannot separate ourselves from the emotions (both positive and negative) that either help us or hinder us as we determine our own courses of action when confronted with real moral choices.

If we are trying to focus efforts on parsing out people into the parts we can love and the parts we should hate, how do we know that aspects of one part are not bleeding inadvertantly into the other? How do we discover and mitigate inadvertant psychological activity that threatens our wholeheartedly loving our neighbor?

Here, K would caution me that the argument is about the people we can love and their actions that we can hate and argue that we are capable of such division. She provides some cases (addict and addiction, for instance) where such separation seems plausible; she forces me to admit, like in the epistemological argument, that there may be cases where we could decide that the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” adage is maintainable. The problem, though, is that there are also cases where it clearly isn’t–and that’s where I see reference to the statement most often.

An Aside for a Specific Example–Homosexuality
In the present debate over homosexuality in the Methodist Church, I most often see the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” statement pointed to by theological conservatives as some evidence that the Church can potentially stand by the statement that homosexuality is Sin and yet be inviting and loving toward homosexual people. Ask a homosexual person if they think that the Church can do both–the answer is a resounding, “No.”

Now, neither side’s feelings on the matter actually provides evidence for whether or not homosexuality is a sin. But, it does, I think, bring my point about the various problems above into perspective: when there are arguments on both sides of the issue as to whether a particular thing (be it sexuality or something else) is sin, and when the discussion of whether that thing is sin turns on a categorical basis and not a contextual one, the problems for the “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” quickly become insurmountable.

The Scriptural Problems need no further explanation and militate against categorical determinations of sin to begin with.

The Epistemological Problem asserts itself to argue that if we must consider context–the intent of the person in whom and how they love (or the circumstances in which they engage in sexual activity) is not fully knowable by us and we ought to resort to demonstrating grace to be safe–morally speaking.

The Existential Problem reminds us of a distinction often overlooked, I think. For conservatives, homosexuality is neatly divided into the existential and the phenomenal. The conservative says that it’s okay to have homosexual feelings as long as they are not acted upon. This is the current position of the Methodist Church, with its prohibitions on ordination only against “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” Given Jesus’s admonition that a man has committed the sin of adultery if he has looked upon a woman with lust in his heart, I do not think that we can so easily parse between existential and phenomenal aspects of sin. It’s either both or neither.

But there is a more pressing existential concern here even than the attempt to use such artificial dichotomy to maintain such a tenuous position. If you ask a homosexual person, they will tell you that their sexual orientation is not a “choice” or a “behavior” but that it is a part of their very being, their essence–it is who they are. Epistemologically, self-reporting is the best information we have to go on in the determination of the experience of another person, so we are on logical quicksand when we try to decide for homosexuals that, “No, homosexuality is a chosen behavior.”

And, again, this flows into the Psychological Problem. If you believe that homosexuality is sin–and as has been done lately by conservatives–a sin that deserves special priority over other sins, how can you really be sure that you’re going to love the person the same as you would love someone who is heterosexual? In most cases (but certainly not all), the difference is blatant–at least to all but the actor.

In the final post in the series, we’ll discuss The Practical Problems and the Conclusion.

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part III: Epistemological and Existential Problems

For the previous post in this series, click here.

The Epistemological Problem–Determination of Intent 
Unlike God, we do not see into the hearts and minds of others. The best that we can do is to make educated guesses about the state of another being’s heart and mind by reference to the person’s statements and actions. This requires interpretation and, given the unreliability in both our perception and our logic, means that we are never guaranteed to be correct about the intentions, beliefs, and will of another person. We can never dispel all doubt about the conclusion at which we arrive.

If, as I have argued elsewhere, the morality of a particular action is highly dependent upon both intent and context, misunderstanding either causes us to misjudge the morality of the action altogether. The likelihood for this is, in some cases, so high, that we are better off not judging at all–and this is what Jesus warns us of.

K argues that there are some cases in which a person’s actions and statements are such clear indications of malicious intent and sinful desire that it is unreasonable to disregard that information to refrain from assessing the sinfulness of the action. This is, in some cases, a very strong argument. As with all arguments based on epistemological skepticism, there comes a point at which, to meaningfully interact with existence, we must accept and overlook some philosophical uncertainty of our knowledge.

There are a few points at which I must push back against this argument however. The first is what I will call narrative privilege.

By narrative privilege, I mean the limited omniscience we enjoy when we create a hypothetical moral question for examination of morality. If I am the creator of the hypothetical, then for all intents and purposes I control the reality of the hypothetical. My determinations of the actor in question’s intent and knowledge are de facto, true. There is nothing wrong with this for the examination of moral principles to approach objective standards which we might strive to achieve or determine need refinement.

But a tendency exists to transfer this artificial omniscience to the examination of actual people and events. This mistake ignores the epistemological problem altogether, to our detriment.

The second point I raise is, in determining how to treat others, whether it actually does make sense to ignore uncertainty in our knowledge when it reaches a certain threshold that we might call de minimis. This certainly is the case with scientific inquiry, where we are stymied in any progress if we don’t accept some philosophical/epistemological uncertainty. But when it comes to determining our own moral behavior (i.e., what it means to love someone as Christ commands us to love), perhaps we ought to err on showing mercy and grace over judgment.

Third, the resolution of the epistemological problem of intent, if it is reasonable to resolve it, is insufficient (though necessary) to resolve the greater interpretative issue of what it means to “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Existential Problem–Sinfulness and Sins
I follow the epistemological problem with an existential problem, because it is partly epistemological as well. Existential thought is grounded in epistemological skepticism you see, becuase it accepts as true what all experiences indicates–that our perception of what exists and what actually exists are not always the same. To make matters worse, sometimes they are the same, or at least might be, but then how are we to recognize that moment of transcendent clarity for what it is?

In my post, Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?, I argue that there are both existential (state of being) aspects of sin and discrete actions that might be described as “sinful” but that categorical designation of actions as sinful outside of context is fraught with problems both philosophical and practical (some of which are also enumerated above). That being the case, how are we to separate the one from the other?

In other words, if we talk about hating “sin” how do we differentiate from the existential sin in which we are all mired and specific sinful courses of behavior? If the ultimate nature of our sinfulness is in our flawed ways of looking at the world, how can we separate that from a person’s character? Yes, we can trust that God is working within that person to change them, that that person may well be participating in that change and that one day, through God’s grace, they may be perfected. But until then, if we are hating something that is, like it or not, a part of us, how do we properly compartmentalize those things? How do we separate the love from the hate and keep them in proper balance? I’m not sure that such a thing actually exists.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the Psychological Problem and the Example of Homosexuality (as this statement is often applied to it).

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part I: Introduction; Linguistic/Semiotic Problem; Emotional Problem

“Love the sinner; hate the sin.” It’s a common-enough adage, employed most frequently (as I hear it, at least) to endorse “convicting” other people of their sin on matters over which there exists reasonable dispute about whether the thing in question actually is sin. For me, as I’ll argue herein, the saying is problematic at best, and often nonsensical in its use.

As a note before I begin, I had an excellent conversation with K last night on this topic, and she provided some strong counterpoints to some of my ideas. I’ll try to point those out and properly attribute them as I proceed. For clarity’s sake, though, I’d also like to point out that, for purposes of this discussion, K’s points should be taken as her providing a loyal sparring partner with whom I can reliably test my ideas and not necessarily as indications of her own positions or belief. If you know her and want to know her views, please take that up with her and do not let me put words in her mouth that seem to commit her to a position that might not reliably represent her actual belief.

The Linguistic/Semiotic Problem
The overarching problem that will plague us throughout this discussion is one of meaning and usage of the words “love” and “hate.” This is because, Biblically-speaking, we have multiple meanings for both words (even without getting into issues of translation). On the one hand, we can attribute a moral statement to the words “love” and “hate,” where we mean “act morally with regard to others” by the former and “oppose all that is not good” by the latter. At the same time, we more frequently use the words to represent emotions towards others (people or things).

I have never seen a person use the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” platitude and define what they mean by the words “love” and “hate.” Additionally, because this statement does not come from the Bible, we cannot do a word study on the intent of the Biblical author in selecting those words. There is no clarity.

This allows four possibilities: (1) both words are meant in the emotional sense, (2) both words are meant in the moral sense, or (3 & 4) one word is intended morally and the other emotionally.

I think that only (2) above is a defensible usage. The emotional use has no bearing on morality and therefore cannot be employed as a recommendation for (or justification of) righteous action. Both (3) and (4) are too logically confused to be sensible. As I’ll spend most of this post arguing, even (2) remains too problematic to be useful for us.

A sidenote of thanks to K for convincing me of the possibility of (2) being proper–though I ultimately believe that it is not. As smart as I am, it helps to have an equally-smart person remind me where I could be wrong!

The Emotional Problem
As said perhaps more succintly above, the emotional use of “Love this sinner; hate the sin.” is not helpful as a moral aphorism.

Our emotions certainly often do interact with our moral choices. At the best of times, our emotions are indicators of morality–this would be in line with what C.S. Lewis calls “natural law.”

But just as often, emotions push us away from moral action–how we feel about a particular person influences the likelihood of us taking moral action with regard to that person.

Action is moral or immoral based upon objective standards, not the subjective pull of emotion. The practical difficulty of separating emotion from moral choice does not change the fact that morality is not based on emotion at all.

See Part II for the Scriptural Problem(s).

 

Interim Report From Texas Annual Conference 2018

It’s 7:40 a.m. before the start of the 8:30 a.m. business session of the TAC on the second full day of the 2018 conference. I’ll be speaking in favor of one of the petitions before the conference. I figure, what better way to prepare myself than to write?

As it often is for me, the conference is a whirlwind of emotions and activities. I’ve gotten to reconnect with friends I do not see nearly often enough–including fellow travelers in Israel earlier this year. I’ve been inspired by sermons, reports and updates from the conference as well as the words of those friends. But it’s also a time of frustration and palpable tension.

I’ve described the Commission on the Way Forward and Council of Bishop’s recommended plan for the UMC–the One Church Plan–here. Yesterday morning, I attended a breakfast (attended by nearly 500 people) to respectfully discuss the plans with the Texas delegates to the General Conference in small groups. I understand that–especially as a lay person–I’m something of a nerd when it comes to the workings and polity of the UMC, but I was surprised about how little some of my fellow attendees knew about what was going on. This is especially unfortunate as certain interest groups and factions within the UMC attempt to manipulate outcomes and go largely unnoticed in such efforts. Some of the members of our conference are extremely gifted in the fields of rhetoric and diplomacy. Unfortunately, those gifts are not always employed in a way that is direct about the desired outcome. I’m used to political machinations being something I read about in fiction, set up as the backdrop for my own writing or roleplaying games, or that I am otherwise somewhat insulated from. TAC is the exception to that rule, and my involvement this year has given me access to more information about–and even participation in–those political gambits and struggles. But, the heart of our denomination is at stake here, so I feel obligated.

The highlight so far has been hearing Rev. Vicki Flippin, the Pastor of Social Justice, Exploring Faith, and Intergenerational Ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Village (in New York City) speak at the Reconciling United Methodists, Texas Conference dinner last night. If you are not familiar with her, look her up. Listen to some of her sermons. I certainly will be.

She started her inspirational exhortation by drawing upon science fiction–so of course I was sold (and K might have been sizing her up) from the get-go. She spoke about hope (finding and maintaining), conscientious resistance when our Book of Discipline doesn’t match the Gospel, and how narrative carries the power of change. Given my feelings about Paul Tillich’s theology and my own aspirations of professional authorship, these topics carried great weight with me.

This is tempered somewhat by what I hear about the conservative activity at this conference. For those of us who are progressive Christians, much of our goal this year is simply to let our brethren and sistren in the UMC know that Texas is not a monolithic bastion of religious conservativism. From what I hear from reliable sources, some (though I would caution about overgeneralization of this statement) within the conservative groups have labeled we, the progressives, as the Enemy. To my mind, that alone speaks volumes about the mindsets of the two sides (again unfairly generalized) and which interpretation is the closer walk with Jesus (when considered in toto).

Last weekend, after K’s graduation from seminary (I’m so proud of her!), I had a very good, honest conversation with my brother-in-law on my position regarding human sexuality within the Methodist Church. That discussion drew me to make a difficult confession, one that it is only right that I share with you, my readers.

I have chosen to prioritize the unity of the church over the immediate achievement of victory in regards to the justice issue that confronts the UMC. I am willing to compromise with conservatives to accept the One Church Plan because, despite how thoroughly I may oppose their theology, I wish to remain in fellowship with my conservative counterparts in our denomination. I believe that our ability to disagree and yet love and respect one another is a fundamental aspect of the witness we are called to in Jesus Christ.

But this compromise does a disservice to the LGBTQ community. The truest justice for those whose gender identities or sexual orientations do not match with mainstream social expectations is full inclusion and acknowledgment that they are children of God in the fullest sense of the phrase, without caveat or reservation, and that who they are and who they love is not a matter of sin, but a part of the uniqueness in which they were created; something that should be celebrated.

My stance asks the LGBTQ community to wait a bit longer for that true justice and acceptance–something they’ve been waiting for for far too long already. As the Supreme Court says, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Of that, I must confess guilt.

Yes, the One Church Plan will give us permission to do what is already right–to bless marriages born out of Christian love regardless of the sex or gender identities of the participants and to ordain those called to serve God in this Church without reference to their sexuality. But it does not give believers in those positions the full respect and acceptance they deserve, and it will explicitly allow the continuance of discriminatory and un-Christian practices by those who claim that “conscience” prevents them from treating the LGBTQ community as anything other than “less than.”

It is a hard path to walk; my heart aches every time think about how I’ve been forced to prioritize these conflicting convictions. For that, I ask for your prayers and your forgiveness.

Ceci n’est pas un dieu.

One of my favorite paintings is “The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte, pictured below.

TreacheryofImages

Knowing that I’m an existentialist thinker and theologian, it should be clear why. If you do not read French or are not familiar with this painting, the text translates to, “This is not a pipe.” If your kneejerk response is, “Yes it is!” let it sink in another moment. You cannot smoke tobacco from this picture on a screen (or canvas). You cannot hold it in your hand or put it to your lips. It is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. The two are neither fungible nor synonymous. If you’re working on home repairs and someone asks you for a flathead screwdriver and you give them a picture of one from a catalog, it’s not going to be a good day.

Hence the title of this post (in English: “This is not a god.”). For many fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christians, the Bible is treated as if it is part of God–as if it is God. Or at least as if it should be treated as an absolute on par with God. Nowhere are the Scriptures proclaimed to be a part of the Trinity.

Theologian Karl Barth warned against making an idol of the Bible; this conflation of God and Scripture is exactly what he meant. I’ve often referenced in other posts his argument (with which I vehemently agree) that we ought to interpret all Scripture through the lens of the Living God, who is clearest to us in the person and life of Jesus Christ.

Scripture is either a living thing or a dead thing. By way of reference, many legal jurists approach the United States Constitution as a “living document.” That is to say that, when the Supreme Court makes a new ruling of law based upon Constitutional language, it is “discovering” a new way in which an old text manages to relate to modern legal needs and issues. This is perhaps the most amazing aspect of our Constitution–that despite its age it continues to apply to legal issues never foreseen by its drafters with relatively little change to its language over time. For instance, the Fourth Amendment continues to be applicable to searches conducted by cellphone intercepts and drone surveillance as it was to physical stops and searches in the 18th century.

So, when I say that the Bible is a living thing or a dead thing, I mean that either: (1) the Bible continues to be applicable to our lives in the present even though culture and society and the nature of human life has changed drastically from Biblical times (and partially because modern life and the long sweep of history have given us new lenses through which to understand the Bible); or, (2) the meaning of the Bible is not susceptible to any interpretation except that intended at the time it was first set to papyrus, vellum, parchment or whatever other medium was used to record the initial text (to the extent that we could ever hope to understand that original intent being so far removed from that time period).

Bear in mind that Jesus (described by John as the Living Word) tells us that “[God] is not the God of the dead but of the living” Matthew 22:32b.

I think, then, that we must view the Bible as a living text which we must interpret through the use of reason, our experiences and the revelation of God (which we would most likely interpret as the person of the Holy Spirit in such a case) acting upon us as we read. Admittedly, this is a patently Methodist approach (at least in terms of dogma), but I am sure that this idea is not restricted to merely one denomination–particularly because it seems to be so self-evidently truthful and there are so many intelligent theologians in other denominations (or perhaps none at all).

To do otherwise than to treat the Bible as a living text that must be interpreted–with the help of the Living Word of God in Jesus and the Spirit–devalues the profundity of the Scriptures and the ways in which disparate texts written over several centuries so often hang together so well (and, when they contradict, force us ultimately to the identity of Jesus for the answer). Thinking of the Bible as a dead, immutable thing, is in some sense a rejection of Paul’s claim that it is “God-breathed and … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” 2 Timothy 3:16.

And paradoxically, thinking of the Bible as simple, literal and in need of no interpretation or evaluation inherently puts it on a level with God–the only thing in all Creation that is absolute. Though he rarely does, Jesus speaks plainly when he says that he is, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This is not prescriptive language (as it is often assumed); it is descriptive language–a statement of fact. Because, as the beginning of John tells us, all things that are (that are not God) were created through Jesus as the Logos, Jesus is inherently the truth that stands behind all Creation and its meaning and purpose.

When we say things like, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” (nearly always employed as a conversation-killer after asserting a typically unquestioning and literal interpretation of Scripture), we elevate the Bible to the status of God. Never were the two intended to be equal; we should not equate one with the other. The Bible was co-created by man and by God; God is uncreated. The Bible seeks to bring the reader into relationship with God, but it is not that relationship.

Interestingly, this same argument has been going on in Islam–although overtly and avowedly–since at least the 9th century. Without delving too deeply into the details and nuance (which I’m not qualified to do), the Sunni majority in Islam (to the extent that it’s fair to say that all of Sunni Islam is a monolithic construct–which is to say not very) believes that the Qu’ran is uncreated and co-eternal with God. On the other hand, Shia Islam (subject to the same caveat applicable to Sunni Islam) believes that the Qu’ran is created by God and thus subordinate. As mentioned above, I am sure that there is much nuance here with which I am woefully ignorant, but the allegory with Christian approaches to the Bible should be readily apparent.

To take us full circle in this post, we must remain cognizant that we do not confuse the depiction with the thing it represents or communicates. That is, we must remain aware that the Bible’s value comes primarily from its tendency to draw us into relationship with the Living God rather than its ability to simplify and define existential realities for us. Is there truth in the Bible? Very much. Is it always easy to get to? No; we must have faith in God to bridge the gap.

This is understandably a very uncomfortable thing–such a position necessarily introduces ambiguity and insecurity into our understanding of theological principles. On the one hand, the Bible does seem to be clear about the most important aspect of God: love. It is also clear that by the pursuit of sacrificial love we will come to better understand the Living God. And in that sense, our theological niceties are mere luxuries in the face of following Jesus; at best our doctrines and dogmas are explorations of what it means to love God and our neighbors.

At the same time, such an approach must necessarily create within us a sense of theological humility–an epistemological pessimism that should help us to avoid putting our theological convictions ahead of actually loving one another. When we see the Bible as God, or as equally positioned with God, we may use it to justify some extremely unloving behavior. Again, let us not confuse the appearance of faith, piety and love with the things themselves.

Christian Marriage, Part I: Matthew 22:30

Introduction

Recently, a friend of mine who is a retired Methodist pastor asked me to teach his Sunday-school class for a few sessions. I was, of course, flattered and immediately said yes. I haven’t had a chance to do much teaching about Christianity in the “real” world lately and–as I imagine you might suspect–teaching about my faith is one of my favorite things to do.

Then my friend told me that the subject would be “marriage.” K and I will have been married twelve years in June, and we’ve been together seventeen, but all of the members of this particular Sunday-school class have been married far longer, and some have been married longer than I’ve been alive. It felt like a trap, though I’m sure it was not meant as such.

Despite the danger, I wanted to teach too much to back out. Besides, it’s often a good idea to get outside of your comfort zone a little–the best learning is done there. Nevertheless, I needed to sidestep the pitfall of trying to give marriage advice to people who know far better than I.

So, I decided that, while I’d sure teach about Christian ideas of marriage, I’d do so from a theological perspective rather than a practical one. More in my area of knowledge and safer. This led me to the topic we’ll discuss today: one of Jesus’s hard sayings in Matthew 22:30 (also Mark 12:25 and Luke 20:34-35, so it’s pretty clear that the authors of the Gospels thought that this saying was important).

N.B.: Because this has turned out to be a relatively long post, I’ve tried to insert section headings for ease of navigation and so that you, dear reader, can read or skip as much as you want. Trust me, I won’t be offended: I’ll never know what you picked to do. Unless you tell me, in which case I’ll do my best not to be offended.

Matthew 22:23-30

In Matthew 22:23-30, the Sadducees have come to Jesus to test him, and they present him with a hypothetical problem to solve (flashbacks of law school immediately followed). Specifically, they tell him of a woman who was married and widowed without a child, so her husband’s brother married her, but then he died, so the next brother in line married her, but then he died, and so on and so forth until the woman had been married to seven brothers before she died herself. The problem the Sadducees pose, then, is who will she be married to in the afterlife?

Jesus says, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead–have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Matthew 22-29-32.

Whoa! I enjoy being married. I love my wife. When we got married, we intentionally left out the “’til death do us part” language of our vows–we didn’t think that just this life would be enough for us. I want to be connected to her eternally. So what do I do with what Jesus says here?

Research. That’s what I do. And think. Because something’s going on here, and I’m quite sure that Jesus is not telling us that we will not be with those we love in the Kingdom of Heaven. This lead me to identify a problem, a relatively obvious one when you think about it. Our modern Western idea of marriage is not like the idea of Jewish marriage in the first century C.E. To impose our idea of marriage on this statement is to immediately miss the point.

Instead, I came to understand that Jesus is making a point about social justice. Let’s walk through it together:

Context

First, let’s but things in context–geographically, historically and literarily. As you might have seen in my posts about my profound learning experience with Dr. John A. “Jack” Beck, it has been ingrained on my mind now that, when I look at the Scriptures I ask: “Where are we when this takes place?”

Geography

In this instance, that question proved immediately helpful. In Matthew 21:23, we are told that “Jesus entered the temple courts.” So that means that Jesus is on the Temple Mount when speaking with the Sadducees. I soon learned that even that was not enough specificity for this passage of the Gospel. Matthew doesn’t tell us where on the Temple Mount Jesus is more than that he’s there somewhere, so I needed to do some research to see if I could find some information to make a better supposition about where specifically Jesus might have been.

First, let’s talk about the geography of the Temple Mount itself. I recommend Googling to find a picture because one will be helpful, but I’ll try to do a good job describing with words.

Imagine a rectangle (Josephus described the mount as a square a furlong on a side, but I don’t think that’s quite right–it’s possible though that I am mistaken. For sake of argument, bear with me.) with the longer sides oriented roughly north-south. That’s the Temple Mount. The place now known as the Western Wall or the “Wailing” Wall is a part of the north west segment of the entire western wall.  The entrance to the top of the Temple Mount was made via ramps up from doorways in the southern wall–these doorways are now sealed up, but you can see parts of them. There was also a bridge entryway on the southern part of the western wall, connected to Herod’s Stoa on the south end of the Temple Mount. The impressive archway of the bridge and stairs of this entrance have since been destroyed, but you can find both pictures showing where the supports of the arch can been seen in the wall even today and diagrams showing what it would have looked like in the past.

Let’s return to Herod’s Stoa. While his lineage is a little complex, Herod was considered to be a Gentile. Therefore, he could not travel further than the Court of the Gentiles in on the Temple Mount. The Court of the Gentiles is essentially the area of the Temple Mount outside of the walled-in Temple complex proper. Herod built the Stoa as an elaborate three-aisled arched and columned basilica where Herod could stay in luxury while looking out at the Temple–and reminding Israel who was in charge.

On the (outside of) the eastern wall of the Temple Mount with another set of gates was a colonnade or cloistered area known as Solomon’s Porch, so named because it was believed that that part of the Temple area had been built in Solomon’s time (I have not done any research to determine the likelihood that that belief was true).

Near the middle of the Temple Mount itself is the Temple complex, facing (very) roughly east-west). Think of the Temple complex as two compartments, with the entrance into the first compartment from the eastern outer wall of the complex and entrance into the second (western) compartment–where the Temple istelf was–only through the first compartment. The first compartment is known as the Court of the Women (because it was the closest to the Temple women could get). The second compartment, the courtyard around the Temple proper, was known as the Court of Israel.

You’ll notice that I’ve bolded four places around the Temple Mount–the Courts of the Gentiles, Women and Israel and Solomon’s Porch. The scholarship I reviewed indicated that these four locations were the places where Jesus taught when he taught at the Temple. That’s a pretty easy statement to make since, combined, that covers pretty much everywhere but inside the Temple.

With this in mind, let’s look at some textual evidence. As I mentioned above, Matthew tells us that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” That rules out Solomon’s Porch, I think, as the location for this saying. But we can go farther than that.

The day before this confrontation with the Saduccees, Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple. All the texts I looked at stated that the moneychangers would have been located in the Court of the Gentiles. I see no reason to argue with that. When Matthew relates Jesus this previous event, he tells us again (before, really) that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” I think the connection there makes it quite likely that Matthew 22:23-32 also takes place in the Court of the Gentiles.

There’s a logic to this as well. Given that Jesus has come for Jews and Gentiles (although that’s only made explicit later), he would have wanted to teach in as public a place as possible most of the time (though how many Gentiles actually came to the Court of the Gentiles is hard to say). More important, I think, is that the Pharisees and Saducees would have wanted to challenge Jesus in as public a forum as possible–again making the Court of the Gentiles the likeliest place for this scene.

If I had to bet, I’d say Jesus was in the Court of the Gentiles, but there’s no proving that. On other grounds, I think it’s very likely that Jesus was not in the Court of Isreal. Why? Because I think it was important to him (as I’ll argue below) that women be present to hear the words he speaks in this passage.

That’s the geography. Now, let’s talk about the historical context of Jewish marriage in which Jesus’s statement is made.

An Etymological Aside

One of the most surprising things I discovered in my research is a relatively minor etymological note, but one that immediately impressed me. The word baal (sometimes written and pronounced “ba’al“) is sometimes used for the word “husband.” The word itself is most often translated as “lord” or “master” and, when discussed in the OT, usually refers to pagan gods, who are called baals just as we would name our God by saying “the Lord.” There were many baals (though they’re often only referred to as baal): Baal Hadad of Tyre, Baal Hamon, and as a title for the Canaanite god El, just to name a few. Indeed, the probable etymology of the word is from the Mesopotamian god Belu and there’s no question that, whenever used by the Old Testament authors, the connotation of paganism was attached, intentionally or not.

Baal is translated as “husband” in Genesis 20:3; Exodus 21:3 and 22 Deuteronomy 22:22 and 24:4; 2 Samuel 11:36; Joel 1:8; Proverbs 12:4 and 31:11, 23 and 28 and Esther 1:17 and 20. It is by far not the most common word used for husband in OT Hebrew (that is “‘iysh” or, properly, אִישׁ, Strong’s H376). There’s not enough here to make a true argument that the use of the word means anything more than when we refer to a mortal “lord” as opposed to “the Lord” in English, but it is interesting to me.

Historical Context of Marriage

Etymological notes aside, let’s talk about the social culture of marriage. Jewish marriages were (and sometimes still are, though much less often, I think) arranged by the parents and particularly the father. Most of the usages in the Old Testament of the word “marriage” are in the context of a woman being “given” or “taken” in marriage. It’s easier, in fact, to refer to the times when the Hebrew equivalents of the English word are not used in that context–1 Kings 11:2 (“enter into marriage”) and Dan 2:43 (“they will mix with one another in marriage”).

As with many–perhaps most–premodern societies,  marriages were not arranged for love but for the maintenance or creation of economic, political or social ties between families. For farming families, marriage helped consolidate interests between families for farming larger areas cooperatively, a palpable benefit for surviving in hard times. For the elite, as we’re perhaps more familiar in the Western medieval context, marriages were about determination of succession, alliances and control of territory.

As evidence of this, the Old Testament has some relatively complex rules on where and how land can and cannot pass as a result of marriage and children–land cannot be transferred by marriage between the twelve tribes, for instance.

The marriage itself was not just an agreement between spouses, as we tend to think in the modern world–it was a contract between families with much more at stake than how the couple got along.

To marry a woman, a man would give her father a mohar (typically defined as a “bride-price” or “dowry”). We see this in Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:17, 1 Samuel 18:25 and it is the basis of Jacob’s work contract for the hands of Rachel and Leah. Socially, though, this was not considered the “sale” of a woman but was meant to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of a productive member (through marriage). There was some expectation that a father would set aside some or most of the mohar for his daughter’s future, but there was no strict rule requiring this and a second gift was made by the groom to the bride.

Let’s talk specifically about Levirate marriage, since that’s the situation that the Sadducees are refering to in questioning Jesus.

Levirate marriage (which is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10) was the practice where, if a man was married but died leaving a widow and no children, the deceased man’s brother was expected to marry the widow. The first child between the two would be deemed to be the child of the dead man, ostensibly assuring the descent of the man’s name and property. Despite the focus on “protecting the dead man’s name,” the practice was likely meant to be a social protection for women–now outside of their father’s house and without a husband or male children, the widow might be left without social protection or anyone to provide for her. Being a childless widow could be a precarious social position indeed.

If the stories of Ruth and of Onan and Tamar are to be taken as exemplars, it seems that it was more common for women to pursue the idea of Levirate marriage–and for men to sometimes resist it.

Under Mosaic law, women were expected to be absolutely subordinate to men. A man could divorce his wife, but not the other way around. A man could have multiple wives, but a woman could have only one husband (both Josephus and Justin Martyr–who wrote well after Jesus–described the existence of the practice contemporary to their writings). Under Levitical law, a husband had the power of life and death over a woman who committed adultery (as we see Jesus confront even in his time).

There is evidence that women purchased or sold land or otherwise participated in commercial enterprise, so (as always) we need to understand that there was some nuance and complexity to the social status of women but, for the most part, women were subjected to the will and whim of men and were used in marriage as a tool for the management of property and other “masculine” concerns. Women simply did not have the rights or freedoms that, in modern culture, we believe that they are entitled to (and Jesus, as I’m going to argue, would agree).

Literary Context

In the passage before the Saduccees test Jesus on the subject of marriage in the great hereafter, the Pharisees have tested him on whether taxes should be paid to Caesar. He tells them to “…give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22:22. In other words, he turns the Pharisee’s question back upon itself by telling them, “you’re asking questions about money and power, but those are not the concerns of God. We’re talking about something much more important.” His Kingdom is not in contention with the petty kingdoms of man.

After the confrontation we’re discussing, Jesus gives the Great Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39.

It is significant that the exhange with the Sadducees occurs bookended by these two statements.

Interpretation

One of the commentaries I looked at mentioned (and astutely, I think) that, for the Sadducees at least, this confrontation really isn’t about marriage. The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife (or angels for that matter), so what they’re doing is asking a question that they believe is logically unanswerable so that they can say, “Aha! Can’t figure that one out, can you? See, there is no afterlife, because it wouldn’t make sense!”

This is almost certainly the Sadducees’ goal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that Jesus is talking about. If it were, he would only have needed to (after noting that they misunderstand the Scriptures) make the statement that God is the God of the living and not the dead–that assertion alone is enough to confound the Sadducees’ purpose.

Yes, the statement about marriage at the resurrection reinforces Jesus’s retort above, but it also does more.

Coming on the heels of the Pharisees’ question about money and taxes, Jesus is telling the Sadducees the same thing he told the Pharisees. Given the social background of Jewish marriage, what the Sadducees are asking, in a sense, is “who will own this woman in the afterlife?” or, to put it in a slightly more sympathetic light, “who will have rights over this woman in the afterlife.”

Jesus’s response says, “Asking that question shows your complete lack of understanding–you’re concerned about power and status in the world and thereby missing all of the important things with which God and the Scriptures are concerned.”

Jesus’s life itself is grand statement that the things that we humans chase so lustily after–fame, wealth and power–are not the more important things of God–relationship, love, creation, meaning. It stands to reason that his responses to doubters carry the same truth underneath them.

And with the Great Commandment(s) following after this passage, we certainly cannot read Jesus’s statement that people do not marry in the afterlife to mean the same thing as “people do not love” in the afterlife. The argument could be made (drawing twistedly on C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I think) that the kind of love in the Great Commandment does not include eros/romantic love but only agape/unselfish love, but the use of marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between the believer and God (or the Church and Jesus) so profoundly throughout the Bible (this is the topic of the next part in this series) seems to indicate otherwise.

Conclusion

What we’re left, then, is a promise of a more socially just existence in the resurrection–the artificial human socioeconomic and political construct of marriage will be replaced by natural and divine relationship that is about those involved and not about power and wealth and land in the world. I can’t help but imagine that there were women in the crowd who heard Jesus make the statement and thought “Thank God!” not because they did not want to love and be loved but because they wanted to be equal–something the old system of Jewish marriage did not allow them.

P.S. – I do not mean any of the above analysis to be a disparagement against modern Jewish marriage practice. Until only recently in our history, Christian marriages were also arranged primarily for economic and political purposes. Even more important, it is my understanding that ideas about Jewish marriage have evolved through the ages so that modern Jewish marriages are every bit as concerned with love, respect and equality within a marriage as Christian ones are (ignoring entirely those fundamental and “evangelical” Christian sects that still maintain that a woman should be subservient in all things.

Topics Coming Up:

The next topic I’ll discuss in this series will be about marriage as metaphor for relationships with God–we’ll start with Scriptures and move into theology and metaphysics.

At some point in this series I’ll return to the two creation stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis and what they might mean for God’s original intent for the values that a marriage ought to uphold.

While my stance that homosexuality is not a sin and that the love between people of the same sex (or gender identity for that matter) should be viewed (from a theological perspective) no differently from that of a heterosexual couple has been discussed on the blog previously and should be relatively well-known by my readers by known, this series is probably a good place to include some comments on that front as well, so look for that in the near future.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Position Statement: Biblical Interpretation

I’ve made allusion to some of my underlying theological positions (my theological “givens,” if you will) in previous posts, but it’s dawned on me that I ought to have some posts that can be linked to easily that reveal my positions (and therefore biases) in my approach to theology so that my readers better understand where I’m coming from (whether or not they agree–there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on many, many theological issues).

I’m going to start with a concise explanation of my position on Biblical interpretation–specifically, my attitudes toward Biblical literalism and inerrancy.

Let’s start with 2 Timothy 16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

I do not reject this premise at all; I believe it. However, I absolutely disagree with the premise that this statement means that the Scriptures should be interpreted literally (there are times for a literal interpretation, to be sure–Jesus’s statements about the Great Commandments are uncharacteristically plainly stated and should be taken for what they are) or that they are infallible.

By way of argument, consider Adam and Eve. In the second story of the creation of Adam and Eve, God gives Adam spirit and life by breathing into him. He is literally “God-breathed,” and, yet, he is thoroughly fallible, mistaken in many things.

Further, God uses humanity to do God’s work, but in a cooperative, not a coercive manner (well, maybe Jonah). Moses is called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, but he is not forced. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus changes him deeply, but it is knowledge, not threat, that makes him a disciple of Jesus. Even Jesus Himself, in the garden of Gethsemane, has the opportunity to reject God’s call upon him, though He does not.

When read as a whole, we see in the Old Testament an continuing revelation of God’s self to the Israelites and an evolving understanding of the nature of God in the Israelites. At the time of Abram we see a man called from polytheism, but at the time of the Exodus we see an understanding of God that is henotheistic (there are many gods but ours is best/strongest/etc.)–even the Ten Commandments begin with a henotheistic understanding, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” True, that statement remains metaphorically accurate in a monotheistic understanding, but because the rest of the Commandments are quite literal, I think we must see it in the henotheistic context.

The OT prophets seek to change the minds of the Israelites from henotheism to true monotheism and to shake off polytheistic ideas about the nature of gods. When Elijah battles the priests of Ba’al (Hadad, most likely) on Mount Carmel, he is making the theological statement (through derision of Ba’al in part) that the God of Israel is not a mere localized deity, is not possessed of human needs and limitations (like travel and sleep) but is rather transcendent and omnipotent.

In large part it takes the Bablyonian Captivity for the Isrealites to grow into the understanding of God to which God has been leading them for centuries (or, depending upon your preferred timeline, millennia). In Ezekiel’s vision we see the image of a mobile God who can follow the Jews to Babylon, who is with them even when they are not present at God’s temple in Jerusalem.

Given the record of the need for continued revelation from God to drag the Jews to a better understanding of God (just as revelation continues to do, whether this revelation proceeds from Scripture or elsewhere), it stands to reason that the writers of the Old Testament (and New, for that matter) sometimes get things wrong. When we read that God has commanded Saul to kill all the women, children and animals of the peoples he has conquered, we should be offended if we are being asked to take the statement literally.

Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible makes very good arguments on this subject. For my part, I tend to follow the understanding of the German theologian Karl Barth. Barth reminds us (I am admittedly simplifying his argument for sake of time and space) that the Scriptures are not the capital “W” Word of God–Jesus is (see the Gospel of John). Therefore, we should read all Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ. That in the Bible that does not comport with the person and teachings of Jesus is something added by man and not by God.

Does this make Biblical interpretation difficult? Absolutely, and humility in approaching the subject ought be the first lesson we learn in the practice of theology.

Jesus speaks metaphorically in the parables for a number of reasons–I think even the most literal of Biblical interpreters would admit to that. So why do we think that other parts of the Bible, particularly those written in styles of literature that rely upon metaphor and symbolism (the OT poetry, the apocalyptic and prophetic modes of both the OT and the NT) should be read literally?

When we believe that only God is infallible, why would we believe that the human contributors to the Bible were made so? When what we see in both the Biblical text itself and in the experience of our lives is that God creates opportunities for humans to work with God but does not force them to do so, why would we believe that God essentially put every word to paper with God’s self? When God came to earth in Jesus Christ as a sacrifice, a teacher, a prophet and an example to us, why would we assume that Scriptures are alone sufficient? When Jesus himself tells the Pharisees and the Sadducees and, yes, even the Disciples that they have misunderstood the Scriptures, why are we so ready to say that a single and narrow interpretation is the only reasonable one? In a world so complex that the head spins to think of it, why would we expect that the answers we find in the Bible are simple, straightforward, and without nuance?

On the other hand, when the Bible is so plainly full of Truths both existential and metaphysical, why should we assume that the proposition is all or nothing–that the Bible has no fallibilities or is completely worthless?

Pilgrimage, Day 13: Reflections

For the previous entry, click here.

Today will be the last post journaling my pilgrimage to the Holy Land; early tomorrow morning, we set off for Tel Aviv to return home. This is an amazing place, and there’s still much more to see, but I’m ready to come home. The pace of our touring has driven me to the point of exhaustion, and my brain is supersaturated with new knowledge and ideas. Even today, a scheduled half-day on our agenda, seemed a chore.

I am sure that there will be a number of posts in the near future that are more theologically focused and that draw on the many things I’ve learned on this journey. For now, I’ll share some general reflections on the trip as a whole (after a brief run-down of the day’s sites).

We started the morning early as usual, traveling to the Mount of Olives and working our way down to the Church of All Nations (at traditional Gethsemane). Along the way, we discussed the reason for Jesus sending the disciples to fetch a donkey only when he’d already ascended the Mount of Olives and was ready to descend into Jerusalem, the course of Jesus’s movements through the Old City during Passion Week (while overlooking the city–this made things very easy to follow) and generally discussing the Crucifixion and Resurrection. After lunch, we went to the Garden Tomb (very unlikely to actually have much to do with the Passion, though there’s some evidence that the stoning of Saint Steven occurred there) to celebrate Communion. While the rest of our group took the bus back to the south side of the Old City to the hotel, K and I decided to walk through the nearby Damascus Gate and through the Muslim Quarter back to the hotel (she had not yet been that way). As has been the case with all of our experiences, all of the people we met along the way were friendly and warm.

Before we left, while working on the preparatory materials, I posted about my struggle with my position on the historicity of many Biblical events. I’d like to follow up on that now.

I’ve never really doubted the historicity of Jesus Christ, his ministry, death and resurrection (though I’d still be a Christian if I did, because there is something eternally True about who Christ is and what the Incarnation means for existence and about the nature of God even if the events described did not actually happen). It’s mostly been parts of the Old Testament that I see as more metaphorical or literary than historical.

The first comment I have on the subject after my experiences here is that visiting the places I’ve now been, seeing the things that I’ve seen, and knowing the things I now know, I feel an added realism and gravity to many Biblical events–they seem less distant, abstract and simply allegorical (even if I didn’t consciously think of them as abstract or merely allegorical) than before.

That said, I’m not sure that my overall position on historicity has changed. One reason for this my fundamental approach to scripture. As I’ve said before, I follow Barth in seeing the person of Jesus as the essential revelation of Christianity, the lens through which anything else in our faith must be viewed. This causes some immediate conundrums (conundra?) that must be resolved in reading the Old Testament, which will discuss momentarily. Secondly, I tend to see a greater emphasis on the human side of scripture than to look for a heavier divine hand in the text’s creation. This is a fundamental point on which I disagree with Dr. Beck, who by my understanding (based on hearing him speak for two weeks and fully admitting that I might have misunderstood, so if you’re interest in his ideas, I recommend skipping my opinion and going direct to the source) favors a reading of scripture that emphasizes God’s direct hand in the events described, sees a greater level of divine guidance in the writing of scripture than I, and looks more to divine providence in the outcomes of events described than I tend to attribute to them. Before I give an example of our differences, I would like to reaffirm that Dr. Beck makes some very strong arguments for his position that are well worth considering whether you end up agreeing with all of them or not–certainly you’ll find some that make perfect sense. His books are readily found on Amazon under “John A. Beck.”

By way of illustration, let’s look at the Book of Joshua–something we were confronted with in our visit to Jericho yesterday. When considering Joshua, Jack tends to take the position that the story as written follows–at least in the fundamentals–actual historical events. He is careful to look at the archeological and scientific evidence very objectively, I think, but (as is mine), his fundamental conclusions are influenced by his starting theology (as all interpretive acts are).

From the get-go, I am admittedly biased against the Book of Joshua. It is a book of the Bible in which God apparently condones killing and the removal of people from ancestral lands by force. This does not comport with my understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and therefore does not comport with my understanding of the Triune God. As such, I am inclined to believe that much of the “God told us to take this land from the Canaanites” reflects the broader theology about how gods worked at the time.

There is, however, a hitch to this. In Joshua 5:13-15 (an amazingly tightly written piece of scripture, I might add), before the siege of Jericho, Joshua encounters an angel who describes himself (itself?) as “the commander of the army of the Lord.” The angel is holding out a sword to Joshua, drawing on the ancient Egyptian motif of the “presentation of the sword” in which a deity presents the leader of an army with his sword as an endorsement of and prediction of victory for an upcoming battle, an example of which can be seen at the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (there relating to victory over the mysterious “Sea Peoples”). But when Joshua asks whose side the angel is one, the angel simply says, “No.” This is typically translated as “neither,” but the simple negative is more accurate. When we look at the pieces together–that the angel, not Joshua, is the commander of the army of the Lord, that the angel (and therefore God) is not on either side of the battle and that the fall of Jericho initially occurs without bloodshed (for God causes the wall of the city to fall without an assault), we see something pointing toward the message of Jesus: God’s victories are not achieved through the perpetration of violence. And then the next sentence, in echo of similar statements made about the Moabite god Chemosh, the Joshua tells his men that “the city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord” (through complete destruction, returning us to a narrative that runs counter to the teachings and example of the Messiah. (Thanks is owed to Dr. John Harmon for pointing out to me this passage in Joshua and the ancient Egyptian practice it plays off of).

If the archeology were heavily in favor of the Joshua narrative, I admit that I would have to incorporate the likely historicity of Joshua into my theology, however much might have to change to do so. Currently, it is not. At Tel Es-Sultan, there is not sufficient evidence of the events described in the Bible ever having occurred, though Kathleen Kenyon’s modification of some of her early analysis leaves the possibility open. The next city Joshua attacks, Ai, also remains problematic historically and archeologically. The very name “Ai” means “the ruin;” thus the site of the city is most likely Et-Tell (Khirbet Haijah), whose name means the same thing.

The archeology at Ai shows that the city was occupied starting around 3100 BCE that was violently destroyed around 2400 BCE. Those Biblical chronologies offered by scholars who affirm the historicity of the conquest of Joshua place the conquest sometime after 1445 BCE and probably around 1400 BCE. Et-Tell was not resettled until Iron Age 1 (roughly 1300 BCE to 1000 BCE) and, even then, was probably settled peacefully. There are some scholarly opinions that the Biblical story has confused the conquering of Bethel with Ai; the two cities are only about 3 km apart. This is possible, but the uncertain archeology is further troubled by the fact that the beginning of the Book of Judges gives a different story about the Jews coming into Canaan.

The beginning of Judges, following on the heels of the Book of Joshua, describes a more gradual settling of Canaan by the Jews (lead by Caleb, as the book opens with the phrase “After the death of Joshua…”). Here, the Jews make incremental gains against the indigenous peoples, first settling the Negev Desert and only later capturing the hill country of Judah. Jerusalem is the first named city to be captured by the Jews, and though Jericho is mentioned (it is the “City of Palms” in Judges 1:16), it follows upon the mention of a gift of springs by Caleb to Aksah and Othniel. The spring at Jericho may be the link between paragraphs.

Current archeology sees the Israelites beginning to define themselves as a people relatively peacefully within Canaan and then eventually absorbing the Canaanites. Overall, though, the proper historical understanding of the Book of Joshua and the description of the Israelite conquering of Canaan is–while highly questionable–unresolved. Thus, it remains open to interpretation.

As mentioned, above, starting from different theological positions–each resulting from a prioritization of certain aspects of God over others–different results may be reached by reasonable people.

And so, I remain skeptical as to the historicity of certain events described in the Old Testament, though I do believe that the events described by the Bible do more accurately reflect historical events from the time of David onward.

I am completely convinced by Dr. Beck that an understanding of the geography of the Bible provides an invaluable interpretive tool in pursuing the meaning of any particular piece of scripture–regardless of historicity. Here, I continue to have some issues that I have not settled on an answer to, yet.

Why is the geography of the Bible so important. I don’t think that this is a mere artifact of the human influence on the writing of scripture–too often do the geographic details tie events together in ways that add to narrative complexity and create new skeins of interrelatedness for such a simple answer to be sufficient, I think. As I’ve said in other posts, I often find the “poetic” truth of the Bible to be one of its most convincing and convicting aspects–the geography of the Holy Land adds to the depth of this poetry in ways I cannot ignore.

As I noted earlier in this journey, standing in places where Jesus stood (or at least very nearby) and seeing the sites of many Biblical events (most of which I believe are historical, some of which I carry my doubts about) added a gravity and sense of realism (not historical but existentially tangible) to my relationship with Biblical events that lacked before I came here. That alone was worth the trip. The tools taught by Dr. Beck also would have been sufficient in isolation to make the travel well worth it. Being here has undoubtedly changed me, but I have yet to discover all the subtle ways that it has.

I also commented on previous entries how unsettled I have been by the conflict that bubbles in this land, occasionally erupting to the surface like some angry volcano. I still cannot say that I understand the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian dynamic, but I must admit that, by knee-jerk reaction, this trip has given me far more sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis. But that must remain a personal observation–I remain too out of my depth to attempt any objective evaluation or to offer any solution. The current sociopolitical climate does, however, accentuate the need for Jesus in our lives to draw us away from conflict and toward love and mutual respect.

I feel that I must end this post with thanks to Dr. Jack Beck. It has been a true pleasure to hear him teach and preach and to be in fellowship with him these past two weeks. His passion is infectious, his faith inspiring, his knowledge daunting.

Pilgrimage, Day 12: The Lost

For the previous entry, click here.

Today, we had the good fortune (or perhaps divine grace) to travel parts of the West Bank that are often inaccessible to Westerners for security concerns. Specifically, we were able to travel in and through the area around Nablus, a city where bullet holes in many buildings, the proximity of aggressive Israeli settlements and the presence of Palestinian banners of a distinctly militant nature are a constant reminder of the tension in the region that regularly spills into violence. The most experienced of our group members who travel frequently in Israel said they had not been able to visit the region for the past several years (not that there was constant violence, but the timing never worked out).

That’s a shame, because the modern city of Nablus (from Greek Neopolis) contains several essential Old and New Testament sites. First among these is the town of Shechem. Shechem makes an early appearance in Scripture: in Genesis 12:6, God appears to Abram and told Abram that his children would be given that land, confirming God’s first covenant with Abram. In response, Abram builds an altar to the Lord there.

Jacob builds his well in Israel at Sychar, only a stone’s throw away from the site of Shechem. To this we’ll return for the most important episode that takes place here.

Later, in Joshua 24, Joshua assembles the tribes of Israel at Shechem to renew the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The split between Israel to the north and Judah to the south also occurs at Shechem, when the Israelites rebel against Rehoboam after he listens to his friends instead of his elders.

Before we discuss Shechem’s most important event, we need to understand something about the Samaritans. Fortunately, we were able to do just that today.

Although the Samaritans appear frequently in the New Testament, only about 840 of them remain today. Where do they come from, and why is there so much animosity between them and the Jews in the Gospels?

When the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, they did not take all of the Jews; some remained in the land of Israel. This caused a fundamental rift between those who went into captivity and those who did not. First, let us remember that in the 6th century, deities were largely thought of as localized. Those who remained in the land assumed that Yahweh remained with them and that the captive Israelites had been removed from God’s presence. Following the vision of Ezekiel (and the maintenance of their Israelite heritage during the captivity), the captive Israelites tended to see God as leaving Israel and traveling with them, leaving behind the land. The extent to which either group realized that God could be in both places simultaneously is unclear.

The return of the captive Israelites brought the brewing conflict to a head. In addition to this theological dispute, the two groups conflicted over the ownership of the land, as captive families returned to find ancestral lands occupied. Further, the captive Israelites distrusted the native Israelites for intermarrying with other local peoples who were pagan; they believed that such associated diluted the purity (of thought if not ethnically) of the natives. For their part, the natives asserted that the captivity had corrupted the Israelites who left by exposing them to Babylonian religion and culture. Both parties believed (and continue to believe) that they are the “true” Israelites and that the other group has been corrupted away from true faith.

When the returning captives began to rebuild the Temple, they refused to allow the native Israelites to take part. Correspondingly, the nascent Samaritans moved their site of worship to Mt. Gerizim, claiming that it was the original place Joshua had determined the Temple should be upon coming into the land. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), Mt. Gerizim overlooks Shechem. The area became known as Samaria.

Not only did we visit Mt. Gerizim this morning (where the ruins of a Byzantine church stand over the likely location of the Samaritan Temple (which was destroyed by the Hasmonean rulers), but we were able to enter into the current Samaritan worship space (and outdoor Temple in Nablus) and to converse with a Samaritan whose father is the second-highest priest in the religion.

There are “Five Ones” that define Samaritan belief. One God; one book (the Pentateuch); one prophet (Moses); one Temple (Mt. Gerizim); one afterlife (resurrection and paradise).

It was into this land, at Jacob’s Well in Samaria, that Jesus came. John 4:4 states that Jesus had to go through Samaria (he is going back to Galilee from Jerusalem). Geographically, this is patently untrue–it would have been easier and faster for Jesus either travel west to the “International” or “Coastal” highway along Israel’s coastal plain or to travel east from Jerusalem to the “King’s Highway” in the Transjordan Highlands. He goes north along the “ridge route” through Samaria for some other purpose. Resting at Jacob’s Well, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman. After a bit of rather confrontational interaction (she is surprised that a Jew would talk to her at all and is therefore suspicious), the woman believes Jesus to be a prophet and tests him by asking whether the Temple or Mt. Gerizim is the proper place to worship. Jesus answers by telling her, “Woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come (emphasis mine) when worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24).

Sarcastically, the woman responds by saying that the Messiah is coming and will explain everything. Jesus responds by telling her that he is the Messiah. He has gone specifically to that well for that woman in particular and to show that his salvation (while it may come from the Jews) is not only for the Jews. The only other time that Jesus states specifically that he is the Messiah is to Peter near Caesarea Philippi–once for the Jews, and once for the Gentiles (at least as Jews would have considered the Samaritans). This mirrors the “feeding of the thousands” stories, where one feeding miracle is done for Gentiles and one for the Jews.

At the site of Jacob’s Well, I decided not to drink the water from the well. On the one hand, I was turned off by how commercial the site seemed (you could drink from the well for free, but you had to pay if you wanted to take some of the water with you). On the other hand, I believe Jesus when he told the Samaritan woman that “he who drinks from this (Jacob’s) well will be thirsty again, but he who drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” The well, then, seemed unnecessary.

After lunch, we visited Tel es-Sultan, the site of the earliest Jericho settlement. Dr. Beck shared some interesting insights with us (as he shared most of the information above with us), but I remain unconvinced about the historicity of the Joshua narrative. I’ll discuss why sometime soon.

We ended the afternoon in the Judean wilderness, getting a feel for the desolation meant in the wilderness stories in the New Testament. This terrain is different from the wasteland closer to the Jordan Rift Valley. We reviewed the story of the Good Samaritan and Psalm 23 before having some individual quiet time. Powerful stuff.

All along the way today, my heart broke for some of the living conditions of the Palestinian people. The factional strife, arguments over the rightful ownership of the land, and willingness to resort to violence to achieve some abstract ideological victory remains strong in this land, in some way unchanged since Jesus’s day.

Thank God for our Savior.

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