Monday, May 28, 2012

Memory, Eucharist, Solidarity

Yesterday was both Pentecost and Memorial Day Sunday, and next Sunday at our church is communion.  I thought of some notes I took a while ago on themes of memory and communion, beginning with a book I've enjoyed studying, John C. Haughey, S.J., Housing Heaven’s Fire: The Challenge of Holiness (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 2002).(1)  Recently I’d used Haughey’s notion of Eucharist-as-solidarity in a lesson series about global social issues: 

Toward the end of the book, Haughey discusses human rights from a Roman Catholic standpoint, and then he brings the Eucharist to bear upon rights, in so far as the Eucharist is partly about solidarity with others and their needs.  Hopefully I’m not bowdlerizing Haughey’s interesting insights by thinking about them in terms of Protestant communion as well.

He affirms that sharing the Eucharist is truly an act of solidarity: “Paul stings the Corinthians with the indictment that they are not eating the Lord’s Supper but, by their allowing some of their fellow worshipers to go hungry, they have desacralized the supper. This disregard for another’s needs while taking care of oneself and one’s own, profanes the spirituality of Eucharist.” (p. 188).  “In effect, [the Corinthians] denial of a place at the table for the misfits, rendered the assembly’s rites so unworthy, it would have been better had they not been celebrated, Paul clearly says (1 Cor. 11:17).”

Haughey goes on to recall John 6:51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Connecting this verse with the problem at Corinth, Haughey notes that the Corinthian participants in the Eucharist had to learn that the supper’s purpose “was not simply their own spiritual nurture; it was nothing short of the life of the whole community and, beyond it, the world” (p. 189).

Earlier in the book, he notes that solidarity is, in the words of Pope John Paul II in his letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good…i.e., to the good of all and of each individual because we are really responsible for all” (p. 156). Furthermore, the Trinity itself is a “communion” which is “the source and ground” of our own solidarity (p. 165). We see this in Paul’s letters, where koinonia is a key term of the bond among Christians and others (2 Cor. 13:13). (p. 165).

Haughey writes, “Solidarity, like any virtue, needs a repeated action to become habitual. And it needs a story from which it is acted out. For Christians, solidarity has such an action and story. It is Eucharist. That is where the story is best learned and the virtue exercised with ‘a firm determination to commit oneself to the common good’ made. Eucharist is where ‘doing your own thing’ is transcended…. Eucharist is a call to solidarity and the conferral of the energy for the work of solidarity.”

Our solidarity with others “needs a story from which it is acted out,” and that is the Eucharist! Haughey’s discussion reminded me of an essay in Nils Dahl’s book, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), “Anamnesis: Memory and Commemoration in Early Christianity.” I’ve appreciated the way Dahl argues that memory is potentially an act of solidarity.

Dahl notes that the Greek work mnêmoneuein, “to remember,” and similar words “signify not only to recollect but also to think of something or someone. And ‘to think of’ could include to make mention of something and frequently to mention someone in prayer” (p. 120. He cites the example of Col. 4:18, Heb. 11:22, 1 Thess. 1:2ff, Phil. 1:3ff, and 2 Tim. 1:3ff. it could also mean to come to someone’s aid, as in Gal. 2:10 and Heb. 13;3. Likewise, the Hebrew word zakar, as when God “remembers” the covenant (Ex. 2:24, Lev. 26:42, etc.) (p. 13). Memory is thus “formative for attitude and action” (p. 13). 

Further, “the memory of [God’s] work of salvation and of his commandments had a fundamental importance in the religion of Israel (p. 13). So the “cultus” of Israel had not only to do with sacrifices but also the active memory of God’s great works of salvation via sacrifices but also trumpets, prayers, psalms, hymns, and the commemoration of festivals, each with their special significance” (p. 14).

Dahl notes that, for Paul, one function of his pastoral work was to help people remember!  For instance, writes Dahl, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul reminds the church to be faithful to his preaching and adds, gently, “just as you are doing.” Dahl writes that “the initial acceptance of the gospel puts the whole of life under obligation.” The Thessalonians had been trained, baptized, and had received the Holy Spirit. Now, “[t]hey need to preserve what they have received and to remind themselves of it in order to live out the reality into which they have been introduced” (p. 15). As Dahl puts it, memory shapes conduct (p. 16).

Dahl notes that we see a similar process not only in Paul’s letters but also in Jude 3 and 5, 2 Peter 1:12ff, 1 John 2:7, and other passes. Knowledge as “anamnesis” ("recollection”) is not platonic in the sense of preexistent knowledge that the soul must regain, but a recollection of what the believer received in preaching, baptism, and incorporation into church fellowship; thus Christian growth is “an ever growing assimilation and an ever more perfect application” of the Gospel traditions one had first received (p. 16). And this keeps early Christianity in line with its Jewish heritage, in that Christians also remember God’s mighty acts of salvation---especially Christ. Dahl argues that passages like Philippians 2:5-11 function in a commemorative/recollective way, as well as Colossians 1:15-20.

Of course, recollection and commemoration function powerfully in the Eucharist. Early Christians had no sacrifices, but the Eucharist was a key way of "recommemorating" the work of Christ, which through remembering made it a powerful, present reality (p. 24).


Currently I’ve two favorite books on the theme of holiness.  One book I purchased years ago at an American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting, forgot about it, and then rediscovered it on my book shelves when I really needed it: John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989). I was fascinated by the way he traces aspects of “holiness” through the Old Testament, in which the theme is quite multifaceted, covering ritual purity (including Sabbath-keeping), the pursuit of justice, and a combination of moral uprightness and wisdom.  In the book discussed above, Fr. Haughey also finds variety and richness in different aspects of holiness as presented by different biblical authors within their theological interests.  Haughey also includes interesting discussions of Jesus’ own growth in holiness (in light the epistle to the Hebrews which affirms that Jesus learned obedience through suffering).  Haughey describes the work of the Spirit as “truing”—using the word “true”, in an old sense, as a verb---within Jesus’ life and ours as well.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Church as a New Creation

When I first purchased Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament in the late 1970s, the man himself hadn’t been deceased too long, and I found his studies very intriguing: ideas to keep thinking about.  In volume 2 (pp. 95-100), Bultmann has a fascinating discussion of the concept of the church (ecclesia). Is the church a thing in history, or a Spirit-led, eschatological reality?  A related question is: is its laws and regulations “created from case to case by the free sway of the Spirit,” and “can the leaders’ authority have any other foundation than the gracious gift of the Spirit?” or are those laws and regulations worked out historically (p. 95)?

Common sense, historical examples, and biblical theology all tell us that both are true, but connecting the church’s historical nature (and thus its imperfections, idiosyncrasies, and culturally-defined aspects) and the church’s eternal identity can be tricky.  I had a conversation about this recently with a Roman Catholic friend who regretted the way the church handled abuse cases in recent years: God upholds and sustains that and other churches, but churches and denominations are also imperfect bureaucracies led by fallible people, “CYA” attitudes, and other human foibles.  Not to pick on the Catholic Church: many of us Protestants could cite other examples, any time a church or denomination struggles with the guidance of the Spirit along with faithfulness to established rules, traditions and values.

Bultmann explains that the discussion is a notable one between Adolf Harnack and Rudolf Sohm.  For Sohm, “any such thing as ecclesiastical law stands in contradiction to the nature of Ecclesia; with such a thing a notion (first visible in I Clem.) invades the Church that the authority of Spirit-endowed persons it he authority of the office. But that is the sinful fall of the church; by it she denies her own nature” (pp. 95-96). Bultmann goes on to say that Harnack argues the opposite: the church had regulations in its very early years, as showed in the New Testament (p. 96). The difference is found in the fact that the church is both a historical phenomenon and an eschatological (that is, pertaining to God’s final victory) congregation guided by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. The church understands itself to be the latter, but it is also the former.

Bultmann notes that Sohm is correct and reflects the New Testament picture, where the Spirit-gifted and –endowed persons are also persons in authority and/or proclaimers of God’s world, but that Sohm misreads the Bible in believing that legal provisions cannot also be Spirit-created rules.  Bultmann notes the possibility of tradition reflected in 1 Cor 7:40 and 14:37, as well as the canonical stipulation of Rev. 22:18f). Bultmann  notes that the New Testament would not have been writing, transmitted, and canonized if regulative tradition and Spirit-guidance were mutually exclusive (pp. 97-98).

He goes on to show that the biblical congregations were called upon the “test Spirit-endowed people (1 Thess. 5:21, 1 Cor. 12:10, 14:29), to send missionaries (Acts 13:2) and delegates (1 Cor. 16:3, 1 Cor. 8:19, Acts 15:2), hold sessions for decisions (1 Cor. 4:3, 5:3f, 2 Cor. 2:6), as well as proposals voted on by a congregation Acts 6:2, 5, 15:22), and also congregational “prophetic” participation (1 Tim. 18:18, Acts 4:14) (p. 99). Altogether, “Intelligent conduct which arises from a recognition of what the situation demands does not exclude the possibility that the Spirit is working in such conduct. It is also no less true that services performed through the Spirit in and for the congregation do not contradict the nature of the Spirit simply because of being connected with an office” (pp. 99-100). Both Pauline and Johannine theology, as well as the synagogue tradition of Judaism, prevented the early church from taking a view similar to Sohm’s depiction.

Bultmann’s thoughts reminded me of another book by one of his students, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church by Nils Alstrup Dahl, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976). I didn’t have a class with Dahl at my divinity school but I asked if he’d autograph this book and two others, The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays (Augsburg Publishing House, 1974) and Studies in Paul (Augsburg, 1977). Reading Bultmann and Dahl together provided a little “journey” among Scriptures concerning the nature of the Church.

In the essay “Christ, Creation, and the Church” (Jesus in the Memory), Dahl discusses the key aspects of the "rediscovery of the importance of eschatology within the New Testament" (p. 120), including the view that "the church is something new; it is seen not simply as a new religious society but as a new creation," as in 2 Cor. 5:17).  This does not at all negate the church's pre-Christ roots, and in fact, continuity with Israel and the scriptures is not broken at all (p. 120). But what Dodd had famously called "realized eschatology" means that the church is not only recipient of a new covenant but also a new creation in Christ (pp. 120-121).

"Not only the personal relation between men is restored in Christ, but also the right relation to material things. The great christological hymn in Colossians 1 implies an indirect polemic against the asceticism of the false teachers. Later in the epistle Paul goes on to say that Christians, who are dead with Christ to the cosmic powers, are therefore free to use what God has created, the things which 'perish when they are used' (Col. 2:20-23; cf. Rom. 14:6, 14; 1 Tim. 4:4). The paradoxical situation of the church here becomes very clear; Christians are no longer living 'in the world', but precisely for this reason they are free from 'ordinances' and free to make use of material things, without discrimination" (p. 137).  We see this similarly in the 1 Corinthians discussion of eating meat. " 'The earth and its fullness' belongs to the Lord, and in Christ men are made free to make the right use of it" (p. 137).

Of course, the church still suffers and is tempted (2 Cor. 11:30, but our other experience, for Dahl, is the new life (Col. 3:10f) and our transformation (2 Cor. 3:18, so that we grow toward "eschatological perfection" (Eph. 4:13ff) (p. 139)

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Biblical Monarchy and Priesthood

I’ve said this elsewhere, perhaps more than once, but I disagree with church folks who say, “Don’t read the commentaries, read the Bible!” Perhaps such folks are well-intentioned; they want to allow the Holy Spirit power to open up meanings for us. But the Holy Spirit can open the Scriptures for us via commentaries as well.

After all, there are themes in the Bible that may not “jump out” at you until you read the work of some scholar who has devoted years to scriptural study.  For instance, did you know that the Bible has “pro- and anti-monarch” passages? I certainly didn’t until recently, as I was rereading a book by my div school teacher, Brevard S. Childs.

The Biblical Monarchy

In his book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986, p. 115), Childs notes that the OT scholar Julius Wellhausen identified a “promonarchial source in 1 Samuel 8-12, specifically 9:1-10:16 and 11:1-5. Those texts affirm the new Israelite monarchy, while 8:1-22, 10:17-27, 12:1-25 “regarded the rise of the kingdom as a rejection of God’s true rain”…and saw it as an act of disobedience which emulated Israel’s pagan nations.” Later, the OT scholar Gerhard Von Rad reinterpreted those passages as complementary rather than contradictory. Following Von Rad but also looking to the canonical shape of the text, Childs believes that the anti-monarchical source “brackets the earlier source at both beginning and end (p. 116), but that the pro-monarchical source still has power because “God is still deeply involved in the rise of the monarchy even when it was not according to his original plan for Israel (p. 116). Thus Israel has to choose for God or against God, whether ruled by a king or not (p. 117).

Even though the anti-monarchical source questions the properness of an Israelite king—because Yahweh is Israel’s true king---the career of David becomes significant for Israel’s messianic hope: for instance, Isa. 9:6-7, Jer. 23:5ff, and Psalms like 45, 72, and 110 (Childs, pp. 119-120). Thus, even though the monarchy was not according to God’s original plan, God incorporated the monarchy—and specifically King David---as a “type of God’s kingdom.” (In another example, Childs further argues, with von Rad in mind, that the “succession narrative 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 has not been artificially broken up by 2 Samuel 21-24, but that those four chapters places David’s career in context with the messianic hope of Israel, precisely as David’s speech in chapter 22 echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: p. 118.)

Of course, in Christian affirmation, David and his kingdom become precursors and “types” of Christ (the great descendent of David and member of David’s tribe, Judah) and his kingdom.

The Biblical Priesthood

Still leafing through Childs’ text, I reread his chapter on the Israelite priesthood. Here again, I would never have noticed differences in the biblical text concerning the priesthood. Honestly, if I was reading through some of these passages (for instance, while reading the Bible over a set time period) I might daydream my way through these sections that seem to have less relevance to my daily life.

Childs notes that in Ex. 28-29 and Lev. 8-10—where we find much information about the biblical priests---Aaron and his sons are consecrated to an eternal priesthood. Also, the Aaronic priests performed cultic rites while Levites were responsible for maintenance of the tabernacle (e.g. Num. 1:47ff) (p. 145, 150). But, Childs notes, we don’t find that distinction in Deuteronomy, which describe "Levitical priests" who have cultic responsibilities.

Other biblical passages also show interesting variations. Childs cites Wellhausen's research that we find no Aaronite clergy in Judges and Samuel. For instance, Eli is the chief priest but he is from the Ephraim tribe. When we get to Chronicles, we return to the separation of priest and Levites that we saw in Exodus and Leviticus(pp. 145-146).

Wellhausen explains the discrepancies in terms of the time period of the material. He argued that Ex. 25-40, Leviticus, and Numbers are post-exilic, while Deuteronomy is pre-exilic (i.e., late monarchy, from the time of Josiah) (p. 146).Childs addresses and untangles these issues with a canonical approach. Whatever was the historical development of the Israelite priesthood, it is background history and never entirely clear or recoverable form the biblical materials, and thru resist historical reconstruction (pp. 149-150, 153), "Rather, the post-exilic form of the Israelite priesthood has been made normative" (p. 153), that is, the priesthood described in Exodus and Leviticus, where the priests not only sacrifice but also intercede for the people. Moreover the Levites are set apart because of their "zeal for Yahweh" (Deut. 10:8, 12:19ff, 18:6ff, 33:8ff), in contrast to the Aaron and his sons who worshiped and love Yahweh but also sinned (Ex. 32, Lev. 10:1-3) (p. 150). Meanwhile, the Chronicler depicts the priests and Levites in conformity to Leviticus and Numbers, as we see not only in Chronicles itself but also in Ezra and Nehemiah (Ez. 6:18, 10:5, Neh. 11:10) (p. 151-152).

Childs’ untangling of these layers of biblical tradition made me think of a book I like by John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989). Gammie provides interesting information about the process of ordination whereby the priest was made holy (Ex. 29). Those steps are worth looking at, as well as the different priestly vestments described in Exodus 28-29). Gammie notes that the priests’ conferred holiness made them particularly susceptible to the uncleanness of the dead, which had to be deal with in prescribed ways (as in Numbers 19, and discussed in Lev. 21); thus the rituals of Lev. 22. (p. 31). He also writes that, in the Torah, Aaron and his sons are so holy that even Moses cannot enter the place of God's glory; only they and the ordained priests could do so (Ex. 27:21, 28:40-43, 29:29, 40:34-35, Lev. 18) (p. 34-35). But nevertheless, "their holiness is derivative" to God's holiness, and is certainly not inherent (p. 36).

Gammie notes that "the priestly theology of holiness can be summarized by the twin notions of separation and purity," wherein distinctions are maintained between clean and unclean animals, as well as by separation of holy persons, holy times, and holy places. Nevertheless, as we know from Leviticus 19, "humanitarian conduct" was a deep part of priestly holiness too, so that the distinctions of cleanness and purity, addressed through ritual, "were deeply rooted in a world view that unflinchingly affirmed that the holiness of God requires a highly ordered and just conduct with one's fellow human beings, as well as a scrupulous maintenance of personal purity" (p. 44).

Sacrifice was an accepted ancient religious rite that people would have assumed to be necessary. Most ancient cultures had sacrifices. According to scholars, Israel’s sacrifices differed in that God did not need the sacrifices for his own nourishment (some gods required sacrifices in order to stay strong), and Israel strongly connected sacrifice with having a right heart and a right motive. The rituals were connected to true religiousness and morality or else the rituals meant nothing. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Jewish sacrifices came to an end and have never been revived.

Gammie asserts that Leviticus 19, Amos 5, Micah 6, Ezekiel 18, and Job 31 are "high points of Old Testament ethics," and thus it's regrettable that Lev. 19 is so rarely discussed in this regard (p. 34). Thus we shouldn’t envision sacrifices only within the scope of cultic rites pertaining to purity, but within the overall context of Old Testament concerns for justice, rightness of heart, and service to others (p. 34).

A New View of Our Heritage

Thinking of the Israelite monarchy and priesthood in turn made me think of some research I did several years ago for a Bible study periodical, on the book of Hebrews.[1] I appreciated the chance provided by Abingdon Press to delve into this fascinating epistle, and what follows is based on that research. The Hebrews author (whose identity is now lost to us) uses both monarchy and priesthood to affirm the identity of Jesus. So understanding the Israelite monarchy and priesthood gives us important background on the meaning of Christ for us.

Reflecting on the person and work of Jesus, early Christian thinkers like Paul and the Hebrews author articulated a problem with sacrifices: they had to be done over and over again. That is, as long as the Temple stood, they had to be conducted repeatedly. Sacrifices had to be repeated because, of course, people continued to sin; by analogy, we might say that people need to bathe as long as they perspire and get dirty.

In kind with the impermanence of sacrifices, the priests “didn’t last”: they were mortal, sinful people (although holy with regard to their role and duties), many of them served over the years. There was no single "eternal high priest,” any more than there was an eternal king and no eternal sacrifice (other than the relationship of sacrifices, priesthood, and monarchy to the eternal Lord).

Looking at the priesthood from a Christian perspective, we affirm---quite gratefully---that Jesus serves all those roles! Jesus is the sacrifice par excellence. As explained by the Hebrews author, Jesus’ sacrifice does not need to be repeated over and over again, nor was it aimed at the particular sins of particular individuals. It was done once for the sins of everyone who believe (Heb. 7:26-27). Furthermore, the sins and weaknesses of the high priest need not be a prior consideration, for Jesus the high priest was “a Son… perfect forever” (Heb. 7:28).

The author of Hebrews teaches that Jesus is not only our perfect sacrifice, but our perfect high priest as well. Not mortal and successive as were the other priests, Jesus lives forever and continues forever.

Just as the Levitical priests did not choose to serve in order to seek status, Jesus too, did not serve as our high priest for his for self-glorification (5:5). God “appointed” Jesus to be high priest, in fulfillment of the messianic scriptures Psalms 110:1 and Psalm 110:4. As Jesus is God’s firstborn and beloved king, so he is also God’s eternal priest in the order not of Aaron but of Melchizedek (5:6 and 10).

Each year, the priest entered the holiest place of the Temple, where the Ark was kept, and thereby stood in the special location of God’s holy presence on the Day of Atonement (9:6-7). Because he is mortal and sinful, too, the priest makes sacrifices for himself in addition to the people (5:3), in order that God’s holiness be conferred to the priest (as discussed by Gammie, above). Although the priest does not strictly speaking need to be sympathetic toward people’s weaknesses, he is conscious of human weakness and sin because of the necessity of first sacrificing for himself.

Jesus, of course, is our tenderhearted high priest—because of his monarchical identity as God’s Son. Because the Son of God experiencing human suffering as we do, he “learned obedience” through his suffering and his experience of suffering draws us closer to him. Because he was obedient, Jesus has been gloried by God, who has made him pioneer and source of our salvation, as the Hebrew author argues True, Jesus did not share specific kinds of human suffering: for instance, the distress and sorrows of old age. But Jesus did suffer the onslaught of Satan’s cruelties to a greater extent than any of us. The sinlessness of Jesus (4:15) qualifies him to be our high priest fully sympathetic to our own distresses, sins, and sorrows.

The Mosaic law, under which the Levitical priesthood was established, failed to perfect the people (Heb. 7:11-12). “Perfect” in this sense means not complete perfection but rather a secure, full relationship with God. Paul argued similarly in his letters, notably Romans: none of us can keep the whole law well enough to have a full and lasting relationship with God. Paul cites the weakness of the “flesh” (that is, human nature), which requires the assistance of God’s Spirit (e.g., Romans 7 and 8). In Hebrews, the law itself (including the sacrificial role of the Levitical priesthood) does not wield enough power to help us overcome our fallen human nature. The law is “weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect)” (Heb. 7:18b-19a). Remember that the Israelites, struggling in the wilderness, had terrible, disastrous trouble remaining close to God and trusting his promises, even though (at least at the stage of Numbers 13-14) they had been given parts of the law. That is why we now need the priesthood of Christ, who brings about a new covenant.

The change of priesthood and law means that we have “the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God” (7:19). The word “approach” connects us to Hebrews 4:14-16. Recall that, to approach God on the Day of Atonement, the high priest passed through the Temple curtain, entered the holy inner sanctum, where the Ark was kept, and was present to God there. Christ, who is our new high priest, has made it possible for all of us to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). In turn, we can be bold to turn to him for help, because of his sensitivity and gentleness with sinners. In him we have a high priest who loves us and ever takes our side.

People of the 1st century would have been more concerned about an aspect of Jesus' priesthood than we'd notice: Jesus was not a Levite—he was not a member of the tribe of Levi (5:13-14). True, kings sometimes served intercessory and priestly roles (e.g., 2 Samuel 8:18, for instance), but nevertheless, Jesus’ tribe was Judah (that of David, in keeping with his kingly identity but not his priestly identity). But Hebrews affirms that God called Jesus to the priesthood, not according to the law per se, in which tribal and family descent is required, but according to the promise of Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (7:16-17).

Melchizedek, the Canaanite priest-king in Genesis 18, was a type of Christ. Hebrews argues that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham (and by implication his descendants like Levi). That’s because Abraham gave his tithe to the king/priest (Heb. 7:4-10). Also: Genesis lists genealogies of many people but not Melchizedek, is also important. Presumably Melchizedek had forbearers the same as everyone, but the omission in Genesis of historical details gives the king, in the Hebrews author’s mind, an eternal quality (7:3). His very name is a combination of the Hebrew words for “king” and “righteousness.” Melchizedek "resembled" an eternal Son of God (7:3).

But if Melchizedek resembled a son of God, Jesus Jesus really was God’s Son! Jesus’ priesthood comes from his “indestructible life” (7:16). The fact that Jesus in turn “resembles” Melchizedek (7: 15) reveals the authority of Jesus’ priesthood in spite of his different tribal membership.

We can see the subtle ways that the Hebrews author weaves together aspects of Jesus’ kingship and priesthood. Psalm 110, quoted above, is a messianic psalm, wherein God gives the Davidic king a place of honor at God’s right hand (110:1), and also God also names the king “a priest forever after Melchizedek” (110:4). Other New Testament authors found tremendous meaning in that psalm as they elucidated the importance of Jesus: for instance: Rom. 8:34, 1 Cor. 15:25, Col. 3:1, Eph. 1:20, and elsewhere. Don’t forget that the Apostles’ Creed quotes Ps. 110:1 when it says that Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father." In addition to other, rich scriptural arguments (look up all the different scriptures alluded to in Hebrews chapter 1 alone!), the Hebrews author connects verses 1 and 4 to give us a rich picture of Christ’s identity as Lord and Savior, King and Priest. 

Strengthening Our Faith

Studying all these topics makes me think about their contemporary relevance: the holiness and foundation of the church is Christ, his person and work, which is also the foundation of our faith. The church people to which the Hebrews author wrote were starting to “drift” and to give up on their faith. Apparently they were experiencing significant but not yet life-threatening persecution. Many of us, myself most assuredly included, have faith-struggles, doubts, and panic attacks over issues much less dire than persecution! The Hebrews author tries to help the people be a church by reminds them of the riches, power, and truth of Christ.  These biblical topics are potentially powerful ways not only to remind us of the truths of our faith, but also to tap (and share) amazing, freeing divine power.


1. Paul Stroble, "Hold Fast to the Faith," Daily Bible Study curriculum quarterly (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), June, July, August 2004.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

God's Name is Jealous

I read the Bible frequently, both for myself and for the religious writing that I do professionally. But these past few years, I’ve wanted to make sure that I didn’t reach the end of my life and regret I didn’t study the Bible more—as, indeed, Billy Graham regretted in a news magazine article a few years ago. Of course, my studies, modest and informal as they are, wouldn’t been nearly as satisfying if I didn’t share them with others.
Elsewhere in this blog, I posted my notes about God's glory and the Exile.  The subject of God’s glory reminded me of Ezekiel 8-10, where the prophet describes the departure of glory from the Jerusalem temple. That, in turn, set me thinking about the biblical exile–more broadly, the conquest of the northern kingdom Israel by the Assyrians in about 722 BC, the conquest of the southern kingdom Judah by the Babylonians in about 586 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at that time, and the long period of exile in Babylon before many Judahites were allowed to return to the Land following the Persian defeat of Babylon. I thought about what a pervasive theme the exile is in the Bible. The story shapes the Bible both explicitly and implicitly.
The exile happened because (in the prophetic interpretation) God executed judgment against his people for faithlessness. But in spite of the vivid and immediate threats of the writing prophets, the exile does show the extraordinary patience and love of God. After all, over six hundred years separate the death of Moses and the beginning of Joshua’s conquest, with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in about 586 BC. Imagine a history beginning in the mid or late 13th century–St. Thomas Aquinas, the Mongol conquest of Russia, the completion of Dante’s Divine Comedy, etc.—and ending in the present day. So this long history shows how committed God is to “hang in” with people; God, too, forgives seventy times seven.
And …. the subject of the exile make me think more about God’s selection of and love for Israel as God’s own people. One particular word, though—jealousy—raises lots of questions I’d like to explore.
The book of Deuteronomy promises God’s love but also “foreshadows” God’s judgment, thus anticipating the history of the people on the land for the subsequent 600 or so years:
For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God. When you have had children and children’s children… act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the Lord will lead you. …From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul (Deut. 4:24-29).
Here is another passage:
When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you… and when you have eaten your fill take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth (Deut. 6:10-15).
And another:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today… (Deut. 7:7-13).
Earlier in the Torah, in the second commandment, God is identified as a “jealous God.” Later, in Exodus 34:14, God’s name is Jealous!
What does it mean for God to be “jealous”? Alan N. Winkler, writing in the Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2001), argues that when jealousy is named as one of God’s qualities, “it is obviously used in a positive sense” and, although an anthropomorphic term for God, it does reflect “the relationship of husband and wife and is frequently associated with Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.” (This and the following references are from that book, p. 388).
Winkler notes that the Hebrew word is qãnã’ and the Greek word is zêlos. In addition to Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24, Winkler points out other passages: Joshua 24:19-22, where Joshua challenges the people to serve God, who is holy and jealous. God’s jealousy is also referred to in Ezekiel 8:3, 1 Kings 14:22, and Psalm 78:58 as a threatening quality.
God’s jealousy and pity are two connected aspects of God’s nature in Joel 2:18, where God displays mercy for the people. Winkler also calls attention to Zechariah 1:14-16, which links God’s jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion, and the divine anger against the goyim, the nations. All the while, “jealousy” is also a human quality, as in Numbers 5: 14-30, Prov. 6:34, Song of Songs 8:6 (“jealousy is cruel as the grave,” RSV).
Winkler also finds the word used in Romans 10:19 (a quotation of Deut. 32:12), Romans 11:11 (where Paul hopes to reach more of his fellow Jews through his ministry), 1 Cor. 10:22 (referring to God’s reaction to Christians attending idol feasts), and 2 Cor. 11:2 (Paul’s possessiveness for the Corinthians, who are listening to the “super apostles” more than him).
Winkler concludes “[T]o arouse the jealousy of God is a very dangerous action on our part. On the other hand, God’s jealousy is based on his love and concern for us.” (p. 389)
I agree, but that’s also what I’m struggling with! In human beings, jealousy is a cruel and obsessive character flaw. At my university, on the bulletin board of the criminal justice department, I noticed the title of an article about abused women: ” ‘He Said If She Left, He’d Kill Her.’” Doesn’t God sound like that in some of the biblical passages? Abusive husbands do love their wives, in a sense, but those husbands are warped and destructive, no matter how much they profess love. Just because jealousy is a biblical attribute of God, should we automatically assume it is thereby a good quality?
In “The Book of Numbers” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 2, Abingdon Press, 1998), Thomas B. Dozeman writes that God’s jealousy is the theme of the speech Num. 25:10-13. God’s qãnã’, in this context, “conveys qualities of vigilance, intolerance, and absolute devotion.” (p. 199). This speech is preceded by the story of an Israelite man, Zimri, who brought a Midianite woman, Cozbi, into the group of Israelites, against God’s desire that the people not have relationships with foreign peoples. (This is one of “those” Bible stories that isn’t taught to children.) Phinehas killed both Zimri and Cozbi with a single spear thrust, which in turn halted the plague (sent because of God’s wrath at the Israelites) which had already killed 24,000. Interestingly, as Dozeman points out (p. 200), Phinehas and his family are recipients of an “unconditional and permanent” covenant similar to the one made to David.
Dozeman notes that “Jealousy is about divine passion. It stresses that Yahweh is not indifferent to Israel or to their relationships in this world. It conveys strong imagery of intolerance for any allegiance outside of the relationship to God. Commentators tend to water down the violent and suspicious characteristics that accompany a description of God as being jealous. But the content of the stories in Numbers 25 suggest just the opposite. God is fanatical in demanding exclusive allegiance—so fanatical, in fact, that punishment is enacted indiscriminately. The jealousy of God is an important message to preach. God is not casual about our commitments” (p. 201).
But he goes on to say that the Phinehas story shows that God’s desire to limit “punishment to the guilty.” God had been wrathful and wanted to “destroy indiscriminately,” but the intercession of Phinehas (as well as Moses in the preceding section) cut short the divine wrath (p. 201).
This is an “interesting” side to God, to say the least! Is God liable to become irrational, so to speak, and tremendously destructive until someone intervenes to calm him down? (That’s a question I’ll look at in “part 3″). Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” sometimes criticized for its harsh and scary portrayal of God, is nevertheless faithful to some biblical passages! (His text is from Deuteronomy, after all.)
God’s jealousy is depicted in other ways that are disturbing to us. Two of the most horrifying come from Ezekiel. Ezekiel 16 depicts Judah’s relationships with other Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, as well as the people’s idol worship, as harlotries committed by a wife in betrayal of her husband. But the sins of the “wife” Jerusalem ends in her mutilation and murder, so that God can “satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:42). But this violence “returned your deeds upon your head” (vs. 43), that is, the people are culpable for their punishment: the conquest of the land by Babylon. (See, for instance, the failed efforts of Zedekiah to mediate between Egypt and Babylon, against Jeremiah’s advice and also depreciated in the next chapter, Ez. 17.)
Ezekiel 23 is an even more violent and vulgar text, presenting Samaria and Jerusalem as two nymphomaniac women, Oholah and Oholibah. Oholah is stripped and killed. Oholibah, lusting for foreign men with huge penises and orgasms (verse 20), is punished for her lust by being stripped and mutilated. Yet again, the punishments are described as being fitting to Judah’s sins: i.e., the kingdom’s political and religious relationships with foreign nations, depicted here as adultery and harlotry, and thus are contrary to a relationship of trust and worship to Yahweh.
My classmate Julie Galambush, in her study of Jerusalem as Yahweh’s wife (Scholar’s Press, 1992), also notes the strangeness that, for all of the language and metaphors of savage judgment against Jerusalem, the idea of the city as God’s wife subsequently falls away in Ezekiel. But this prophet is one of the Bible’s most complex and perplexing writings, ranging from crude parables like these, to strange “performance art,” to the unforgettable parable of hope in chapter 37, apocalyptic images, and deep moral theology which challenges other biblical writings.
Conjugal and sexual language to describe the relationship of God and Israel—along with the metaphors of God as a furious, vengeful husband punishing his unfaithful wife—isn’t new or limited to these terrible Ezekiel passages. Read several chapters of Hosea, who lived in the 8th century (Ezekiel was 6th century), and you see how Hosea’s experience of marriage to a prostitute informs God’s pronouncements of judgment and mercy upon Israel. Also read Isaiah 3:16-4:1 and you get a similar (and to our sensibilities, misogynistic) image of God’s people as a lewd woman, showing off her “bling,” who will eventually be punished, afflicted and humiliated. (Interestingly, this section is next to God’s condemnation of Israel for neglecting the poor, another sin which evokes God’s furious judgment.)
We see some of this language as well in Jeremiah 2-10, in the prophetic oracles against the people—God’s threats of punishment and exile—in which God’s people are portrayed as an unfaithful wife. Interestingly, Jeremiah himself complains that God has been to him like a predator–a sexual predator at that; “enticing” and “overpowering” connote seduction and rape—forcing him into the humiliation and derision of the prophetic role (20:7- 12). God’s faithful prophet suffers, along with his people, punishment of an angry deity.
But God also struggles with tenderness, as in Hosea 11, although here the language changes from conjugal to parental. Still, God seems horrified at his own wrath and his own need to display wrath.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
Of course, we have many passages in 2 Isaiah. After the divine fury that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people, God is now calm (to echo Ezekiel 16:42 above), and speaks tenderly and comfortingly to the people. Language of conjugal relationship is there, but God also addresses the people as a people and a suffering servant. God promises that the divine glory—-there is that theme again—shall not be removed again.
For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
so that I may not cut you off.
See, I have refined you, but not like silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for why should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another (Isaiah 48:9-11).
The prolific scholar Walter Brueggemann comments (in his Theology of the Old Testament, cited below) that our theological reflection would be easier if passages like Ezekiel 16 and 23 were not in the Bible! But they’re there. What kind of love does this God show? Does John 3:16 have an ominous quality in light of God’s possessive rage? Brueggemann writes: ‘This is no “sweet” love, but a fierce love that demands much both from God and God’s people.’
Brueggemann quotes Deuteronomy 7:7-8a and 10:15, and comments, “This is no casual, formal, or juridical commitment [to Israel]. This is a passion that lives in the ‘loins’ of Yahweh, who will risk everything for Israel and, having risked everything, will expect everything and will be vigilant not to share the beloved with any other. This is no open marriage. The outcome of a passion so intensely initiated has within it the seeds of intolerance, culminating in violence. There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not finish in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope… This is [the God] who goes wholly overboard in passion, to Israel’s great gain and then to Israel’s greatest loss… It is worth nothing that in the Johannine witness in the New Testament, there are those familiar words, ‘God so loved the world…’ So loved! How loved? In what way? To what extent? So loved….to give all…and demand all.”(25) Walter Brueggemann,Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 384-385.
This quote is from the section “Yahweh’s Capacity for Violence,” one of the three of Israel’s “countertestimonies” about God’s nature. Brueggemann writes, “In the end, a student of the Old Testament cannot answer for or justify the violence [of God], but must concede that it belongs to the very fabric of this faith” (p. 381).
One is the violence of sovereignty. Any government has to use a certain amount of force, and this is true of the Lord as well. We see it in the pre-exilic prophets and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, as Brueggemann points out (p. 381). He notes that God uses force against other nations: Egypt in Exodus, Assyria (Isaiah 10 and 37), Babylon (Isaiah 47 and Daniel 4), as well as other nations (Amos 1).(p. 381-382)
There is also the violence of the conquest of the land. Brueggeman calls this a countertestimony in distinction to the testimony of God’s goodness and compassion: his example is Ps. 145:9). In the stories of the conquest, God is “good to Israel at the expense of others” (p. 382).
Brueggemann sees a third countertestimony, “Yahweh’s profound irrationality,” which we see in images of God as an “authoritarian husband and Israel as “the easily blamed, readily dismissed, vulnerable wife” (p. 383). See his footnote there. The stories of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel depict “a Yahweh who is out of control with the violent, sexual rage of a husband who assaults his own beloved” (p. 383). We do see the return of tenderness and restoration in the poetry of Second Isaiah. Brueggemann notes “There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not flinch in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope” (p. 384).
As I still thought about this issue, I found another Brueggemann piece, this time in “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 1, Abingdon Press, 1994). There, he notes that God is jealous because God is faithful. An idol, or image, is a way to domesticate and control God, which cannot be done (p. 842). But how we try! Brueggemann notes that we do live in a “world of options” which can and does lead us astray: “In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not Gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant” (p. 843).
The reason for God’s jealousy, is God’s “deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commandments.” But God is jealous because of God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant” (p. 842). Hesed, of course, translates as “fidelity,” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”: the kind of love that is faithful and (ultimately) tender, that which reaches into human existence, becomes involved in our pain and struggles, and remains more committed to us than us to God.
The theme of God’s jealousy is—to me, at least—distressing because the word (and some of the biblical testimony) depict God as having qualities that we deplore in people---or are criminal. We long for God to be “God and no mortal” (Hos. 11:9). But on the other hand, the word denotes God’s desire to keep his people as his own, and includes the protectiveness and commitment that we show for our own families.  Since the Greek word is zêlos, we can think about meanings of the word “zealous” as pertaining to God: an online dictionary lists several definitions and synonyms, like ardently active, devoted, diligent,  eager, passionate, warm, intense, and fervent.
Two more writings are worth noting as I finish this subject for now. One is a Jew and another from a Christian. At the beginning of Rosh Hashanah this year, I noticed a fascinating article tweeted from Huffington Post, “G-d’s Struggle to Repent” by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald (  His thoughts dovetail well with the Hosea 11 passage and others.
“The Talmud, in Brachot 7a, reports two similar stories about prayer. Rabbi Yohanan asks in the name of Rabbi Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He says prayers? He answers: because the verse in Isaiah 56:7 states: ‘I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer.’ It does not say ‘their house of prayer,’ but ‘My house of prayer.’ Hence, we learn that the Holy One Blessed Be He prays.
“The Talmud then asks: What exactly does G-d pray? Rav Zutra the son of Tobia said in the name of Rav: G-d’s prayer is, ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger and that My mercy prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.’”
Rabbi Buchwald gives further Talmudic stories of this type. God “reveals His inner desire that His mercy suppress His anger, even though the anger may be justified. We are told that it is the Almighty’s fervent wish that His mercy prevail over His other attributes, which usually mete out justice on the basis of strict retribution that fits the offense and give His people the benefit of the doubt, rather than accord strict justice.” After discussing traditional interpretations, Rabbi Buchwald says that, in his opinion, “the Talmud here informs us through these intriguing tales, that G-d needs help as well. It is through such anthropomorphic tales that the Talmud and the Aggadot teach us that G-d ‘struggles,’ so to speak, to overcome His anger against those who betray Him and break His trust. It is as if the Immortal truly needs the blessing of the mortal, which, of course, is unfathomable.
“The message, then, is directed to us, to humans of flesh and blood. We mortals must be humbled and inspired by G-d’s behavior. Just as G-d seeks out others to help Him and bless Him, so should we seek out others who may help us and bless us. Just as G-d prays that His quality of mercy should overcome His anger, so too must we pray that our quality of mercy should overcome our anger.
“That the most powerful Being in the world is depicted in the Talmud as needing help, is a message of hope, rather than despair. Just as G-d needs to work on His qualities so that He can overcome His anger, so too must we, mortals, struggle to do the same.”
He goes on to discuss these passages with reference to the High Holy Days, that our human mercy, too, may prevail over our anger and other qualities, and that we may be inscribed in the Book of Life.
The Talmudic passages and Rabbi Buchwald’s comments give us some clues–and some comfort—concerning God’s jealousy when we’re looking specifically at the Tanakh passages! As Brueggemann puts it, we have testimonies and countertestimonies concerning God’s lovingkindness and God’s sometimes irrational jealousy: but thinking of God’s characteristics as not only being toward us but also engaging and including us in fellowship, we can feel positive and hopeful—and, indeed, more loving—toward God who shares with us, through the biblical testimony, God’s desire to show mercy rather than anger.
Then I turned to a book I purchased quite a while ago but currently have on my iPad (and thus I’ll have to locate the following references in the printed book): Jack Miles’Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Vintage, 2002). Miles notes how interesting it is that God easily won the battle against Egypt at the exodus, but he seemed to be defeated against his people’s enemies the Assyrians and Babylonians. These defeats were, however, judgments against the people’s sins. And yet his people were eventually conquered by the Romans; did God suffer defeat this time? As Miles put it at the end of the last chapter (before the epilogue), this time God “joined them, suffering in advance all that they would suffer, and creating out of his agony a way for them to rise from the death with him and return to paradise, bringing all nations with them.”
In the epilogue, Miles makes an interesting comment that since Jesus is God Incarnate, “all of God’s earlier words were Jesus’ words as well and may–indeed, must–be taken into account as evidence about his character.” But this implies a “transformation of the divine character” which happens by the time of the Incarnation. “God’s power was such that, in his prime, he annihilated in minutes the mightiest army in the world. More than once, he compared himself to a great marauding beast. Why does he become a defenseless peasant who, when the authorities sentence him to death, offers no resistance and ends his life as a convicted criminal?” God is a jealous God and uses divine power to hold his people accountable and to punish them. Now, Miles notes that “God the Son is not at all the kind of man one would expect God the Father to become.”
“The Lord of All the Earth, to use the grandest of all his Old Testament titles, arranges to have himself put to death as the King of the Jews not to destroy hope as he destroys himself but only to replace a vain hope [a military victory against the people's oppressors, or a mighty salvation similar to the exodus] with one that can still be realized…Defeated by Rome, God thus accomplishes what he tried and failed to accomplish when defeated by Babylonia: He turns the defeat into a triumph, the humiliation into an exaltation….God, shattered, can descend to death; and when he rises to eternal life, he can lift his human creatures up with him.”
I’m not aware that the Ezekiel 16 and 23 texts have ever been connected to Jesus; his sufferings are more easily connected to the Suffering Servant poems of Second Isaiah, after all. But if those Ezekiel parables are the most awful passages about God’s jealousy, they nevertheless remind of the mutilation, public shame, and public death of Jesus (though without the crude sexuality of those parables). The Incarnation is not the end of God’s jealousy, and in fact is the supreme sign of his overwhelming love—God’s desire to be our God. In Jesus God heaped his own anger at faithlessness—and opens for us the promise that God forgives and forgets all our sins as we trust in God’s goodness.