Saturday, June 9, 2012

Assorted Bible Notes II

When my daughter and I were browsing Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago, I spotted an interesting book by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997). To me, it’s very important to learn and appreciate the Jewish perspective upon their own scriptures. So many of us Christians have stereotypes and ignorance of Jewish beliefs; instead of respecting them as God's people, we don't take the time to see what Jews really believe, and to understand their interpretations of the Bible. So Telushkin's book is one which I’ll turn to again!  Just a few notes from sections of this rabbi’s book which stood out to me as I leafed through.  

Psalm 44 and Lamentations

Telushkin discusses Psalm 44, which more than others “speaks as powerfully to many post-Holocaust Jews...a pain- and rage-filled complaint against God for His seeming noninvolvement in this world.” (p 338).  The psalm “is an anguished cry of a fervent believer, a person who feels abandoned by the One Who claims to love him, and who is confidence that if God only wished to act, he could easily stop the evil and return humankind to a state of well-being” (p. 340).

Verses 10-11 and 18, 20 speak painfully of God’s rejection in spite of people’s faith in God, and verse 23 is a painful image of sheep lead to be slaughtered.  Like the Holocaust victims, “the Psalmists does not feel that the victims have done anything for which they need to feel ashamed or need apologize; rather, it is God who should be ashamed.” (p. 339).

Similarly, the book of Lamentations. There, although the author acknowledges the people’s sin and disgrace, there is bitterness at God nevertheless, as in verses 2:5-6, as well as the depiction of suffering children and horrifying hunger (2:11-12, 20, 4:4, 4:10), and despair about God’s abandonment (5:20-22).

Joseph and Mordecai

Telushkin makes a connection I’d never thought of: Mordecai and Joseph. Like Joseph, Mordecai is a “Hebrew who achieves high power under a non-Israelite king and who remains totally loyal to his people” (p. 378).

Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah

He raises the question of what happened between Abraham and Isaac after the Akedah story.  The text is rather anticlimactic at that point, with the two men returning from the mountain.  But he cites another rabbi who had noticed an interesting detail: when Abraham returned from the mountain, he stayed in Beersheba, but a few verses later, when Sarah dies, she was at Kiryat Arba, to which Abraham then traveled to mourn her. “Although the text never explicitly says so, the implication is that Abraham and Sarah were living apart when she died. If so, did Sarah move away from him when she heard what Abraham had almost done? Ultimately, Abraham was not asked to sacrifice his son, but did God’s test cause him to sacrifice his wife?” (p. 41).

The Korahites

Telushkin takes up the history of the Korahites.  In Num. 16:3, Korah challenged Moses’ authority. The Israelites don’t rise up to support Moses but simply wait.  Once Korah and his followers are destroyed (16:33), the whole community then protests against Moses and Aaron.  Though God promises to annihilate the people, God nevertheless accepts Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession for them. But God does send a plague to punish nearly 15,000 of the remaining Korah supporters (pp. 134-6).  

Interestingly, though, Korah’s own sons did not perish (Num. 26:11), and not only are Korah’s descendants are recorded as authors of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88, but Samuel himself was a descendant of Korah (1 Chr 6:18-22).  This, writes Telushkin, is “a stunning detail, much like learning that a descendant of Benedict Arnold became a president of the United States” (p. 136).

Jotham and Abimelech

In the horrible Judges story, all but one of Gideon’s numerous sons are assassinated by another son, Abimelech.  The only son to escape the assassins was Jotham, who successfully hid himself. Abimelech is anointed king by the leaders of Shechem (thus becoming the first king among the Israelites, although the Bible only recognizes the much later Saul as Israel’s first king).

Jotham then speaks to the city and gives the Bible’s very first parable (Judges 9:8-15), an anti-monarchical statement on par (notes Telushkin) with the later speech by Samuel (1 Samuel 8:10-17).  “Thousands of years later, Jotham’s parable was cited by such students of the Bible as Oliver Cromwell and john Milton, who opposed the notion of ‘the divine right of kings.’” (p. 135)

Jotham flees and is not mentioned in the Bible again. Abimelech meets an ignominious end after concluding his reign in an orgy of violence.

The Lex Talonis  

Discussing the “eye for an eye” law, (Ex. 21:24), Telushkin takes up Matthew 5:38-40 and notes that not only have Christian societies never translated Jesus’ teaching here into legislation, but Christians don’t put the teaching into their own practice!  After all, the teaching seems to “have people relinquish control of this world to the most wicked” (p. 445). He considers whether Jesus meant this teaching to be a very other-worldly consideration, where losing a physical eye would mean nothing in the afterlife. 

Furthermore, the commandment was never taken literally by Jewish courts, so that a blinded person might blind the perpetrator in return.  Rather, in Jewish courts, a financial compensation was levied.   The commandment “was rooted in the biblical concept of justice, which demanded that punishment be commensurate with the deed, but not exceed it” (p. 446)

Love and the Stranger

Telushkin notes that Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5 are frequently cited as the Torah passages concerning love, but he points out that fewer people remember Lev. 19:34, commanding love of the stranger (ger) within Israelite society.  He calls this perhaps the most extraordinary Torah law: “In a world that was even more chauvinistic than our own, the Torah mandates that the Israelite people love peaceful non-Israelites living among them no less than they love themselves (his emphasis, p. 467).  The word ger does not at all imply converts to Judaism, either. Telushkin cites the theologian Herman Cohen, "The stranger was to be protected, although he was not a member of one’s family, clan, religion, community or people, simply because he was a human being.” (p. 467).

The Poor

The command to give to the poor (Lev. 25:35-37, Deut. 15:7-8) are so important that the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Bathra 9a) states that these commands are equal to all the other commandments together (p. 474).

Kind Treatment of Animals

“The extensive biblical teachings concerning the kind treatment of animals are generally skipped over by most Bible readers. Ask people which of the Ten Commandments concerns itself with animals, and you will generally draw a blank.” (p 500).  But it is the fourth commandment, concerning the Sabbath, which demands a day of rest for animals, too.

Telushkin suggests that vegetarianism seems to have been the ideal  for humans, based on Genesis 1:29 (and suggested by the famous Isaiah 11:6, 8). For some reason, God allows people to eat meat following the Flood (Gen. 9:3).  Nevertheless, the kosher laws of Leviticus restrict the kinds of animals God’s people should eat, and other Torah laws demand kindness and humaneness toward animals (Lev. 22:28, Deut. 22:6-7, 10, 25:4) (pp. 499-501). “A key doctrine of biblical morality is the concept of imitatio dei (imitating God). Thus, if God is loving and caring for animals, human beings are obligated to be so as well” (p. 501).

A Safe Home

He notes the way Deut. 22:8 demands that a person should have a rail upon one’s roof to keep people safe who might be on the roof. The Talmud (Ketubot 41b) builds on the verse by disallowing an unsafe ladder and a mean dog at your house, while another passage (Shulkham Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 427:7) demands a railing around or a cover for your well, so that people will be safe around it (p. 502).


Shatnez, the prohibition of both wool and linen in a garment, is “the quintessential example of a law for which there is no rational explanation.” The law is found in both Leviticus 19:19 (right after “love your neighbor as yourself”!) and Deut. 22:11. Telushkin points out that a Brooklyn company checks woolen garments for evidence of linen. He even had a salesman at Barney’s in Manhattan offer to check his suit choice for shatnez (p. 502).

Changing Interest

Regarding the prohibition of charging interest (Deut. 23:20-21), Telushkin writes that Jewish communities sought to keep the command intact while helping other Jews, while also being faithful to the prohibition against harassing people for their payment (Deut. 24:10-13). He comments that Medieval Jewish moneylenders did not cause antisemitism. In fact, it was the Catholic society’s barring of Jews from other professions that forced Jews to be professional moneylenders, and that profession did in turn increase antisemitism.  “Furthermore, there is no record of a Jewish moneylender ever demanding payment in flesh; this was an evil image bequeathed to the Western world by William Shakespeare” (p. 507).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

God's Strange Providence

My phone rang. I picked up: “Hey, Paul!  It’s Stacey.” I’d just been opening the mail, including a letter that alerted me to some health-care related business I needed to do for my mother. Like many people, I find the paperwork and regulations intimidating. Mom’s business matters make me sad, because I’m helping her be happy and cared for during her final years.  My stomach felt a bit upset… and at that moment, my friend called—one of my favorite people to chat with. I smiled at God’s timing. Then, a few months later, I happened to call my friend at a perfect moment when she was dealing with her own difficult situation.   

Serendipity!  You’re in the midst of some problem, perhaps a problem that you’ve dealt with for a while, and then at the perfect moment, a friend calls … or an unexpected event happens … or you get some good news.  I remember when a life-changing opportunity opened up for me at a very painful moment when I wasn’t sure what to do next.  The Lord introduces experiences into the flow of our lives, sometimes guiding us, sometimes reassuring us that God is there. I could provide numerous personal examples besides these. 

The term “providence” comes from the Latin Deus providebit, a translation of the phrase in Genesis 22:14, YHWH jireh, “The Lord will provide.” In that story, faithful Abraham is willing to sacrifice his promised son to God, but God provides a ram instead. 

Needless to say, providence is one of the beautiful doctrines of Scripture. We long to be guided and used by God. We long to know that God has been at work whether we knew or not (Hos. 11:3). But our lives run aground sometimes; difficulties come to even the most devoted Christians, while mean people seem to avoid trouble. As we seek to walk with God—to seek God’s Lordship and companionship—we face challenges. 

It's good to linger on the Bible's more strange stories. The Bible witnesses to the amazing care of God but what about the stories that depict life in all its unfairness, imbalance, and extremity? How do we deal with these kinds of stories when we look to the Bible for help, other than to ignore them?  Over the years I’ve “collected” several passages, which originate from among different narratives and sources within the biblical material.[1]
  • Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the guests (angels) who visit him at Sodom (Gen. 19:1-11). Later the daughters have sex with their father, Gen. 19:30-38. And yet who among the family is punished for sin? It’s Lot’s wife, who merely looks back on the destruction of the cities, Gen. 19:26. 
  • Onan must impregnate his late brother’s wife (Gen. 38:8). Onan, however, withdraws and “spilled the semen on the ground,” because he knows the offspring would not be his. So God kills Onan (Gen. 38.10)!   
  • Abimelech’s family is slaughtered when he assumes power (Judges 9:1-6)
  • A concubine is gang-raped and dismembered, and no one is punished, although the crime is used to incite tribal warfare (Judges 19). 
  • David slaughters 200 Philistines and gives their foreskins to Saul in exchange for Saul’s daughter, Michal. 
  • Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, and he is subsequently murdered (2 Sam. 13).  
  • Menahem sacks Shallum and rips open the wombs of all the pregnant women there (2 Kings 15:15). Subsequently, he becomes king of Israel. 
  • King Ahaz offers his children as offerings to the gods (2 Chron. 28:1-4).  
  • A group of little boys taunt Elisha as a “baldhead.” As the result of Elisha’s curse, two bears appeared and mauled forty-two of the boys (2 Kings 2:23-25). 
  • King Ahab covets the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite. So Jezebel arranges that Naboth be falsely accused of cursing God and the king, so that he could be stoned to death and the king could have his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16). A similar story of people sacrificed for the benefit of the powerful: Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David had killed, 2 Sam. 11:11-27. Naboth the Jezreelite was the man whose vineyard King Ahab coveted. (1 Kings 21:1-16).  
  • The ark had to be carried in a certain, respectful way (Numbers 4:15), not on a cart. When Uzzah tries to steady the reacquired ark when the oxen stumbled, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (vs. 7; the whole passage is 2 Sam. 6:1-11). 
  • King Josiah tries to restore faithfulness to Judah, 2 Kings 23:25. This would’ve seemed like a good opportunity for divine blessing of his efforts. Yet Pharaoh Neco kills Josiah at Megiddo, and disaster resulted (2 Kings 23:28-35). 
  • Ananias and Sapphira lie about their donation and are struck dead (Acts 5:1-11). But didn’t Peter lie about his relationship to Jesus (Matt. 18:15-18) and yet did not receive the promised punishment (Luke 12:9)?  
  • I hate to use the term “collateral damage” to refer to Bible events, but sometimes people suffer on account of miraculous events. One example is the slaughter of the innocents, Matt. 2:16-18, where many families suffered terribly on account of Jesus’ birth. Another is the execution of the Roman guards held accountable for Peter’s divinely-accomplished release from prison (Acts 12:18-19). 
  • The appearances of God within the biblical text sometime seem surprising. Why does God intervene, or speak, at certain points but not others?  Why is Joseph imprisoned for two years, simply because the chief cupbearer forgot him (Gen. 40:23-41:14)? Why, indeed, does God finally remember the Israelites after many years of their suffering (Ex. 2:23-24). Even the Israelites seem to have forgotten God in that time, for the text does not say they cried to God, only that they cried for help.  
Interpreting such stories theologically can be challenging; I encourage you to think about the meaning and purpose of some of these troubling scriptures. I’m glad these stories are here for several reasons. First, the Bible (to use a contemporary expression) “keeps it real,” which, for me, makes the whole Bible more true and believable. Do you have terrible events in your life that defy explanation?  Many of us do, and we hear about others.  (During the time I wrote this book, a widow of a 9/11/01 casualty was herself killed in a plane crash.)  As you look at your own life, you can see how God worked in some of some of your personal circumstances for good, as the scripture promises (Rom. 8:28), while other circumstances defy attribution to a loving God.  I could also list many wars, genocides, injustices, and horrors of our human eras; one of my college classes, in fact, just recently speculated about the fact that, following the American Civil War, another hundred years would be necessary to bring civil rights for African Americans. The classic question is, Where is God amid all this suffering?  

 If we expect the Bible to contain only beautiful moral lessons, we’re liable to take offense by the stranger and more violent stories.[2] In fact, we’re liable to take offense anyway, for some of these stories verify the stereotype of the biblical God as an inconsistent and hard-to-please “smiter.”[3] But the Bible does not sugarcoat the fact that life contains violence, horror, uncertainty, unease, and the disappointments that are part of real living. As we struggle to make sense out of life, we can take assurance that the Bible, too, depicts inexplicable events, analogous to those we hear every day, just as the Bible expresses honestly the psalmists’ questions, unease, and troubles.

Second, and importantly, such stories potentially can point us toward Christ. I don’t mean that they are connected prophetically or typologically to Christ. I mean that God is not removed from suffering but has always been present in the lives of his chosen people, through good and terrible circumstances, though the nature of his presence can be hard to fathom. Jesus, a suffering Jewish servant who is also God incarnate, came to his own people, shared their sorrows, and took on the full pain, unfairness, and horrors of human experience. The “problem of suffering” will always be difficult because we cannot see the whole of life or the whole of God’s activity. But we can feel assurance that God in Christ experiences our suffering and provides a way toward our ultimate victory in him. 

Third, the Bible contains praises to God in spite of the randomness and difficulty of life. The Hebrew word hesed can be translated “steadfast love” or “loving kindness,” both translations complementing the other. A very small selection of verses affirms God’s faithful love.  

 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his
steadfast love endures forever (1 Chr. 16:34)
 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation (Ps. 13:5) 

I said, ‘O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments (Neh. 1:5)
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
   according to your
steadfast love remember me,
   for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! (Ps. 25:7)  
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
   All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings (Ps. 36:7)

For as the heavens are high above the earth,
   so great is his
steadfast love towards those who fear him (Ps. 103:11)

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end (Lam. 3:22).

God’s hesed never fails. Although some of the Bible’s stories are dark and horrible, the overall witness of the Bible is God’s constant love and care.  

Fourth—I’m “stretching” on this point—I think the Bible provides an honest picture of life’s tragedies in order to prepare us for service. The Bible calls us to take the side of persons in terrible situations (Matt. 25:40, Heb. 13:3). Have you visited a nursing home and seen the infirmities of old age? Have you seen combat or helped a veteran?  Have you visited a prison? Have you befriended a rape victim, or a Holocaust survivor, or an impoverished person, or someone else who has suffered?  If you’re a Christian whose life and faith are comparatively sheltered, the Bible is a good place to begin broadening your outlook. 

Fifth, the Bible is replete with narratives of God’s provision. Although the Bible does not spell out details of how God works, the Bible is crystal clear that God does work!  Here are several other stories—again, arising from different narratives and sources within the Bible. 
  • Hagar has given up hope after her water has run out and leaves Ishmael to die. But the angel of God comes to her and gives her divine assurance. At that point, she realizes she has been close to water all along, and God remains with them (Gen. 21:15-21). 
  • Jacob is about to face his brother after many years, and he is greatly afraid. He prays to God for deliverance (Gen. 32:9-12). His prayer is touchingly answered when he meets his brother and unexpectedly is embraced lovingly by Esau (Gen. 33:1-11). (At some point I wrote in my old Bible’s margin, Jacob, though blessed, was still full of fears.) Not only that, but Jacob experiences his unanticipated time of testing as he wrestles with … who? A man?  God?  An angel? (Gen. 32:22-32). 
  • Joseph experiences the betrayal of his brothers, the betrayal by Potiphar, yet another betrayal by the chief baker, and years of imprisonment before he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and became a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 37, 39-41). 
  • Tamar schemes and presents herself as a prostitute in order to finally become pregnant—by her father-in-law Judah. One of her offspring, Perez, is ancestor of Jesus (Gen. 38). 
  • David slays Goliath with what seems an extremely ineffective weapon (1 Sam. 17:4ff).
  • Saul, on the other hand, has excellent means to slay David but is prevented from doing so (1 Sam. 19:10). 
  • Solomon becomes king of Israel, amid the scheming of his mother and even of the prophet Nathan (1 Kings 1-2). 
  • Elijah prophesies concerning Ahab’s death (1 Kings 21:20f). Ahab dies when an Aramean soldier simply shot an arrow at no one in particular, and the arrow struck Ahab in a vulnerable place between his armor (1 Kings 22:34). 
  • Elisha’s servant Gehazi cheats Naaman of money. Although not present at the time, Elisha knew and cursed Gehazi and his descendents with leprosy (2 Kings 5:19b-27).
  • Ahithophel gave better advice to Absalom, to pursue David. But God led Absalom to also seek the advice of Hushai, who advised Absalom not to be hasty. Absalom followed Hushai’s advice, which sounded better but contributed to his (Absalom’s) downfall (2 Sam. 17:1-23).
  • In that same story, a woman hid Ahimaaz and Jonathan, and then lied to Absalom, which allowed David to escape safely (2 Samuel 17:15-22).   
  • Esther, a Jewish woman in the Persian king’s harem, becomes queen of Persia and, with her guardian Mordecai, is able to save her people from massacre.  
  • The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts the people of God and blasphemes God. God’s angel struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isa. 36-37; 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
  • Jeremiah is cast into a cistern to die. He is saved only because an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, heard about it, and the king happened to be at a place where Ebed-melech could speak to him (Jer. 38:1-13). 
  • The thief on the cross has not believed in Jesus and scarcely has what we’d call faith. But with the barest amount of belief he reaches out to fellow “criminal” Jesus with a word of compassion and regret. The man gets more grace than he would’ve dreamed (Luke 23:39-43).  
  • You could argue that the two fellows walked to Emmaus had less faith than the penitent thief. The thief knew Jesus would come into his kingdom, whereas the two fellows thought the promised kingdom was no more, now that Jesus was gone.  They too, get “extra grace” (Luke 24:13-35). 
  • The Ethiopian eunuch studies Scripture by himself, when Philip encounters him and helps the man discover Jesus. The Spirit had merely instructed Philip to go toward Gaza, and after meeting with the eunuch, Philip doesn’t even proceed to Gaza but is sent elsewhere (Acts 8:26-40).
  • Peter is able to evangelize the centurion Cornelius thanks to the Holy Spirit’s “cross-referencing” of visions (Acts 10). 
  • Peter is imprisoned, and his friends pray fervently for him. Subsequently an angel releases Peter from prison, but when he returns to his friends’ house, they don’t believe (Acts 12:6-17).
  • Paul and Timothy had success in Lystra and Iconium, and then as they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” they tried to go into Bithynia. But the Holy Spirit forbade that, too. So they went to Troas, where Paul had a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10).  
  • Paul and Silas are released from prison because of an earthquake, which also led to the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16: 25-34).
  • Paul glorified God when God raised Eutychus from the dead; but Eutychus had died because he drifted off during Paul’s long sermon and fell from window (Acts 20:7-13). 
  • Paul wanted to go to Rome and preach; he would’ve been released by King Agrippa but Paul had appealed to the emperor (Acts 26:30-32); so Paul was sent a prisoner to Rome, but when he arrived, the Roman officials had received no charges against him (Acts 28:21). See the whole dramatic story: Acts 21:17-28:30.  
These stories, too, require prayerful interpretation on our part, for some are violent, untoward, and strange as well.[3]  Others are closer to our own experiences of serendipity Does the Bible spell out God’s role in these events? Not always! In some, God is scarcely mentioned, if at all. But the Bible witnesses to or implies a mysterious but real and strong guidance amid the very human course of things. 

The Bible also gives us confidence in God’s ability to use us. The Bible is filled with characters God used. We should never raise ourselves to the stature of Moses, David, Gideon, Nehemiah, Mary, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others. Remember that these people had specific roles in the history of God’s salvation, greater than our comparatively small place in God’s scheme. But, as we seek a deeper relationship with God in Christ, their stories give us confidence in God’s ability to use different people in astonishing ways.

 Although I dislike that expression “One person plus God is a majority”—the saying sounds too much like “God is on my side, therefore I’m right and everyone else is wrong”—the expression points to the deep truth of God’s power to accomplish his will.    

Be forewarned!  God may use us for purposes beyond us, and that his purposes may either include or transcend our personal agendas. God may accomplish great things in our lives, but he may use us for great things in other people’s lives; or God may use times of trouble and failure in order to bring about important things down the way. God’s providential signs and wonders happen within a context beyond our comprehension (Eph. 3:20).  As we look to Christ and his Spirit, we open ourselves to God’s love and amazing possibilities. 


1 The first eight are listed in Jason Boyett’s enjoyable Pocket Guide to the Bible: A Little Book About the Big Book (Orlando, FL: Relevant Books, 2006), pages 184-185.

2.   In his book Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), Graeme Goldsworthy writes, “There is often a failure [in the church] to think through how the link between the people and events of the Old Testament are to be made with us as, presumably, New Testament people. This failure leads to some major defects in preaching, not the least of which is the tendency to moralize on Old Testament events, or simply to find pious examples to imitate” (page 3.). He suggests that we stay conscious of “the theological thrust of [a] particular book of the Bible within the wider context that links this to the coming of Christ” so that our existence is defined b our relationship to Christ (page. 151).

3. For a deeper treatment of the absence of a “theodicy” in the Bible is G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: The Providence of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952), chapter 8.  Also Theodicy in the Old Testament, edited by James L. Crenshaw. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.  Walter Brueggemann writes: “In [Israel’s] narratives and hymns celebrating Yahweh’s justice, Yahweh is said to be a ‘lover of justice’ … That must is not in dispute…But Israel is realistic and candid about its life situation. It knows very well that life is not as just as it might be if Yahweh’s passionate, sovereign will for justice were enacted … Israel is aware that there is more to Yahweh than justice: there is holiness and downright capricious irascibility” (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997], pages 739-740). See his several discussions therein concerning testimonies and counter-testimonies concerning the affirmations and ambiguities of God’s nature in Israel’s experience of God

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Forms of Christ in the Old Testament

One of my seminary professors was R. Lansing Hicks (1922-2008), whose obituary can be found at :   He was my prof in spring semester 1980, after I had Brevard S. Childs for a class (see my previous post).  Over the years I appreciated more and more Prof Hicks' lectures on the Christian use of the Old Testament. A few years ago, I emailed him stating this. I forgot about my note until Hicks’ son-in-law emailed me, stating that Hicks had been ill during his last year and hadn’t read his emails, but the son-in-law had found my note and communicated it to Hicks shortly before his death. The moral of this story is, IF YOU WANT TO EXPRESS GRATITUDE TO SOMEONE FOR SOME KINDNESS OR HELPFULNESS, DON’T DELAY, DO IT NOW. This was the third or fourth time in my life that I sent a thank-you note to someone who died not long thereafter.
The moral of the rest of this post is: if you want to deepen your faith, finding connections and insights in the Bible is an excellent way.  A few months ago I found a short book by Hicks: Forms of Christ in the Old Testament: The Problem of the Christological Unity of the Bible, the William C. Winslow Memorial Lectures of 1968 at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Several years ago I read Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy, and at about the same time, something at our church reminded me how little many of us know or appreciate the Old Testament and how it relates to the New. Consequently I’ve been interested in renewing my own Bible reading, and in helping people discover themes and passages that unify the testaments. Today is Trinity Sunday, an appropriate time to think about the identity of God among the scriptures.
Again: these are simply my notes from an interesting book: find a copy on interlibrary loan for more insights! At the beginning of the book, Hicks quotes Gerhard von Rad’s question: “how far can Christ be a help to the exegete in understanding the Old Testament, and how far can the Old Testament be a help to him [or her] in understanding Christ?” (p. 6) Hicks offers a form-content approach which, by the end, also give us a stronger appreciation of the Old Testament and provides ideas for ecumenical dialogue.
First, we look at form, specifically the forms of words, actions, and a coalescence of both. (p. 9).
Forms of words. There are “words of suffering” (Job 16:18-17:2, 23; Ps. 22:1-2, 6-8, 14-18; 69:4-21; 116; Isaiah 53:3-9; Lamentations 3:1-24; and cf. Zechariah 12:10f), in which Christians perceived the form of Christ’s suffering (Matt. 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:24f). There are words of forgiveness (Isaiah 40;2; 51:5f; Jer. 31:34; Hosea 14:4-7; Micah 7:19f; Zech. 13:1), in which Christians perceive the form of Christ’s pardon (Mark 2:5; Romans 10;5-13). There are words of salvation (Isa. 43:14-; 61:1-4; Jer. 23:5f; 31:2f; Ez.34:11-16; Zech. 8:13; cf. Ps. 20:30f), and words of life (Deut. 30:15-20; Isa. 25:6-8 [cf. Matt. 27:51; heb. 6:19; 10:20]; 26:19; Isa. 55:3; Amos 5:14); in which Christians perceive Christ’s power, too (Luke 20:37f; John 10:10; 11:25f; Heb. 11:17-19) (pp. 9-10).
Forms of action. There are forms of intercession: Abraham’s prayers for Sodom (Gen. 18:20-33), Moses’ prayers for the Israelites (Ex. 32:11-14, 31f), and the Servant’s actions (Isa. 42:2; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:13), in which Christian’s perceive the form of Christ’s self-oblation and intersession. There are forms of sacrifice, especially the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18), certainly a text readable as a very Christological text. There are also forms of God’s self-limitation: God’s covenant with Noah never to flood the earth again (Gen. 9:8-17); God’s covenant agreements with Israel (Ex. 34:10-28); God’s selection of a place where God can be met (Ex. 25:8f, 17-22; Deut. 12:10-14; 1 Kings 5:3-5; 8:20f, 29; Ps. 132:14; Ez. 37:26f). In all of these examples of divine self-limitation, Christians perceive the divine self-emptying in Christ (John 1:14; Phil. 2:6f; Col. 1:19f.) (pp. 10-11).
Coalescence of words and actions. Hicks cites Ex. 3:7f as a good combination of God’s verbal promises and God’s saving activity (pp. 11-12) We also look at content. It’s not always the case that the Old Testament provides the form and the New Testament the content. There are reciprocal movements between the testaments:
1. It is Christ’s nature to expose sin, and thus, whenever the Old Testament exposes sin (e.g., Micah 3:8, or the law as understood by Paul in Rom. 7:7-12), “it shares in the work of Christ. “
2. It is Christ’s nature to forgive sins, and thus the Old Testament “knows Christ” where there is forgiveness of sins (Lev. 16:29f; Micah 7:18-20; Isaiah 55:6).
3. Similarly Christ’s suffering for sin, and the Old Testament knows this kind of suffering (Ex. 32:31-32; Jer. 20:7-18; 37-38; Isa. 53:4-6).
4. And also Christ’s redemption from sin (Isa. 40:1-4; 53;12; Ps. 22:30-31; 130:7-8).
5. We also see the Old Testament providing the content of redemption, as in Hosea 3:1-3, in which we see the form of Christ’ s work (pp. 11-14).
Forms of intention. In the Old Testament, we see God’s intention of salvation: Cain (Gen. 4:15ff, Noah (5:29; 8:21f), Abraham (12:1-3, 15:7-21; 17:1-8), as well as the Exodus and Sinai covenant, and God’s many promises like Isa. 1:16ff and 43:4. The divine intention of salvation of course continues into the New Testament as a mutual binding of the two testaments. “And where salvation is offered, there is Christ.” (pp. 15-16). Intention cannot be separated from certain other forms, such as the offering of the innocent for the salvation of the guilty (p. 16).
Forms of Coordinates. Hicks gives the example of Isaiah 45:21f, where “a just God” and “a saving God” are not contrasted but yoked as co-ordinates: God is both just and saving. God’s justice and righteousness, in fact, are showed in Isaiah’s several depictions of the Lord as comforter, vindicator, healer, preserver, and sanctifier (pp. 17-18).
Other examples of coordinate terms are Moses’ writings and Christ’s words (John 5:46f), “the way, truth and life” of John 14:6, the “Son of God” and “life” in 1 John 5:15; and the perfection and gifts of the law in Ps. 19:7-9. All these are coordinates which are also perceived in Christ (Matt. 11:28, John 1:4-9; 8:12; 11:25f) (pp. 19-20).
In an interesting second half of the book, Hicks makes several points. One is that “When reading the Old Testament, early Christians recognized in its words and acts forms of the divine salvation and knowing that there is one salvation, not two, confidentially believed them to be forms of Christ.”As the New Testament affirms the life given through Christ (Romans 10:9, John 14:6), so the Old Testament affirms the living giving power of God (Deut. 30:15; 32:39, Amos 5:6). “[T]he Jew of the Old Testament… was saved no less lovingly or fully than those Jews who encountered Jesus ‘in the days of his flesh’ or we today who profess the Christian faith. In these Old Testament affirms we meet ‘soteriological content.’ The form of each passage quoted differs from the others just as each differs from the form in which Paul makes his declaration [in Romans 10:9]. But the content is the same, and so is the intention—the gift of life abundant; and that life, wherever or whenever offered, is life with Christ and in Christ” (pp. 26-27).
Another point: “Recent editions of Nestle’s Greek New Testament offer an index of Old Testament verses either cited or alluded to in the New Testament which runs to more than 1400 items. Not only the number of citations but their scope also is noteworthy: the list contains all the books of the canonical Old Testament with the exception of four–Ruth, Ezra, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This is not to imply that the New Testament authors saw Christ in virtually every book of the Old Testament; but these impressive statistics for the frequency and range of Old Testament quotations do indicate beyond reasonable doubt that early Christian writers found material of specific value to them as Christians in every section of the Old Testament…” (pp. 30-31).
These are not “proof texts” and not all are what we would call “Old Testament prophecies”: for instance, Zechariah 9:9 is not a prophecy or a proof-text when used in Matthew 21:4f. But this is part of a drama in Zechariah, in which Matthew found a form for elucidating Christ. Likewise using in Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, and 13:7b, Matthew could “delineate the form of divine action in Christ’s passion and show its intention” (pp. 33-34, quote on p. 34). Similarly Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, which is not a promise but a form of the divine action (pp. 35-36). And also: Matthew’s use of Jeremiah in Matt. 2:17f, a word of sorrow which connects us with the divine words of salvation and restoration in Jeremiah 31 (pp. 32-33).
Hicks sees this form-content approach as helpful in Jewish-Christian conversation. We can better understand the variety and intentions of God’s works in both testaments, and we can affirm the uniqueness of Christ without denigrating God’s other works as somehow lesser, or simply preliminary to Christ. Hicks quotes James Sanders: “The Christian will not, even privately, ask why the Jew does not accept Christ as Messiah, and the Jew will not, even privately, ask why the Christian does not accept the Old Testament as Jewish. Each will respect the historic claim on the Bible the other represents….” Hicks adds that the purpose of conversation “is not merely to encourage Jews to converse with us for their own profit but to bring us Christians to ‘the point of such a full and genuine encounter that we are lead into the depth of the Christian Presence amid Judaism’” (p. 38). [Here, Hicks quotes P. Schneider's The Dialogue of Christians and Jews, who continues: "Is it not possible that we have been blind to the further depths in which Jesus is made manifest in the travails and triumph of the Jewish people and faith throughout the ages? This is a dimension of the Lord Christ that Christians have yet to discover" (p. 177, in note 50 of Hicks, p. 45).]
Another way to put it is by N. T. Wright in his article “Paul’s Social Gospel: In Full Accord” (Christian Century, March 8, 2011, 25-28), where he writes, “There’s a swath of Western thought which…has said in effect that since the first plan has gone wrong, God has decided to do something quite different, to send his own Son to die for sinners, so we can forget about all that Isreael stuff….That is to misread Romans and to misunderstand Paul at his very heart. Instead, Paul declares in Romans 3:21 that God’s covenant faithfulness has now been revealed through the faithfulness of the Messiah for the benefit of all those who are faithful. He, the Messiah, is ‘Israel in person’” (p. 29).
Altogether, Professor Hicks, writes, “Herein the identification of Old Testament forms can contribute significantly to our understanding of the scope of Christ’s work through space and time. It widens the perspective through which we are helped to view the totality of Christ’s work. Does this not open further doors of understanding today? … Should not we extend this same affirmation to all works of redemption and deliverance? If so, we face the future of ecumenical discussion of with both confidence and anticipation and we turn eagerly toward dialogue with ‘secular [person]‘ in our ‘post-Christian’ age” (p. 39).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Assorted Bible Notes I

Sometimes I like to peruse books about the Bible and see what “pops out”---things I knew but hadn’t thought about for a while, or things expressed in a fresh way, or things I never realized at all. (New discoveries are always ongoing, not only because the Bible is so rich, long, and complex, with layers of tradition, theological perspectives, and literary styles not always clear without the help of commentaries. The Bible also speaks to a person differently at different times.)

My div school prof Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007), whose work in Old Testament studies was groundbreaking, wrote two fascinating books (among several others), Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), and Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986). I was very fortunate to have had this distinguished teacher for a class. Years later I wrote a letter of gratitude to him and he wrote a nice letter back in longhand.  Browsing these two books over a couple spring afternoons this year, I took a few notes of things that interested me. I'll return to these books again for more notes in the future. These are just my notes; if these ideas excite you, please obtain the books yourself and discover all kinds of insights!

From Old Testament Theology:

The Fall

Childs argues that it “does not do justice to the diversity within the Old Testament canon to suggest that the doctrine of the 'fall,' as testified to in Gen. 3, provides the framework in which the entire Old Testament functions” (p. 46). But although the OT does not frame the human condition so much in terms of Adam’s sin, the OT is certainly permeated in different forms with the “major disruption between God and his creation.”  Child’s cites Isaiah 1:2-3, Isaiah 42:19-20, Hos. 4:1-3, 13:2, Ps. 106:20-1, and others (pp. 46-47). Further, a realization of one’s sinful condition---and a humble and contrite, loving heart---are necessary to see God’s deeds in the word, as in Jere. 29:13, Ps. 138:8, and others (pp. 47-48).

The Torah

Childs’ comments that the legal and historical traditions in Ex. 19 to Num. 10 are complex and emerge from a history of writing, development, and editing.  Instead of each tradition being analyzed, however, Childs approaches the problem by a canonical approach: “the intertextuality of [the OT’s] canonical shaping” within the overally theology of the OT (p. 53).

He shows, for instance, how the revelation at Sinai in Ex. 19 is linked to the deliverance from Egypt, and that the giving of the law in Ex. 20ff and the sealing of the covenant in Ex. 24) “form the climax of the formation of the people of GOd (19:4-6)” (p. 53). Likewise, the Decalogue itself is no isolated set of laws but is placed withing this tradition of the people’s deliverance and formation.  The “Boook of the Covenant” in Ex. 20-24 is tied to the Decalogue, and all the laws of Leviticus are in turn tied to the Sinai event (p. 54).

Killing and Biblical Violence 
Childs has a fascinating section on “You shall not kill” in light of the OT’s violent nature.  Of the later, he cites the command to destroy the Canonites (Deut. 13:15), the herem law of Josh. 6:1ff, and the violent descriptions of God (Deut. 32:41-43, Isa. 63:1-6) (p. 74).  
Instead of other solutions (such as the nineteenth century approach that viewed portions of the OT as a more primitive kind of social ethic, Childs starts with the commandment itself.  The verb rasah is “murder” but “denotes a form of illegal killing which threatens the life of the of the community. The commandment seeks to protect the Israelite within the covenant from illegal violence...” (p. 75). The verb also has a connection with “blood vengeance” and so the commandment prohibited the kind of killing that called for revenge.  It also gained the connotation of intentional killing (pp. 75-76). He cites as examples Isa. 1:21, Hos. 6:9, Prov. 22:13.  
Childs connects the commandment to Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, which Moses had thought was just but which elicited a different reaction from the Hebrew and also a fearful reaction from Moses’ himself.  That the story moves beyond the question of Moses’ intention confronts us with deeper issues about the use of violence (pp. 76-77). Childs also cites the story of Uriah in 2 Sam. 11, calling attention to the fact that David didn’t even hate Uriah!  David set up the situation in which Uriah was killed within a situation of interconnections among power, lies, lust, etc.  Here again, the Bible puts the act of violence within a complex situation in order for us to reflect upon the act’s meaning (p. 77). 
Childs also cites Judges 9, 1 Kings 21, and the book of Joshua as examples of violence in the Old Testament.  One problem, he sees, with the whole question is that we tend to argue that “if such killing [as in Joshua] is viewed today as wrong, it must have been just as wrong then as now,” but he argues that this “non-historical way of thinking is foreign to the Bible, which does not work with abstract, timeless ethical principles” but rather with “God’s redemptive history with a sinful, hard-necked people which shares fully the culture of its environment” (p. 77). 
He further argues that the book of Joshua is canonically and historically positioned so that its story becomes “an integral part of the divine purpose for Israel, but it was never to be repeated. It was theologically rendered inoperative by being consigned wholly to the past” (p. 78). This agrees with something I read in Elie Wiesel's writings about Joshua, several years ago.  
Childs also shows how the prophets reversed the idea of holy war when they “portrayed God’s fighting against his people because of their disobedience and inner lawlessness (Isa. 10.5ff; 5.26ff; Jer. 5:15ff.). Subsequently, the prophets called for “a return to social justice in order to regain the blessings of God,” and not to holy war, so that God’s reign of peace could happen (as in Isa. 2:1ff, 11:11ff).   
From Biblical Theology: 

Deuteronomic Hope in the Prophets 
Childs notes that it is “difficult to distinguish between the different layers of tradition” in the prophets (p. 178). That was a relief to read, because I find the prophetic books so confusing in their seemingly random collections of oracles, stories, and sermons!  While Jeremiah’s chapters 30-31 are probably early oracles, those chapters and others have been shaped “in the language and traditions of Deuteronomy, most likely in the early post-exilic period” (p. 178). He cites Jer. 12:14-17, 16:14ff, 17:24ff, 18:7ff, and others places which stress a return to the Land and which uses exodus language to convey the divine promise to the returning exiles.  This, says Childs, is a Deuteronomic ”hope for a new relationship with God” and a new covenant (p. 178).  He also notes that exodus language continues o=in Ezekiel (11:14-21, 20:33-44, et al.) as well as the stress upon a new covenant and “new heart” as in 11:19, 18:31, 36:26, etc.(p. 178). 
Similar images of hope are found in Deutero-Isaiah. But unlike the Davidic hope that we find in Ezekiel, this prophet assigns redemption to Cyrus himself (Isa. 44:28, 45:11), and the suffering servant by whom Israel becomes righteous (and he cites Isa. 49:1ff, 50:4ff, 52:13-53:12).  
The Judges 
Obviously, perhaps, the office of the judges served no role in Israel’s eschatological hope, as Childs points out (pp. 150-151). It was such a terrible period in Israel's history!  The biblical authors looked to a righteous ruler of the future who would be a Davidic king, not a soptim (judge).  But Childs points out two interesting contrasts in the scriptures about the judges. The book itself connects the moral decline of the period to the lack of a king (18:1, 21:25), but in 1 Samuel (e.g., 12:12ff) the monarchy is depicted as a rejection of God’s will while the office of judges was God’s true intention (p. 150). There is a tension within scripture itself whether a king over Israel (that is, a human king) was a good thing or not.  
The Jacob Stories 
Childs notes that traces of oral transmission remain in the Jacob stories, such as their localization to particular places like Mahanaim, Penuel, and Mizpah, as well as the story of the wrestling, and the respective stories connecting Jacob to his father and to Laban.  Childs also notes that “an Isaac cycle” of stories remains only in limited form connected to the Jacob stories.  Gunkel had tried to identify different geographic locations to the contrasting stories.  What stands out from among the stories, says Childs, is the renaming of Jacob into Israel and his fatherhood of the twelve tribes (p. 126).
Jesus and Paul 
Childs raises the question of the seeming break between the proclamation of Jesus and the gospel message of Paul.  “Whereas Jesus proclaimed in words and action the dawning of the kingdom of God, Paul bore witness to the establishment of salvation and God’s rule which had become actual fact. The proclaimer had become the proclaimed!” (p. 236).  Thus, the church following Easter was in a different situation than  the disciples with Jesus before his death and resurrection: Now, the power of God---and also, as Paul said, the righteousness of God---has been revealed. In his letters, Paul seldom quotes Jesus‘ teachings as he focuses upon God’s power now revealed (p. 236). 
Lukan Paul and Pauline Paul 
There are interesting contrasts and discrepancies between Paul’s letters and Acts.  In Acts, Paul is still (in his own thinking and self-presentation) a faithful Jew, faithful to the law (24:14f), and proclaims a gospel found already in the scriptures (26:22). Paul is not an apostle in Acts, but rather an exemplary missionary to the Gentiles. Then we turn to Paul of his own writings, who declares his previous zeal as “refuse” (Phil. 3:5ff) and does present himself (again and again, often in self-defense) as an apostle. Childs notes that the Lukan portray of the Jerusalem church is also difficult to reconcile with material in Paul’s letters (pp. 292-293). 
Paul and Matthew 
A similarly interesting tension is found between Paul and Matthew. Paul has a “dialectical” view of the law; on one hand justification is freedom from the law, but on the other hand, he affirms the law as God's eternal will.  Matthew shows that the “way of righteousness has come with God’s true Messiah, and made clear in the radical obedience to God’s true intention in the law.” (p. 558)  While for Matthew, we are justified via obedience to the law, for Paul justification is apart from the law’s works.  For Matthew, works of righteousness are an essential part of our response to salvation, while for Paul works are separated from justification.  Also, for Matthew the judgment still lies ahead for the believer, while in Paul, we are already judged righteous because of our justification (p. 556).

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ministry of Reconciliation

Last year The Circuit Rider published my short article on “keeping peace when scripture conflicts.” When we stand for certain issues (women’s rights, rights for LGBT persons, gun control, capital punishment, and many others), we interpret scripture but we also make interpretive decisions about scripture with which others---reading the same book---will disagree.  In fact, strong disagreements will probably take place.  Paul’s letter to the Galatians reflects a sharp disagreement about circumcision. But in Galatians, even though Paul is angry at the congregation (3:1, 5:12), he still preaches peace, mutual upbuilding, and reconciliation (Gal. 6:10; see also Romans 12:16-18).

The risky thing is that as we Christians struggle for justice and change on particular issues, and as we face disagreements on topics, we must still seek to uphold biblical values (gifts of the Spirit, actually) of reconciliation, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and others.  2 Corinthians 5:17-20, for instance, teaches that Christ “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” and “the message of reconciliation.”   Thus, as I wrote in that article, when we try to press our own “rightness” on a particular issue, we miss an important aspect of our Christian walk, which is to show how Christ frees us all from the power of sin and reconciles us with God.  How do we balance our convictions and concern for justice, with the ministry of reconciliation?

A writer I admire, Dan R. Dick, recently blogged about the quarrels and discussions at his annual conference: He wishes there was “a way to live the fruit of the Spirit IN SPITE of our personal differences” (his emphasis).  For instance, he wishes that those who oppose same-sex partnerships and “still offer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to those same people… For some reason, it is more important to argue and hate and score points off of others than to care for them.” He laments that one group “used the song ‘They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love’ as a weapon to silence those they disagreed with. Such insidious intolerance does nothing to heal, only to wound with self-righteousness.”

One difficult part of having a ministry of reconciliation among each other, is what he calls the “victim mentality” or a sense of unfairness that leads to reactions against one another.  I think this mentality works both ways: those against whom some unfair and difficult thing has happened (exclusion, prejudice, and so on) has happened and is still happening, and those who feel more indirectly persecuted because their own values and opinions seem under threat (e.g., Facebook friends recently outraged that “under God” was omitted from the Pledge of Allegiance in a televised event, etc.).

One scary aspect of this mentality is the subtle or overt condemnation of the whole person who disagrees, or whose opinions are evolving.  Both liberals and conservative evangelicals are prone to this. There was a certain time in my life, not recently, when I was interesting in learning certain justice topics and the related struggles for equality.  But I felt looked-down-upon because I wasn’t already on same page as the persons from whom I wanted to learn!  I was probably oversensitive, but I felt a disdain and dismissiveness directed at me because I wasn’t already a full advocate of the issue—and that I hadn’t directed my whole concern toward advocacy of the issue, even though I was sympathetic and open to learning.

Another time, a church official leading a group in which I was a participant said sharply, “I assume we’re all against the death penalty,” implying of course that we all should be. Unanimity of agreement on this issue—which, to me, has strong arguments both pro and con, though I lean toward is abolition---was expected. 

John Wesley preached a sermon called “Catholic Spirit.” His text is 2 Kings 10:15, where two people (Jehu and Jehonadab) relate to one another based on the trueness of each other’s heart rather than opinions and topics.  Wesley sees this as a potent example of Christian love: we seek to love all persons—friends, enemies, and strangers—as we recognize that we don’t all see things the same way and don’t have full knowledge.  We focus instead on the content of the heart and the relationship with God.

But this is all so difficult, especially when you’re pressing a justice issue!   Such an issue will not seem like an opinion but rather something crucial—and we may perceive the content of another’s heart only around “our” issue.  What seems an opinion to me but it will seem like a life-defining justice issue to you, and vice versa.  Paul warned that we must take care when anger arises in the church (Gal. 5:13-15), but there is also the anger responding to feeling “bit and torn” by others—an anger which is a truthful emotion in response to painful injustice!

I hope that Wesley’s vision is something toward which we all can work (whether we’re in Wesley’s theological tradition or not). There are biblical values of peace and reconciliation amid differences that do witness powerfully to the grace of Christ—the grace and love toward which we point, liberals and conservatives alike. There are biblical values of mutual burden bearing (Gal. 6:2), mutual care (Eph. 4:11-16), being fully empathetic toward persons (because we’re in the Body of Christ together) whose experiences are not our own (Heb. 13:3). There are warnings against enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, (Gal. 5: 20), and the affirmation that God has removed boundaries (even though, one could add, real differences of experience and conviction remain among persons: Eph. 2:11-22). Scandalously, Paul even calls us to stop thinking we have to be right on an issue if we’re thereby hurting someone else (1 Cor. 8 and 9)—-although such caution requires discernment and common sense, lest we toss out the truth in the name of keeping someone from becoming upset. Of course, we all know the over-quoted but always relevant 1 Cor. 13:1-13.

The Good Samaritan is another venerable example of reconciliation in spite of real differences: his and the Jewish victim’s real theological and ethnic differences did not simply end, nor were artificially smoothed over, because of the man’s willingness to help.  It is not a sentimental story at all!   Neither is Jesus’ example of washing the disciples’ feet in John 13.  Imagine that you’re called to do such an act of service—embarrassing and disagreeable as foot washing must be---to someone you strongly disagree with on a major issue, or to someone who is strongly against you because of that issue.  I know I couldn’t do that! But that’s the kind of witness and service to which Christ calls us---“See those people, they’re separated by real and painful differences, and yet they actively care for one another.”

Again, I never want to minimize the convictions of persons for whom certain issues are a matter of real justice and urgency. I keep thinking about how we as church people can listen to one another and love one another truly, thus witnessing to the reconciling power of Christ among our genuine differences and evolving understanding.