Saturday, March 30, 2013

Good Friday and Easter

When I was little, I liked this hymn (words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874).

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!


Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!


Musically, the hymn was appealing to me. The verses are stately, almost march-like, while the refrain is faster, upbeat, and triumphant. With the words “up from the grave He arose,” the melody rises, too. I also liked the hymn because Jesus was pretty heroic. “He tore the bars away”… Superman did things like that.

Now I look at the hymn and see that it balances both the victory of Easter and the tragedy of Good Friday. Jesus is victorious at Easter … but first, he’s dead, executed. At least he received a more respectable burial than other condemned criminals. Nevertheless he is the “prey” caught by the predator Death.

Jesus’ heroism is one of obedience. He is dead because he followed God’s will. Remember the third “servant song” of Isaiah, 50:4-9a, where the servant declares he “gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (verse 6). What an odd kind of heroism! Certainly not the kind we necessarily esteem in people, whom we prefer to be forceful, perhaps good with weapons.

There is room for that kind of heroism. But there is also a force that resists retaliation. Dr. King once wrote, “We must use the weapon of love. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscious that we will win you in the process.” Suffering is a potential force for change, and a way for God to achieve amazing things.

But that’s the problem: who wants to suffer? Who wants to potentially be perceived as servile and passive?

The incarnate God is willing! He gives us a model for our own obedience but, much more importantly, he accomplished our unearned salvation through his own obedience, death, and resurrection.

… though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6:-11).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Growing in Faith

The New Testament book of Hebrews contains an interesting metaphor: milk vs. solid food as "nutrients" (my word) for one's religious faith. The whole passage is 5:11-14.

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

I hate being talked down to and scolded, so I might have shamefully thought (if not said) "Screw you!" if someone told me this. But the passage is interesting and difficult because it follows some very sophisticated and nuanced theology in the previous 4-1/2 chapters!

We don't know the author of Hebrews nor the location of the congregation, although the latter were probably Jewish converts to Christianity (hence the title, added by later tradition), perhaps in Italy in the 60s AD. The congregation could've grasped and followed the writer's several arguments concerning the primacy of Christ, based on Old Testament scriptures (the only scriptures they had, of course). Yet, the author expresses concern that the people are still "babies." Interestingly, in 6:1-3, the author tells them to "leave [behind] the elementary teachings about Christ... not laying again the foundation of repentance... instruction about baptism," etc. (NIV). They know all that stuff! And yet the basic knowledge, as well as the more sophisticated teachings of the author (which you could consider "solid food"), are not leading the members to maturity (NIV: the NRSV has "perfection").

The author of Hebrews does alternate harsh warnings, reassurances and encouragement throughout the letter: for instance, the section coming up, 6:4-12. Why weren't the people mature? Their problem seemed to be apathy or sluggishness (6:12: cf. the "dullness" referred to in 5:11 above), weakness that implies weariness (12:12-13), and a tendency to "drift" (as an unanchored boat would drift: 2:1). They also seem to be facing a certain amount of persecution, though apparently not yet life-threatening (12:4). So the epistle's author felt the need to startle them: to talk louder, if you will, to get their attention.

This is interesting to me, partly because I want to be mature in Christ, too, and partly because this biblical advice is different from the way some of us preachers and churchgoers approach this subject. A denominational official visited our church several years ago and, I swear, he preached an evangelistic, "come to Jesus" sermon--for an established congregation. We pastors want people to grow in their faith but I think some of us try to do so by reiterating and reenforcing the "elementary teachings"---the "milk." Perhaps we should, instead, remind them of what they know (or should know) and push them toward deeper and more confident understanding.

What might jolt and lead people toward maturity? Discussing this Hebrews passage, the commentator in The New Interpreter's Bible (vol. 11, p. 72) notes that the problem with the congregation was essentially a social failure! "The [original] readers [of the epistle] have apparently pulled back from bold witness to outsiders and from exhorting and encouraging one another. The loss of a congregational conversation means a loss of hearing. Through lack of use faculties grow dull and the members regress to a former condition of immaturity."

But their failure was also a failure to sharing the blessings of Christ's own life. We can follow Christian teachings and have correct beliefs and yet fall short of a full relationship with the living person and living presence of Christ himself---no historically distant teacher known only through a book. Thus the Hebrews author gives his readers so many glorious passages about the sufficiency of Christ for people's needs, about Christ's tender, real and present care for struggling sinful people. The failure (but not an irreversible one) of the congregation is a two-sided coin: an apathy toward the living Christ and an apathy toward mutual encouragement and social involvement and witness.

All this dovetails with one of my favorite Bible passages, Ephesians 4:11-16.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul (or, some scholars argue, the author writing in Paul's name) similarly links Christian maturity to mutual support and encouragement and Christ's living power. Christian maturity can't take place apart from a loving (a genuinely loving) fellowship wherein people can build one another up.

Similarly, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9:

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

In the previous chapter, Paul depicts Christian maturity in a lovely way, and then in this section, he lowers the boom on the Corinthians, who think they're mature (and possibly would've thought Paul was describing them in chapter 2), but they actually are "infants"! Their "infancy" is, once again, a basic social failure combined with a failure to appreciate the living, working presence of Christ among them. Instead of being pleased at God's grace, the Corinthians were jealous, quarrelsome, prone to divine themselves among factions, and to glorify the work of particular people (in this case, Apollos and Paul) in a possessive, self-important way.

I never liked the expression, "There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn't matter who gets the credit," which has been attributed to both Emerson and Harry S. Truman, among others. Half-humorously, I think the saying could be used by people to take all the credit and not acknowledge and thank the efforts of others! But if we apply the saying to Paul, we could paraphrase: God can accomplish amazing things as we avoid playing favorites with one another, dividing ourselves into factions, and work humbly together for one another's benefit! But those things imply a deep trust and mutual affection among believers in a congregation---goals that a church might set prior to other, more programmatic goals.

Back to Hebrews: we grow and become mature believers in Christ in so far as we encourage and support one another---every day, in fact (Heb. 3:13, 10:23-24). I don't seek such encouragement every day, and would feel needy if I did.  Biblically, though, I should be seeking and giving daily encouragement for my faith (including periodic course-corrections)!

So should we all--but, as I say, it would require a high level of love, trust, and sincere concern within our circles of fellowship.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Being Judgmental

A while back, a friend asked me why I thought some Christians are so judgmental. I promised to think about it!

Maybe it's better to say "some judgmental people are also Christians." None of us can separate our psychological makeup from our faith. People who are naturally introverted, or controlling, or easily hurt, often express their personalities in similar ways in church settings, too; similarly, people who are quick to pigeon-hole and judge others, and people who want to others to change. (The character Angela in the NBC show The Office is a good pop-culture example of someone who, you assume, would be strict and stiff even if she wasn't religious. You shutter to picture the character Dwight Schrute as a Christian, without an accompanying personality overhaul!)

Having the Word of God at hand can be a powerful source for "judgmentalness": God said it, you don't measure up, that settles it. Some of us read scripture that way. Conservative and evangelical people tend to be accused of judgmental attitudes, but I think liberal and progressive people can also be quick to generalize, stigmatize and condemn. It's a tricky balance to be passionate about an issue or topic, and yet not dismiss or characterize those who disagree.

Of course, "being judgmental" doesn't have to be the same as having strong opinions and convictions. One might be perceived as being judgmental when s/he communicates personal convictions (again, whether they're stereotypical conservative or liberal issues); but she might be labeled as judgmental by someone who disagrees.

I wonder, too, whether judgmentalness (I know that's not a word: don't be judgmental toward me, LOL) is connected to certain stages of one's spiritual growth. This isn't always the case, but it can be. When I was a new Christian I was quick to pass judgment on certain things, but in retrospect, my attitude stemmed from my insecurities in faith and life, and my uncertainties how to be a Christian. I certainly lacked the inner peace that helps a person be strong, consistently kind and sensitive toward others.

Sometimes people are judgmental because they can't quite process the fact that other people's lives and experiences are not their own. They meet a single woman and make assumptions why she's not married. They meet a childless couple and wonder why they don't have children. Years ago, a few fellow pastors learned that I was interested in both parish work and getting a PhD, and they judged that I must be snooty and "ivory tower." Much worse, you can see how this kind of assumption-making isn't too far from racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes. Any of these attitudes are painful when they're directed at you from fellow Christians; you hope they'd be more loving and considerate.

Unfortunately, generalizing harshly about other people is an easy habit for all of us, in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Scripture does teach the potential need to warn others about their behavior or circumstances. Ezekiel 3:17-21 is a well-known example. This would be an easy scripture to use wrongly: throw tact to the wind, point out a person’s sin, and say to yourself, “Whew, I did what God wanted!” Nevertheless, according to this scripture, one might have the responsibility to warn someone about his or her actions. Similarly Paul voiced concern about immoral behavior tolerated by a congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-5) and also showed concern about another congregation (2 Thess. 3:6, 3:14-15; also Titus 3:10-11).

Jesus pointed out people’s sins. He was very harsh to the teachers who considered themselves superior to others (Matthew 23:25-28), and he told the woman caught in adultery to sin no more (John 8:1-11) although he was kind to her and, indeed, saved her life. But Jesus also loved people and involved himself with people whose lives were wrong, broken, judged harshly, and confused. To them, he shared himself.

Scripture teaches a responsible kind of judgment-making, but it is also very clear about the kindness and encouragement that go along with judgments! One should mind one's own affairs (1 Thess 4:11), one should be gentle and self-aware in one's judgments (Heb. 5:2, Gal. 5:1, 2 Tim. 2:24-25), one should be encouraging, helpful, and patient (1 Thess. 5:14), one should be concerned for peace rather than "wrangling" (1 Tim. 6:4-5, 2 Tim. 2:24-25). Why don't see these kinds of verses and focus on the ones about rebuking and fault-finding?

In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus famously tells people not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye until you take the log out of your own eye. It’s actually a very humorous passage, which definitely gets the lesson across: I'm walking around with a big ol' tree stuck to my face and yet I point out that your face doesn't look right and you need to fix it!

Just because you see something that you consider condemnable in another person, you need to ask, What is condemnable in myself, if "the whole truth" were known about me? When Jesus’ opponents said, “He eats and drinks with sinners,” the irony is that they who disapproved of the sin of others, were themselves sinners! But they (in their own eyes) seemed more righteous because their sins were more subtle and prideful.

Jesus also said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24). Here is another biblical warrant to be cautious how you judge someone: the person may seem to be doing something of which you don’t approve, but do you really know what’s going on with the person? Have you "walked a mile in his or her shoes"? Have you inquired into the person’s circumstance? (Remember that “judgment” in the legal sense means a decision based on all the known facts about a case.) “Being judgmental” implies an haughty assessment according to appearances, or to a one-sided appeal to scripture, without a person knowing the content of that person’s heart and experience (or your own).

And… how would you know what’s going on with the person, if you didn’t have some kind of friendship with him other? Those scriptures I cited earlier (four paragraphs up) place judgments within the context of fellowship, friendship, love, and empathy. It's easy to show scripture to someone to condemn or criticize them, but in a way that's distancing yourself from them, putting yourself above them. That’s why “being judgmental” is so easy to be and simultaneously is so disagreeable when we see it in others.

To cite the often-quoted 1 Corinthians 13: you can be right about everything, including your moral and theological judgments, but if you don't have love, you're just noisy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The First of God's Works

My family and I are pet lovers, especially cats. We've had kitties since my daughter was young. Our two cats now are named Taz, an ornery little tortoise shell, and Saki, a playful Siamese-tabby mix. 

Needless to say, a pet is a real friend, though different from a human friend who can give advice. We receive unconditional love from a pet that we would never expect from a human. We might even disdain someone who showed a similar affection, for they’d seem to be needy and thoughtless. Perhaps that’s one reason we love our pets; the relationship is comparatively uncomplicated, yet very deep. I can’t overestimate the role our pets have played in our family's well being.

In memory of "Puddin," a feral cat my parents
and their neighbors fed, back in the 1970s
I became curious about which animals are mentioned in the Bible. (Find a Bible topic that interests you. What does the Bible say about angels and “guardian angels”? What kinds of trees are mentioned in the Bible?  How do musical instruments figure in the Bible? Go crazy: check out topics like the Israelite priesthood, or the way Mount Zion is used as a metaphor, and others. A good topical Bible or Bible dictionary are essential even for very basic study.) So I took down my old Bible dictionary (King James Version), which, in a brief article, lists several animals, including apes, asses, badgers, bats, bears, “Behemoth” (which could possibly be hippos or elephants), boars, camels, cattle, deer, foxes, gazelle, goats, hares (Lev. 11:4, 6, Deut. 14:7), hart and hind, horses, hyenas, ibex, jackals, lambs and sheep, leopards, “Leviathan” (Job 38:8, 41:1), lion, mice, moles, swine, weasels, whales, and wolves. The Bible also lists sponges, corals, mollusks, fish, amphibians, reptiles, asp, chameleon, cockatrice (Isa. 11:8, 59:5, Jer. 8:17), geckos (Lev. 11:30), lizards, serpents, tortoises, and vipers. No cats, but the text mentions lions, a different genus but the same family.(1)

Actually the KJV translation includes dragons—Psalm 74:13, Ezekiel 32:2, and in Revelation—and unicorns.(2) A friend contacted me through Facebook and said that one of the youths in her church class had heard from a friend that there are unicorns in the Bible, and she wondered what I thought. Checking for her, I found nine references to unicorns, but in the older King James Version: Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. In the newer translations call them "wild ox," and one of my books says it was a now-extinct kind of ox native to Syria, not the mythical equine creature we think of. 

(This kind of thing in churches makes me a little crazy: folks hear from a friend of a friend that there are unicorns in the Bible, and thus unicorns must have existed or else the Bible isn’t true.  Such folks don’t take the time to do any investigation or, in the case of my friend, to check with someone knowledgeable.  In this case, the Hebrew word for a certain animal was translated with an old English word. )

As you notice animals in the Bible, have you noticed that a lot of the Bible happens outdoors? Think the travels of the patriarchs and their families; the people in the wilderness; the armies on the move, the ministries of Jesus. In one poignant Old Testament scene, Ezra commanded the people to repent of their sin, and the large multitude agreed—as soon as they could go inside from the heavy rain (Ezra 10:9-15). We know little about the place where Jesus lived (Mark 2:1, John 1:38-39); if he wasn’t visiting someone else’s home, he was outside somewhere, turning his observations of outdoor events into eternal teachings. 

Once you notice the “outdoor” sections of the Bible, imagine the sounds in the background of the text: the sounds of wind blowing, the rustling of leaves, the crunch of stones as people walk, the lapping water of the waters, the flop of fish in the water, and the sounds of birds and animals. We read the Bible for teachings that pertain to our spiritual and moral lives, but what about the outdoor world that lies so close behind the words of God?  Read Psalm 8, 19, 14, and 136, all wonderful affirmations of God’s providential care of the natural world, the animals, plants, the earth itself and the cosmos. 

I turn in my old Bible to Job: 

But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
   the birds of the air, and they will tell you; 
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
   and the fish of the sea will declare to you. 
Who among all these does not know
   that the hand of the Lord has done this? 
In his hand is the life of every living thing
   and the breath of every human being (12:7-10). 

The animals are wiser about God than Job’s friends, who try to be so theologically astute!   
Look at Behemoth, which I made as I made you, says the Lord to Job, He is the first of the great acts of God (Job. 40:15a, 19a). At some point, I wrote in the margin of my old Bible, Humans and animals equal. In God’s speech to Job chapters 38-41, God tells Job that, bad as Job’s problems are, the cosmos is far greater. Humans belong within a larger world of the animal kingdom. 

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes, “[T]he 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.” It is the fourth commandment, concerning the Sabbath, which demands a day of rest for animals, too.(3) He continues that, for some reason, God allows people to eat meat following the Flood (Gen. 9:3), although vegetarianism seems to have been the original pattern for humans (Gen. 1:29). 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.”(4)  

We don’t know what awareness of God animals may have, or how animals “duly and daily” serve God, as the poet Christopher Smart puts it. Nor do I know if the poet Schiller is right when he writes, in his Beethoven-set poem An die Freude, “even the worm [that is, the lowest of creatures] feels the joy of living” (wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben).  But I do know several things from the Bible: 

*  God commands the special respect for animal life, which Rabbi Telushkin described.    

*  Paul assures us that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21)

* When a bull gave up its life as an offering, the person offering the animal places his hand upon the animal’s head prior to the sacrifice, an actual contact with the animal who is serving the person in this way (Lev. 1:3-5). 

* Jesus promises God’s tenderness for even the lowly birds (Matt. 6:26) 

* Jesus identified with an animal, a sacrificial lamb.  

* God’s providential care is not just about us human beings: what God’s doing for us, what we should be doing, where we fail, and so on. As God reminded Job in those powerful chapters 38-41, God’s activity covers far more than we can fathom.(5)

That gives us confidence. We know we have a strong Lord and Savior who doesn’t mind a bit that we---like our cats---are demanding and sometimes needy and come to him at all hours. I always turn back to that favorite psalm: 

      he who keeps you will not slumber. 
            He who keeps Israel
                will neither slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:3b-4)


1.  Merril C. Tenney, general editor, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), 40-47. On animals in the Bible, see also The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 158-164. 

2. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, 40-47.  

3.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: William Morrow, 1997), 500.  

4.  Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, 501.

5.  Theologian and preacher John Wesley preached on the divine gifts of life for the non-human world: John Wesley’s Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,”

Monday, March 11, 2013

"Beautiful, beautiful Zion"

I purchased this photo of Jerusalem in that city in 1983
and have displayed it in our homes over the years.
I’ve a Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (hereafter ZPBD) hat my grandma Crawford gave to me when I was 14 (1971). I was appreciative but mostly uninterested, and the book became a keepsake after Grandma died just a few months later. Then, when I was 18, I began to take faith more seriously. I kept the book and still use it along with some of my other reference books. I took it down the other day to take a few personal notes about the subject of Jerusalem in the Bible---references I can continue to study over time.

The subject of Jerusalem is way longer and more involved than my few modest notes. A good Bible dictionary can give you the many references to the city in the two testaments. The biblical citations alone are numerous, and also one can take into account the extra-biblical historical materials about the ancient city, along with its importance for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam---not to mention the long history of the city into our contemporary time. Not only was it the capital of David’s kingdom but was also the site of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit; later, it was central in Muslim faith and the destination of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey.

For now, I mostly wanted to write down a few biblical references about its founding and also its symbolic significance. It is a pre-Hebrew place, called U-Ru-Sa-lim in ancient times (later in Hebrew Yerushalayim), that is, “city of peace.” The earliest biblical reference to the place is  the story of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Gen. 14:18). That connection of “peace” (salim, in Hebrew shalom) is found in Haggai 2:9, Psalm 122:6, Isaiah 66:12, and other scriptures (ZPBD, p. 417).

The city’s name Yerushalayim appears for the first time in Joshua 10:1-5, and then later in the book (15:8, 18:28), where the text tells of Joshua’s failure to drive out the Jebusites, although the Israelites may have inhabited part of that area (Judges 1:21).

It is worth consulting a Bible dictionary about the parallel history of another city, Shechem, which eclipses Jerusalem in importance to the Israelites prior to the time of David. It is the city deeply associated with Abraham (Gen. 12:6-7), Jacob (Gen. 33:18-19, Gen. 34), Joseph (Gen. 37:12-14, Joshua 24:32), and Joshua (17:7, 24:1), and Shechem continued in importance for the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:1, 12:25, 2 Chron. 10:1, Jer. 44:5ff, Psalm 60:6, 108:7). Shechem falls from the biblical record, although the Samaritan woman of John 4 met Jesus in that area (ZPBD, 780-781).

The city of Shiloh is another important early city, the place where the Israelites under Joshua set up the Tabernacle, thus making Shiloh the center of the Israelite theocracy until the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant 400 years later (1 Samuel 4:3). Psalm 78:60 says that the Lord forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh. It was one of the worship centers during the time of the northern kingdom, but Jeremiah refers to it as a desolate place by his time (Jer. 7:12, 14) (ZPBD, 785-786).(1)

As for Jerusalem, David captured the city from the Jebusites during his reign (2 Sam. 5:6-10, about 998 BC). That is the first reference to the word Zion (ziyon), of uncertain meaning but perhaps citadel. David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, thus sanctifying Zion Hill (2 Sam. 6:10-12). Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on the proximate Mount Moriah, which meant that the name Zion was applied not only to the particular hill named Zion but also the temple mount (Isa. 8:18, 18:7, 24:23, Joel 3:17, Micah 4:7), and eventually all of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:21, Ps. 48, 69:35, 133:3, Isaiah 1:8, and others. The name Zion came to also apply to God’s people (Ps. 126:1, 129:5, Isa. 33:14, 34:8, 49:14, 52:8), and in the New Testament, for heaven (Heb. 12:22) (ZPBD, 914).

But the glory of Jerusalem itself is also found in the references to the place as God’s city (Isa. 45:13, 60:14, Ps. 46:4, 48:1, 87:3), the mountain of the Lord (Isa. 2:3, 11:9, 56:7, 66:20), and many other lofty and praising references. It is called Hephzibah, “my delight is in her” in Isa 62:4) (ZPBD, 418). The image of the New Jerusalem is also a powerful image in the concluding chapters of the Book of Revelation.

A very different biblical theme is the prophetic image of Jerusalem as God’s unfaithful wife! On this theme I recommend an excellent book by a former classmate, Dr. Julie Galambush: Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh's Wife (Society of Biblical Literature, 1992).

I’m a member of a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group on Middle Eastern issues, and I enjoy learning from my colleagues about challenges faced by Israelis and Palestinians, including the complicated social, citizenship, and political issues of East Jerusalem (pre- and post-1967) within the overall municipal area. Discussion-friendship groups like this are one important way for us all to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

I was glad when they said to me,

   "Let us go to the house of the Lord!" 

Our feet are standing

   within your gates, O Jerusalem. 

Jerusalem—built as a city

   that is bound firmly together. 

To it the tribes go up,

   the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,

   to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 

For there the thrones for judgment were set up,

   the thrones of the house of David. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

   "May they prosper who love you. 

Peace be within your walls,
  and security within your towers." 

For the sake of my relatives and friends

   I will say, "Peace be within you." 

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,

   I will seek your good (Ps. 122)

As I’ve taken these notes, a song has been stuck in my head. I learned this old hymn in Sunday school as a child (words by Isaac Watts, refrain and music by Robert Lowry). The city thus became nostalgically lodged in my childhood faith, years before I ever went there.

Come, we that love the Lord,

And let our joys be known;

Join in a song with sweet accord,

Join in a song with sweet accord

And thus surround the throne,

And thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion,

Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

We’re marching upward to Zion,

The beautiful city of God.

Finally, I wanted to recommend a lovely 2-CD set of music called "Jerusalem: City of Two Peaces," which I discuss here:


1. The fact that Jerusalem became more significant than Shechem and Shiloh---and only in the eras of David and Solomon---reminds me of my post last May 18th, where I discussed the ambivalence in the biblical sources about an Israelite king. Some passages (that I discovered and discussed there) affirm that Yahweh is Israel's true king and thus was not according to God's original plan---as, one might argue, these other two cities were God's original places of importance and worship. But God incorporated the monarchy---and specifically King David---as a "type of God's kingdom." And so the career of David---and now, we can add, the Jebusite city that he conquered for the Israelites---became significant for Israel's messianic hope. It is interesting to reflect theologically about the way God seems to adapt and be reflexible in these aspects of Israel's experience.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan, and Joshua's Conquest

This week, some of my devotional periodicals contain pieces reflecting on Gilgal stories in Joshua 4: the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan River, and the construction of a twelve-stone memorial to the event. Those devotions led me to a familiar book, the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Joshua.(1) I was going to think about those memorial stones, but my reading took me in a completely different direction.

Robert Coote’s section on that book is fascinating. The book is a portion of the (conjectured) source, the "Deuteronomistic History," which brought together older sources and which supported the soveriengty of the house of David and the primacy of the Temple of Jerusalem, as Josiah reformed Israelite worship and attempted to regain land that had been part of the original heritage of Joshua's conquest (pp. 556, 559). Coote's introduction contains essential information about the reforms of Josiah in the 600s and shows how the Deuteronomistic Historian of Josiah’s time crafted the book of Joshua, giving the Conquest (five or six hundred years before Josiah) an interpretation that brought together many stands of Israel’s history. Coote is also very helpful in drawing connections among Joshua and other scriptures. Here are a few.

* Focusing on the crossing of the Jordan in Joshua 4 and 5: one of the perhaps obvious connections can be made between the crossing of the river, and God’s promises to Abraham. Abraham would have many descendants, and they would live in the land provided by God.

* Psalm 114 connects the splitting of the sea in Exodus and the splitting of the river in Joshua, calling attention to God’s sovereignty not only over Israel but also creation itself (p. 600). So Psalm 114 allows us to trace God's work in Israel's liberation with Genesis 1-2.

* Although the Battle of Jericho is well known in Joshua, the splitting and crossing of the river is surely the most influential event in terms of Old and New Testament references (p. 599). But the ritual of crossing the water may have also been a Passover ritual, connecting to the splitting of the sea in Exodus 14 (p. 600). One of the key aspects of Josiah's reforms would have been the renewal of long-neglected feasts like Passover.

*The Deuteronomistic historian of Josiah’s day wants us to connect the event to the reconquest of the land by the power of God centralized in the ark (p. 599). The event is also referred to in Micah 6:4-5, among God’s mighty works. Verses 1-5 there has a Deuteronomistic tone, Coote writes, in the use of the characteristic phrase “in order to know” the Lord. (p. 599).

* A further link in the Deuteronomistic account is to David. Gilgal was the place where Samuel anointed Saul as king (1 Sam. 11:14-15) and also the place where Samuel rejected Saul (1 Samuel 13:8-15); cf. Joshua 7:1-8:29) and anointed David instead. A key theme of the Deuteronomistic history is the authority of the Davidic monarchy and the centering of the Temple in Jerusalem (p. 606).

* I posted about Jesus' baptism in a January 2013 piece. His baptism in the Jordan is not just a happy coincidence---rivers have plenty of water for baptism, after all, and the Jordan was handy. No pun intended, but the use of the Jordan River goes deeper than just its availability as a water source. John the Baptist might have set up shop at the Sea of Galilee, after all.

Coote notes that in the early church, Jesus is connected to the suffering and raised servant of Isaiah 40-55. But that suffering servant, in turn, is part of Second Isaiah’s message to the returning exiles: as God redeemed his people in Joshua’s time with the gift of land, so will God redeem his people as they return from Babylonian exile. So Jesus’ presence within the waters of the Jordan fulfills God’s promise to Israel in Isaiah 40-55 and also Joshua 4 (p. 602-603).

* The connection of Jesus to Joshua 4 is further deepened with references in Mark’s Gospel to Elijah. Elijah announces the “day of the Lord” in Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. But Elijah is significant in two more ways: his call of fire down from heaven (2 Kings 1:8-12, Mark 1:6), and Elijah’s own crossing of the Jordan in 2 Kings 2:1-14) (pp. 602-603).

* But a further connection of Joshua 4-5 and the early church, is in the fact that the Israelite men were circumcised as they were camped at Gilgal (Joshua 5:2-9). Coote notes that the early church struggled with whether Gentile male converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised according to the Jewish law. “By making the rite of baptism and the baptism of Jesus a primary basis of his version of the gospel, and by showing how baptism recapitulates the basic themes of the exodus and the crossing of the Jordan under Joshua, Mark lays a basis for understanding the inclusion of the Gentiles in terms of just those scriptural texts that most clearly formed the basis for distinguishing between Israel and the Gentiles. In this sense, the Gospel of Mark represents a radical reinterpretation of the old Joshua in terms of the new Joshua, or Jesus” (p. 604).

* You could certainly also draw the Davidic link between the primacy of King David, affirmed by the Deuteronomistic history, and the new and different kind of king, Jesus of David's line, who is baptized in the Jordan.

I found all this fascinating, not only because I love discovering links and connections and allusions in the Bible, but also the question of why was Jesus baptized. That’s a topic often raised in Bible study groups: if Jesus was sinless, why was he baptized, and it must’ve been because of his identification with sinful people like you and me. But Coote’s interesting commentary shows that there are numerous significant aspects within scripture to show that Jesus’ descent into the Jordan waters is really tied to the whole history of biblical Israel.

One might also add a popular image from “old time” hymns: that of crossing the Jordan as an image of being with the Lord forever.

I’ve said this elsewhere on this blog; a big interest of mine these past several years has been deepening my understanding of ways the whole Bible fits together. Something at our previous church alerted me to the fact that many, many churchgoers aren’t clear on some essential Bible material, including the Hebrew/Jewish foundation and framework of the New Testament. The conquest of the land under Joshua is a culmination of God’s promise to Moses and, before that, God’s promise to Abraham, “a triumphant finale to the Bible’s foundational epic of liberation” (p. 555). But that epic underlay the affirmation of the Davidic monarchy, the promises to God's people voiced in Isaiah 40-55, and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.


(1) Robert B. Coote, “The Book of Joshua," The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 555-719.  In his introduction, Coote also cautions us to understand the violence and mayhem of the book of Joshua. There is the difficulty of verifying the account based on what is known archaeologically of the region, and there is also the fact that the book depicts ancient realities----Iron Age tribal societies, the importance of land for both nomadic and settled tribes, and settlement shifts in Palestine---rather than our modern ideas of nation-states, nationalism, and civil rights (pp. 556-558).

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Comfort of the Psalms

Why do we read the Bible? Gaining a sense of peace and comfort is one motive. We are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), are fallible yet chosen receptacles of nothing less than God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20) and (if we may apply Jeremiah’s words to our own experience) we are recipients of God’s plans (Jer. 29:11). For all our needs and for the forgiveness of all our sins, we have advocacy with God through Christ and the Spirit (John 14:15-17; Heb. 4:14-6). We are given a wonderful responsibility, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to help others be disciples (the word means “students”) of the Lord (Matt. 28:19-20).

But … we need the Bible to help us know and remember these things. Martin Luther once called scripture the “servant” of God for our benefit.(1) So many texts function well for guidance, consolation, assurance, responsibility, and strength. Although “comfortable” and “comfort zones” can have negative connotations, a person can’t function well without renewal, reminder, and assurance.

I flip first to the Psalms. Not too long ago, the Gideons visited my campus. I chatted with one fellow as he and his buddy distributed little green Bibles containing the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs.  I had a cup of coffee and he joked that they could witness better if I’d buy them coffee, too.

I don’t like the thought of abbreviated Bibles, but on the other hand, if you’d distribute any other 2000-page book to a passerby and say, “Oh, you should read this, it will help you,” he or she would probably say, “Yeah, right.” Or, the 2000-page book would be cheerfully accepted and placed unread upon the shelves. The “little green Bibles,” as I call them, concede to the reading habits of many of us: we love the New Testament and the Psalms. (For my reading habits, I need larger print, but that’s another issue …)

Many of us do, indeed, turn frequently to the psalms. Think of times of your life when you needed the psalms: 77 or 143 for help amid distress, 23 and 121 for peace, 150 for joy. Read Psalm 3 or 46 when you’re afraid; 38 when you feel weak; 109 when you feel accused; 38 when you need mercy; and 142 when you’re overwhelmed. Psalm 25, which I’ve yellow-highlighted, is a good all-around prayer. Psalm 19 and 104 are wonderful praises for the natural world. Psalm 88 is for someone close to death, 130 for someone deeply burdened, 90 for someone in “existential” anxiety, 40 for a person thankful for deliverance, and … many more!  Recently a friend quoted Psalm 55:6 for her father’s obituary notice.  Psalm 51 is a classic of bitter regret for sin:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,         
and put a new and right spirit within me.  
Do not cast me away from your presence,        
and do not take your holy spirit from me.  
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,        
and sustain in me a willing spirit.  
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,         
and sinners will return to you. (vss. 10-13)

I wouldn’t want to say that you haven’t really experienced the amazing peace of forgiveness if you haven’t first felt in your heart the awful ache of sin—the sin that has hurt people, made a mess of things, and made you afraid for your eternal destiny. Nor would I, for obvious reasons, recommend sin as a prelude for a relationship to God (Romans 6:1-2). But Psalm 51 is a wonderful assurance when you’ve stumbled. (Sometimes we stumble publicly, as did David, sometimes our failures are comparatively private but our consciences dog us.) What the psalm may lack, though, is a very strong assurance of God’s forgiveness, which, after all, hard to see if you’re troubled, as I wrote in a recent blog post on this site.

Psalm 73, a poem about doubts and struggles rather than a moral sin, provides that needed assurance.  
When my soul was embittered,       
when I was pricked in heart,  
I was stupid and ignorant;       
I was like a brute beast towards you.  
Nevertheless I am continually with you;       
you hold my right hand…  
My flesh and my heart may fail,       
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever  (vss. 21-23, 26).

That “nevertheless” might be one of the best single words in the Bible. The word affirms God’s continual presence regardless of our human feelings, in this case, bitterness about the apparent unfairness of life. Similarly, 1 John affirms in a lovely way, And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything (3:19-20). We have confidence because God’s initiative and care are greater than the spiritually difficult places in which we sometimes find ourselves.

The psalms also remind us of people and places. Number 100: I think of a church where I served as a student pastor in Connecticut. I remember the interior—so typical of turn of the century Romanesque churches—and the wide fellowship hall, where parishioners actually smoked together.

Psalm 23 … I walked home way too late one night. I was fourteen or fifteen. The road’s darkness exacerbated my anxieties of being in trouble. A streetlight caused the old Illinois Central railroad sign to cast a long, creepy X-shaped shadow along my path.  It was hardly the “shadow of death,” but I did pray the twenty-third psalm, memorized in Sunday school a few years before.

The same psalm … A don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss it country lane near Brownstown, Illinois, leads along the wooded banks of small Sand Run creek. When my family owned that property, I loved walking back there, sometimes barefoot. I loved the “still waters” of the winding creek and did, indeed, feel that God restored my sense of well-being.

Psalm 45: song for a royal wedding. I took two college classes with an excellent writing teacher, Elva McAllaster, who significantly inspired my career. I found her grave recently in Greenville, Illinois, and saw “Ps. 45:1” carved by her life dates. I didn’t remember that psalm, but later I found the verse, which seemed perfect:  

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; 
    I address my verses to the king;
    My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Psalm 8: that song reminds of several beautiful places where the stars on clear nights were gorgeous.  Over time, I came to prefer Psalm 104 for its greater specificity, the beauty of nature that God preserves and guides. But Psalm 8 captures the awe in fewer verses.

Psalm 50?

I will accept no bull from your house (verse 9: RSV).

I’m being lighthearted now, but the verse reminds me of a time, at my divinity school, when a graduate assistant wrote that verse on a student’s wordy paper.

Nearly all the psalms contain words of praise, and even the bleaker psalms, like 90, do not fall into total despair, since the psalm remains a prayer to God. How the psalms reflect our own experiences: trouble and panic followed by relief, sickness followed by health, doubts followed by faith, lack of understanding followed by clarity. The psalms range among joy, despair, panic, childlike thankfulness, noble emotions, and revenge. What might happen if our church prayers, or even our private prayers, were as forthright as these?

When I wrote an article about the psalms years ago, I found two lovely quotes. Martin Luther writes, “Where does one find finer words of joy… where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness … everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake.”(2) And John Calvin writes, “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the grief, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.” (3)

 1.  Luther’s Works: Lectures on Galatians (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963); Volume 26, 295.

2.  Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960); Volume 35, 255-256.

3.  John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Eerdmans, 1949), I, xxxvii. I first used both this and the Luther quotations in my article “The Psalms: An Overview,” Adult Bible Studies, June-July-August 1996 (Nashville: Cokesbury), 5-8 (quotations on page 5)