Friday, March 27, 2009

Jesus: The Wonder Years

Just like the parable Jesus reportedly used, when you are building anything that you want to last; a house, a palace, a belief, a lie; you should begin with a rock-solid foundation. Otherwise, with floods, winds, discovery, and scrutiny, that which was built will not endure.

However, errant beliefs and lies will endure indefinitely until challenged within each mind where they exist. The fact that the Christian faith as a whole has endured as long as it has is not a valid testimony to its veracity, because at no time has there ever been a simultaneous, all-inclusive, thorough, Christian self-scrutiny. Like houses sheltered from the storm by mountains and located upstream of flooded rivers, the faith has been thereby preserved regardless of its foundation.

In previous studies of the Gospels, we've explored the lineage of Jesus, the Annunciation, and the Massacre of the Innocents. These studies revealed, if nothing else, some odd quirks, but most probably revealed that the stories are somewhat questionable in their veracity. There is a little more shaky ground to cover in Jesus' early years before we move on His adulthood.

Jesus: The Wonder Years
Let's continue to study the foundation of the Jesus story; His time from just after His birth to just before His record of adulthood. Unfortunately, there is not much recorded about these wonder years, just what little is logged by Matthew and Luke. The author of Matthew may have been an Apostle, but that is debated. The author of Luke was definitely not an Apostle. But either way, neither one knew about Jesus' early years as eye witnesses. So the most accurate information would need to be obtained from Joseph and Mary; Jesus' earthly parents.

Luke 2:22-40 records the story of Jesus' first visit to the Temple. Luke 2:22 records how after “the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed” (which would have been 33 days), Jesus' parents took Him to the Temple. Already, we find a typo in the text. According to Leviticus 12, the chapter of God's Law which governs purification after childbirth, only the woman requires purification, not the man. So the use of “their” is about as appropriate as when some proud father-to-be proclaims to the world “we're pregnant”.

Also in keeping with the Law, Jesus' parents were there to make the required sacrifices. Luke 2:24 records this as “a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons."” According to Leviticus 12, the desired sacrifice was “a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.” It was only if the mother could not afford a lamb that an extra dove or pigeon could be substituted for the lamb. The author of Luke seems to be oblivious to the preferred lamb sacrifice option, quoting only the bit about the birds. Some interpret this as a sign of the low level of wealth of Jesus' parents. However, if that were the case, it seems to me strange that Luke doesn't just say that two doves were sacrificed, or say that two pigeons were sacrificed, in accordance with the Law. Instead, we see a partial and imperfect quote of an addendum to a regulation in the Law. It's as if Luke isn't really familiar with what he's talking about, despite the fact that he “carefully investigated everything” (Luke 1:3).

During the Temple visit, Luke records how a righteous man, Simeon, had thanked God because he had lived to see the Christ as God had promised him would happen. Simeon reveals some prophecies about Jesus that God had given him. A prophetess, Anna, saw Jesus and began to talk about Jesus “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

The next event that Luke records (Luke 2:41-52) begins “Every year [Jesus'] parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When He was twelve years old...” However, in Matthew's account, the visit of the three Magi and the infamous Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:1-21) would have occurred between the first Temple and Jesus at age 12. Not only is this event a stunning omission from Luke in and of itself, but Jesus' family probably would not have made an annual pilgrimage during the time that they had fled to Egypt to avoid having Jesus killed, thereby making the Luke's words “Every year” inaccurate.

There is evidence of another conflict between Matthew's and Luke's early accounts. Luke 1:26 and Luke 2:4 record that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth prior to Jesus' birth, and Luke 2:39 records that they returned to Nazareth after “their” purification. Matthew's account doesn't directly claim where Mary and Joseph lived prior to Jesus' birth, or that they traveled to Bethlehem for a census, just that Jesus was born there. However, Matthew 2:13-15 states that the Holy Family went directly from Bethlehem to Egypt in contrast to Luke 2:39. Also, upon their return from Egypt, we see from Matthew 2:19-23 that Joseph's first inclination was to go to Judea, presumably to Bethlehem, but decided to settle in Nazareth from fear of the ruler of Judea, Archelaus. Matthew's record seems to suggest that Joseph's home was in Judea, probably in Bethlehem, as opposed to Luke's record that states Joseph lived in Nazareth since before Jesus.

Getting back to Luke 2:41-52, we see how after the Passover Feast Jesus stays behind in the Temple at the tender age of twelve, without letting His parents know. When Joseph and Mary return and find Jesus, He is talking to the teachers there. When questioned, Jesus replied to his parents “"Why were you searching for Me?" He asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in My Father's house?"” For someone that is supposedly part of God, sharing in all of God's knowledge, that's a fairly poor reply. It suggests that Jesus is so out of touch with the reality of a parent-child relationship that He didn't think that it was necessary to inform His parents that He needed to stay behind. Or perhaps it means that Jesus just didn't have enough respect for His parents to let them know. Either way, it's a pretty sad statement about God, conflicts with the (popular) fifth commandment about honoring your parents, and draws into question just how fatherly the Heavenly Father is.

(Note: There may be a typo in this tale too, for in Luke 2:47-48 we see how Jesus was the one asking the questions, but that the teachers that were amazed at His answers. However, Jesus often answered His own questions in the Gospels, so this may not be a typo.)

That's about all we know of Jesus' wonder years. It's sparse information, contaminated with discordance. If Matthew or Luke had sought out the best resource for this information, Jesus' parents, then there should have been agreement and alignment between the two records. This is not the case. And the only information we have about Jesus as a boy leaves us wondering what's really in store for us at the hands of a Heavenly Father. God, have mercy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

God: The Beast

There have been some Bible passages which have forever changed my perception of the nature of God. These type of passages have greatly disturbed and saddened me; thus providing me with the impetus to promote Biblical literacy so that Christians will know the true God which they are worshiping. This study involves one such passage.

God (in burning bush form) has finished convincing the reluctant Moses to travel back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, which will ultimately lead to the liberation of the Israelites from their slavery. Moses, with his family and belongings, has just left his father-in-law's estate.

God: The Beast
When a cat corners a mouse, the cat will make a sport of killing the mouse slowly. The cat will let the mouse run away a little, only to provide the opportunity to pounce on it. The routine is played out again and again, with each progressive step leaving the mouse suffering in more pain from the accumulated injuries until the mouse goes into shock or dies outright. This merciless brutality is the epitome of what beast-like behavior is.

Some men have exhibited the same type of behavior. They've taken advantage of their strength, or position, or authority to toy with their prey, in whatever form their prey happens to be; a prisoner, a coworker, a subject. While it seems to be a natural behavior, it is considered immoral for its lack of justice and mercy and its beast-like quality. But what if these men are just following God's example? We see in Exodus 4:21-23:
The LORD said to Moses, "When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is My firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship Me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.' " NIV
Unpacking this: God is going to perform miraculous signs (through Moses) to convince Pharaoh that God is real, and that He wants the Israelites to go worship Him. However, God is going to alter Pharaoh's free will, by (metaphorically) hardening his heart, so that Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go. Then, God will punish Pharaoh for not letting the Israelites go by killing an innocent bystander, Pharaoh's firstborn son.

This is an appalling revelation of God's Heart. We find that God is not interested in converting the Egyptians from their pagan worship practices. We find that God is not interested in saving Pharaoh from his sinful status to be brought into the Kingdom of Heaven eternally. We find that God is not interested in allowing Pharaoh to side with God through his own free will. We find that God is only interested in flaunting His supreme power and in punishing a man by killing his innocent child.

This made me incredibly disturbed upon first reading. But the fate that would await the Egyptian nation in the hands of a merciless God would end up being vastly more horrific than the thought of the misdirected slaughter of one innocent boy.

I've heard it explained that this was God's justice from the Pharaoh's decree recorded back in Exodus 1:22: “Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: "Every [Hebrew] boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live."” If so, this justice is ill-targeted and untimely. The Pharaoh that gave this command was already dead, as we learn from Exodus 2:23 and 4:19. God would have been enacting this punishment about 80 years after the sin was committed, as we learn by Moses's age in Exodus 7:7. And so, this is far off from being justice.

As the story of the Exodus continues, we will see how God plays with Pharaoh, and the entire Egyptian nation, like a cat plays with a mouse. Wave after wave of debilitating miraculous signs will incrementally wound and pain the Egyptians until the nation lies devastated and Pharaoh is dead. This is God in His most repugnantly beast-like form.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Impatience Is a Virtue

In an interesting twist of semantics, I rarely hear Christians being told to be more God-like. It's almost exclusively instructed for believers to become more Christ-like. Maybe that's because of the negative connotations now associated with being God-like. But reportedly, Christ and God are one and the same; parts of the Trinitarian Godhead. So what you see God do would necessarily be considered virtuous and righteous, just as Christians consider Jesus' behavior.

God has heard the cries that the Israelites have made due to their oppressive Egyptian slavery. He has decided that now is the time to begin their liberation process. We enter this study with Moses on Mount Horeb, as God (in burning bush form) is telling Moses what he needs to do, as he is to play a role in this process.

Impatience Is a Virtue
In Exodus Chapter 3 and Exodus 4:1-17, we find the story of God telling Moses to go back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh as part of His plans to rescue the Israelites and bring them to the Promised Land.

Moses is hesitant to do as God requests, as the story reveals. (Moses has a good reason to hesitate, as there was a death sentence pronounced on him in Egypt, thus causing him to flee to Midian in Exodus 2:11-15.)

Moses asks in Exodus 3:11: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” NIV God replies that He will be with Moses, and God gives him a sign to look for as proof of the fact that it is God that has told him this. This sign, that Moses will return to pray on Mount Horeb after the Israelites are freed, is an odd and somewhat pointless sign, since it is to occur long after he is to confront Pharaoh, and it is dwarfed by the miraculous signs which will come prior to his return.

Moses asks in Exodus 3:13: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?” NIV This seems like a strange question to me, because God had already told Moses that He was “the God of [his] father” in Exodus 3:6. Not that the statement provided a name, rather that the statement provides evidence that the Israelites knew of God at that time, so it seems kind of pointless to be asking His name.

Anyway, God goes on to tell Moses that God's name is LORD (actually not “LORD”, but a name that is very close to “I am” in Hebrew). God explains that the elders will listen to him, and that he and the elders should request Pharaoh to let the Israelites go sacrifice to God, and explains that the process will ultimately yield the Israelites leaving Egypt with the Egyptians' wealth.

Moses asks in Exodus 4:1: “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'?” NIV In a rather terse manner, as if to show that God was becoming impatient with Moses, God tells Moses what he will need to do to perform three different miraculous signs to prove that God was with him.

Moses complains in Exodus 4:10: “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” God replies “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” NIV So, if someone you know is blind, deaf, or mute, don't forget to remind them that God is responsible for their condition. Implicitly, any number of birth defects could probably be attributed to being God's will as well.

Moses begs in Exodus 4:13 “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” NIV At that point, God looses His cool and gets impatient. “Then the LORD's anger burned against Moses” and God suggests that Moses's brother, Aaron, could do the talking for Moses, while Moses would perform the miraculous signs.

(I'll quickly point out that Moses is lucky, as typically where God's anger burns against someone, they are severely punished or killed.)

I purposefully listed each line of resistance God encountered from Moses. If I were telling someone to do something and they seemed to stall and resist as much as Moses did, I would probably grow impatient and angry. So I don't mean to sound like I don't understand how God could become impatient.

However, when you consider what God's powers are, the idea of God becoming impatient becomes ludicrous. God made Moses, so He should have known the type of person that Moses is and what his inclinations are. God knows Moses's heart and thoughts, so He should have known what kind of resistance Moses may put up. God is omniscient to the future, so He should have known in advance exactly what Moses's points of resistance were going to be, and He should have known that ultimately Aaron would be needed to help give Moses the confidence necessary to confront the Pharaoh.

God, knowing all these things, should have been able to navigate this dance of progressive discourse with Moses without getting angry. Or, better yet, God should have short-circuited Moses's resistance by answering his objections before Moses even made them, like by giving him the miraculous signs and telling him to have Aaron speak for him from the beginning. But this is not what God does.

God chose the way to interact with Moses, and chose the progressive nature of their conversation. So if you find yourself becoming impatient and getting angry, even when it's due to a situation that you ultimately created: congratulations! You are acting with virtue and righteousness, just like God!

Friday, March 6, 2009

God Gets Reminded

I am excited to get up to the Book of Exodus in the detailed studies. Starting with Exodus, God plays a more interactive role with part of mankind for a little while. So here you get to better know the Christian God to an extent that would not happen again until the times of Jesus.

Since their God-made-famine-induced entry into Egyptian slavery, the Israelites have been rapidly reproducing. The Pharaoh fears their numbers, and orders all male baby Israelites killed to control the population. Moses' mom puts the baby Moses on the Nile in a basket, where he happens to catch the eye of Pharaoh's daughter, who then adopts him. As an adult, Moses killed an Egyptian who was oppressing some Hebrews. Moses then fled to Midian to avoid Pharaoh's justice for the murder; a death sentence. In Midian, Moses marries Zipporah and has a son named Gershom.

God Gets Reminded
God is said to be omniscient in the past, present, and future tenses. So if God provides a prophesy, it should be infallible. There is such a prophesy which relates to the Exodus in Genesis 15:13-16:
Then the LORD said to [Abraham], "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." NIV
The “country not their own” turns out to be Egypt. The enslavement comes from Joseph, who was doing God's bidding during a God-made-famine. (I find it particularly twisted that God is planning on punishing Egypt when it was due to His powers that the Israelites were enslaved there!)

The 400 years comes from God, as, according to the prophesy, He was the one that needed to deliver the Israelites from their oppressors. Why 400 years? As we see, God needed the Amorites to become as evil as they possibly could before He was to send His chosen people to wipe them out. And if His chosen people suffered in the mean time? So be it.

So, was God anxiously awaiting the day when He would deliver His people from oppression? Not exactly. We find in Exodus 2:23-25:
During that long period [when Moses had fled to Midian], the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. NIV
We find that God was reminded of His covenant and associated prophesy. It would seem as though God's mind works like the human mind; having incredible storage capacity, but sometimes needing triggers to recall memories. If it wasn't for the complaining of the Israelites, who knows how long they would have remained slaves.

In the next chapter, we see God spinning the situation to paint the best picture of Himself. Exodus 3:7-10
The LORD said [to Moses], "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt." NIV
God leaves out the fact that He is the reason that the Israelites are in their oppressive slavery to begin with. Their slavery for the past four hundred or so years hasn't moved God enough to be concerned with their suffering until this point. That's quite sad. God's compassion in unreliable, or at least ill-timed.

Speaking of timing, that's another interesting point. You see, God didn't rescue the Israelites right at 400 years. According to Exodus 12:40-41, it was 430 years after the Israelites entered Egypt, to the day, that God delivered them from slavery. So I guess that should be a lesson for everyone: God's timing isn't always precise. So if you feel that God isn't acting according to His promised time line, start complaining! It just might work.