Friday, April 24, 2009

John the Baptist Leads the Way?

It is good to know at least a little about the fertile climate for the proclamation of many would-be Jewish Messiahs which existed around the time when Jesus supposedly entered the picture. The Roman occupation, with their Pagan practices, exploitation of resources, and often brutal governing, gave an impetus for Jewish unrest among pockets of the populous. Revolt and rebellion were constant threats, and such acts which were squashed unmercifully when possible.

The Jewish Messiah was to be an Anointed King, one which would rule the nation of Israel in a manner such that all the nations of the world would come to know God. Much, much more was associated with the coming Messiah, but I can't cover it all here. Suffice it to say, people were looking for him with desperation. In this vein, some rebels claimed to be the Messiah, either because they were deranged or in order to solicit support for their cause, such as one man who had claimed to be Moses resurrected, Simon of Peraea, and Athronges the shepherd.

Aside from the two major Jewish sects, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, several smaller ones splintered off; such as the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Nasaraioi, a.k.a. the Nazarenes (which would seed the Mandaeans). The Essenes were an ascetic, communal sect which shunned wealth, sex, and other carnal pleasures. John the Baptist is thought by many scholars to have been an Essene whom had left the communal life.

John the Baptist Leads the Way?
The first point on which all four Gospels converge is on how John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus' coming. Per Luke 1, we are told that John the Baptist is Jesus' cousin and we find the miraculous story of his birth. John 1:6-8 and John 1:15 record a couple of brief lines subjugating John the Baptist under Jesus. But, finally, all four accounts focus on John the Baptist at Matthew 3:1-12, Mark 1:2-8, Luke 3:1-19, and John 1:19-28. So what exactly do they agree on? Let's find out.

Let's start with Mark, the shortest account. In this segment, Mark is the only one of the four Gospels claiming that “It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send My messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"”. That's good thing, because Mark is wrong. This is actually a mis-quote from Malachi 3:1, not Isaiah, and the “you” should be Me; with Me referring to God. The other Gospel reference for this quote is Luke 7:26-27, where Jesus is talking about John the Baptist. Jesus wisely leaves off the origin of the quote.

Does the Malachi 3:1 prophesy apply? If you will, take a moment to read Malachi 3. What you'll find is something which would be difficult to directly apply to Jesus. In fact, the entire first verse shuts out such an interpretation: “See, I will send My messenger, who will prepare the way before Me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His Temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.” This verse, and the remainder of Malachi are quite clearly referring to how God will reenter the Temple of Jerusalem and dwell there like He used to do, and will provide judgement of the evildoers while He is there. God, through Malachi, even tells the Israelites that they should offer proper sacrifices in order for His return to occur.

In Malachi 4, God goes on to implore the Israelites to follow the laws which He gave to Moses, and He reveals that the messenger who will come before “that great and dreadful day of the LORD” will be Elijah, a Jewish prophet who (reportedly) had previously ridden to Heaven on a whirlwind (2 Kings 2). Contrary to this prophesy, John the Baptist openly admitted that he was not Elijah (John 1:21) and when Jesus appears, it is not a “great and dreadful day” because Jesus didn't dwell in the Temple passing judgement and He didn't restore Israel as the prophesy predicts.

Proceeding in the prophesy department, all four Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 to some extent. Luke 3:4-5 goes two verses further, covering and misquoting Isaiah 40:3-5 with an obvious bias. Is this an applicable prophesy? Check out Isaiah 40. You'll see how this “voice” is supposed to be a comforter to the Israelites, to speak tenderly to them, and to tell them that the nation's sins have been paid for (twice!) and so God will come and rule them with His omnipotent glory. This is not exactly Jesus' intention revealed later in the Bible. Plus, if you look at Matthew's and Luke's quotes of John the Baptist, such as “You brood of vipers!”, you see that John the Baptist was reportedly not a gentle and comforting messenger, and his message was quite different than what one would expect from a fulfillment of Isaiah 40.

When you look at Isaiah 40:4, which Luke almost quotes correctly, this “voice” is supposed to do some major works; filling in valleys, leveling hills, etc. Even if that text is meant to be figurative, it speaks of awesome achievements, and perhaps even miracles. Contrary to Elijah, who raised a dead boy and parted the Jordan River among other miracles, John the Baptist is not noted for great achievements or miracles. Even the extent to which he reportedly prepared the Jews to receive their Messiah is questionable, given how the Bible records the Jewish reaction to Jesus.

Moving on, Matthew (3:1 + 3:6 + 3:11), Mark (1:4), and Luke (3:3) record that John the Baptist's baptism was for repentance and forgiveness of sins, while John's Gospel is silent on the reason for baptism. But when you think about it, this is an affront to Jesus' offer of salvation. After all, God had already created a way to atone for sins through the Temple sacrifices. So John the Baptist's baptism was essentially offering the same deal repackaged. John the Baptist's baptism provided the same type of forgiveness of sins, because we are told that only Jesus could permanently forgive sins.

If John the Baptist was really trying to prepare the way for Jesus, he should have been telling the Jews that the atonement through Temple sacrifices was imperfect, as sins will continually need sacrifices. He should have been urging the Jews to look to God to provide an ultimate sacrifice for the remission of all sins once and for all. The words of Hebrews 10 should have been rolling off his tongue, but they weren't. John the Baptist is reportedly inexplicably silent on how Jesus will revolutionize the forgiveness of sins.

Instead, Matthew (3:11), Mark (1:7), and Luke (3:16) record that John the Baptist's significant contribution in leading the way for Jesus was the baptism itself. (John's Gospel is again silent on the matter.) The water baptism which John the Baptist was performing was stated as a parallel of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that Jesus would provide, but this is incongruent for a couple reasons. The need for a foreshadowing parallel is strange in and of itself, as John the Baptist was a same-age contemporary of Jesus. Why foreshadow something which (relatively speaking) already exists? Also, it's a rather poor parallel when you consider that John the Baptist's baptism reportedly washed away sins while the baptism of the Holy Spirit supposedly fills you with the presence of God giving you Holy powers. These two are just a little different, don't you think? You could call the water baptism a prerequisite for the Holy Spirit baptism, but then that negates the utility of Jesus' death on the cross.

Curiously, Matthew's account (3:1) is the only Gospel claiming that John the Baptist said “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” What makes this even more curious is that Matthew's Gospel is also the only one which records Jesus as saying this exact same line (4:17 + 10:7). However, while Mark and John are relatively quiet about it, both Matthew (3:7-12) and Luke (3:7-9 + 3:15-17) expound upon this apocalyptic theme in John the Baptist's message in identical words (except for a slight sandal variance), as if they came from the same source. We find words like “the coming wrath”, “the ax is already at the root”, and “His winnowing fork is in His hand”, imparting a sense of urgency that God's judgement is going to occur within the lifetime of John the Baptist's audience. Amazingly, close to 2000 years later, we're still waiting for that to happen. According to Deuteronomy 18:14-22 on discernment of false prophets, I guess that John the Baptist deserved to be killed.

As you can see from reviewing these Gospel accounts, while they mostly agree with one another, the associated prophesies (mis-quoted by the Gospels) don't seem to mesh with the Gospel accounts. At best, you could take the lines of the prophesies out of their context and applied some nuanced meanings to bring them into alignment. Yet still the effectiveness and utility of John the Baptist's efforts are questionable in preparing the Jews for Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke paint John the Baptist as claiming a very-soon-coming apocalypse, which never happened, and therefore brands him as a false prophet. So, did John the Baptist prepare the way for Jesus? In a word: No.

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, records in Jewish Antiquities (c. 94 AD) that John the Baptist worked to promote “righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to Him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” This is not exactly a message in line with Jesus' plan. Note that Josephus wrote long after these events had occurred, so his accuracy could be questionable. Plus, he was Jewish, not Christian, and therefore may have skewed the record with Jewish bias. And finally, some scholars believe that his original texts have been altered where they regard anything relating to Christianity.

It is peculiar that, if John the Baptist was really only there to promote Jesus, a sect would develop which would hold John the Baptist the greatest prophet of God while considering Jesus to be a false prophet. Such is the case with the Mandaeans.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Exodus Plagues Part 1: Monkey See, Monkey Do

It is show time for one of the most famous episodes of the Old Testament. Now that God has remembered His covenant with the Israelites, He has revealed His overall plan to Moses, and prodded Moses along to confront Pharaoh. Moses and his brother, Aaron, have confronted Pharaoh to request the temporary release of the Israelites to worship God. Pharaoh rejects the request and increases the burden of the Israelite slaves. Now the time has come to redeem the Israelites and judge the Egyptians, and so now the plagues begin. Join me in this study as we look into the details of these mighty acts of judgement.

Exodus Plagues Part 1: Monkey See, Monkey Do
It is time for God to start showing the Egyptians that He is God and the Israelites are His chosen people. God has moved all of the pieces into position, so now the game begins.

In Exodus 7, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh and (implicitly) request that he let the Israelites leave Egypt, and (implicitly) Pharaoh asks Moses and Aaron to perform a miracle. Like trained monkeys, they oblige. Aaron throws his staff to the ground and it becomes a snake. However, Pharaoh's “wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians” were all able to duplicate this same trick. So in Exodus 7:13, we see that “Pharaoh's heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” The phrase “just as the LORD had said” means that God is actively hardening Pharaoh's heart, interfering with Pharaoh's free will, as we see in His plans in Exodus 4:21-23 and Exodus 7:1-5. However, given that it seems like just about anyone that had a staff and a little knowledge could do this same trick, it wouldn't necessarily take divine intervention to turn Pharaoh's heart against the Israelites.

Something I find rather inconsistent here: This is the second time that Moses and Aaron have asked Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go worship God. Back in Exodus 5, Pharaoh's reaction to their first inquiry was to reject it and immediately subject the Hebrew slaves to an increased burden on their labor. This paints Pharaoh to be some sort of short-fused ruthless oppressor. Yet in this second request, and all subsequent requests, when you might expect Pharaoh's impatience and anger to grow, we see no retaliation. Perhaps this is because God is using Pharaoh as a puppet. Or, perhaps this is because the storyteller got so wrapped up in the excitement of the plagues that he forgot what kind of character Pharaoh was supposed to be. Speaking of which...

The First Plague - The Plague of Blood (Exodus 7:14-25): God tells Moses that, because Pharaoh's heart is unyielding (due to God's own tampering), he and Aaron will change all of the water in Egypt, including the Nile River, to blood through God's power. If you have any doubts of how thorough this plague was, consult Exodus 7:19:
The LORD said to Moses, "Tell Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs'-and they will turn to blood. Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in the wooden buckets and stone jars." NIV
All of the fish died. The country stank. Blood was everywhere. Yet, we find in Exodus 7:22 that “the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts”. How is that possible? Even if the magicians technically knew how to change water into blood, where did they get the water for the metamorphosis? Anyway, Pharaoh's heart became hard, and he (implicitly) ignored the request and returned to his palace.

The Second Plague - The Plague of Frogs (Exodus 8:1-15): Seven days later, moving into Exodus 8, God has Moses and Aaron threaten Pharaoh with a plague of frogs if he doesn't let the Hebrews go to worship Him. Implicitly, Pharaoh rejects the request, and so the frog population explodes. Frogs are crawling and hopping, and presumably pooping, on everything and everybody. In Exodus 8:7, we see that “the [Egyptian] magicians did the same things by their secret arts”. This duplication seems a little more plausible than copying the blood plague, but still it's questionable how anyone would notice any more frogs showing up on the scene.

Pharaoh requests Moses to pray to stop the frog plague and tells Moses that he will let the Hebrews go worship. Moses does so, and all of the frogs, except for in the (possibly still bloody) Nile River, died. Egypt reeked from piles of frog carcasses. Pharaoh hardened his heart and disallowed the Hebrew worship request.

The Third Plague – The Plague of Gnats/Lice (Exodus 8:16-19): (The NIV says gnats. The KJV says lice.) Without any preface of a request for worship, God has Aaron initiate the plague of gnats/lice. All of the dust of Egypt got turned into gnats/lice, and the gnats/lice attacked men and animals. The Egyptian magicians tried to duplicate this plague as well, but they could not, and so they claimed it was God's handiwork.

I think I know why the magicians failed. This plague combined the impossibility of duplication of the blood plague (all of the dust was already turned to gnats/lice) with the imperceptibility of duplication of the frog plague (so many gnats/lice existed that it would be hard to tell if any more were added to the population). Combining impossibility with imperceptibility made success an improbability.

Speaking of duplication, one must wonder what was the purpose of God performing miraculous signs which could be duplicated? Being omniscient, God would have known that the magicians could copy the staff-to-snake, blood, and frogs. Why not go with an only-God-possible miracle from the beginning? It clearly wasn't to keep Pharaoh from having a change of heart, because God was going to keep that from happening.

The Fourth Plague – The Plague of Flies (Exodus 8:20-32): God has Moses and Aaron threaten Pharaoh with a plague of flies if he doesn't let the Hebrews go to worship Him, but this time God will treat the Hebrews differently than the Egyptians, in that the flies will not swarm in Goshen where they live. Implicitly, Pharaoh rejects the request and the plague of flies comes.

At this point, you may be wondering why didn't God spare the Hebrews from the previous three plagues as well. There's not really a good answer for this. My best guess is that God was so excited about punishing the Egyptians that He forgot about His people until He heard them complaining about the plagues. This certainly seems possible when you consider that God had to be reminded by the cries of the Hebrews to initiate this Exodus sequence.

Pharaoh requests Moses to pray to stop the fly plague and tells Moses that he will let the Hebrews go worship. Moses does so, and all of the flies leave. Pharaoh hardened his heart and disallowed the Hebrew worship request.

That's it for Part 1 of this four part series on the Exodus plagues. As you can see, Part 1 covered several story elements which were a bit quirky, and likely speak of the fictional aspect of the account. In Part 2, we'll attempt to answer the question: How many times can you kill a horse?

Friday, April 10, 2009

God's Plan for Redemption

Judgement and redemption have been redefined by Christianity, straying far from their original Old Testament meanings. As opposed to referring to the afterlife and relating to the Crucifixion, judgement and redemption were God-made acts which took place during people's lifetimes. This study showcases such an act.

The scene for this study is in Egypt. Per God's request, Moses and Aaron have just confronted Pharaoh, asking him to let the Israelites go worship God. Pharaoh rejects the request and adds more work to the Israelite's brick production quota. Because of their increased burden, the Israelites became angry with Moses and Aaron.

God's Plan for Redemption
God has His own Plans for what is to happen in the world. And even when He tells you what will happen, it may not occur the way you expect it to. God doesn't necessarily divulge all of the important details.

After God's long dialog with Moses, Moses thought he knew what God's Plan was. But it becomes obvious that Moses didn't know the Plan, or at least not the whole Plan. In Exodus 5, when Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh only to have the Israelites further abused and the blame for it put on Moses and Aaron, we find Moses questioning God in Exodus 5:22-23:
Moses returned to the LORD and said, "O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people? Is this why You sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and You have not rescued Your people at all." NIV
This seems like a reasonable question because things didn't go exactly how God had described them, at least not yet. But perhaps the most interesting part about this questioning complaint are the words preceding it: “Moses returned to the LORD and said”. Moses doesn't pray to God, and no “angel of God” pays Moses a visit. Instead, it seems God had some physical form and was hanging out somewhere where Moses knew how to find Him.

Moving on in the story, God answers Moses in Exodus 6:1-8. He tells Moses that now He will begin to fulfill His promise because He has remembered His covenant, and that Moses is fortunate to know God by name. Some key verses are Exodus 6:6-8:
"Therefore, say to the Israelites: 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as My own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.'" NIV
God will bring redemption to the Israelites. Does that mean that He has secured a place in Heaven for them? No. In fact, there's very little at all in the Old Testament which could even be considered a hint at such a redemption. Instead, God's Plan for redemption is to remove His people from oppression. It would take Jesus to enter the equation before redemption would take on the definition of absolving from sin and a happy-ever-afterlife. This contrast should be a warning sign that perhaps the Old Testament (OT) God and New Testament (NT) Jesus are not one and the same, but instead it is simply dismissed or considered as being a necessary component of Dispensationalism.

We see that the Israelites will be redeemed through mighty acts of judgement so that the Israelites will know that it is God that frees them from their Egyptian slavery. Of course, the bitter irony there is that it was through God's own mighty act of senseless cruelty (a severe seven-year-long worldwide plague) that brought the Israelites into Egyptian slavery to begin with! I'm not sure what God wants the Israelites to think of Him. Through His sovereign hand, He enslaves them for 400 years, letting generations go by which knew nothing but the hardships of slavery. And now, when He chooses, He greets the Israelites as a liberator. I'm sure that generation was happy about the redemption, but how could they forget that their parents and grandparents had died under the Egyptian yoke as part of God's Plan? The coming freedom would be a bitter-sweet consolation at best.

On a quick note, it is interesting that God had “swore with uplifted hand” to Abraham; yet another indicator that God was human-shaped (or visa-versa). Of course, that leads one to wonder what use were hands, legs, and other parts and appendages to God while He was floating around in nothingness for the eternity prior to God's invention of the physical universe where we now live.

Further into this study, God continues to talk to Moses in Exodus 7:1-5:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it." NIV
Again, like we saw in a previous study, we find that God will toy with Pharaoh. The extent of that toying is yet unknown, other than it will involve mighty acts of judgement and the death of Pharaoh's son. As opposed to a swift execution of judgement, God is going to go through several mighty acts to punish them. And it is clear that the intent of this incremental approach is not to give Egypt a chance to repent their sins, for God will see to it that Pharaoh's heart will be hardened to prevent this from happening to ensure that He is justified in continuing the punishment. I think that this should serve as yet another warning sign that OT God and NT Jesus are not one and the same. This is about as far from Jesus' call to repent for salvation as you can get.

Closing out this study, I think that it's profoundly interesting that God thinks that when He performs all of these mighty acts of judgement against the Egyptians that the Egyptians will know that He is God. If so, you would think that maybe afterwards the Egyptians would have rethought their whole polytheistic approach to religion. Instead, history suggests that their ways of worship went on unscathed by the thorough Godly thrashing they would receive.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Foreskin for Death

There have been some Bible passages which have struck me as laughably bizarre. In the way that truth is often stranger than fiction, these type of passages seem to provide circumstantial evidence of the Bible being an accurate record. Yet, these passages have left me hoping that they can not possibly be true because of the strange implications which could be gleaned from them. 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 has just partially revealed how He Plans on flaunting His power against Pharaoh.

Foreskin for Death
In Genesis 17:1-16, God gives Abraham the Covenant of Circumcision, as well as a new name. It is to be an “everlasting covenant” passed down from generation to generation (so I guess there will be circumcision in Heaven or on the New Earth!). It's a very strange Covenant, in that God would so “perfectly” design the human body only to have part of it ritually lopped off at His command. Children are to be circumcised at the age of eight days, long before they can decide for themselves if they would like to enter this Covenant. Summing up the importance of the circumcision, God says in Genesis 17:14 that “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken My Covenant.” But simply being cut off from your people would not be the only consequence for not getting circumcised, as revealed in Exodus 4:24-26:
At a lodging place on the way [back to Egypt], the LORD met [Moses] and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched [Moses's] feet with it. "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," she said. So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.) NIV
(Note: Where you see Moses in the brackets in this passage, the Hebrew text had simply used pronouns, such as “him”. So this could be referring to either Moses or Moses's son. However, the most commonly accepted interpretation is that it is referring to Moses, so that's how I will study it.)

This is about as bizarre as bizarre gets!

First, note that there is no mention of “an angel of God” or a burning bush, or anything to make you believe that it is not God in person, just like when God wrestled Jacob/Israel. God incarnate confronted Moses.

Next, we see that God is about to kill Moses. There is no dialog recorded between God and Moses at this moment. Nor is there even an expression of the reason for God's homicidal intent. Zipporah somehow knows what to do to calm God's rage, so she accordingly butchers her son's penis. Perhaps, then, we can implicitly guess that God had stood before Moses and said something like “Because you have not circumcised your son, I will kill you!”

Now, this was Zipporah's firstborn son, so she probably had not performed many circumcisions before then. I can just image the kind of hasty slicing and dicing she did, while God was watching over her back, to prevent the Almighty from slaying her husband. Talk about a high pressure situation!

Getting back to God, it's important to remember that God is supposed to be omniscient here. So God would have known that Moses's son the entire time that He was having the lengthy dialog with Moses about confronting Pharaoh. You would think that He would have said something like “and by the way Moses, you need to circumcise your boy before you leave to go to Egypt”, but there is nothing to that affect recorded or even hinted at. One can only conclude that God had Planned to have this dramatic foreskin showdown with Moses.

However, it is clear that God was ready and willing to kill Moses. If He had done that, then His Plans for liberating the Israelites would have had to change. But God already knows the future before it happens, because He Planned everything from the beginning. So God Planned on Moses not having had circumcised his son, and He Planned on having to threaten Moses to force the circumcision. But then, it would be inaccurate to say that God “was about to kill him” because it was all going according to Plan, and to kill him would have changed that Plan! It's really dizzying logic to puzzle through, and it's a fairly good case for this being a work of fiction as opposed to recorded fact.

On a final note, nowhere in the Bible up to this point does it claim that not circumcising your child is grounds for death. God seems to just be making up His own rules as He goes along. Or perhaps God has made all the rules, but just isn't willing to divulge them until some unlucky person becomes the target of His wrath for transgressing each of those hidden rules, just like we saw with Er and Onan. This is God's sense of justice.