Friday, July 31, 2009

Spare Change for Your Life

Every good Christian knows that in order to make atonement for sins, there must be bloodshed. That is why the blood of Jesus made atonement possible for all of mankind. Right? Not exactly. As it turns out, blood is not the only accepted currency of forgiveness, as we'll see in this study.

We're in the middle of a section of the book of Exodus where God describing exactly how He is to worshiped. Almost every detail is given; from the measurements and building materials of the Tabernacle to the clothing the priests were to wear. As we learned in the previous study, this was so important that one mistake could mean your death.

Spare Change for Your Life
Nearly anyone who has been involved with Christianity has heard the quote from Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death”. Impregnated in those words stand the Christian tenets that any man's sin makes him worthy of death at the hand of God, and also that he is worthy of either eternal termination of his soul or to suffer eternally in the afterlife (depending on the particular flavor of Christianity you are talking about). When you add on the also-popular Romans 3:23 quote, that “all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God,” you have reason to believe that God would be justified in killing (and possibly eternally torturing) everybody in the world.

Some sort of atonement was needed to reconcile all of this sin. Normally, atonement was done repetitively by priests sacrificing sin offerings. It was necessary for Jesus to come along and shed His blood to atone for all sins forever (Hebrews 9:11-28 and Hebrews 10). As Hebrews 9:22 puts it:
“In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” NIV
It probably would have been a good idea for the author of Hebrews to have consulted with God first prior to making such a bold statement, because it is, in fact, wrong. It is in direct contradiction with what God Himself said.

Back in Exodus 30:11-16, you will find that God accepted other forms of payment for sins. In fact, in this case it was a literal payment for sins. In these verses you will find that God says when the Israelites take a census, every counted person must “pay the LORD a ransom for his life” (Exodus 30:12). Or, in other words, each person must redeem their lives. And if they don't pay? God will kill them with a plague. We see that the Old Testament concept of redemption is quite different from the New Testament version.

Some may argue that this was not true atonement, or that this was really just a tax, but that position is hard to defend against the words contained in the text. For instance, we see that, despite their level of wealth, everyone is to pay the same amount when they “make the offering to the LORD to atone for [their] lives” (Exodus 30:15). It seems that forgiveness could be bought with cold, hard cash. Obviously, this did not go unnoticed by the Roman Catholic Church in the sale of Indulgences! ;-)

Also worth noting was the fact that this offer of atonement was rather limited. It only applied to those eligible to be counted in the census. As we see in Exodus 30:14, you had to be at least 20 years old. Perhaps children had a grace period? That would be good. However, what we learn from Numbers 1:18 when the census is actually conducted is a bit more dubious: only the men were counted. Given that women were not counted, women were not offered atonement for their lives. This draws into question whether or not there was an original plan for the redemption of women. While the New Testament gives women an equal footing for eternal salvation, these Old Testament verses and many others seem to suggest that women play a diminutive role to that of men.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I'll Be There with Bells On... or I'll Be Dead

One popular Christian mantra is that God judges people by what is on the inside; what is in their hearts. God would never judge a man by something as superficial a what he wears. Au contraire, mon frère.

In the book of Exodus, God goes into great detail about how He wants to be worshiped. Having described how to make the Tabernacle and the alters, it is time to discuss how the priests are to be dressed.

Moses's brother, Aaron, is going to be the high priest. Aaron's sons will also be priests.

I'll Be There with Bells On... or I'll Be Dead
There is a common axiom that “the clothes make the man”. Even God seems to agree with this sentiment, as He prescribed what His priests were to wear in exacting detail.

Taking a read through Exodus 28, there is little left to the imagination with regard to the uniform of a priest. To give the priests honor and dignity (Exodus 28:2), they were to have a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban, and a sash (Exodus 28:4). These were to be made with blue, scarlet, and purple yarn, with the finest linen, and gilded with gold (Exodus 28:5). There are details about each piece of clothing, including how to adorn them with gold chains, gemstones, and other decor. If you do not read Exodus 28, let me sum it up that the priests would have been some of the best dressed men around.

There are some rather interesting details of the priestly wardrobe which demand closer attention, but before we get into that, we should take a moment to consider something else. A couple of the things that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees about were wearing fancy clothing and loving the honor that they received (Matthew 23:5-7, Luke 11:43). It would then seem that God set this up to be a snare for His priests!

The breastpiece Aaron is to wear is not just an item of fashion. Instead, it has a function as well; it is the “breastpiece for making decisions” (Exodus 28:15). You see, the Urim and the Thummim were to be placed in the breastpiece, positioned over the heart (Exodus 28:30). What were the Urim and the Thummin? Even scholars are not completely sure, but it is known that they were used for divination, kind of like an ancient Magic 8-Ball. According to one theory, a simple question would be asked to God, and then the high priest would have reached into a small pouch to withdraw one of two discs, one representing an affirmative answer which the other representing a negative answer.

Perhaps the most wicked truth about this type of divination is that it “works” whether or not God is involved. As opposed to actually hearing God voice His knowledge, you had to take it on faith that God had influenced the outcome. That is scary when you consider that scholars believe this divination may have been used to determine a man's guilt (and associated death by stoning) at times.

The next stop on our guide to Godly apparel is the ephod. By far, the most important aspect of the ephod are the bells adorning its hem. How important? God tells us in Exodus 28:30:
“Aaron must wear [the ephod] when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the LORD and when he comes out, so that he will not die.” NIV
It did not matter that Aaron was the high priest and was performing service to God. If he did not have bells on, he would be dead. God would claim a fashion victim faster than you can say “burnt sacrifice”.

Sometimes the offerings to God were not the best. That is why Aaron's special turban was so important (Exodus 28:36-38). With a special gold plate on the forehead of this turban, anything Aaron offered for the Israelites would be acceptable. No Jesus required.

The final piece of the uniform described would actually be the first one put on. In Exodus 28:42-43, God describes how to make linen underwear which sound a lot like what we call boxers, or perhaps boxer-briefs. These manly trunks were not just a good idea, they were lifesavers. We see that if a priest did not have on this undergarment, he would “incur guilt and die”. Besides keeping you alive, they probably helped to prevent chafing too. ;-)

So we see that God is a stickler for details. You can not assume that just because your heart is in the right place that you will be accepted by God. In fact, something as mundane as having the wrong underwear on can mean a death sentence. You had better hope you are worshiping God correctly, and hope that you are properly dressed!

Friday, July 17, 2009

The False Temptation of Jesus Christ

What was God thinking? Some things in the Bible make you really wonder. This study covers one such enigma.

Immediately prior to where we will begin this study, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the shape of a dove.

During this study we will encounter the first mention of Satan/the Devil in the New Testament (NT). It is important to keep in mind that, corresponding with the canonical Old Testament (OT), the majority of Jewish scholars would have considered Satan (“ha-Satan” in Hebrew, which means “the accuser”) as an agent of God who was permitted to do no more than what was God's will for him to do. The role of Satan was to test men to determine whether or not they would obey or trust in God.

And as far as the source of evil goes, references in Deuteronomy, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah all seem to suggest that God is the source of both good and evil. That is what the majority of Jews would have believed at the time when Jesus supposedly entered the scene.

The False Temptation of Jesus Christ
Suppose that you have many children and that you love your children very much, but for some reason you are not able to be with them for an extended period of time. You are, however, able to assign someone to rule over them in your absence. Would you give that authority to the most evil person that you knew? That is basically what the Christian God did. In this study we will take a closer look at the anecdote where Jesus is tempted by Satan, and will flesh out the implications of these passages.

In Mark 1:12-13 you will find a very brief account of how, immediately after His baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert where Jesus is tempted by Satan for forty days. (See the footnotes for the significance of 40 days.) While the passage is small, there are a couple of huge issues with this text.

The first issue involves this question: Why would God (via the Holy Spirit), the epitome of good, lead His beloved Son into evil temptation? (Perhaps this is why in the Lord's Prayer Jesus included a prayer to God that He would not lead you into temptation!) The commonly accepted answer to this question is both so that Jesus could sympathize with our temptations and so that His sinless state would be all the more significant, as best relayed in Hebrews 2:18 and Hebrews 4:15. However, this is not a good answer because it feeds right into the next issue.

The second issue involves Jesus' status. By definition, God is sinless because sin is a transgression of God's will. Because Jesus was supposedly God, anything Jesus did is an act of God's will. So if Jesus did what Satan wanted Him to do, it would still not be sin.

Or consider that God is said to be perfect in His morality, and therefore He finds any wrongdoing utterly repulsive and would have only good desires. Given that Jesus is God, how would it then be possible to entice Him to do some evil? We are tempted because whatever the evil action is (or the gains from that action) which we are considering is enticing to us. If there is no enticement, then there is no real temptation. Saying that Jesus was tempted to sin is like saying that Jesus was also tempted to run at full speed into a brick wall. To this effect (and contradicting Hebrews 2:18 and Hebrews 4:15), James 1:13-14 sums it up well:
When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. NIV
Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 cover the temptation of Jesus in more detail, although in Matthew's version it seems that Jesus just fasted for forty days and then was tempted by the Devil, as opposed to being tempted by Satan during His entire time in the desert the way that Mark and Luke suggest. Beyond that, these two accounts are nearly identical besides a discrepancy in the order of the temptations. In both accounts, Jesus is hungry after the forty days.

Matthew 4:3-4 and Luke 4:3-4 have Satan tell Jesus that if He is the Son of God, then He should turn a rock into bread to eat. Jesus replies by quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3 that man does not live by bread alone. There are several things to note here. Reportedly Satan knows that Jesus is the Son of God, thus lending inherent credibility to the Jesus story (or at least that was possibly part of the author's intent). Of course, this also implies that Satan was aware of the plan for Jesus, again lending credibility to the story of Jesus. It therefore also implies that Satan knew that Jesus was God, and so Satan should have known that it was pointless to try to tempt Jesus! Perhaps the oddest thing in this temptation is that changing a rock into bread would not have been a sin!

In Matthew 4:5-7 and Luke 4:9-12 Satan leads Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem and tells him to jump off because angels will protect Him, but Jesus refuses and quotes from Deuteronomy 6:16 that you should not test God. With regards to the angelic protection, Satan quoted from Psalm 91:11-12 as if it applied directly to Jesus. However, when you read Psalm 91, you will see that it is not so specific. Instead, Psalm 91 implies that anyone who puts their trust and love in God will be (in poetic language) protected from all harm and will be ensured a long (not eternal) life. (The bitter irony is that neither Jesus nor the Christian martyrs through the centuries were protected by God.) One question about this affair which demands an answer: Why would Jesus permit Himself to be led by Satan anywhere at any time?

Moving on to Matthew 4:8-10 and Luke 4:5-8, Satan again led Jesus, this time up to a high mountain and he showed Him “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world” and offers them to Jesus if He will worship Satan, which Jesus refuses by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16. In optimal conditions, the range of visibility in earth's atmosphere is about 62 miles (100 kilometers). If the world's tallest mountain was in Jerusalem, you could not even see all of Israel from its peak with that level of visibility, let alone all the kingdoms of the world. Also, given that Jesus is God, everything already belongs to Him, so this is not much a real temptation. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this temptation is from Luke 4:6:
And [Satan] said to [Jesus], "I will give You all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to." NIV
Simply put, God gave Satan the rule over all of the kingdoms of earth. In case you think that Satan is lying, consider that the theme of Satan ruling earth is repeated multiple times in the NT, such as with John 14:30, John 16:11, Ephesians 2:2, Ephesians 6:12, and 1 John 5:19. Now imagine, if you will, a re-writing of John 3:16 as:
“For God so loved the world that He gave its rule over to Satan, the evil one, that whoever believes in him shall perish in the fires of hell.”
You may be wondering what the Gospel of John says about this episode of temptation. Nothing. In fact, John goes from John the Baptist seeing the Holy Spirit settle on Jesus (John 1:32-34) to saying that stating that “the next day” Jesus started to collect disciples (John 1:35-39). So much for Jesus' forty days of desert wandering!

Perhaps even stranger than John's omission is that this tale is included in the Gospels at all. There were no eyewitnesses to this temptation other than Jesus and Satan. Jesus did not yet have disciples at that time. Yet none of the Gospels relay the account as if Jesus had told them about this episode of temptation while they were sitting around a campfire. Instead, the account is inserted into the Gospels as if Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been around when it happened, and Matthew and Luke even have record of the words spoken! However, if the story is fabricated, then the chronologically telling of it, replete with dialog, would be natural. Furthermore, it would be natural that John (who was supposedly one of the Apostles) would miss this event in his record, because he probably did not have access to it.

If this story is fabricated, as the issues above seem to suggest, the reference in this anecdote to 40 days of fasting is likely an intentional literary device used to make a connection between Jesus and Moses. When Moses received the commandments from God, he was with God fasting on a mountaintop for 40 days. Tying into the legend of Moses would have lent credibility in establishing Jesus as the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:14-22.

Other forty-day references in the Bible include how long...

the rains of the flood last - Genesis 7:4
it takes to embalm Jacob/Israel - Genesis 50:2-3
Moses is with God on the mountain - Exodus 24:18
Moses is with God on the mountain - Exodus 34:28
it takes to survey the land of Canaan - Numbers 13:25
Goliath taunted the Israelites - 1 Samuel 17:16
it took Elijah to flee to the mountain of God - 1 Kings 19:8
it would take for Nineveh to be overturned - Jonah 3:4
Jesus was seen proving that He was alive again - Acts 1:3

Friday, July 10, 2009

Promises, Promises

We are at the end a list of God-given commandments in Exodus; God's first complete set instructions for mankind, or at least for the Israelites. Many of these laws reveal a just and merciful God, but we have also learned that God definitely approves of capitol punishment, has no issue with inequality under the law based on social class or sex, and was not at all interested in converting those of other faiths to follow Him. In fact, those who worship other gods were to be killed. This is how God is structuring the Law for His representatives on earth, and thereby showing the world His true nature.

Promises, Promises
Before we get to the heart of this study, there is one quick topic to cover. Near the end of God's first complete set of laws, there is a verse which does not get nearly enough attention. Do you think that God views men and women as equals? Think again. In Exodus 23:17, you find this:
"Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD." NIV
God doesn't require women to appear before Him, or even children for that matter. God only seeks a direct relationship with men. There are a number of practical reasons why the whole family would not be required to appear before God. However, with Christianity posturing that God's main goal is to “save” people for the life after death, there is then no logical reason which would prevent God from requiring that everyone appear before Him, men, women, and children, because the fleeting matters of this world are trivial when compared to the eternal next world. That is, unless God just simply does not value women the same as He does men.

All right, on to the main topic: promises. Immediately following the last commandment are promises about what God will do for the Israelites as they enter the Promised Land in Exodus 23:20-33, as well as some miscellaneous instructions and reminders for the Israelites.

God said He would send an angel with His Name in him ahead of the Israelites (Exodus 23:20-21). It's not clear who this angel was. Some scholars suggest it was Jesus, while some others suggest it was the Archangel Michael. Regardless of who the angel was, this angel had complete authority and power to act according to God's will (Exodus 23:22-23).

What was this angel going to do? At first, it seems like the angel would kill the present occupants of the promised land all by himself (Exodus 23:23). But then, in apparent contradiction, it seems that he would simply terrorize and confuse occupants to make them gradually flee at the approach of Israelites (Exodus 23:27-30). Either way, the Israelites were going to acquire the Promised Land with no effort.

This promised angelic action had a caveat; the Israelites had to obey God (Exodus 23:22). The books of Joshua and Judges contain a record of many battles fought by the Israelites while taking control of the Promised Land, so obviously the angel did neither of these two actions. However, the Israelites as a whole did not perfectly obey God, so this is not necessarily a broken promise. Yet God (or perhaps this angel) assisted the Israelites in many of the battles, just not consistently in the prescribed manner. So what does this mean, or what can we learn from it? What do you think?

In the midst this elusive promise is another one which is critical to understanding the Old Testament God and His Plan for mankind. In God's own words in Exodus 23:25-26:
"Worship the LORD your God, and His blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span." NIV
Simply put, if the Israelites worship God, they can expect long, healthy lives and lots of offspring. God is the original prosperity theology preacher. That is good, but did you catch what is missing? There is no mention of an afterlife. All of the rewards listed here are for their normal lives and are not eternal. In fact, the last verse essentially guarantees death after a long life. It does not make sense that God would fail to mention the best and everlasting reward of worshiping Him; an eternally happy life after life. Unless, of course, the concept of an afterlife was not yet invented by the mind of this Old Testament (OT) author.

One more quick note on this verse: God has control over sickness, miscarriages, and sterility. If you worship God and experience any of these issues, perhaps you are just not worshiping Him correctly. ;-)

Promises are made on both sides. In Exodus 24:3-8, Moses tells the Israelites all of the laws and other information which God had just provided. Moses also writes all of this down in the “Book of the Covenant”. All of the Israelites agreed that they would obey God.

Also in the confirmation of this covenant we see that there were offerings; burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls. Half of the blood of these offerings was put on the altar, while the other half was sprinkled on the (>>600000) people. It is somewhat interesting that this ceremony is performed with both burnt offerings and young bull's blood. After all, if the OT had shadows of what was to come in the New Testament (NT), why were there burnt offerings? And why was bull's blood used as opposed to lamb's blood, which would have provided more consistent symbolism with Jesus being the “lamb of God”? It seems like the OT authors didn't know the end from the beginning.

Perhaps the strangest part of this ceremony is what happened afterwards. Exodus 24:9-11 records how Moses, Aaron and his sons, and 70 elders of Israel went up on the mountain and saw God. God was standing on a pavement of blue crystals! It is yet another confirmation that God is shaped like a man. So much for the NT references saying that nobody has ever seen God (John 1:18, John 6:46, 1 Timothy 6:16, 1 John 4:12)! Perhaps even stranger yet is the content of the last verse; that “God did not raise His hand against...”, or in other words, God did not kill them for seeing Him. As in, normally God would have killed them for seeing Him. If your first instinct is to kill anyone who sees you, then you are probably not the epitome of love.

In Exodus 24:12-18, the matter draws to a close with Moses (and Joshua) going up to see God to get stone tablets containing the laws and commandments (which Moses had already recorded in the Book of the Covenant). It's somewhat amusing to see that God made Moses wait for six days before He let him into His Holy cloud (Exodus 24:16). Perhaps God was just trying to emphasize to Moses that He had complete control over the situation.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Killing and Sacrifice

Starting back in Exodus 20, God has been giving His commandments to the Israelites through Moses. These commandments are God's first complete set laws for mankind. They should tell us some truths about God. So far we have learned that God definitely approves of capitol punishment and has no issue with inequality under the law based on social class or sex.

What else will we learn about God? Let us continue our study of God's commandments.

Killing and Sacrifice
Nearly all Christians believe that Christianity is a religion of peace and tolerance. For the most part, it is. However, just like words can develop different meanings based on their usage by the general population, so too can religions stray from their original intents as their associated theologies evolve according to the times. Let us explore some of the foundation of the religion founded by the God of the Bible, who is, as we know from the Bible, also purported to be Jesus.

Exodus 22 continues on in a list of commandments given by God to Moses to be the legal foundation for His Chosen People, the Israelites. There have been many spirited debates about whether or not the laws in the Old Testament (OT) are applicable to Christians. Regardless of which side someone takes on this issue, it does not diminish the significance of these laws in revealing God's nature. After all, the Israelites were going to be, in essence, representatives of God on earth. God's sense of righteousness and justice was to shine through them, and one of the most obvious signs to outsiders of God's influence would have been these Godly commandments by which the Israelites lived.

As you read through the list of commandments, you will find that most of them are reasonable. They even include some laws established to be charitable, yet just, to foreigners, orphans, widows, and the poor. You will also find that the punishments are generally proportional to the crime; a hallmark of justice. (Of course, this is quite contrary to the one-size-fits-all eternal torture of Hell which many Christians believe to be the fate of the unsaved.) However, not all of these laws are so palatable.

Exodus 22:18 calls for the death of sorceresses (a.k.a. witches). This is somewhat funny, as there is seemingly no true power in sorcery. It is also somewhat tragic, given that this verse has prompted the slaughter of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in Christian-world witch hunts which occurred back in times when society was much more superstitious in general. However, Hebrew word used here may actually be more applicable to a user of poisonous potions, so perhaps this killing in justified. Or, perhaps in God's mind the power of sorcery came from demons, and therefore was an abomination to God. So maybe this is justified.

(It is strange that this law does not instead call for the death of anyone who practices sorcery, but rather seems applicable only to women. I have seen it explained that it really applied to both sexes, but mentioned only women because people generally would be more lenient in punishing a woman. However, such an interpretation stands in contrast to the format of the remainder of God's laws.)

In Exodus 22:20, God calls for the death of anyone who sacrifices to any other god. In God's defense, these were His Chosen People who were to be representatives of God, so it is perfectly reasonable for God to desire a show of unity and purity in the Israelites. On the other hand, the punishment demonstrates God's lack of mercy, tolerance, and patience. These pagans could have simply been expelled from the land of Israel, left to discover on their own that their false gods could not do anything for them, and thereby allow for a repentant person return to the one true God. Or, God could have withdrawn His blessing from these pagans to let their lives serve as living examples of why you should only worship God. Instead this text suggests that God of the OT was not really interested in making converts or allowing such repentance, paradoxically unlike the God of Christianity.

Speaking of sacrifices, there are some laws in this first set of commandments about sacrifices to God in Exodus 22:29-30:
"Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats. You must give Me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to Me on the eighth day." NIV
Note first that it is specifically the firstborn sons which must be given to God. Females were just not as valuable to God.

Then note that these firstborn sons are to be given to God just like the cattle and the sheep. This passage is a bit ambiguous, so you may need to reference Exodus 13:1-16 and Exodus 34:19-20. Unlike the cattle, the firstborn sons are not to be killed. Instead, they are to be redeemed, or in other words bought back, or in other words taxed by the Temple.

The Bible does not cover what happens if you are too poor to redeem your son, but it is possible that such a case would mean death for the son. There are many OT references where God condemns sacrificing sons (and daughters). However, these seem to exclusively deal with sacrificing children specifically in fire and to other gods. Perhaps God would approve of sacrificing a son to him, even as a burnt offering, such as like what almost occurred with Abraham's son Isaac under God's direction. Plus, let us not forget that even God sacrificed His own Son to Himself (1 John 4:10).

What makes this child sacrifice or redemption silly is that God ends up superseding these laws later on. In Numbers 3:11-13 and Numbers 8:15-18 you see how God instead swaps out the Levite clan for all of the firstborn sons of the Israelites. This change in the law happens within the lifetime of Moses and Aaron! It makes you wonder why the original law existed in the first place. Why would God change His mind, especially in such a short time frame? You are stuck wondering if either God is not omniscient and He does not have everything planned out from the beginning, or if the author was simply making the story up as he went along.