Friday, August 28, 2009

Hide the Good Stuff

From the perspective of Christianity, much of the Old Testament is said to contain shadows or symbols of what would become manifest through Jesus. So how God chooses His interaction with the Israelites should be of particular interest; which is why our study today reveals something rather bizarre.

Since receiving the Biblical Ten Commandments on the stone tablets, the Israelites have been busy constructing the Tabernacle, a portable temple, and all of its furnishings according to God's exacting details. Everything is complete, and now they are setting it up for the first time.

Hide the Good Stuff
As a kid, you probably loved getting a new toy. There was a certain excitement involved in ripping open a package and letting your imagination run wild on your new play thing. Fool! Do you know how much those toys would be worth today if you had left them in the package and hidden them away in the dark, protected from light and damage!?!? That's what God would have done, as we can see by His treatment of the Israelites' most sacred relics.

Presumably, God wanted to keep the Ark of the Covenant and Ten Commandments in pristine condition, because He made them inaccessible to almost everyone. In Exodus 40:20-21, you see that Moses placed the Testimony (another term for the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments) into the Ark, put the Atonement cover on, and then put the Ark behind a curtain within the Tabernacle.

(On a side note, Hebrews 9:4 says that the Ark also contained a jar of manna and Aaron's rod, but 1 Kings 8:9 and 2 Chronicles 5:10 say that only the stone tablets were in the Ark.)

The Tabernacle (described in Exodus 26, a.k.a. the Tent of Meeting and Sanctuary) was essentially a long tent within a fenced courtyard (described in Exodus 27). The tent was oriented east-to-west lengthwise, with its entrance to the east. At the west end of the tent was a section separated by a curtain. The eastern section was known as the Holy Place, while the western section is known as the Most Holy Place (a.k.a. the Holy of Holies). The Ark was to be put in the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:31-35).

Under normal circumstances, only the priests were allowed into the Holy Place. Under normal circumstances, only the High Priest was allowed into the Most Holy Place, and only once a year to make atonement on Yom Kippur (Exodus 30:10, Leviticus 16, Leviticus 23:26-32, Numbers 29:7-10).

(Their is much more to say about the process of the atonement, but we will cover that in a later study.)

The only exception to this would be when the Tabernacle was to be moved. Then the Kohathites (Numbers 4) were permitted to enter. However, as we see in Numbers 4:4-6 this was to be permitted only after the priests take down the shielding curtain and cover the Ark. Then the Kohathites could cover up the remainder of the Holy items and transporting all of the Holy items as necessary. Now, they were not permitted to look at the Holy items, or else God would kill them (Numbers 4:20)! So I guess they had to cover everything up with their eyes closed, and hope that they were completely covered to prevent accidentally seeing the items!

Hebrews 9 does its best to reconcile this liturgical design with God's Plan for Jesus. Unfortunately, it fails to address some of the major components of the design. For example, why would the High Priest only be allowed to meet with God (Leviticus 1:2) once a year when Jesus could do so at any time? And why would a loving God make Himself so unapproachable? And again, why would God want to hide away the proof of His covenant?

Speaking of hiding the evidence away, it is utterly bizarre that God would go through the trouble of providing these stone tablets only to keep them from being seen by anyone, concealed up in a special box which has the ability to kill any average person who sees it. What is the point of having something that nobody (common) can see? These objects were kept so private that they could have been utterly fictitious and nobody but the High Priest would have been the wiser.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Biblical Ten Commandments

The version of the Ten Commandments most people are familiar with are not the actual Biblical Ten Commandments. In a previous study, we saw how the popular version of the Ten Commandments had some rather barbaric punishments associated with them. In this study we will investigate the actual, Biblical Ten Commandments, discussing why they are the more legitimate version.

Prior to the time of this study, in Exodus 32 God had almost annihilated the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf. Then, in Exodus 33, God tells Moses that He will not go with the Israelites any more and will send them an angel instead. After camping out with God and chatting face to face like friends, Moses convinces God to change His mind to come along with the Israelites Himself. Finally, in a rather bizarre episode, God does a “fly by” and shows Moses His glory, but not His face (because God would have had to kill him if he saw God's face).

The Biblical Ten Commandments
An easy way to embarrass many Christians is to ask them to list the Ten Commandments. Every so often, you will find one who can recite the entire popular version. If so, ask them: “What about the commandment prohibiting cooking of a young goat in its mother's milk?” And if you get a coherent response, then you will know that you are dealing with a rare species: a Christian who has studied the Old Testament.

The term “the Ten Commandments” does not show up in the Bible until Exodus 34:28. Yet Exodus 20 is where the popular version of the Ten Commandments reside. Within Exodus 34, there are (coincidentally) Ten Commandments which have little correlation with the popular version.

But before we move into the Biblical Ten Commandments, there is a critical stop to make in Exodus 34 just prior to the little-known list. This stop is to see how God, in a rather pompous and humorous display, brags about Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:5-7:
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with [Moses] and proclaimed His name, the LORD. And He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." NIV
Far from the humble image of Jesus, here we see an egotistical God parading in front of Moses while calling out His own name and describing Himself in what He thinks are His best qualities.

It is interesting to see that God describes Himself as being “slow to anger” because you would be hard-pressed to find an example anywhere so far in the Bible. For example, a little while ago God became instantly enraged to the point where He wanted to kill all of the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf; an action which showcased God's quick, fiery temper and tendency not to forgive sin. God changed His mind only after Moses calmed Him down with logical reasoning.

The last sentence is the most revealing about God's Plan. God does not leave the guilty unpunished, but will punish several generations for the sins of a guilty father. This verse is contrived as justice for when wicked people manage to prosper and live comfortably all of their lives. God is essentially saying that justice will be served by punishing the guilty party's offspring in cases where the actual guilty party was not punished. In a time when family inheritance meant everything, this probably seemed fair. However, in our modern eyes, it assigns punishment to the innocent. And furthermore, it suggests that there is no afterlife or final judgement where such wicked people would truly be recompensed.

The Biblical Ten Commandments are issued in Exodus 34:10-28. There you will find the following:
  1. Be intolerant to the people in the Promised Land, and their religions. (Exodus 34:12-15)
  2. Do not make cast idols. (Exodus 34:17)
  3. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (Exodus 34:18)
  4. Sacrifice or redeem all firstborn males; livestock and people. (Exodus 34:19-20)
  5. Observe the Sabbath rest. (Exodus 34:21)
  6. Observe the Feast of First Fruits. (Exodus 34:22)
  7. Observe the Feast of Ingathering. (Exodus 34:22)
  8. Do not offer a blood sacrifice with leavened bread and do not let the Passover sacrifice remain until morning. (Exodus 34:25)
  9. Bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple. (Exodus 34:26)
  10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk. (Exodus 34:26)
You, like many people, may be wondering what that last commandment is about. A recent discovery in Ugarit suggests that cooking a young goat in its mother's milk was part of a agricultural fertility ritual where the mixture was spread upon the fields after cooking. So basically this was an invocation of a pagan god.

At the start of this section in Exodus 34:10, God says that He is making a covenant. In Exodus 34:27-28, God tells Moses to write down the words of this covenant, and it was the words of this covenant, this list of commandments which were written on the Judeo-Christian world's most famous stone tablets. The last verse concludes with the phrase “the Ten Commandments” and it is the first time the term is actually used in the Bible. These Ten Commandments are now commonly referred to as the Ritual Decalogue.

Most of these Ten Commandments are in Exodus 23, which is at the end of the list of commandments given to the Israelites which had begun in Exodus 20 with the popular version of the Ten Commandments (which are known as the Ethical Decalogue).

And finally, if you study the Biblical Ten Commandments, you will come to notice something. All of them are essentially instructing the Israelites how to honor God. At the heart of the covenant agreement is the sense of if you do this, then I will do that; if the Israelites honor God, then God will deliver the Promised Land to them.

Of course, to the skeptic it is only natural that the Ritual Decalogue, not the Ethical Decalogue, were carved in stone. Why? These commandments focus primarily on keeping the faith pure and providing offerings in the Temple. A pure faith (without competition) with mandated offerings is the most “enriching” faith for the priestly class, in the financial sense of the word.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Time Has Come

Jesus was supposed to be the fulfillment of many of the Old Testament prophesies. The Jewish Messiah was long anticipated, and expected to restore Israel to a Godly ruling, making the nation the most prosperous in all the world, among many other promises. Obviously this did not happen, but was that what Jesus was actually promising?

In the Gospel storyline, this study picks up right after Jesus was (falsely) tempted by Satan.

The Time Has Come
Around the time when Jesus reportedly appeared on the scene, many of the Jews were were anxiously awaiting their prophesied Messiah. In a previous study on John the Baptist, we discussed a couple of those prophesies which mentioned in the Gospels in connection to John the Baptist and Jesus. The Isaiah 40 reference suggested that the Jews had paid for their sins twice-over and that God was coming to rule them. The Malachi 3 and 4 reference suggested that God was going to send Elijah to get the Israelites ready for God's return to the Temple of Jerusalem, from where He would rule, because when God returned He was going to dole out purifying judgement, striking down evildoers. Matthew and Luke record that John the Baptist echoed the sentiments that a judgement was imminent.

Immediately after Satan tempted Jesus, Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that Jesus went to the land of Galilee, which was northern Israel. Mark 1:14-15 records that Jesus taught the people of Galilee that the “time has come” and that the “Kingdom of God is near”, and that they should “Repent and believe the good news!” What could that possibly mean? (Note: An exposition on the term “Kingdom of God” is covered in a later study.)

The “time has come” must be referring to something which was scheduled, planned, or, in this case, prophesied. That “time” could only reasonably be one of three options: at that instant, within Jesus' lifetime, or within a generation. Obviously Jesus did not mean at that instant, as the next sentence says that the Kingdom of God is near, not here. Jesus could not have meant within His lifetime, because, as the story goes, Jesus was killed on the cross before any Godly kingdom was established. That leaves the third option; that the prophesied Kingdom of God was coming within that generation.

Beyond just this interpretation of this particular verse, Jesus' own words throughout the New Testament support the idea that the Kingdom of God was coming within that generation:
This generation will be judged.Matthew 12:38-42,
Luke 11:29-32
Jesus will be ashamed of some people in this adulterous and sinful generation.Mark 8:38
Some people will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God.Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1,
Luke 9:27
All of the innocent bloodshed back to the murder of Abel will be avenged on this generation.Matthew 23:35-36,
Luke 11:50-51
This generation will not pass away before the Kingdom of God is established.Matthew 24:30-34,
Mark 13:26-30,
Luke 21:27-32

Turning now to Matthew's account, Matthew 4:12-17 has no mention of the time, but includes the part about the coming Kingdom, the “Kingdom of Heaven” as Matthew rendered it. In place of the time, Matthew adds a partial quote of Isaiah 9:1-2 and relating it to Jesus' time in Capernaum. Of course, that implies that the entire prophesy in Isaiah 9 applies, or at least Isaiah 9:1-7, and most Christian theologians do attribute it to Jesus. Isaiah 9:1-7 describes how some man will usher in a new era of peace, will rule Israel in the throne of David, and will have a government which expands beyond Israel's borders. (This prophesy is sandwiched between other Isaiah prophesies about how God is sending the Assyrian army to utterly destroy Israel, sending the survivors into exile.) This man is supposed to be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” and the “zeal of the LORD Almighty” will bring this peaceful government to fruition.

So let us review. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was coming during the generation which was alive at the time when Jesus was alive. The prophesies referenced thus far in the New Testament, Isaiah 40, Malachi 3 and 4, and Isaiah 9, collectively suggest a judgement of evildoers followed by the establishment of an eternally peaceful earthly kingdom, centered in Jerusalem, which expands beyond the borders of Israel, and is ruled by a man in David's throne and either directly or indirectly by God in the Temple of Jerusalem.

The generation which was alive concurrently with Jesus is long since dead. No great judgement has occurred. God is not ruling from the Temple of Jerusalem. Israel is far from being an eternally peaceful place. Yet today, about 2000 years later, Christians are still waiting for this false prophesy.

What about Luke? Well, Luke 4:14-15 does not mention the “time” or the coming Kingdom. Instead Luke 4:16-30 then moves into the tale about how Jesus gets no respect in His hometown. We'll cover this later, when the rest of the Gospels get to that event. ;-)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Repentant God, Part 2

Begin with the end in mind. That is popular buzz-slogan advice to help you become successful in your plans. Of course, we should be able to look to God as the inspiration for such good advice given that He planned the end from the beginning and that He is completely omniscient. God is supposedly in the unique position of knowing the exact consequences of His possible actions before He even takes the action, thereby allowing Him to make the best possible plans and decisions.

This is the second part of a study on God's repentance. The first part occurred many centuries ago in Bible-time in the book of Genesis, covering the Flood in the days of Noah. There we saw how God repented making man, and that His solution was to kill them all, preserving only Noah's family to repopulate the earth.

Now we are in Exodus, and, after receiving the laws which the Israelites were to live by and having the Israelites agree to follow them, Moses has been up on a mountain spending time with God, 40 days to be exact, while the Israelites waited for him to return to them.

Repentant God, Part 2
If God is omniscient in the past, present, and future, there is no need for anyone to council God in His decisions. He knows everything from every angle, and should therefore only plan to do the best possible action in any circumstance. Tack on God's supposedly perfect righteousness, and His instincts and actions should be flawlessly good. This is exactly why the story in Exodus 32 is so strange.

In Exodus 32:1-6 you will see how the Israelites became impatient while waiting for Moses. Moses had been up on the mountain talking to God for 40 days (Exodus 24:15-18) learning how God wanted to be worshiped. The impatient Israelites had Aaron make them a golden calf, and he announced that they were going to worship this gold cow with a festival the next day.

One of the most interesting verses in this passage is Exodus 32:4, because it says that this golden cow was to be the god which brought them out of Egypt. This would have been a big insult to God, and it contradicted God's laws to which the Israelites had all agreed. However, also note that it was the Israelites' impatient gratitude to God which was the catalyst for creating this idol, as evidenced by the call for a festival! Nevertheless, their overzealousness praise is not going to go over well with God.

In Exodus 32:7-9 we find God telling Moses that the Israelites are now worshiping a golden calf idol. God's nature revealed in His planned resolution to their idol worship, as seen in Exodus 32:10 when He tells Moses:
“Now leave Me alone so that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” NIV
This plot may seem familiar to you. Back in Genesis 6, men were so evil that God repented making man. His solution then was to kill everybody except Noah and his family with a legendary Flood. It seems that God's motto is that if at first you don't succeed, kill, kill again! Implicitly, through God's intended solution we can see that God repented bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, just like He had repented making man.

This challenges God's future omniscience. Consider that God would have known in advance that the Israelites would get impatient. God possibly could have prevented this idol worship by having Moses tell the Israelites from the beginning that he would be with God for 40 days, or perhaps by sending Moses down about halfway through the duration of his encampment with God to let the Israelites know that he would be done chatting with God in two to three weeks, and everyone should just relax. Instead, we see God lets the Israelites sit around with no information long enough to make them suspect that Moses may be dead (Exodus 32:1), which precipitates the creation of the gold calf.

However, the most significant contradiction to God's future omniscience, and to God's Plan for that matter, is the fact that if God had wiped out all of the Israelites at this point, then there would have been no King David! Moses is not in the lineage of King David (Matthew 1:1-6). To give you a perspective of why this is so important, consider that it was God's promise to King David (2 Samuel 7:8-16) that his kingdom would last forever which plays a central role in the Christian claim that the prophesy would be fulfilled by having Jesus in David's lineage and having Jesus rule forever in the afterlife. God's impulsive rage was poised to change Christianity forever before it had even begun. So much for sticking to the Plan. That is, if there was a Plan to stick to...

One more point to consider is that after the Flood, men obviously returned to there evil ways. There was seemingly not a net gain from the destruction of mankind. The lesson from the Flood is that killing everyone and starting over does not really make the situation better. (And perhaps this lesson has further implications to the Apocalypse and afterlife.) This lesson seems to have been lost on God, which challenges His true omniscience of the past and present too.

Now the story takes an even more bizarre turn. In Exodus 32:11-14 Moses convinces God not to kill all of the Israelites. Conceptually it is impossible to imagine God, with perfect omniscience and perfect righteousness, changing His mind about anything based on the arguments from an imperfect man, but things get even worse when you consider what Moses's arguments are.

First, Moses tells God to think about what the Egyptians will think about God, rescuing the Israelites from slavery just to slaughter them in the desert; as if God's own actions may be dictated by what people might think about Him.

Second, Moses tells God to remember His promises to which He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. This is perhaps the most condemning argument to God, because it shows that either He is willing to break His promises (as He was about to do by killing the Israelites) or that can He not remember everything at one time (like His promises), rendering his knowledge imperfect.

The conclusion of this story is not less bizarre. In Exodus 32:15-24, Moses comes down off the mountain with two stone tablets inscribed by God. When he sees the Israelites idol worship, in a fit of rage he smashes these tablets, an act which shows little regard for something made by God. After grinding up the idol and feeding it to the Israelites, he asks his brother, Aaron, how he could lead the Israelites to such a sin. Aaron, soon to be God's high priest (Exodus 28:1), lies to Moses by telling him that the golden calf just popped out of the fire (Exodus 32:24) as opposed to the fact that Aaron actually fashioned the calf himself (Exodus 32:4).

Moses decides that a greater punishment is needed than just feeding them the idol, so in Exodus 32:25-29 we see how Moses asks for volunteers who side with God. The Levites answer the call, and they slay 3000 of their fellow Israelites, including their own sons and brothers (Exodus 32:29). As a reward, they will be set apart and blessed by God.

Getting back to God, and to the end of the story in Exodus 32:30-35, Moses pleads to God to atone for the Israelites' sins, but God will not accept a substitute, and vows to punish their sin. God gives the Israelites a plague for their sins. The extent of the plague is not mentioned, but there is one thing for sure. Aaron, the leader of the Israelites while Moses was with God, the man that actually made the idol, and the one who orchestrated the festival to the golden calf, was not plagued by God due to his actions. Be it a lack of justice or an act of mercy, it is just another display of God's capricious nature.