Friday, January 29, 2010

Jesus: Like a Serpent

We are studying the Gospel of John, and we have now come to what is likely the most popular, most quoted verse in all of the New Testament, aside from those verses used in liturgy. Immediately prior to this, Jesus was amazed by the fact that Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus meant when He said everyone must be born again to see the Kingdom of God. In this study, we will continue with Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus right where we left off.

Jesus: Like a Serpent
Do you know what a mixed metaphor is? It is like shooting fish in a barrel of monkeys. The Bible has at least one mixed metaphor, and it is, well, of Biblical proportions! Many Christians are completely unaware of this little gaff because of the beloved verse which appears almost immediately afterwards: John 3:16. So let us take a moment to examine the context surrounding the succinct summary of God's love found in John 3:16.

John 3:13 starts off by saying nobody has gone to Heaven except Jesus. That makes for an interesting conundrum. You see, according to the Old Testament, at least two people have gone to Heaven. Enoch, who simply disappeared and is thought to have been taken to Heaven (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5), and Elijah, who rode to Heaven on a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) make Jesus' words seem untrue.

One way for these verses to be true is for Jesus to have walked the earth embodied as Enoch and Elijah. However, Elijah supposedly came back to earth as John the Baptist (Matthew 11:7-15, Matthew 17:10-13, Mark 9:11-13), to prepare the way for Jesus! So Jesus made the way for Jesus? It is possible, given Jesus is God, but it does not logically add up.

Then for something completely different, John 3:14-15 takes a completely different path:
"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life." NIV
What was that first part, the part about Moses lifting a snake in the desert? Oh, you will find that charming story in Numbers 21:4-9. It starts out with the Israelites having the nerve to complain about God and Moses for leading them into the desert, where, like dogs, they have eaten the same thing for every meal for untold number of days, and where they are parched because they lack water.

God punishes them for complaining by sending either poisonous snakes or fiery serpents (depending on your Bible version) to attack them. The snakes/ fiery serpents kill many Israelites. The Israelites repent. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake/ fiery serpent and mount it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten by the snakes/ fiery serpents would live if they looked at the bronze figure. (By the way, the American Medical Association's symbol is a snake on a pole. That is not just a coincidence.)

Here is where the mixed metaphor comes into play. A major metaphor of Christianity is that the snake, the serpent is Satan. Check out Revelation 12:9-15 and Revelation 20:2. That metaphor gets tied back into the story of the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 by 2 Corinthians 11:3. In other words, the same accursed animal used as a metaphor for Satan in now used as a metaphor which foreshadowed Jesus by John 3:14!

Maybe we should look at it another way? The snakes/fiery serpents were sent by God as punishment; they were God's wrath. God had Moses make a symbol of the embodiment of that wrath out of bronze (an impure metal) and mount it on a pole so that people would see it and live. On the other hand you have pure and holy Jesus, symbol of God's love for man, subjected to the wrath of men, nailed to a cross, where simply looking at Jesus would not grant Salvation, but rather believing in Him and His death for your sins. So you can see that the situations are pretty much identical. Not!

Now, what if the snake event was really meant to foreshadow Jesus? Perhaps if the omniscient God had instead told Moses to make a bronze lamb, symbolizing the Lamb of God, Jesus, it would have matched better. Or perhaps if God told Moses to tell the Israelites that they needed to repent of their sins and believe that God is merciful, and then they would survive the snake bites, it would have been a powerful foreshadowing. Instead, the message we find is a bit garbled.

John 3:16 goes on to say that God so loved the world that He gave us Jesus, so that anyone who believed in Him would be Saved. Of course, let us not forget that what we are saved from. It is not an imminent car accident, or falling of a cliff; no coincidental danger or force of nature. It is being saved from the wrath of God, and in that sense the reference to the story from Numbers 21:4-9 does coincide. Looking at the bronze snake saved people from God's wrath, just like believing in Jesus supposedly does.

It cannot be understated that wrath is an act of volition, just like mercy. God chooses where and when to apply His wrath. God is not subject to any rules but His own desires.

So as you read the verses of John 3:17-21 which expounds upon how God sent Jesus to Save the world through Him, and how those evil-doers who do not believe this already stand condemned, it would be good to remember that God has chosen to condemn them. It was not necessary to do so.

Remember this fact as you walk around and realize that the majority of the people you see will not be Saved; per Jesus' own words in Matthew 7:13-14, only a few will make it through the narrow gate. Consider if God's Plan to use Jesus to Save the world was really all that effective.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Kill the Blasphemer

After addressing some rules and regulations associated with the priesthood for a couple chapters, roughly two-thirds into Leviticus, God gets back the laws for everyone.

Leviticus 23 lays out more ordinances for various holidays, including a promise by God that He will kill anyone who works on the Day of Atonement, which neither shows love nor foreshadows the day Jesus would supposedly provide atonement for the world.

Leviticus 24 continues on with laws about offering oil and bread to God on every Sabbath. Then an issue arises which needs to be addressed...

Kill the Blasphemer
It is tough being God. After all, you cannot please everybody all of the time. The hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes you orchestrate, or at least permit to happen, seem to make some people unhappy with you. The paths where you lead people may not be easy or comfortable, causing some people to question your wisdom and providence. Yet because you are omniscient, you know it is all going according to plan and will work out for the best.

So what do you do when someone curses your name because they do not agree with the way you are running things? Laugh it off, amused by the impotent, angry screams of your creations? Enlighten a prophet to teach them your ways? No. Not if you are the God of the Bible. This God, has zero tolerance.

In Leviticus 24:10-24 you find the story of a half-breed son, the product of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother. One day this half-breed gets into a fight with a full-blooded Israelite, and he proceeds to blaspheme “the Name” of God. That does not go over too well.

As you may remember from the popular version of the Ten Commandments, God prohibits blasphemy, but He did not say what to do about it back when He provided the commandments. So, upon hearing that this half-breed blasphemed, some Israelites took him into custody and then sought out God's guidance from Moses. This is part of God's reply, from Leviticus 24:15-16:
"Say to the Israelites: 'If anyone curses his God, he will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death." NIV
In Leviticus 24:17-22, God goes on to provide some general rules of justice with His reply. It boils down to repaying injustice with the same kind of punishment. Take a life for a life. In Leviticus 24:20 is the famous “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” line. The exception is if a man kills an animal owned by his neighbor, he must simply pay for the animal instead.

Of course, that turns God into a hypocrite. In the same breath, God is saying to kill someone who speaks badly of Him, and then says that you repay injustice with like punishment. Clearly, this bad-mouthed half-breed did not kill God, because God keeps popping up in the rest of the Bible, including the quoted verse immediately following the incident! So how can it be justice that God demands his death? Well, that is God's justice. God has different laws for Himself, just like he has different laws for the priests.

The chapter closes out with the half-breed being stoned to death by the Israelites in Leviticus 24:23. You can always count on the Bible for a happy ending.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Be Clean, or Be Dead

Previously in Leviticus, we saw that God defined some rather-limited restrictions on the priesthood. Continuing on in our study of the book, we take a quick look at a potential hazard of the priesthood.

Be Clean, or Be Dead
It is not enough to demand devotion and love. Really, those are the minimum requirements. God also wants worship, but not just any worship. You have got to perform prescribed ceremonies exactly as given, or else God will kill you. You have got to wear special clothes to worship, or else God will kill you. Yet there is one more detail to cover; cleanliness for worship. Enter Leviticus 22.

In Leviticus 22:3, we discover that any priest who comes near the sacred offerings to God and yet is ceremonially unclean must be “cut off” from God's presence. As we discussed in the study on Leviticus 20, it appears that “cut off” is likely a euphemism for being killed.

In case you do not remember some of the many things which can make a person ceremonially unclean, Leviticus 22:4-8 provides some examples. These include having an infectious skin disease or a bodily discharge, touching something defiled by a corpse or defiled by a man who had ejaculated, or perhaps touching a “crawling thing” or eating food torn by wild animals. If he does any of these things, he must bath in water and then wait for the sun to go down before going near the sacred offerings.

Just to reiterate the sentiment of Leviticus 22:3 to “cut off” transgressors, Leviticus 22:9 goes on to say that if the priests do not keep these requirements, they will incur guilt and die. It does not say how they will die, but the inference is certainly that it will be an untimely death.

Let us take a moment consider why God is so anxious to kill His priests.

Many Christian commentators like to boil this down to there being a right way to worship (as defined by God) and a wrong way (anything else), and so worshiping the wrong way is a sign of rebellion or disrespect to God. It is a sin like any other, and as we know, the wages of sin is reportedly death. So they are deserving of death, right?

However, do not forget that God is our heavenly Father and the epitome of love. Such a condemnation does not seem fitting for those roles. For example, imagine telling your child draw a picture with a beach, and umbrella, and the sun. Imagine your child draws a picture of the beach with towels laid out on the sand and seagulls in the air with a red sun in the background. Would you rip up your child's picture in front of him and berate his inability to follow directions? Would you slay your child for not following directions? God, I hope not. Any God who would take such extreme measures is far from showing fatherly love.

So, if this is a false religion, why are there so many Biblical reasons to kill errant priests, and why God be portrayed as taking the initiative to kill errant priests?

One reason may be to discourage entrepreneurial people from setting up their own priesthoods, and thereby taking away market share. Who wants a job where one false move could bring your death, like being on a bomb squad?

Another reason may be that any number of claimed transgressions could be used to justify slaying a priest who threatened to reveal the dirty little secret that this was a false religion. You would not want all of the priests to be in on the secret due to the risk of that information leaking out. So those who discovered the secret would be dangerous, and would need to be taken care of one way or another.

A third reason may have just been to commiserate the priesthood with the laymen to reduce feelings of jealousy. Not many people want to be on a bomb squad, and not many people object to the wages that the bomb squad gets paid. Likewise, the laymen probably would not object to the priests wearing the finest clothes and eating the best food given that they are putting their lives on the line.

These reasons are just speculation. It may be that the laws which restrict, by penalty of death, the priests are actually the best evidence for these laws being from a real God. If so, that has some rather disturbing implications drawn from the other laws, as we have seen in the previous studies.

For extra reading, check out the remainder of the chapter, Leviticus 22:17-33. That you will find that God will not accept offerings with defects, especially testicular defects, as well as a few more regulations for offerings and a plea against blasphemy.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Cost of Priesthood

We are continuing through the book of laws known as Leviticus. It has been a strange journey. Recently we learned about loving your neighbor, abstaining from blended fabrics, and possibly killing couples who have sex when the woman is menstruating. With such important topics out of the way, it is time for God to reveal what He expects from His priests.

The Costs of Priesthood
Being one of the priests of God would have been a great honor and privilege. They were held in high esteem among their fellow Israelites. They ate the best food for free. They even got to wear the fanciest clothing and be surrounded by gilded furnishings. However, there were some costs associated with the priesthood.

According to Leviticus 21:1-4, priests could not mourn for the dead like the common people did, which usually meant making yourself unclean, letting your hair grow wild, tearing your clothing, etc. The only exceptions were for his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister. Apparently once your sister got married, you were not supposed to care about her as much. Nice.

Per Leviticus 21:5-6, priests cannot shave their heads, cut the edges of their beards, or cut themselves. Why? Because they need to be Holy because, by fire, they offer “the food of their God.” What is funny is that God already prohibited these actions for all people in Leviticus 19:27-28, all except the head shaving part anyway. Maybe God forgot about that, or maybe He just wanted to emphasize this point.

With Leviticus 21:7-8 and 21:13-15, we see that the priests could not marry non-Jews, prostitutes, or divorced women, because that would defile them. It is nice to see that God ranks non-Jews and divorced women right up there with prostitutes. :-P Instead, priests can only marry virgins from their own people.

If a priest's daughter became a prostitute, she had to be burned to death (Leviticus 21:9).

The high priest had some special requirements regarding the dead (Leviticus 21:10-12). In particular, he was not allowed to show outward signs of mourning and he could not go anywhere that there was a dead body. The high priest could not even leave the sanctuary to mourn for his father or mother. Why? Because that would make him unclean, and he had been dedicated to God with anointing oil.

This mourning law appears to be good evidence to suggest this could actually be God-given material. Why would a man writing these laws for himself restrict himself from mourning for the death of his own parents?

There is no blatantly obvious reason which would make these restrictions easily fit into the concept of man-made laws. However, this may speak to the type of religion which was being established. It is a religion where God has absolute dominion. That means that when someone dies, God has killed them. Maybe God motivated an enemy or wild animal to attack. Maybe God smote them with disease, or simply snuffed out their life. Any way it happens, God has taken their life. So it seems somewhat logical for the creator of such a religion to restrict the priesthood from mourning deaths, as they are the very will of God.

This same attitude is further reflected in the laws of Leviticus 21:16-23. As opposed to the come-as-you-are attitude of Christianity, the Old Testament God does not want anyone with a defect near Him. Blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled, hunchbacked, dwarfed, eye defects, festering sores, or damaged testicles? Stay back from the curtain of the Holy of Holies and the Altar, and do not try to make an offering to God. Far from being viewed as someone who only values the inner beauty, God is portrayed as a deity with an eye of disdain for physical imperfections. In those days, such imperfections were viewed as curses from God, so naturally God would not want such a person serving Him.

Ultimately, we see from this study that the priesthood, and the High Priest in particular, was not without restrictions. It is unusual for an elite class to apply restrictions to itself. However, in this case, these restrictions appear to aid in promoting the power of their professed deity. So while there were costs associated with the priesthood, the costs were limited and were beneficial to fostering faith in the religion.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Born Again Into Misunderstanding

At this point in our New Testament studies, we are following the Gospel of John through a stretch of passages which are not recorded in the other three Gospels. Jesus turned water into wine, cleared the Temple in Jerusalem of moneychangers the first time (more on this later), and said that He would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.

Born Again into Misunderstanding
Imagine being omniscient to everything that has even happened. Imagine knowing every action, every thought, and every feeling of every living being that has ever been. Imagine being God, which in Christianity also means being Jesus and the Holy Spirit. You would think you would know human behavior very well; what motivates them and what leads them to learning versus what leads them to confusion. Well, that does not seem to be the case.

In John 3:1-12, you find the story of how Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee, meets with Jesus one night. Nicodemus tells Jesus that the Pharisees know that He is from God because of the miracles He has performed. It's not known if Nicodemus was acting like an ambassador of good will for the Pharisees, nor what the real purpose of the visit was, nor why the visit happened at night.

All of these questions are swept aside with how Jesus replies to Nicodemus. According to John 3:3, it went like this:
In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again." NIV
It is interesting to note that while Jesus thought being “born again” was essential to Salvation, you will not find a single mention of it in the other three Gospels. Strange, no?

Jesus does not feel the need to elaborate, so Nicodemus questions how a man can be born again (John 3:4).

Jesus replies in John 3:5-8 saying that a man needs to be born of the “water and the Spirit” to enter the Kingdom. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he should not be surprised at His saying that a man must be born again, and then goes on to point out that Nicodemus cannot explain the mysteries of wind, and that is how it is with born again people.

The big question to answer is why Jesus does not understand Nicodemus' surprise. You see, the Bible appears to reveal that there are possibly three integral parts to any person; body, soul (1 Samuel 1:10), and spirit (Psalm 31:5). However, note that often soul and spirit are often used interchangeably, muddying any sort of distinction between the two (Job 7:11). All three (or perhaps just body and a unified soul/spirit) are tied together upon birth. So based on the Bible, flesh gives birth to flesh, plus soul, and plus spirit, not as Jesus said, that flesh only gives birth to flesh (John 3:6).

Most Christians take this to mean not a literal birth, or creation, of the spirit at that time. Instead, it is considered to be a spiritual awakening. That is not a difficult concept to convey. Consider how well Ezekiel 11:19 does so. You would think that Jesus could have explained it as such to make it clear to Nicodemus. Nope. Instead Jesus uses vague metaphorical language and then marvels that Nicodemus does not understand what He is talking about. Obviously, Jesus was not a really good teacher.

Nicodemus, still (understandably) confused, asks Jesus to clarify what He means (John 3:9).

Does Jesus, the good teacher, explain any further? Not at all. Instead, Jesus marvels some more, and possibly mocks Nicodemus; amazed by the fact that Nicodemus is “Israel's teacher” and yet he does not understand what Jesus is saying (John 3:10). Jesus then brags about His credentials (John 3:11) and then goes on to say that if Nicodemus cannot believe the earthly things Jesus has said, how can he possibly believe any heavenly things Jesus might speak about (John 3:12).

Normally, most Christians remark that this episode shows how flawed the thinking of the Pharisees was at that time. They were so mechanical, so ritualistic in their worship and understanding that they could no longer grasp the spiritual component of their relationship with God. That is a rather short-sighted explanation for the episode which does not explain the whole dialog. For example: it does not address Jesus' treatment of Nicodemus.

There are a few possible explanations to explain Jesus' actions.

The first is that Jesus did not have any real desire to teach the Pharisees. He chose to give Nicodemus a couple of metaphors which he could not understand, and then mocked him for not being able to understand them. That seems rather mean-spirited, but it does follow a Biblical pattern because it is similar to how Sampson told a riddle which he knew nobody could answer in order to win 30 pairs of linen clothes (Judges 14:8-19).

The second is that Jesus did not want to everybody to understand, and therefore purposely gave out vague metaphors instead of being clear. There is supporting evidence for this opinion, as we will see in a later study on why Jesus spoke in parables (reference Matthew 13:10-17). Plus, despite Nicodemus asking for an explanation, Jesus simply dodges the inquisition and comments about how he does not understand. This plays into the theme of Gnostic Christianity, that there is a certain knowledge to be sought in order to be Saved, or perhaps more properly, Enlightened.

The third is that Jesus simply did not understand what leads people to learning versus what leads them to confusion. This is supported by the context of this tale, as we see relayed by Jesus' marveling at Nicodemus' misunderstanding. It is as if Jesus is saying “I explained it so fully that anyone can understand, and yet you do not. How is that possible?” Yet from the information which is recorded, Jesus' message is far from being robust in communication.

So, take your pick: Jesus wanted to exclude the Pharisees. Jesus wanted to exclude lots of people. Or Jesus does not understand how we think. None of these are very appealing options for God. They make Him either unforgiving or non-omniscient.