Friday, March 26, 2010

When Is a Jew Not a Jew?

We are continuing through the Gospel storyline, still early in Jesus' prophetic career. At this point, we are in the book of John. Prior to this study, Jesus had a discussion with Nicodemus where He told him that he must be born again, and that Jesus is like the bronze serpent from the Old Testament. Then Jesus went for a walk, where, upon seeing Him, John the Baptist again proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah to one of his own disciples. Now, Jesus heads back to Galilee via Samaria, where Jesus meets a woman at a well.

It is important to know what Samaria is. Quickly, let us review the Biblical account. Jacob (who was renamed Israel by God) had 12 sons. These sons multiplied their families through generations into large tribes of Israelites.

In the process of taking over the Promised Land (which became known as Israel), the land got divided up by lot to each of the tribes except for the Levites, who lived in 48 towns scattered throughout all of the tribal lands. They were all one big nation until after King Solomon.

Soon after King Solomon died, a power struggle resulted in the northern tribes breaking off from the three southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon. The northern tribes retained the kingdom name of Israel, but also took on the name Samaria, which was the capitol city of that kingdom. Samaria broke off religiously too, instating pagan shrines.

The southern kingdom became known as the kingdom of Judah, also known as Judea, whose capitol city was the old capitol of the united Israel; Jerusalem.

When Is a Jew Not a Jew?
There are some passages in the Bible which are notable simply for their philosophical complexity. These cases spawn more questions than answers when their implications are pondered in detail. The shaky ground is not well suited for either believer or skeptic to claim a foothold with one hundred percent confidence. The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is just such a case.

We find the story of the Samaritan well woman in John 4:4-29, and the story continues on briefly after a short interlude in John 4:39-42. After running into John the Baptist again in Judea, Jesus makes His way back to Galilee where He stops near Sychar (Shechem), a city in Samaria and the site of Jacob's well. Jesus sends His disciples into town for supplies while He waits at the well.

A Samaritan woman stops by the well, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water. The Samaritan woman replies in John 4:9:
"You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" NIV
From this response you can derive two things. First is that the Jews and the Samaritans were not generally friendly to one another. Second is that there was some other reason why Jesus should not be asking her for a favor: she was a woman. Why else would she have added “woman” in her reply?

Jesus, ever humble, replies to her in John 4:10 that if she knew who He was (how important He was), she would have asked Him for “living water.”

The Samaritan woman replies in John 4:11-12. She cannot believe that Jesus can draw any water because He has no equipment. Then she asks Him if He is greater than her ancestor Jacob, who originally owned the well.

OK, stop there for a moment. This Samaritan woman is related to Jacob, as in THE Jacob, as in the one to whom God made promises... promises about his offspring... his offspring being the Israelites... the Israelites with whom God made a covenant... as in God's chosen people... the Jews.

Stepping back a couple lines in the dialog, it seems rather strange that when the woman said “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan...” that Jesus did not feel the urge to correct her, to say something to the effect that “no, you are a Jew too, and God made a covenant with you through Jacob.” Instead, it seems as though Jesus believes that not all Jews are Jews, but let us continue on in the story for more insight.

(Note that some commentators suggest that this woman was not actually a descendant of Jacob. They cite 2 Kings 17 where the king of Assyria conquered Samaria, exiled the Israelites from Samaria, and replaced them with people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim. However, Assyrian records of the exile, archeological evidence of the region, and DNA evidence of the populous all suggest an incomplete exile, leaving Israelites still in Samaria.)

Cruising through John 4:13-18, Jesus tells the woman that He gives water for eternal life. The woman says she wants this living water. Jesus tells her to get her husband, as if He needed to deal with her husband instead. The woman says that she has no husband. Jesus says that indeed she is five-times divorced and living unwed with a man now.

Next Jesus and this woman have a brief and odd discussion about where and how to worship in John 4:19-24.

The woman recognizes that Jesus is special to know such things, so she calls him a prophet, and then oddly remarks that her forefathers worship on Mount Gerizim, but Jews worship in Jerusalem (John 4:19-20). It is odd because it would have been so plainly evident to them; roughly equivalent to saying that the United States is on the North American continent, while Argentina is on the South America continent.

Anyway, Jesus seizes the opportunity in John 4:21-24 to say that soon it will not matter where you worship God, because you will worship God in spirit and truth. Stuck in the middle of this passage is this odd verse in verse John 4:22:
“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we [Jews] worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” NIV
Jesus gives us the impression that the Samaritans have a different religion, one where they do not know what they worship, but the Jews know God. Jesus goes on to exclude the Samaritans as if they were a foreign nation, saying that salvation is from the Jews. Jesus' attitude is probably consistent with the cultures at that time. However, His attitude is not consistent with God's attitude in the Old Testament.

In the Biblical record, the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) broke off from the Kingdom of Judah in 1 Kings 12. The Samaritans began idol worship immediately at that time, but God did not let them get away with it. God clearly considered the Samaritans under the Israelite covenant, and quite often punished them for their sins. You can tell that God still claims the Samaritans as Jews by how often He is angered by the sins the Samaritan leaders caused the Israelites to commit; as in 1 Kings 14:16, 1 Kings 15:26, 1 Kings 15:30, 1 Kings 15:34, 1 Kings 16:19, 1 Kings 16:26, 2 Kings 3:3, 2 Kings 10:29, 2 Kings 10:31, 2 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 13:6, 2 Kings 13:11, 2 Kings 14:24, 2 Kings 15:9, 2 Kings 15:18, 2 Kings 15:24, 2 Kings 15:28, and 2 Kings 17:21, not to mention all of the prophets and their prophesies pertaining to Samaria.

Back to the story at hand, the woman replies to Jesus that she knows that when the Messiah shows up, he will explain everything (John 4:25). Jesus then claims that He is the Messiah (John 4:26). So this woman is awaiting a Messiah from God, just like the Jews, and Jesus is the Messiah she was waiting for, but somehow according to Jesus she does not know what she worships? That just does not make sense.

In John 4:27-29, Jesus' disciples get back, and are surprised to see Jesus talking to a woman! (Note, they were not surprised that He was talking to a Samaritan, just that He was talking to a woman.) The woman leaves, goes into town, and tells everyone about Jesus.

Closing out the story, John 4:39-42 has Jesus stick around a couple days talking with the Samaritans. Because of this, many of them believed that Jesus was the “Savior of the world” they were expecting as the Messiah. Again, it is odd that these disowned, mystery-worshiping Samaritans somehow had the same vision of a Messiah as the Jews. Odd, if they were not Jews anyway.

In summary of this long and complicated study, it seems that there are four peculiar dynamics in the story of the Samaritan well woman if it is supposed to be true; the strained relationship between Samaritans and Jews, the customs of men talking to women, the Samaritans not knowing God and yet knowing Him and having the same prophesies, and the Samaritans being Jews and yet not being Jews. The former two dynamics can be explained as cultural mores of the era, and is even recorded in history. The latter two dynamics are sticking points because it simultaneously paints an image that the Samaritans know and worship God and yet they are not accepted by God and are no longer in His covenant relationship.

If we permit ourselves to consider if this is fiction, then these sticking point all gets easier to understand because inconsistencies in plots are nothing new to fiction. We can then observe the story as a whole as simply creative writing set to bolster and edify Jesus' image as the true Messiah. Plus, there is support to the theory that it is fiction within the story itself. After all, if Jesus' disciples had left Him by Jacob's well alone, who was there to record His conversation with the Samaritan woman?

Friday, March 19, 2010

How Many Levites Does It Take to Move a Tent?

Previously in Numbers, God decided that He will no longer require the Israelites to give Him their firstborn sons. Instead, He substituted the firstborns for the Levites, taking special care to ensure that the trade was fair. Now it is time to discuss what exactly the Levites will do for the priests.

How Many Levites Does It Take to Move a Tent?
There is a common expression for a scale of unbelievable degree: Biblical proportion. The Flood of Noah was a flood of Biblical proportion, for example. Who could imagine a flood so voluminous as to cover even the highest mountains all over the earth to a depth of greater than 20 feet (>6 meters) of water (Genesis 7:20)? This study covers another disproportionate episode, but in another sense.

Numbers 4 assigns the task of moving the Tabernacle to the Levites, and divides the labor among the three clans of the Levites.

The Kohathite clan is covered in Numbers 4:1-20. God tells Moses to count the Kohathites and assign them to the task of moving the most holy things (Numbers 4:1-4), but not until the priests completely cover up the holy things (Numbers 4:5-14).

You may be wondering why the Priests must first cover everything. It is because if a Kohathite touches any holy thing, God will kill that person (Numbers 4:15). They cannot even look directly at any holy thing without God killing them (Numbers 4:20). What else would you expect from a loving and merciful God?

Next, the Gershonite clan gets their assignment in Numbers 4:21-28. They will be counted as well, and will be assigned to move the curtains, ropes, and other coverings.

Let us take a small digression here. Numbers 4:25 mentions that one of the coverings is “hides of sea cows.” If you remember the study on clean and unclean things, you may recall that Leviticus 11:9-12 covers which lifeforms in the waters are considered clean. In short, it must have fins and scales. Anything else is considered detestable. Sea cows definitely do not have scales, so the holy Tabernacle is covered with the skins of detestable creatures! Quite a tangled web...

(Note that depending on which version of the Bible you have, “sea cow” could be interpreted as dugong, manatee, dolphin, porpoise, seal, badger, goat, or just plain leather. Modern scholarship and Hebrew sources lean towards some thick-skinned, detestable, sea creature.)

Back to the text at hand, and on to the last clan. Numbers 4:29-33 instructs Moses to count the Merarites and to assign them to carry the frames, crossbars, bases, tent pegs, et cetera.

From Numbers 4:34-49, we get the results of the census of the male clan members between the ages of 30 and 50 years old. There were 2750 Kohathites, 2630 Gershonites, and 3200 Merarites, for a grand total of 8580 Tabernacle movers. (Amazing that all counts end in “0!”)

In honor of the book of Numbers, let us run some numbers. Per Exodus 26, the Tabernacle was 30 by 9 cubits. Per Exodus 27, the Tabernacle was surrounded by a curtain-walled courtyard which was 100 by 50 cubits.

How long is a cubit? Cubits varied by location and era, but the sacred Jewish cubit seemed to be around 1.436 feet (0.4376 meters). Based on this conversion factor, the Tabernacle was 43.08 by 12.92 feet (13.13 by 3.94 meters), and its courtyard measured 143.6 by 71.8 feet (43.76 by 21.88 meters).

To put this in perspective, consider that the penalty area around the goal of a soccer field (football pitch) is 132 by 54 feet (40.23 by 16.46 meters), so the courtyard of the Tabernacle would be just a little bit larger.

Now try to imagine stuffing 8580 people into that courtyard space. Allotting the small area of 2 by 1 foot (0.6 by 0.3 meters) per person, you would need about 1 2/3 courtyards in order to do so. It is not that all of these Levite men would ever need to fit into the courtyard, but this illustration provides a reference point for pondering the quantity of these people.

You see, as described above, these Levites are responsible for moving the Tabernacle when necessary. The Tabernacle was not like a library, full of books or other items. Instead, the Tabernacle and its associated courtyard were mostly empty space. The majority of what needed to be moved was simply the curtain-walls and their supports. You have got an excessive amount of people for what needs to be moved, and the proportion is set to go further eschew as the Levites multiply from generation to generation. Compared to the required work, it is a labor force of Biblical proportions.

So how many Levites does it take to move a tent? 8580 sounds about right, at least to God. And the priests have the tough job of defining what each and every one of them must do individually (Numbers 4:19, Numbers 4:27, Numbers 4:32, Numbers 4:49).

OK. Michael, Raphael, and Hezekiah; you three carry this tent peg. Azrael, Obadiah, and Ahijah; you guys get this other tent peg...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Firstborn Substitution

We are near the beginning of the book of Numbers. It began with God telling Moses to conduct a census of all of the Israelites except for the Levites. God then tells Moses how the Israelites should set up camp around the Tabernacle. Now it is time to get back to the Levites as we study Numbers 3.

Firstborn Substitution
Imagine that you were setting up your own religion. Maybe you would make it so that you and your family were the only ones who could serve as priests, thereby keeping all of the money and power in the family. Next, you may want a bunch of people to do all of the hard work for you, such as maintenance and transport of your holy things. Perhaps you would assign them such a duty as their sole purpose in life. They would effectively be your grunts, your muscle, your slaves. Well then, you would have liked being a priest for God!

Back when the census was taken in Numbers 1, God told Moses to exclude the Levites in the count. Now we discover why that is in Numbers 3.

God tells Moses that the entire tribe of Levi will work for Aaron and his sons (Numbers 3:5-9). In Numbers 3:9, God makes it clear that the Levites are given to the priests as possessions. Aaron and his sons now have a army of slave labor at their beck and call. The Levites would belong to the priests, and therefore could not be called out for the army to spill blood. This is why the Levites were not included in the census.

God goes on the emphasize that only Aaron and his sons are to be the priests, and that anyone else who goes to the sanctuary should be killed (Numbers 3:10). Thus Aaron and his family secured their place in society with an open license kill any would-be competitor.

As we had previously discussed in Exodus, God claimed all of the firstborn men and cattle for Himself, demanding that firstborn males must be taxed, er, redeemed, payable to the priests. Well now it seems that God, in His infinite knowledge and omniscience, has changed His mind on His own rules. In Numbers 3:11-13, God decides that He will claim all of the Levites in place of the firstborns.

God is the consummate accountant though. So He tells Moses to first count up all of the eligible male Levites (Numbers 3:14-15). Moses does so, finding 7500 in the Gershonite, 8600 in the Kohathite, and 6200 in the Merarite clans of the Levite tribe (Numbers 3:16-37). This totals 22300 Levites, except that in Numbers 3:39 the Bible tells us that it totals 22000 Levites, and we all know the Bible is infallible, so we should go with 22000.

Next, in Numbers 3:40-43 God tells Moses to count up all of the eligible firstborn Israelites. He does this, and comes up with 22273 firstborns.

Oops! There were too many firstborns. Not to worry though. Numbers 3:44-51 explains how God will settle the account. God tells Moses to collect 5 shekels from each of the families corresponding to the 273 extra firstborns. How Moses decided who had to pay, it does not say. According to God's will, Moses collects the roughly 35 pounds of silver redemption and gives it to Aaron. It is good to be the priest!

So God settled the account, and what a strange account it was! It showed a monetary exchange for redemption, an inability to count, and ultimately a cancellation of a rule which omniscient God had made just months prior. Go figure.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Protection from God, but Not in That Way

This is the first study in the book of Numbers. At the conclusion of the previous book, Leviticus, the Israelites were informed by God that there would be blessings or curses which came to them, depending on how well they obeyed God's laws. That, and God defined the value of a man.

The book of Numbers begins appropriately with numbers in a census of the Israelites. The odd twist at the end of the counting is the highlight of this study.

Protection from God, but Not in That Way
It is not unusual to hear a prayer request seeking protection from God. Whether the protection is from the ravages of cancer for a mother or from the horrors of war for a son, the faithful solicit God's mercy and divine benevolence. However, the Christian message of Salvation reminds us of what should be paramount in prayer requests: protection from the wrath of God Himself. This same lesson could be learned many, many times over from studying the Old Testament, such as we see in this study.

The book of Numbers starts off with numbers. Go figure! God tells Moses to take a census of the Israelite men who are suitable for the army and provides Moses with a list of clan leaders who should assist him with the census (Numbers 1:1-16).

You may think that it is a bit strange for God, who knows the number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30), would tell Moses to count the Israelites. Why would not God simply tell Moses how many there were and save the hassle of manual counting? It is not like you need to know your military strength when God is on your side (Romans 8:31).

There are two implied reasons for this census. First is that the counting was done by clan, and clan identification would play an important role later. The second is that taking a census meant collecting money!

In Numbers 1:17-46, the clan-by-clan census totals are revealed. Miraculously, all twelve of the clan counts end in a zero. Also miraculously, the total count is 603,550 men who were 20 years old or older! (At the census tax rate given in Exodus 30:13, this census would have collected about 3.75 tons [3.4 metric tons] of silver!) Adding on women and children, you could conservatively estimate that around 1.5 million Israelites were supposedly wandering in the desert.

Wait, that 603,550 number sounds familiar... Oh ya, that was the same number from the census taken in Exodus 38:25-28. The Exodus census was taken sometime between the third month (Exodus 19:1) and the first month of the second year (Exodus 40:17) after leaving Egypt. This second census of Numbers was taken in the second month of the second year (Numbers 1:1). Given the same net result, this seems to make the Numbers census senseless, except for gathering money. We all know God needs money.

What makes these double counts double odd is that the Numbers census did not include the tribe of Levi, because God said not to count them (Numbers 1:47-49). So did the Exodus census include the Levites, but the Numbers census did not, meaning that miraculously the exact count of the Levites were covered by children who were born between the times of the two countings? Or did the Exodus census exclude the Levites as well, and it was miraculous that despite having 1.5 million people, the net count remained steady? Or maybe this census in Numbers is actually a retelling of the same one in Exodus, despite the different dates.

The real twist comes in Numbers 1:50-53, where you learn why the Levites are not counted. It is because the Levites are God's body guards. They move and care for the big tent where God lives, known as the Tabernacle. If anyone else who comes near the Tabernacle while in transit, the Levites are to kill them (Numbers 1:51). Furthermore, the Levites are to camp around the Tabernacle, because otherwise the Israelites will face the wrath of God (Numbers 1:53)!

Rightly to end where I had begun, here we see another example of how people need protection from the wrath of God. How could they warrant God's wrath? Their sin could be as trivial as literally getting closer to God. Salvation from God's wrath is a consistent message from the Old Testament to the New Testament. However, as we have seen in this study, the great openness of the loving invitation from God which is portrayed in the New Testament is severely lacking in the Old Testament. Instead, the Old Testament God would rather keep people away.