Friday, April 30, 2010

Need Help? Go Blow a Horn!

One fourth of the way through the book of Numbers, God established that celebrating the Passover was mandated by law, and that those breaking this law without a good excuse were to be killed. Now, in a mostly unrelated topic, God moves on speak about trumpets.

Need Help? Go Blow a Horn!
It is amazing. Sometimes you cannot remember anything until something triggers that memory; a place, a smell, a sound. Then you can remember every detail. You would not expect to need to remind God, given that He has perfect knowledge. However, as we will see in this study, you would be wrong.

Taking a closer look at Numbers 10:1-10, we see that God instructs Moses to make a couple of silver trumpets to use as a system for organizing the Israelites. Sounding one trumpet will call the leaders together. Sounding both trumpets will call everyone together. Various trumpet blasts will call for the Israelites to move out by encampment. Nothing is of out of the ordinary there, at least not until the last three verses.

In Numbers 10:8, we read that only the priests were allowed to blow the horns, and that this would be lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You could interpret this text to mean that this ordinance would be everlasting. Obviously, there has been a disruption in the trumpet service, but you have to wonder if theologians think that this is supposed to continue again after the foretold Second Coming of Jesus.

Numbers 10:9 is much more interesting:
“When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the LORD your God and rescued from your enemies.” NIV
So when the Israelites are in their own land, the Promised Land that God is giving them, they will occasionally fight an enemy who oppresses them. Or in other words, they will fight an enemy that gets the upper hand over them. So we find that God is not granting them an automatic peace or military security in the Promised Land, which would seem to be in direct contradiction of Leviticus 26:6-8.

Furthermore, as we can see, God will not even automatically step in to help the Israelites. Instead, they must first sound a blast on the trumpets to trigger God's memory; to remind God that these are His chosen people who He promised to protect. Why would an omniscient God need to hear a trumpet blast to remind Him of anything, or clue Him in that His people are in need of help?

Apologists may be quick to point out that this is an indication that God wanted a continuous relationship with the Israelites. So this trumpet blast was part of a dialog and simply represents a reminder to the Israelites that it is God which gives them their providence, and that they need to always seek God's help. However, that fails to be a good explanation in two ways. First, and most obvious, is that the Bible text reads specifically that it is to remind God, not to remind the Israelites. Second, this text portrays God as rather lax in keeping His covenants.

For example, let us say that you call a contractor to paint your house. You agree on the price. You sign a contract. The day arrives when the painting is to occur, but the contractor does not show up in the morning. You call the contractor, and he tells you “Oh, you still want me to paint your house? I had forgotten about that. OK, I will be right over.” Sure the contractor is eventually keeping his promise, but you would likely not think very much of his business ethics in keeping a commitment. One should expect better from a contractor, and even better still from God.

Numbers 10:10 continues on to say that the trumpets should be sounded at New Moon festivals and all of the other feasts. Why? The trumpeting will be a memorial, reminding God again about the Israelites.

Time and time again we see that God is in need of memory aids. Rainbows remind God not to flood the entire earth again. The Israelites crying out in the oppression of their Egyptian slavery reminded God of the promise He had made to Abraham about his offspring. And now, trumpets remind God of the promises He made to the Israelites. No wonder why Jesus told His disciples to pray continuously (Luke 18:1-8)!

Finally, on a quick side note, it is often said by Christians that everything in the Old Testament was pointing towards Jesus. Anyone who can figure out how the blasting two silver trumpets used to remind God of His own promises relates to Jesus in a specific sense, please feel free to comment on this post. ;-)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Jesus: Reluctant Healer?

We are continuing through the early part of the Gospel story, and in particular in a section only covered by the book of John. Recently in the story, Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. Now, in this study, Jesus has returned to Cana in Galilee.

Jesus: Reluctant Healer?
A good historian will try to record and report all of the facts as honestly and completely as possible, and without bias. A common politician will selectively report facts and put their own spin on the details to present themselves and their party in the best possible light. A writer of allegorical fiction simply makes up stories and facts to promote or defend their particular position. Enter the Gospel of John.

John 4:46-54 tells a tale of one of Jesus' early healings. A royal official with a deathly-ill son from Capernaum heard that Jesus had returned to Cana. So this man went to Cana to ask Jesus to heal his son. Jesus tells him that his son is healed. The man heads back to Capernaum. On his way back, the man's servants meet him, and tell him that his son is indeed healed, and that he started getting better at the same time when Jesus had told the man that his son was healed Then the man and his household believed in Jesus.

It is a happy little story, until you consider the details. Which detail shall we start with? How about Jesus' first reply to this man who begged Jesus to save his boy's life? In John 4:48, we read:
"Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." NIV
That is a pregnant statement, if ever there was one.

Jesus' reply to the man begging for Jesus to spare his son's life would seem to indicate that Jesus would rather not have to heal this boy. It is as if Jesus had said “I wish you people would just simply believe that I am the Messiah. Instead, I have to perform miracles to make you believe.” It seems that Jesus did not want to heal this sick boy, or possibly even cure any condition or perform any other miracle.

Clearly from Jesus saying “you people,” this was not just a specific message or opinion about this particular man, but rather the way Jesus felt in general about people. Jesus may have meant specifically the Jews or rather generally all human kind. But it should not be said that Jesus “felt” that way, because Jesus as God is not permitted imperfections, such as believing something which is not true. Instead, Jesus knew this to be true. Jesus knew people needed miracles in order to believe in Him.

If we consider that this passage was written with a purpose as opposed to a recording of an historical event, then the reason for Jesus' reply becomes obvious: John is writing a gentle rebuke to those who want some sort of sign or miracle as proof of the Gospel, as well as to show that Jesus did indeed perform miracles. A contrived work of fiction seems like the most plausible explanation, as this story continues to fall apart under additional scrutiny.

Consider that Jesus' reply says that He is not moved by compassion to heal the dying boy, rather that the healing was out of a need to prove Himself.

Ponder the fact that this man was not trying to test Jesus, but rather was pursuing any possible glimmer of hope to say his dying child.

Wonder how it is that the writer of John would know exactly what the man did after he left Jesus, including conversations that he had, given that no one traveling with Jesus had left to go with this man to report on his son's condition (John 4:50-53).

These thoughts, and a few lessor ones, raise suspicion of this passage. But perhaps the most condemning thought about this passage is that if Jesus (God) knows that we will not believe unless we see signs and miracles, why are we not seeing more signs and miracles today? There is no good answer.

On a side note, the Gospel of John has a rather odd log of recorded miracles. Verse John 4:54 claims that the healing of this man's son was the second miraculous sign Jesus performed. Per John 2:11, the first miracle was when Jesus turned water into wine. However, John 2:23 says that Jesus performed multiple, non-specific miracles during Passover at Jerusalem. John's log then stops. There is no specific enumeration of the third, forth, or forty-eighth miracle which Jesus performs. Weird, huh?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Celebrate or Die?

In Numbers, after God described how you could become a Nazirite by making a special vow to Him, the Tabernacle and the Levites get consecrated. Now, in the first month of the second year since the Israelites left Egypt, it is time to party!

Passover is an annual celebration commemorating when God killed every firstborn male in Egypt, native Egyptians and foreign slaves alike, men and cattle. This death “passed over” the Israelite households because they painted their door frames with the blood of sheep or goats. Read Exodus 11 and 12 for all of the details of the event being celebrated. Reference Exodus 12, 13, and 34, and Leviticus 23 for regulations involving the celebration.

Celebrate or Die?
God loves a celebration. He must, given the number of festivals which He prescribes in the Old Testament. Like any party host, God does not appreciate it when His invited guests do not come to the party. But instead of simply being annoyed or disappointed by an ungracious invitee, God takes it to another level, as we find in our study of Numbers 9:1-14.

In Numbers 9:1-5, we see that God told the Israelites to celebrate Passover per the prescribed regulations. So Moses and the Israelites do just that.

However, some Israelites did not celebrate the Passover because they were unclean, due to having been near a dead body. Moses consults with God on what to do about this situation. God tells Moses that the unclean are allowed to celebrate Passover per all of its regulations if they want to do so, as are those who are traveling (Numbers 9:6-12). God even goes on to extend the same invitation to celebrate Passover to the aliens living among the Israelites (Numbers 9:14).

So God is understanding of Israelites with good excuses, such as being unclean or away from home. He says that they may celebrate Passover, but that it is not mandatory. That is good, but what about those Israelites who simply opt out of the celebration?

In Numbers 9:13, we read:
“But if a man who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, that person must be cut off from his people because he did not present the Lord's offering at the appointed time. That man will bear the consequences of his sin.” NIV
As previously discussed, to be “cut off” is often a Biblical euphemism for being killed. Not celebrating Passover is quite possibly a sin worthy of terminating your life. Celebrate or die.

What does this say about God? That you must worship God exactly when and how He instructs or risk being killed? Put aside your thoughts of whether or not this is truly righteous justice and consider something else; love. How does this demonstrate God's love? How does this encourage you to seek God out of love versus running to God out of fear?

It is interesting to note that there is a parallel in the New Testament here. In Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-23, Jesus gives a parable of a wedding banquet and a great banquet respectively. Both of these parables have a banquet host and guests who refuse his invitation, and in both stories the host invites other people, perhaps like the aliens, the unclean, and the travelers in the Passover account. In Matthew 22:7, the banquet host sends his army to kill those who refused the invitation and to burn down their entire towns!

Just remember, God is love and your freewill submission of love to Him is the entire point of your existence. Right? So love God and celebrate, or die! That is God's true love.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Holy Hair!

In the previous chapter of Numbers, God described a shamanistic methodology in which He would play the role of an abortion doctor, causing supernatural miscarriages, to expose the sins of an adulterous wife. Moving on to lighter matters, God chooses the next chapter to talk about hair care, among other things.

Holy Hair!
God is great, and God is good, but sometimes you may want to show God how much you appreciate Him beyond just thanking Him for your food. Sometimes, you may want to go all out to truly show your devotion to God. Well, you are in luck! God has instructions for you to show your devotion; instructions for becoming a Nazirite.

You may be saying to yourself: “Wow, that is just what I was looking for! How do I become a Nazirite to show my love for God?” Well, let us take a look. Shall we? We will be studying Numbers 6:1-21.

Starting in Numbers 6:1-2, we see that either a man or a woman can make a vow to become a Nazirite. It is an equal opportunity, which is good! We also see that the vow to become a Nazirite is a vow of separation for God. So what does that mean exactly?

Well, for starters, a vow of separation for God means abstaining from any alcohol, such as wine, or vinegar. In fact, a Nazirite should abstain from grapes, raisins, grape leaves, or anything associated with the grape vine (Numbers 6:3-4).

You know, just like Jesus abstained from... Oh, wait. Jesus drank both wine (Matthew 11:19) and vinegar (John 19:29-30). Jesus even used a parable of a grape vine to describe Himself, urging believers to become part of His vine (John 15:1-8). This is a complete failure for foreshadowing Jesus and Christianity, which is particularly odd given that this involves a vow of dedication for God. But I digress...

A Nazirite must let his or her hair grow untrimmed for the period of the vow (Numbers 6:5). Why is that? Well, the hair essentially becomes a holy offering to God. While “holy hair” is not explicitly claimed, its implicit significance is hard to deny. Consider the following:

While under a Nazirite vow, you could not come near a dead body. Why? Because the symbol of your vow to God is on your head. Even if one of your close family members died, like your own mom, you could not pay your final respects to her body (Numbers 6:6-8).

If you did come near a dead body, such as if someone dies suddenly in your presence, your holy hair would become defiled. Such an encounter set off a chain of ceremonial cleaning events, which included a sin offering (pigeon), a burnt offering (pigeon), and a guilt offering (year-old male lamb). The process made atonement for your sin of being near a dead body. (Yes, apparently you need atonement for sins over which you may have had absolutely no control. That seems fair. Right?) Once your head is shaved and your sins are atoned, you must begin the full duration of your vow from its beginning to compensate for this mistake (Numbers 6:9-12).

You see, just like hair is used in drug testing because of its residual record of effects, it seems that all sins get trapped into body hair. That had to be why God made the Levites shave all the hair off of their entire bodies when they underwent a purification ceremony (Numbers 8:6-7).

Now if you manage to avoid dead bodies for the full duration of your Nazirite vow, then you get the opportunity to make a special offering to God. No mere pigeons will suffice this time. You need two one-year-old male lambs, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. You also need a ram for fellowship offering. And a grain offering. And a drink offering. And a basket of bread and wafers (Numbers 6:13-15). The priest is kind enough to officiate the offerings and take his share (Numbers 6:16-17).

Then, the moment you have waited for happens! You get to stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, in front of the very presence of God. You then shave your head and present your hair as a burnt offering in the fire under the fellowship offering (Numbers 6:18).

After that, you do a little ceremony with a shoulder of the sacrificed ram, a piece of bread, and a wafer, followed by your first savory drink of wine (Numbers 6:19-20).

So there you have it! That is how you vow yourself to God as a Nazirite!

I know you are saying to yourself: “Gee, just lots of hair, two lambs, a ram, grain, drink, bread, and wafer offerings is all I need to give to God to fulfill this vow? But I have so much more to offer.” Do not worry. God does expect you to additionally offer anything that you can afford (Numbers 6:21).

Some of you may instead be wondering: “What is in it for me to make this vow?” How about the fact that there is a chance that God will grant you super powers! The Biblical hero Samson was a Nazirite. Only instead of being a Nazirite from his own vow, an angel told his parents to make him a Nazirite from the time of his birth (Judges 13:2-5). He personally slaughtered 4030 men, including 1000 of his fellow Israelites (Judges 15:9-17), throughout his lifetime due to the power from his hair. But once his hair was shaved, he had no power until it started to grow back. Read all about it in Judges 16.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Holy Abortion

We are up to Numbers 5 as we make our way through the Bible. After trading the firstborns for the Levites and organizing the division of labor among the Levites, it is time to relay some more laws.

Holy Abortion
It seems as though many Christians who expound upon the sanctity of human life have not read the Old Testament. They would have a difficult time reconciling all of God's killings, including killings of babies and the unborn, with the idea that He counts each life as sacred. Yes, killings of the unborn. God even ordained an abortion technique.

You will find God's prescription for abortions in Numbers 5:11-31. It starts with a jealous husband, as so many bad things do. If a husband suspects his wife of infidelity but has no witnesses to prove her guilt, he is to take her to the priest, along with a “reminder offering” of barley flour (Numbers 5:11-15).

The priest takes the woman to stand before God (stand in front of the entrance to the Tent of Meeting) with her hair loose and her hands in the barley flour. The priest takes some dust from the tabernacle floor and mixes it with holy water in a clay jar, making the water bitter (Numbers 5:16-18).

The priest then says pronounces that if she has not committed adultery, then the bitter water will do no harm to her. However, if she has committed adultery, then she will be disdained when God causes her “thigh to waste away and [her] abdomen to swell.” (In case you do not speak Bible-ese, that means “to have a miscarrying womb and barrenness” according to an alternate translation.) The woman must then agree to these terms (Numbers 5:19-21).

These are supernatural miscarriages. God Himself is aborting the lives of these children, terminating them before they are born.

The ceremony does not end there. Continuing on in shamanistic fashion, the priest writes these curses down on parchment, but then washes the ink off of the parchment into the bitter water, as if to literally transfer the curse into the water (Numbers 5:23). It sounds as if this comes from a book of voodoo magic, not what you would expect from the Bible.

The priest makes a wave and memorial burnt offering of the barley flour. The woman then drinks the cursed bitter water (Numbers 5:24-26).

Then, time will tell. If she is able to have children, then she is cleared from her guilt. However, if she miscarries or is barren, it is the consequence of her sin, and God has afflicted her as a sign of her guilt (Numbers 5:27-31).

Of course, this is some rather shaky ground for judgement because there are many natural reasons for a woman to miscarry or be barren, yet this process would not provide any true method of discernment between the natural and the supernatural.

If she is guilty of adultery, this passage also seems to put her in a state of judgemental flux. This chapter seems to suggest that her punishment is the inability to have children and the scorn from the community. However, according to Leviticus 20:10, she should be put to death.

Speaking of uncertain status, what would happen to those babies aborted by God? The religious side of the pro-life movement contends that the soul enters to child at the time of conception. With a miscarriage obviously being after conception, it would seem that this child has a soul. So would this soul end up in Heaven or Hell?

It is possible that its destination is Hell. It seems that God is willing to punish the children for the sins of their parents, such as is relayed by Exodus 20:5.

Nearly unanimously, Christian leaders proclaim that children who die before their age of culpability go directly to Heaven. It is certainly the most easy and popular position to take, and there are some Bible verses to support this position. Yet if that is the case, considering babies and the unborn who die, it makes life here on earth essentially unnecessary to enter into Heaven.

If life on earth is unnecessary to enter into Heaven, then why would a loving God instead choose to afflict us with the trials and tribulations which come from living in this imperfect world, especially knowing full well that the majority who live will not enter Heaven? You have to enter in at the Narrow Gate (Matthew 7:13-14).