Friday, May 28, 2010

Repentant God, Part 3

Imagine knowing the consequences of your actions before taking them; knowing all the paths of fate for each possible option; knowing them completely and perfectly. Imagine being omniscient, like God. With such knowledge, it would be practically impossible to repent. As Numbers 23:19 puts it, God is not like a man, who changes his mind.

This is the third part in a series of studies where God obviously does repent and change His mind. The first part covered the well known legend of the Flood of Noah. The second part discussed how God wanted to kill all of the Israelites for making a gold cow idol.

These episodes cast serious doubt in the omniscience of God, or that God had any kind of master Plan. In this study from the book of Numbers, God's Plan and omniscience are challenged again by God Himself, and we learn a disturbing twist on God's forgiveness.

Here in Numbers, after squashing rebellions about food and leadership, the Israelites traveled on to the border of the Promised Land. Finally, after over a year of leisurely wandering in the desert, they will see the land which God had promised to give them before they had left Egypt.

Repentant God, Part 3
The Bible sometimes tells a story twice. Furthermore, the Bible sometimes tells a story twice. Sure, the details will be different, but the underlying plot will be strangely similar, like a copy of a copy of a copy. We have seen this with senior citizen Sarah being taken in as a concubine by Pharaoh and then taken 24 years later at the age of 89 by Abimelech, and again when God gave the Israelites quails and water after they complained and later gave them quails and plague after they complained.

Similarly, this study will call back to the infamous tale of when the Israelites made a golden calf while Moses was on a mountain talking to God in Exodus 32. In that tale, God became furious, wanted to kill all of the Israelites, and wanted to instead make a new nation out of Moses. Moses had to convince God not to kill them because the Egyptians would think badly of God and because doing so would break God's promise.

For this study, we begin in Numbers 13. Now that the Israelites are on its borders, God has Moses send out one leader from each tribe to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13:1-16). Before they set out, Moses instructed the leaders to spy out how militarily strong the native nations were, among other things (Numbers 13:17-20).

The surveillance team explores the Promised Land for forty days (Numbers 13:21-25). Then they report to the Israelites that the land is flowing with milk and honey, but that the existing nations are very strong, even including some descendants of Anak (Numbers 13:26-29). Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, tells the Israelites that they should go take the land (Numbers 13:30). The other spies reject this opinion. In a “bad report,” they say that the present inhabitants are far stronger, and furthermore that there are Nephilim (Anak was a descendant of Nephilim) there (Numbers 13:31-35).

(Who are the Nephilim? Genesis 6:4 is where you will find the Nephilim briefly described. It appears as though they are the result of mating male angels and female humans, resulting in giant and powerful offspring. They would have been completely wiped out by the Flood. However, note that the Genesis 6:4 statement of “in those days—and also afterward” suggests that this supernatural-inter-specie breeding went on after the Flood as well.)

The Israelites are frightened by this report. They wail that they would have been better off dying Egypt or in the desert, and begin thinking about returning to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4). Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes, and try to rally the Israelites by reminding them that the land is highly desirable and that they will be successful because God is with them (Numbers 14:5-9). The Israelites then talk of stoning Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Here is where the story takes a familiar turn. God is furious. He tells Moses that He will kill all of the Israelites with a plague, and then build a new nation out of Moses (Numbers 14:10-12). God repented bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. Again.

As discussed before, God's solution to rebellious people is consistently to kill them all and start again. There is no soul winning. There is no suit of love to draw them back to God. There is no Messiah. There is only death. (Yes, because that strategy worked so well the first time with the Flood. Not!)

God's omniscience and master Plan are thrown out of the window. Instead of taking preemptive actions to circumvent this known future, God lets it happen. Instead of acting like He knew this would happen, God reacts in a fit of rage as if someone had unexpectedly slapped Him across the face. Instead of remembering temperance to ensure that His Plan for the future would occur; that the not-yet-born King David would provide a royal human bloodline for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-6) in the yet-to-be-prophesied eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:8-16); God is ready to cut off that thread of fate by killing its forefathers.

Just like with the golden cow incident, here again it is Moses who must quench God's fiery rage in Numbers 14:13-19. Moses tells God to think about the fact that the Egyptians will hear about God killing all of the Israelites in the desert, and will thereby have cause to mock Him. Moses even goes so far as to throw God's own words back into His Holy face, quoting Exodus 34:5-7 back to Him in Numbers 14:18-19. (That was when God called Himself “slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.”)

Why is it that an imperfect human (Moses) has to point out to a perfect God that His intents are poised to break His own promises and turn Him into a hypocrite? God should be the rational one here, not Moses.

In Numbers 14:20, we find:
The LORD replied [to Moses], "I have forgiven them, as you asked." NIV
To forgive is to pardon, or in other words, to drop any bad feelings and relinquish any punishment of the guilty party. God, being perfect, should be the shining example of how to forgive. However, that is not what we find here. Instead, in Numbers 14:21-35 we see how God intends to punish the Israelites by making them wander the desert for forty years, and how during that time everyone who was twenty years old or older at the time of this rebellion will eventually die in the desert and how their children will suffer for their transgressions. Only Joshua and Caleb will survive to enter the Promised Land.

(Note that this particular passage could be used as support of the Catholic dogma of purgatory. The Israelites are forgiven, but must still suffer until their sins are purged away.)

So what have we learned? God seems to have imperfect omniscience. God repents. God is not slow to anger. God is willing to scrap His Plan and promises like they do not exist. God's forgiveness will not prevent His wrath. These traits are not very reassuring if you are banking on an eternity in His presence.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jesus: The Undercover Exorcist

Jesus has had a good time traipsing around since he left His homeland of Galilee. In events exclusively covered by the Gospel of John, Jesus attended Passover in Jerusalem, had a long chat with Nicodemus about being saved, and wandered into Samaria where He spoke to a woman at a well. He eventually makes it back to his beloved homeland of Galilee, where He reluctantly heals a boy shortly after arriving.

Now, giving the other Gospel accounts a turn, Jesus begins teaching (with authority) in Galilee in a town called Capernaum.

Jesus: The Undercover Exorcist
Jesus was a bit enigmatic for many reasons. One of those reasons is that He seemed to want to hide His identity at some times, yet broadcast it at others. Jesus proclaimed that He was the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and that nobody hides a light, but rather puts it out where it can be seen (Luke 11:33). Yet there are times when Jesus wanted nobody to know who He actually was.

Mark 1:23-28 and Luke 4:33-37 record Jesus' first miracle for each Gospel respectively as being the exorcism of an evil spirit, or demon, from a man in a synagogue. Not quite word-for-word, but sentence-for-sentence the accounts between the two Gospels are nearly identical. They are so close that it seems more like school-book plagiarism than two separate eye-witness accounts. In fact, the differences have probably been introduced in language translations and the copyists' own rewording for clarification.

What makes this exorcism particularly interesting is what the demon proclaims before the it is exorcised. Let us look at Mark 1:24, although we could just as easily look at Luke 4:34. According to Mark 1:24, upon seeing Jesus the demon cries out loudly:
"What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!" NIV
So this demon knows Jesus' human name, knows He essentially has complete control and can “destroy” this demon and the others (as indicated by “us”), and knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

Wow! What an incredible revelation, and so conveniently located near the beginning of these Gospels! It is a perfect proclamation to affirm the identity and veracity of the Jesus in one line. Maybe a little too perfect. Maybe even a bit fictional? Let us take a closer look.

In the next section (Mark 1:25-26, Luke 4:35), Jesus commands the demon to be quiet, and then to leave the man. The evil spirit obeys, and leaves the man.

Be quiet... Why would Jesus want the demon to be quiet, given that this demon had just done such a helpful job by identifying Him?

Christian commentaries say that this was to prevent people from thinking that Jesus was working in collaboration with Satan. However, that fails logic for a few reasons.

First, it did not stop accusations of Jesus being Satanic, as we see in Matthew 9:34, Matthew 10:24, Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22, and Luke 11:15. So in other words, the Christian commentators are unwittingly saying that God failed to do something which He intended to do, which would mean that not all things are possible with God.

Second, despite Jesus being aware of this issue, He neglects to preemptively silence demons which He later encounters. Refer to the exorcism of miscellaneous demons in Luke 4:41, or refer to when Jesus casts demons into swine in Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-18, and Luke 8:26-39. You could even go a step further, and say that God, knowing the future, could have preemptively silenced the demons before Jesus even lived on earth. Instead, they are permitted to identify Jesus to everyone in His presence.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, such a position contradicts the Bible itself! Mark 1:34 and Luke 4:41 state that the reason why Jesus bid the demons to be quiet is because they knew who He was. The natural conclusion based on these verses is that Jesus did not want people to know that He was the Son of God, at least in these instances. Jesus wanted to do these exorcisms undercover.

However, even the Biblical explanation fails logic by reason of the second argument above. There must be a true reason for this text; a reason which makes sense. Skepticism provides that reason quite easily.

If this is a contrived history instead of a real one, then these demonic proclamations are obviously used to bolster the claims made by men; that Jesus was the Son of God. Demons, being spirits themselves and therefore knowing the spirit world, would have an inherent credibility in identifying God, His Son, or any other spiritual being.

There is circumstantial evidence as well which points to these exorcisms, with yelling demons who identify Jesus, as being not only fictional, but perhaps late additions to an evolving story.

Consider Matthew's version of the story in which Jesus asks His Disciples who they think He is (Matthew 16:13-20). Simon (Peter) replies that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus then states that Simon is blessed, because “this [information] was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in Heaven,” despite the account eight chapters earlier where a demon shouted that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 8:29).

Also consider that Matthew mentions Jesus exorcising demons seven times (Matthew 4:23-24, Matthew 8:16, Matthew 8:28-34, Matthew 9:32-33, Matthew 12:22, Matthew 15:21-28, Matthew 17:14-20). Mark mentions Jesus' exorcisms eight times (Mark 1:23-28, Mark 1:32-34, Mark 1:39, Mark 3:10-12, Mark 5:1-18, Mark 7:24-30, Mark 9:14-29, Mark 16:9). Luke mentions Jesus' exorcisms nine times (Luke 4:33-37, Luke 4:40-41, Luke 6:17-19, Luke 7:21, Luke 8:2, Luke 8:26-39, Luke 9:37-43, Luke 11:14, Luke 13:32). These witnesses make exorcisms one of Jesus' most frequently performed miracles. However, the Gospel of John does not mention that Jesus performed any exorcisms at all!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Selective Wrath and Revelation

Back while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God told Moses that He was going to liberate them and take them to a Promised Land which was full of milk and honey (Exodus 3:7-10). God delivered on the first part of His promise to liberate them through a series of plagues. However, after over a year of wondering around in the desert, the Israelites have yet to even see the Promised Land. Furthermore, all that they have been eating for over a year is a coriander-like grain/bread called manna, which was provided by God.

In the study of the previous chapter, we saw that some of the Israelites began complaining about their meager diet. So God provided. He sent them quail. And He sent them a plague; killing several of them while their first bite of quail was still in their mouths for making such a complaint.

Despite the plague, there were still dissenting voices, as we will see in this study.

Selective Wrath and Revelation
One hallmark of justice is that if you were to catch two people committing the same transgression at the same time, they would both get punished. It is only fair. God, having perfect justice, would be expected to exemplify this, unless He instead chooses to exhibit His perfect mercy. Mercy contradicts justice, but typically in a good way. Let us take a look at God executing some justice in Numbers 12.

Numbers 12:1-2 opens the chapter with Aaron, Moses's brother (Exodus 4:14) and the Israelite's High Priest (Exodus 28:1, Exodus 28:41, Leviticus 21:10), and Miriam, Aaron's prophetess sister (Exodus 15:20), complaining about Moses. They both pick apart his interracial marriage and they voice jealousy over his perceived position of superiority.

Maybe that would have been OK, except for the fact that “the Lord heard this,” according to the end of Numbers 12:2. Just like in the previous study, this kind of expression suggests that there are things which can be said outside the hearing of God, things which God would not know about, as if God was a man with physical limitations.

In an aside, Numbers 12:3 states that Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth. This is obviously in defense of Aaron's and Miriam's complaint. However, this statement stands off as rather amusing, given that traditionally Moses is considered to be the author the first five books of the Bible, including Numbers. Because if so, Moses is bragging about how humble he is!

What follows next in Numbers 12:4-8 is a scene fitting of a Greek mythological play. God calls Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to the Tent of Meeting. Once they are there, God, in person, descends down to the Tent of Meeting on a cloud.

God tells Aaron and Miriam that He only talks to other prophets through visions and dreams (Numbers 12:6). However, with Moses, God talks to him face-to-face (like He is doing right now with Aaron and Miriam!), and without riddles (Numbers 12:7). So why do they dare speak against Moses?

This is a pregnant revelation. It reveals that God has a human form. It reveals that people, even sinful people, can be in God's presence and see His form without dying. Finally, and most significantly, it reveals that God purposefully provides unclear instructions which are subject to interpretation except for in very rare cases.

According to Numbers 12:9-10, God was angry with both of them. However, God only punishes Miriam, endowing her with a horrible skin disease.

This Miriam's first (and only) transgression recorded in the Bible. In fact, this is only the second mention of Miriam in the Bible. Previously she was shaking a tambourine and singing praises to God in Exodus 15:20-21.

On the other hand, Aaron had committed a recorded sin, and it was a major one. In fact, his sin was a transgression according to both the popular and the Biblical versions of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 32, Aaron had made a golden cow idol for the Israelites to worship. Yet, just like in that incident where over 3000 Israelites died by sword and plague for their sin, Aaron again slips by unscathed and unpunished by God. Also just like before, there is no explanation of why Aaron escapes God's wrath. God's justice seems incomplete, and therefore imperfect.

In the conclusion of the story, Numbers 12:11-16 tells us that Moses prayed to God to heal Miriam. God asks Moses that “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days?” (Numbers 12:13) It never explicitly mentions that Miriam gets healed. However, she waits for seven days before returning to the camp, and by law she could not return to the camp with a skin disease (Leviticus 13:46), so she probably was healed.

While it is somewhat dismaying to think that God, the Heavenly Father, would symbolically spit in anyone's face, the justice and judgement He applies to Miriam is actually good. After all, if you are a parent wanting to discipline your child to correct their future behavior, it seems best to do so as soon as the transgression is discovered, and to provide punishment which strong yet not permanent.

It is a shame that God skips the judgement on Aaron, but it is a mistake that God actually seems to prefer simply killing sinners after it is too late as opposed to providing preventative corrective punishments like what happened to Miriam. The Flood. The Plagues. The Israelites entry into the Promised Land based on the sins of the Amorites. These and many, many more Biblical examples show how the Heavenly Father drops the “rod of correction” (Proverbs 29:15), only to blast condemning wrath when He finds that His children are too far gone in their sins.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish for from God

In second month of the second year since the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by God, the Israelites left the Desert of Sinai (on the Sinai peninsula), according to Numbers 10:11. To put that in perspective, if they took the longest possible path and went around the coast of the Sinai peninsula instead of through the desert, they have traveled approximately 300 miles (483 kilometers). If you walked at the slow pace of 1.0 mile per hour (1.6 kilometers per hour) for only eight hours a day, you could cover that amount of ground in about 38 days.

It has been over a year since they left, and they still have yet to see the Promised Land. Not too surprisingly, some of the Israelites are starting to complain. That is where we pick up this study.

Be Careful What You Wish for from God
Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. This common proverb suggests that you do not always know what is good for you.

Asking for something from God should be different, right? Not that you would know what is best for you in that case, but rather that God would know that and would therefore only give you what actually is good for you. Those familiar with the New Testament may recall Matthew 7:9-12 and Luke 11:11-13 where Jesus points out that you would not give your son a snake if he asked for a fish, and then extrapolates that your heavenly Father will likewise give good gifts to those who ask Him.

Well, let us look into that claim more closely. Numbers 11 seems like a good spot to investigate.

Numbers 11:1-3 starts the chapter on a bad note. Some of the Israelites are complaining about their hardships, and they do so “in the hearing of the Lord.” (That partial quote is from Numbers 11:1, and it implies that they were physically close enough to God for Him to hear them, as if God was a being subject to physical constraints.) God is angered by this, and so He kills some of them with fire. The people cried to Moses. Moses prays to God. The fire stops.

In Numbers 11:4-35, the story goes from bad to worse. Numbers 11:4-6 tells of how the Israelites complained that all they had to eat was manna, and that they miss the variety of free foods they had in Egypt.

As you may remember, in Exodus 16 is the tale of when God first starts giving the manna to the Israelites; on the fifteenth day of the second month after leaving Egypt. According to Numbers 10:11, it is now at least the twentieth day of the second month in the second year, so they have been eating manna for over a year now. Day in, and day out. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Any guess as to why they were complaining?

What is manna? Numbers 11:7-9 says that it was like coriander seed and looked like resin, that people would prepare it to eat in a couple different ways after grinding it up like some kind of grain, and that it tasted like something made with olive oil. Strangely enough, this is somewhat contradictory to the earlier description in Exodus 16:4 that manna was a type of bread and in Exodus 16:31 which says that it looked white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.

It should also quickly be noted that the Israelites did not begin receiving the manna until they complained that they had no food. So God rewarded their complaint.

Returning to the story at hand, in Numbers 11:10-15 is a rather amusing rant from Moses, with Moses saying that leading the Israelites is a real pain, and that he would rather be dead unless God provides some help. God replies in Numbers 11:16-17 that He will anoint seventy elders with the Spirit to help share the burden. So God again rewards a complaint.

Circling back to the Israelites' complaints, in Numbers 11:18-20 God says that He has heard their complaints, and will give them meat for a whole month, “until it comes out [their] nostrils and [they] loath it” because they have rejected God. Apparently the desire to have variety in your diet constitutes as rejection of God.

What is even more strange is that God is going to give them meat. Their complaint in Numbers 11:5 was about not having fish, but also about cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. Previously, in Exodus 16:3 they had complained about not having meat. But altogether, it is silly that they would have complained simply about not having meat or that they needed God to provide meat because they had left Egypt with large droves of livestock (Exodus 12:38)!

In Numbers 11:21-22, Moses questions God's ability to provide meat for all of the Israelites for an entire month. That is silly. After all, God made the universe out of nothing, right? Moses should have known better, but instead it seems that Moses has no faith. Of course, if this is just a tale of fiction, there is no need to make sense.

The elders get anointed and begin helping Moses. Joshua makes his first appearance, being jealous that the elders are prophesying (Numbers 11:23-30).

Then, in the thrilling conclusion of the story in Numbers 11:31-35, God sends quail into the camp, echoing what was done earlier in Exodus 16:12-13. (The Bible does like to tell a good story at least twice, like with old Sarah being taken in by Pharaoh and then Abimelech.) However, in a new twist of spiteful wrath, God kills some of the Israelites with a severe plague “while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed” (Numbers 11:33), instead of simply rewarding their complaints like last time.

So we see that the proverb stands true in this case; that even with God you should be careful what you wish for. Also, God appears to be inconsistent in rewarding complaints. And finally, far from being a loving heavenly Father bestowing only good gifts to those who ask of Him, God punishes them with His wrath, killing them just for asking for a little variety. Sad.