Friday, June 25, 2010

Do Not Enter

We are now halfway through the book of Numbers. As we have seen, God has acted swiftly to crush several rebellions. The last rebellion was a challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron, during which God opened the earth to swallow up the responsible men and their innocent families, and burned to death all of those men who went along with the rebellion. Then, God sent a plague to kill the Israelites because they had grumbled about God's judgement against those men. Aaron and Moses manage to stop the plague after 14,700 men were killed.

Just to confirm Aaron's and the Levites' role as the exclusive servants for God, God makes Aaron's staff bloom flowers and produce almonds overnight. Naturally, now is a good time for God to reveal even more rules, regulations, and information regarding the Priesthood and the Levites.

Do Not Enter
To those only familiar with the New Testament teachings of modern Christianity, you may have this idea that God was always an open and loving deity, actively pursuing an intimate relationship with all fallen men. Yet quite the opposite is true.

God selectively revealed Himself to the Israelites almost exclusively, and He gave no great commission to the Israelites to evangelize the rest of the world. Plus, even within the Israelites themselves, God established a hierarchy; prohibiting all but a select group to enter the Temple, and prohibiting all but a sparse few to enter the Sanctuary, where God dwelt, as we will see in this study.

In Numbers 18, we find out about more rights and responsibilities of the Priests and Levites. It begins with a hefty burden; that the Priests (Aaron and his descendants) and the Levites will be responsible for all offenses to the sanctuary, and the Priests will be responsible for transgressions against the Priesthood. God gives the Levites to the Priests as servants. If the Levites go near the furnishings of the Sanctuary or the altar, God will kill them and the Priest. Furthermore, nobody else should come near either (Numbers 18:1-4).

As we read on, we find that God (again) places the responsibility for the sanctuary on the Priests and gives the Levites to the Priests as servants. Only the Priests could approach the altar and the Sanctuary. Anyone else who even comes near the Sanctuary should be put to death (Numbers 18:5-7).

The Ark of the Covenant was kept inside the Sanctuary. The cover of the Ark of the Covenant was known as the Mercy Seat, which was God's throne while hanging out with the Israelites (1 Samuel 4:4).

So what we see here is that God is putting barrier after barrier between Himself and His Chosen People. His throne is obscured from all except the High Priests (exclusively descendants of Aaron), and could only be approached on the Day of Atonement. His sanctuary and altar could only be approached by the Priests. The inside of the Tabernacle could only be accessed by the Levites in service of the Priests.

This system of restrictions in no way, shape, form, or type foreshadows what would come through Christianity. Yet adherence to its structure was so important that God applied the death penalty to those of whom would transgress it.

Furthermore, this system does not suggest that God loved everyone so much that He wanted to have a personal relationship with everyone. In fact, God made that impossible. The separation was not based on sin, but rather based on person. The common Israelites were kept outside. The Levites got closer to God. The Priests got even closer. The High Priest actually got to see God. God showed partiality and favoritism in His relationship with men based on who they were, contrary to Deuteronomy 10:17, 2 Chronicles 19:7, Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 3:25, and 1 Peter 1:17.

The rest of the chapter explains how the Levites and Priests will essentially get to live like kings, without all of that bothersome country-ruling responsibility. Numbers 18:8-32 shows that, while they will not own the land, the Levites and Priests will live off of the produce of the land; the tithes and offerings of the rest of the Israelites. Of particular note is that God makes an everlasting covenant with the descendants of Aaron; that they will get the Holy offerings of the Israelites (Numbers 18:19).

An everlasting covenant? Obviously that is not going on today. The only way to reconcile this would be to have sacrifices continue forever after beginning again at some later time, but that does not make any sense at all in the perspective of Christian eschatology. However, in Jewish eschatology, Ezekiel 40-46 does speak of a new Temple with renewed and eternal sacrifices.

So what have we learned? The God of the Old Testament did not want a personal relationship with everyone, and He respected (gave preferential treatment of) men based on their lineage in determining the closeness of the relationship He had with them. Of course, this is in bold contrast to the message of Christianity. God also made an everlasting covenant with the descendants of Aaron to receive the Israelites' sacrifices. Again, this is in contrast to Christianity, which through Hebrews 10:14 claims that Jesus made further sacrifices obsolete. And so, the veracity of the Bible takes another hit...

Who Killed Who?
Did you catch the slight twist above near the beginning of the study? In Numbers 18:3, it states that if a Levite goes near the Sanctuary, both the Levite and the Priest will die, which is typically a euphemism meaning that God will kill them. (As we have seen, God seems overly anxious to kill His priests for any number of reasons, such as for not wearing bells.) On the other hand, Numbers 18:7 states that anyone else who comes near the Sanctuary should be put to death, which means they were to be killed by men.

This distinction here between God-killed and man-killed serves a couple of purposes. First, it deters any would-be priest from trying to make his own priesthood to God. Second, it answers the question of “who watches the watchmen?” God will step in and kill the Priests if they have serious transgressions. Therefore, if a Priest is still alive, he has an inherent credibility that he is in harmony with God.

However, the truth may be unwittingly revealed in Numbers 18:7. That verse makes it incumbent upon men both to observe and to accordingly execute an unauthorized entrant. So there is no Godly-magic death ray which automatically kills unauthorized entrants, which makes it unlikely that a Priest would be killed by God for a sanctuary transgression.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Beating Up the Beatitudes

Since Jesus began his ministry of casting out demons, healing diseases, and preaching about the Kingdom of God, quite a crowd has begun to follow Jesus. People from as far as Tyre and Sidon are traveling to Galilee to be exorcised, to be healed, and to hear Jesus. At least that is according to the Bible.

Still early in His ministry, Jesus delivers perhaps His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. However, close scrutiny in this study will reveal that this epic speech is likely nothing more than a fictitious construct.

Beating Up the Beatitudes
Anyone familiar with Christianity can likely recall the Sermon on the Mount. Not all of the words of the sermon, but the situation, and particularly the rhythm of the Beatitudes. That is the section of “blessed are the … for they will …” statements. However, what you remember is probably wrong; wrong on multiple levels.

For example, did you realize that it was not a general sermon to the crowd which was following Jesus? That is the way it is portrayed by the preachers and the movies, but it is not what the Bible says. In fact, it may not have even been on a mountain. Let us take a closer look.

Matthew 5:1-12 contains the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and the section known as the Beatitudes. Matthew 5:1-2 reads:
“Now when [Jesus] saw the crowds, He went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, and He began to teach them saying:” NIV
So when Jesus saw the crowds which had started following Him, He climbed a mountain to get away from them for a little while. He sat down, which is not a posture which would be used to address the crowded public below. When His disciples came to him, then he taught them, with “them” being the disciples. This was not a public address, but rather a message to a private audience.

While you will not often hear this from the pulpit, Biblical scholars are well aware that Luke 6:20-26 contains a version of the Beatitudes as well. Luke 6:17-19 sets the stage that Jesus was in a level field, not up on a mountain, and was surrounded by a large crowd of His disciples and lots of other people seeking to be healed by Him. Yet again, in Luke 6:20, we see that Jesus is giving this message to only His disciples.

Many Biblical scholars say that Matthew and Luke are simply recording two separate occasions of Jesus teaching the same thing. On the surface that seems reasonable. You would expect Jesus to repeat Himself from time to time, especially with new audiences. However, that is not exactly what we see here. Let us look at the corresponding verses side-by-side in the NIV translation:



5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

6:20 … "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God."

5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

6:21 … "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh."

5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

6:21 "Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied." …

5:11 "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 5:12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in Heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

6:22 "Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 6:23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in Heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets."

A cursory look makes it obvious that these statements originated from the same source. The sentence structure is almost identical. The message, particularly in the first and last verses, is almost identical. However, the similarities dissolve under closer scrutiny and in perspective of their contexts.

In Matthew's version, it seems to be a general address with a very spiritual take. The phrases of “the poor,” “those who mourn,” and “those who hunger and thirst” are so open that they could apply to anyone. It is easy to see why some scholars would mistake this to be a sermon to everyone around Jesus at the time. In particular, the phrases “poor in spirit” and “hunger and thirst for righteousness” belie that Jesus is not referring to worldly need or comforts, but rather a humble desire for God's righteous spirit. One Hebraic scholar observes that the eight blessings made in Matthew's version are more likely four blessings made in poetic couplets, which was a typical style for Hebraic poetry, and that the blessings all carry the spiritual relevance noted above.

Luke's version is quite different. Instead of Matthew's open-targeted phrases, we see “you,” “you,” and “you.” We know from the beginning of Luke 6:20 that “you” refers specifically to Jesus' disciples. More significantly, there are no words in Luke's version which impart a spiritual intent. Instead, the message seems much more physical in purpose. Luke's message is a pep talk to the troops. Luke has Jesus say something to the effect of “I know things look bad right now. You are poor, hungry, and mourning now, but it will not be that way in the future. Keep the faith.”

Just to strengthen His point (which coincidentally reinforces the idea that Luke's Jesus is referring to the physical world), Jesus goes on to pronounce corresponding woes in Luke 6:23-26. Jesus condemns the rich, the well fed, and the happy as already having their rewards, and destined to have their circumstances reversed. If these woes had a spiritual meaning, Jesus would essentially be saying that anyone who already has a good relationship with God will soon find themselves cast out by Him. Instead, looking at Luke's verses, you could build a strong case for Christian asceticism.

So it appears that Matthew's and Luke's accounts are actually two different messages, but that is not quite right either. The similarity between the two message structures bond them together. Moreover, the linchpin verses Matthew 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23 match in both structure and meaning.

Based on these similarities, it is probable that both Matthew and Luke were working from a similar source, but that Matthew (or a precursor to Matthew) modified the message. Perhaps Matthew was uncomfortable with the idea of asceticism, or simply wanted to give Jesus' message more of a spiritual intent. Either way, at least parts of Matthew's account are likely to be fiction.

Why does Matthew bear this label of falsehood instead of Luke?

For starters, Luke's message appears more internally consistent. It is one solid message saying that the physical suffering of today will be replaced by the joys of the future, and visa versa. It seems like a message specifically aimed at His disciples, just like how the message is framed.

Beyond that, the rest of Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount appears to be a multi-chapter idealized sermon of Jesus' philosophy. It is the type of sermon which would have left a lasting impression and would have been full of reference material for founding the central tenets of Christianity. However, this epic, world-changing speech is not mentioned or recorded in any of the other Gospels.

Mark shares some topics, and Luke shares many more, but they are instead mostly dispersed throughout their respective Gospels than collected in one speech. Plus, the Gospel of John, which is known for its profound and lengthy teachings of Jesus, does not cover a single topic in the same manner in which Matthew covers in this sermon.

It appears that Matthew has forcibly cobbled together a wealth of philosophical teachings attributed to Jesus into one convenient section, an act which smacks of a fictitious construct. As we have seen here, it seems likely that Matthew modified the original message. If Matthew was willing to edit and append to Jesus' message, then any teachings which occur exclusively Matthew should be subject to extra scrutiny, such as Jesus' teachings on anger, bound on earth/bound in Heaven, and the parable of the talents.

Friday, June 11, 2010

God's Wrath Loves Company

The book of Numbers could just as easily be called the book of Rebellions. Already in our studies, we have seen rebellions due to inadequate food variety, to jealousy of leadership, and to fear of other nations. In our last study, we even found a rebellious man picking up sticks on a Sabbath, and we were reminded by God not to follow our hearts. The next chapter, the next rebellion, is the subject of this study.

God's Wrath Loves Company
When someone makes you angry, why get mad at only the person responsible? Why not take out your anger on their entire family? That is what God would do (and inherently what Jesus would do) as we see in this study of Numbers 16.

Despite God punishing four acts of rebellion thus far in the book of Numbers, amazingly there are some Israelites stupid enough to challenge Moses and his brother the High Priest, Aaron. The Levites Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and 250 other nameless men bring a protest against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:1-3).

Moses tells them that they have gone too far, and tomorrow God will show them who He wants to lead the Israelites (Numbers 16:4-11). Dathan and Abiram tell Moses that they will not show up tomorrow just to have Moses brag about how he is in charge (Numbers 16:12-14).

Moses, ever humble, tells God that he has never wronged these men and that God should not accept their offerings (Numbers 16:15).

The day of the big showdown comes. Korah and his 250 men light their censers of incense for God (Numbers 16:16-20).

Then something odd happens. God tells Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16:21:
"Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once." NIV
There are a couple things to note here. First, notice how God is so imprecise with His wrath that He needs Moses and Aaron to move away from the target zone. Second, and more significant, notice how God is going to kill everyone who came out to see the showdown, not just the rebellious party.

Think this interpretation is overreaching? Read the next verse, Numbers 16:22:
But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, "O God, God of the spirits of all mankind, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?" NIV
Moses calls into question God's justice in killing the entire assembly. Just like in the previous study, Moses is the voice of reason for God. It should be the other way around!

Moses is somewhat successful in making his plea to God, as we see from what follows in Numbers 16:23-35. God spares the assembly, and burns the 250 nameless men to death, but reserves a special punishment for Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. For those three, God opens the earth up underneath of their tents, swallowing up all of their possessions (Numbers 16:31-33), and including themselves along with their wives, children, and babies (Numbers 16:27).

Despite Moses reminding God to act with justice, God still kills innocent children along with the guilty father. Clearly, this is what God meant when He said “for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” in Exodus 20:5. (Except these people did not hate God, but rather they were jealous of the relationship which Moses and Aaron had with God and their position of leadership.) It kind of makes you wonder why God is surprised that the Israelites have a saying that “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” in Ezekiel 18:1-4.

The story does not end there. In a seemingly impossible display of more stupidity, the entire Israelite community grumbles against Moses and Aaron the next day, saying that they have killed God's people (Numbers 16:41).

God could not take anymore. He unleashes a plague to kill all of the Israelites. In a dramatic finish, Moses has Aaron burn incense to make atonement for them. Aaron runs out to the line of death and manages to stop the plague after only 14,700 Israelites had died (Numbers 16:42-50).

That calls up some deep philosophical and moral questions. God's will is to kill all of the Israelites during this episode, despite His promises to them. So by acting to bring about atonement, are Moses and Aaron acting against God's will? If so, then this is a sin. If not, then why did God unleash the plague to begin with? If Moses and Aaron had done nothing during the plague, would God hold them accountable for not taking action to thwart His wrath?

The closer you look at it, the more it looks like a tangled mess of lies, or, perhaps more appropriately, just an interesting work of religious fiction.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Do Not Follow Your Heart

In the book of Numbers, there was an episode where the Israelites panicked in fear because of the report that there were strong and powerful occupants in the Promised Land. God got angry at their rebellious fear and wanted to kill them all, but Moses managed to talk God out of doing that. So instead, God decided that He would kill all of the culpable people slowly, over the course of forty years in the desert.

Then, God decides to provide some additional rules and regulations, as we see in this study.

Do Not Follow Your Heart
In your heart, you know it is true. You know Jesus loves you. The problem is that God does not want you to follow your heart. Enter Numbers 15, where we will find a tale of burnt sacrifices, blasphemy redefined, stoning, and a stern warning against self reliance and heart-felt emotions.

Numbers 15:1-21 starts the chapter off innocuously enough. Mostly, it tells how grain and drink offerings are required with any burnt sacrifice, and how God loves the aroma of a burnt sacrifice.

One exceptional verse in that section is Numbers 15:15, regarding how God thinks immigrants should be treated:
“The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the Lord.” NIV
God consistently displays one of the most liberal set of laws regarding immigration.

Numbers 15:22-29 is fairly harmless too. It covers (yet again) what offerings are to be made regarding unintentional sin. Unintentional sin is a sin which you did not mean to do, such as by giving birth. Again, these offerings explicitly yield God's forgiveness, without Jesus and with the blood of animals despite Hebrews 10:1-25.

Numbers 15:30-31 is where things really get interesting. It states that anyone who sins intentionally effectively blasphemes God, and that person must be “cut off from his people.” As we discussed before, to be “cut off” often means to be killed. In fact, in a previous study, we saw that a blasphemer was to be stoned to death by the entire community, so that interpretation seems to hold here. This makes any intentional transgression of the Law carry a death sentence, but this contradicts the chapters upon chapters of other punishments already described, such as in Exodus 32.

To drive the point home, what follows in Numbers 15:32-36 is the tale of how a man went out gathering sticks on the Sabbath, a day when work was forbidden. God decrees that the man must be killed; stoned to death by the community. Killed for picking up sticks on the wrong day. It does not actually say that this man intentionally broke the Sabbath law. He could have forgotten what day it was, but let us give God the benefit of the doubt and say the man was defiantly picking up sticks. Ya. That makes God's death sentence seem that much more reasonable.

Closing out the chapter, God decided that the Israelites needed reminders to follow His Law. In Numbers 15:37-41, God tells the Israelites to sew blue tassels onto the corners of their clothes. Why? As God puts it in Numbers 15:39:
“You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.” NIV
The lusts of the eyes is fairly obvious to interpret. That involves sinful things which you desire upon looking at, such as your neighbor's wife, or your neighbor's ass, or your neighbor's slave (Exodus 20:17).

The lusts of your heart is not as clear, and takes some consideration. Heart can mean a lot of things, such as your own sense of right and wrong (desire to do what feels right in your heart), or your compassion towards the struggles of your fellow man.

So basically, if you feel like it is not right to kill a man for picking up sticks on a Sabbath, or if your compassion for this man's family would lead you to have mercy and enact some less-permanent punishment to that man as a warning to correct his behavior, God does not want you to follow your heart. Instead, God wants total, absolute, and mindless obedience. Look at your tassels, and kill the man per God's Law.