Friday, September 24, 2010

Not Lacking Anything

Early on in Deuteronomy, Moses summarizes how the Israelites got to where they are through God's guidance and support as they are poised to enter the Promised Land.

Not Lacking Anything
As a good parent, part of your responsibility is making sure that your children have everything they need, even before they need it. For example, you prepare dinner for them long before they are starving to death. From God, the Heavenly Father, you might expect the same type of care to some extent.

As Moses continues in Deuteronomy 2 to retell the history of the Israelites since the Exodus, we come across a profound verse. Deuteronomy 2:7 states:
The LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything. NIV
Not lacking anything? That is not completely correct.

Obviously they did not have plush bedding, vineyards, and the convenience of systematic waste management. So it seems that “not lacking anything” is referring to the more essential needs of life, like food and water.

God provided food. He gave the Israelites manna. A white, coriander seed-like, resin-like substance, which was bread-like or ground up and eaten different ways, and tasted like both honey wafers and olive oil (Exodus 16:4, Exodus 16:31, Numbers 11:7-9). This is what God gave the Israelites to eat for every single meal for every single day for forty years.

So the Israelites did not lack food, but they did lack a little variety. Once, early after leaving Egypt, God gave them quails to eat. God did not offer any other variety until after the Israelites complained about their meager diet. Then God gave them quails one more time, but this time with a side of plague.

God provided water too, but on a rather limited basis. It was so limited that the Israelites complained multiple times about not having water: once shortly after leaving Egypt (Exodus 17:1-7), and two more times while they were on their forty year journey in the desert (Numbers 20:1-13, Numbers 21:4-8). In fact, in the Numbers 21:4-8 episode, God sent poisonous snakes to kill some Israelites due to complaints about not having water, among other things.

In all, the extent that the Israelites did not lack anything is dubious. It seems that God did provide enough for them to survive, but not much more than that. So if you are betting on having a luxurious, eternal, and happy afterlife, you may want to reconsider the dealer.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Age of Culpability

With Numbers complete, we now enter the final book of the Pentateuch/Torah/Law. Deuteronomy summarizes the Israelites' journey, reviews, revises, and appends to God's commandments, and ultimately transfers leadership from Moses to Joshua. This is the last time when God will be this intensely interactive and thoroughly revealed until the time of Jesus. Let us learn what we can.

The Age of Culpability
When is a boy no longer a boy, but rather a man? At what age do you hold a person fully responsible for their own actions? It is difficult to say, as biologically we all mature on our own schedules, so any picked age is seemingly arbitrary. Jews have picked the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah (son or daughter under the commandments) as 13 for boys and 12 for girls, but that is not what God says.

Deuteronomy 1:3 sets the time frame for Deuteronomy as starting in the eleventh month of the fortieth year since the Exodus from Egypt. Deuteronomy 1:6-46 retells the story of why it has been forty years since leaving Egypt and they have yet to enter the Promised Land. (The original story is told in Numbers 13-14.) That reason? Fear.

Spies sent into the Promised Land reported that the existing occupants were very strong and big. The report so frightened the Israelites (600,000+ fighting men strong, Numbers 1:45-46) that they wanted to go back to Egypt. Their natural human emotion, their fear, angered God so much that He repented bringing them out of Egypt in the first place, and so He wanted to kill them all right then and there, and instead make a new nation from Moses (Numbers 14:12).

Moses managed to change God's mind. God forgave the Israelites (Numbers 14:20). Demonstrating His forgiveness, God cursed all of the Israelite men which were 20 years old or older to die in the desert over the next forty years (Numbers 14:26-35).

In the Deuteronomy recount, there is a correlated verse to this death sentence. Deuteronomy 1:39 reads:
“And the little ones that you (Israelites) said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the [Promised Land]. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it.” NIV
Putting this verse together with the original Numbers story reveals that God thinks that people are fully accountable when they become 20 years old, because by then they know good from bad. That makes me happy, because I sure did a lot of stupid stuff in my teen years.

On a side note, one argument from apologists for God's existence is that He created us with the knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil. Somehow, having such intuitive knowledge is given as proof of divine knowledge granted to us. Yet here, according to God's Word, children do not have this knowledge. This implies that such knowledge is learned, not granted, and thus defeats that argument quite neatly.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pray You, Be Private

We are still moving through the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew. We have studied how Jesus wants people to obey God's laws, but then Jesus goes on to say that the laws should be expanded in a way which completely disowns His own involvement (as God) in establishing the original laws. Later, Jesus overturns God's position on God-sanctioned vows. Then Jesus turned God's justice on its head; saying essentially that you should willingly let yourself be wronged and oppressed by anyone instead of seeking the justice defined in the Law.

Now we come to one of the greatest contradictions of faith ever, but Jesus is not the one responsible for this mix up. This one belongs to His followers.

Pray You, Be Private
Within the United States, there has been a contentious battle for at least the last few decades between Christians and secularists over the prayer in government owned buildings and at government run programs, such as public school football games. The funny thing is that if Christians actually followed the words of Jesus, they would quickly find themselves on the secularists' side of the battle.

Matthew 6:1 sets the tone for this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says not to publicly do acts of righteousness to be seen by others; the implication being that such a person seeks the approval or applause of men from such public actions. Yet it is not the entire meaning, as we see in the proceeding examples.

In Matthew 6:2-4, Jesus explains how you should give to the needy. Public givers have already received their reward from men, but private givers will be rewarded by God. In the language of hyperbole, Matthew 6:3 says that you should be so secretive in giving that your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing. This passage implies going through extraordinary means to be discreet and private in your charity, likely to the point that your own family does not even know about it.

Jesus instructs a step beyond simply not doing righteous acts in front of men to garner praise. Jesus goes beyond saying to give charitably only with the right frame of mind; seeking only God's reward. Jesus actually commands that your actions be so covert that only God would know what you did. (This looks pretty bad for churches with plaques indicating who donated the money for this pew or that altar.)

In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus explains that prayer should be done the same way. Go into a room alone. Close the door. Pray. Be rewarded. Public prayers will not be answered. So, for God's sake, in Jesus' name, and (debatably) based on His own words, can we please put an end to public prayer? :-)

While Jesus' command is related to having the right frame of mind and purpose when praying, He goes a huge step beyond that by saying that praying should be done privately and in secret.

Rounding it out, Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 6:7-8 that your prayers should not babble on about what you need or want, because God already knows what you what you need before you ask. All you need to do is page God on His beeper, not leave Him a voicemail. So stop with your prayer requests too! (Yet that is not what Jesus later recommended [Matthew 24:20] , nor what He Himself later did [John 17], thereby making Him a self-contradicting hypocrite according to the Bible.)

Jesus ends the prayer instruction with the prayer (known as the Lord's Prayer) which activates God's pager in Matthew 6:9-13. Luke 11:1-4 records a similar teaching on how to pray. Let us compare prayer notes in the NIV text:
    6:9 … Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your Name, 11:2 … Father, hallowed be your Name, …
    6:10 your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. 11:2 … your Kingdom come.
    6:11 Give us today our daily bread. 11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.
    6:12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 11:4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. …
    6:13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. 11:4 … And lead us not into temptation.'

There are no explicit requests, just a general “please take care of me, forgive me, and help me” sentiment. That, and a request that for God's Kingdom to come...

If they are to pray for the Kingdom to come, then it was obviously not there. That means that Jesus did not already bring the Kingdom. This is important, because it means that the Kingdom did not start when people started believing in and following Jesus. Instead, the Kingdom refers to what Most Christians would call the Second Coming. This ties into how Jesus is recorded as saying that the Kingdom of God is near.

On a side note, somewhat interesting are the omissions in Luke's version. Luke does not mention anything about Heaven. Also, Luke does not mention anything about Satan (“the evil one”). Curious, no?

So now we know how to pray according to Jesus; privately and generally. No prayer circles. No specifics. Let God handle it, just like He has handled the soon-coming Kingdom.

Friday, September 3, 2010

God According to Numbers

The book of Numbers has been an interesting adventure; a tale involving counting, commandments, and catastrophes, culminating with the condemnation of Moses and a new generation of Israelites being poised to enter the Promised Land. God's fingerprints are all over Numbers, so let us review what we have learned about Him.

God According to Numbers
God began the book of Numbers by wanting a census of the Israelites. However, it seems that this census was really just a means of taxing the Israelites, because the census conspicuously added up the same count as the one taken in Exodus 38, and of course God would have already known how many there were. Yet in the Numbers' census, the Levites were excluded from the count. This is because Levites acted to protect the Israelites from God. Why? Because if a common Israelite tried to get too close to God, God would kill the trespasser.

We later found out that God essentially gave the Levites to the priests as possessions. The Levites were a substitute for the Israelites giving their firstborn children to God, thus contradicting the law made by God only a short time ago. But the number of firstborns outnumbered the Levites, so God decided that cash will work to make up for the shortcomings of this substitution.

God then went on to divide up the labor of the Levites based on their family lineages. He disproportionately assigned 8580 of them to move the Tabernacle and its accompaniments. (The Tabernacle was just a tent situated in the midst of a large portable-walled courtyard which was a little larger than a soccer field [football pitch].)

With the Levites squared away, it was time for more laws, and why not begin with suspected adultery? God described what a jealous husband should do if he suspects his wife of adultery, but has no witnesses. The suspect wife must drink a magic, cursed potion made by the priest. If she is guilty of adultery, God will cause her to miscarry (also known as aborting) pregnancies or become barren altogether. These holy abortions make you wonder about the fate of the soul of such a child, and in turn if life on Earth is really necessary.

Later, God described how someone can make a temporary pledge of devotion to God, thereby becoming a Nazirite. The pledge centered around growing your hair, abstaining from any products of grape vines, and staying away from dead people. If a Nazirite came near a dead person, they had to shave off their hair and start their pledge all over; after they made atonement for this sin. At the end of the vow, a Nazirite got to make several offerings, including burning his or her hair in front of God.

One common sub-theme in Exodus and Leviticus is that God loves a party! In Numbers, we found that God particularly liked the Passover festival. He even extended the invitation to the festival to aliens living in the Promised Land. However, if an Israelite did not participate without having good excuse, God expected that person to be “cut off,” which is usually a Biblical euphemism for being killed. Celebrate or die.

Another recurring sub-theme is that God sometimes needs to be reminded about His promises, and in Numbers that theme continues. God instructed the Israelites to blow a trumpet when they are attacked in order to remind Him of His promise to protect them from their enemies.

God demonstrated His loving providence to the Israelites by providing manna for them to eat. After eating manna every day for every meal for over a year, the Israelites complained for want of a little variety in their diets. God was quite offended by this, and so He buried them in quail and spitefully bestowed a horrible plague on them at the same time.

When Aaron and his sister, Miriam, started complaining about Moses out of their own jealousy, God reminded them that Moses is the only one with whom He speaks face-to-face, while He speaks to everyone else in dreams and with riddles. God then punished only Miriam, afflicting her with a skin disease. Meanwhile, Aaron got off free despite having enacted same sin and having led the earlier major transgression of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).

As the Israelites approached the Promised Land, they sent out spies to survey the land. The Israelites were frightened by the news which the spies bring back; the occupants were numerous and powerful. They spoke about returning to Egypt and of stoning Joshua and Caleb for trying to rally them to instead continue on with God's help. God was so outraged by the Israelites that He wanted to kill them all and start a new nation from Moses, thereby repenting that He had brought the Israelites out of Egypt in the first place. Moses managed to calm God's hasty rage. God forgave them, which meant that He prevented them from entering the Promised Land for forty years, meanwhile slowly killing off everyone who was at least 20 years old at the time of this rebellion.

With the rebellion squashed, more laws were issued by God, which included the command that anyone who intentionally disobeyed God's laws should be “cut off.” This was followed by an illustrative incident where a man was caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath. God ordered his execution by stoning. Then God instructed the Israelites to sew blue tassels onto their clothes to remind them to follow God's Law as opposed to their own hearts.

Next, yet another rebellion sprang up. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and 250 other nameless men challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God was so furious that He wants to kill the rebels along with the assembly of onlookers. Moses and Aaron persuaded God not to kill the onlookers, but God did kill the 250, and destroyed Korah, Dathan, and Abiram along with their entire families. The Israelites grumbled against these deaths, so God inflicted a plague on the Israelites with the intent to kill them all. Moses and Aaron managed to make an atonement offering to stop the plague after 14700 people had died.

God established more laws for the Sanctuary. Instead of being welcoming to all because of His love for everyone, God instead put up a series of barriers, ultimately allowing only the High Priest to gain private audience with God, and even then only on one day of the year.

Surprise! Another rebellion occurred; the Israelites complained about lacking food variety and water. Echoing the earlier Exodus account, Moses whacked a rock to make water come out. Yet God does not something about like the way in which Moses did this, and so God condemned Moses and Aaron to die without entering the Promised Land.

As the Israelites made their way around to the Promised Land, with God's help they pillaged and committed genocide to all nations in their path. King Balak solicited a prophet named Balaam to help protect his people from the Israelites. Balaam asked God if he should go to Balak. God said no. Later, Balaam asked again. God then told Balaam to go to Balak, but to say only what God tells him to say. So Balaam set out on his donkey. The donkey seemed to act crazy. Balaam beat the donkey for this odd behavior. God made the donkey be able to speak, and then God told Balaam that had it not been for his donkey's actions, God would have killed Balaam.

When Balaam finally reached Balak, Balaam performed a series of three sets of sacrifices, inquiring of God after each set of sacrifices. Balaam had to go through this series because, instead of being straightforward from the beginning, God chose to only give piecemeal information.

While the Israelites were camped outside the Promised Land, some of them started up interracial relationships and worshiping the god of the natives, Baal. God was so angry that He sent a plague to kill the Israelites and demanded that their leaders be publicly executed. While Moses was gathering the leaders to develop a plan, an Israelite man walked by with a Midianite woman. Phinehas followed them back to their tent and skewers them both together with his spear. God was so impressed with Phinehas' extremist zeal that God rewarded him with the promise of a lasting priesthood and stopped the plague. Unfortunately and indiscriminately, 24000 had fallen already by God's plague.

Later on, we learned how God views vows. A man's vow is binding, while a woman's vow is subject to her male-authority-figure's approval. This approval process even extends to a promise a woman might make to honor God.

God directed a war of vengeance against the Midianites to repay them for corrupting the Israelites. This war was a genocide of the Midianites, with the extermination of all males of any age and any non-virgin females. The Israelites got to keep the virgins for themselves, which included some virgin sacrifices for God.

To wrap up the book, God dictated some more laws regarding murder and manslaughter. It was an interesting approach to these issues, for sure, and overall rang of justice. However, the term served for manslaughter was rather arbitrary; dependent upon the High Priest's death. Also, one clause stated that atonement for the land could not be made except by the blood of the guilty party. While the High Priest's death seems to foreshadow Jesus well, the non-substitution atonement conflicts with Jesus.

What We Have Learned
God likes to collect money. (Or rather, God likes to give money to the Priests. Convenient, no?) Plus, God will accept money as a substitute for some other offerings.

God has a problem allocating manpower proportionately.

God will conduct abortions (through miscarriages) to dishonor an adulterous wife.

God seems to hold high regard for hair, and thinks that it gets contaminated by dead people.

God does like to party, but He wants you dead if you do not go to the party without a good excuse.

God needs to be reminded to carry out His own promises.

God will punish you if you ask for more than what He gives you, no matter how meager His giving is.

God is sometimes arbitrarily selective in His wrath, and almost always speaks to people in riddles (even though revelation riddles have not yet been demonstrated in the Bible).

God will be exceedingly angry for a lack of faith. More significantly: God will still punish you even if you are forgiven.

God does not want you to follow your heart, but rather to follow His Law exactly.

God needs persuasion not to kill the innocent along with the guilty.

God only wants a direct relationship with a very, very select few.

God will condemn you due to one instance of using poor choice of words.

God will tell you that it is OK to do something, and then nearly kill you when you do that very same thing.

God will string you along instead of being up front with all pertinent information from the beginning.

God rewards extremists.

God puts a woman's vows under a man's control.

God will command genocide and virgin sacrifice.

God seems confused in His foreshadowing of Christianity.

In short: God is hungry for money, hair, and blood, but not for relationships. His arbitrary wrath takes out the innocent with the guilty. He is desperately in need of anger control management and memory aids. Yet he rewards those who exhibit His same fiery temper and expects you to follow the Law as opposed to your heart. Worst of all, He will punish you even if He forgives you, which does not bode well for His bumbled, foreshadowed Christianity.

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