Friday, November 26, 2010

Give and Take

We are a section of Deuteronomy where Moses is reviewing to the new generation of Israelites (almost) all of the laws and commands given by God. It started out by instructing them to have zero tolerance for other faiths within their borders. Next in Deuteronomy 14, as in Leviticus, Moses reviews clean and unclean foods. Now it is time to cover lending.

Give and Take
There are some passages in the Bible which almost seem like they actually may be of divine inspiration. Yet, these even in these passages, there is often some odd twist or catch which still paints God in some hue other than blissfully pure love. Deuteronomy 15 is one of those passages.

God commands that every seven years, outstanding debts are to be canceled, no longer to be collected (Deuteronomy.15:1-2). Could you imagine a world like that? No one would even drown in debt forever, and people would get multiple chances to succeed without risk of utter economic ruin. It seems like a divine ideal, but it is unfair to the lender to some extent. Those who lend are most often lending out of their own surplus, so this almost seems to be a Godly policy of redistribution of wealth. A gallon of virtual ink could be spilled on this topic, but we need to set that aside for now to keep our eyes on the big picture.

We will come back to Deuteronomy 15:3 in a moment. Moving on to Deuteronomy 15:4-6, God contrasts the message of debts by essentially saying that there should be no need for the Israelites to borrow from one another, because God will richly bless them if only they obey His Law. This implies two things: One, financial security is a measure of how well you are obeying God. Two, God knew that not everyone would obey His Law to the letter, but He provided a system where people could make a new start, which is graceful.

In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, God commands the Israelites to be generous to the poor people in the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 15:9 goes on to explain how God considers it a sin if you withhold or adjust the amount you give to the poor people relative to the seventh year, the year when debts are canceled.

Did you catch that? When God is commanding to be generous to the poor, He is not talking about a pure gift giving. It appears rather that when you give to the poor, God wants you to consider it a loan, not a gift. You should expect to get something back, at least up until the seventh year. This contradicts what Jesus instructed in Luke 6:30. Yet even if you are to consider it a loan, not a gift, the command to be generous and the seventh-year debt forgiveness displays a sort of divine mercy.

Deuteronomy 15:10-11 closes the matter out with another plea to be generous towards the poor, because then God will bless you financially.

Summing it up, be generous because it is commanded by God, because you will be held guilty of sin by God if you do not, and because God will make you rich if you do.

OK, now back to Deuteronomy 15:3, where we find:
You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your [fellow Israelite] owes you.” NIV
God's merciful debt relief does not extend outside the borders of the Promised Land. As we discussed in a previous study, while the Israelites were chosen, they were not special. So there is no reason why God would not extend the same courtesy, the same act of loving mercy, to foreign debtors, other than to further differentiate between the Israelites and other nations. That, and possibly to foreshadow the Truth to come. As Christianity tells us, there is a time coming when God's mercy will only extend to the Elect, those who are in the eternal Kingdom of God.

Yet you cannot look at that verse divorced from the rest of the context. God tells the Israelites (through Moses) in Deuteronomy 15:6:
“For the LORD your God will bless you as He has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.” NIV
That is a sharp divide from any foreshadowing of Christian eschatology. Pictured here is the Israelite nation's financial and political dominance over its neighbors. In terms of foreshadowing the Christian version of the eternal Kingdom of God, that is dead wrong, because in that version all of the neighbors have been destroyed and are (debatably) undergoing eternal torment in a completely different realm.

Ultimately, this presents a very different God than what Christianity would like to present. This is a God who treats people differently based simply on where they are born. This is a God whose favor is made obvious in financial riches. This is a God whose Kingdom is on earth, a Kingdom which coexists with and dominates other nations. This is an eternal God with temporal interests.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Intolerance for All

About a third of the way through Deuteronomy, Moses ends his history lesson/pep talk/fear-God speech, which included reminding the Israelites that they may be chosen by God, but they are not special in His eyes. Now, Moses begins to repeat all of the laws and commandments which God wants the Israelites to obey. So we begin again to learn what we can about this most-righteous lawgiver known as God.

Intolerance for All
How should you deal with religious pluralism? How tolerant should you be when you happen to know that you have the one true faith? Generally speaking, Christianity is tolerant of people with different beliefs, but mostly from the perspective of viewing them as targets to proselytize. That may be how God, the Son, Jesus, does business, but God the Father is of a different persuasion.

Moses begins to tell (most of) God's laws and commands to a new generation of Israelites in Deuteronomy 12. (God had forgiven, and then slowly killed the previous generation for expressing doubt and fear.)

First, Moses tells them to obey the list of God's laws and commands (Deuteronomy 12:1).

The list begins with the command to completely destroy all emblems and implements of worship of other gods from the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 12:2-3).

Whereas the pagan religions had set up altars and shrines all over the place, God then instructs that the offerings (including tithes) to Him must be given at the prescribed locations under the direction of the priests, which would naturally be more financially beneficial for the priests (Deuteronomy 12:4-28).

The chapter draws to a close with the message of censorship and restriction, as Moses instructs them not to inquire about other gods or the worship practices of other religions, because they do detestable things (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).

God, through Moses, ends the chapter with these notable words in Deuteronomy 12:32:
“See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.” NIV
The message of censorship and restriction take a more violent turn as Moses continues in Deuteronomy 13.

In Deuteronomy 13:1-5, we find that God practices entrapment, encouraging the Israelites to sin through worshiping other gods, by sending them miracle-working false prophets. So if a prophet, perhaps a prophet named Jesus, were to give sight to the blind and walk on water, you should still not listen to him if he suggests anything other than following God's laws and commands. In fact, you should kill such a prophet because it is a test from God.

Then, in Deuteronomy 13:6-11, God's Law commands that if anyone, even the dearest person in your life, suggests that you should go worship other gods, that person must be stoned to death, and you must be the first one to throw a stone.

Finally, in Deuteronomy 13:12-18, if you know of an entire town which has been lead astray from God, you are to send elders and priests into the town to consult with them to win back their hearts and minds for God. No wait. I was confused. Actually, God commands the wholesale slaughter of every living thing in that town, including babies and livestock, followed by the burning all of the plunder of the town as a burnt offering to God. Oh, and the town is never to be rebuilt. Then, God will have mercy on you and bless you, because, as Deuteronomy 13:18 puts it, you are “doing what is right in His [God's] eyes.”

So God the Father commanded absolute intolerance for any other religion. Seek out and destroy it from within your borders. This was the law for the Israelites who would become the majority in the Promised Land. This was God's will for the Israelites, and He probably would have been happy if the entire world did the very same thing.

God the Son, Jesus, on the other hand, was softly tolerant of other religions. In fact, Jesus' biggest gripe was with the contemporary Jewish religion of the time more than any other pagan religion. There is hardly a reference to other religions beyond the vague Matthew 24:15/Mark 13:14 line about “the abomination that causes desolation,” and the meaning of that phrase is debatable. That makes sense, because a minority cult like the beginning of Christianity could not survive very long by attacking the majority forces around them, but they could tap into the frustration of the common Jew in the apparently hypocritical and corrupt Jewish religious system of the time to garner support for their fledgeling movement.

On a final note, it is interesting that there is no provision in God's Law for atheists. The concept just did not exist at that time.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Chosen, But Not Special

We are working our way through Deuteronomy, which has been an epoch speech by Moses as he attempts to prepare the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. Recently, Moses reminded the Israelites that God wanted them to kill all of the men, women, children, goats, cows, etc. which now reside in the Promised Land. Then Moses reminded them of how God is like a father to them; a father who will kill them if they drift away from Him. Now Moses will remind the Israelites of who they are.

Chosen, but Not Special
Some passages of the Old Testament have such profound implications when considered as being a foreshadowing of Christianity that they are best left unsaid, at least if you are a believer. Take Deuteronomy 9, for example.

Moses begins by telling the Israelites that God is going to subdue the present occupants of the Promised Land, thereby granting the Israelites quick possession of the land (Deuteronomy 9:1-3).

In terms of foreshadowing Christianity, you might imagine that the Israelites (at this stage anyway) represent God's chosen Elect, and that the Promised Land represents the coming Kingdom of God. So far so good. God is going to make it easy for His Elect to enter the Kingdom of God. The “make it easy” part could even be projected to represent Jesus' touted victory over death.

That is where the benevolent foreshadowing ends, and things take on a darker motif.

In Deuteronomy 9:4, Moses tells the Israelites that they will get the Promised Land, not because of their own righteousness, but because of the wickedness of the other nations presently in the Promised Land. Next, in Deuteronomy 9:5, Moses says that same message again:
“It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” NIV
Just for good measure, Moses repeats the message one more time in Deuteronomy 9:6, where he adds that the Israelites are a “stiff-necked people.”

So God was going to destroy those nations because they were so wicked, but the Israelites were also wicked and were almost destroyed by God twice! Moses continues by reminding them of these moments of near annihilation. The first was the Golden Calf idol incident, which Moses recalls in Deuteronomy 9:7-21, where we find God saying to Moses in Deuteronomy 9:14:
“Let Me alone, so that I may destroy [the Israelites] and blot out their name from under Heaven. And I will make you into a nation stronger and more numerous than they.” NIV
The second near-fatal incident was a moment of doubt and fear experienced by the Israelites before they were to enter the Promised Land, which Moses recalls in Deuteronomy 9:22-29, where we find Moses pleading to God in Deuteronomy 9:27:
“Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of [the Israelites], their wickedness and their sin.” NIV
Summing all of this up, we find that the Israelites had Godly-destruction-worthy wickedness, but that they were only still alive because God promised something to a few men centuries ago, and because Moses was there to remind God of His promise. Because of this promise, they were chosen, but not special.

Now, fast-forward to Christianity and consider the meaning of what was supposedly foreshadowed in this Old Testament story.

The Elect are chosen by God, but are not special. They do all sorts of sins worthy of destruction, but because of a promise, and perhaps because of Jesus reminding God of that promise, God begrudgingly allows His Elect to live. That is not exactly the attitude of a loving God.

Yet what is perhaps more disconcerting is that this effectively means that God is choosing people to save arbitrarily. It is not based on the merits of righteousness, works, or integrity. An arbitrary decision by God determines your fate for eternity. That is not love; that is lottery.

Free-will advocates will attempt to push this back on personal responsibility of the individual to choose God, and thereby get God off the hook of being arbitrary. However, as this foreshadowing suggests, there is no way around such a harsh, and realistic perspective. In fact, Paul's words in Romans 9:16-21 make this position explicitly clear:
It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” NIV

Friday, November 5, 2010

Judging Pigs

Onward through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, where we recently discussed how Jesus taught to pray discretely and non-specifically and how Jesus' teachings may discourage people from doing anything to pull themselves out of poverty. This time, we will double-check our judgement on a few popular verses.

Judging Pigs
There are some Biblical expressions which transcend their Biblical origins. Unleashed from their context, they get misapplied by anyone with just enough Biblical knowledge to be dangerous, or at least inaccurate. In this study, we will look at a few of those sayings closer to get the correct meaning.

Continuing the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:1 begins with the command:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” NIV
That seems pretty plain. Do not judge. The parallel verse in Luke 6:37 states the same thing, adding to forgive in order to be forgiven. But did Jesus really mean not to judge? You have got to look at the context to get the correct meaning.

Matthew 7:2 continues saying that you will be judged in the same way in which you judge others. Mark 4:24 echoes this, as does Luke 6:38 after a plea for generosity. This begins to paint a slightly different picture, like maybe it is OK to judge about a particular issue if we are sure that we are not being hypocritical.

Continuing on in Matthew 7:3-5, indeed, a call for judgement without hypocrisy is what we see. Removing the plank from your own eye before removing the speck of sawdust from your brother's eye means to make sure that you yourself are right before trying to correct someone else. So go ahead and judge, but make sure you could not condemn yourself with the same judgement. The parallel in Luke 6:41-42 states the same thing. Luke 6:39-40 precedes this message with the parable which says that a blind man cannot lead another blind man, which in this case likely implies that you have got to know what is right and what is wrong (from God) in order to know what it is that you should do.

Secularists and liberal Christians often get this wrong in thinking that Christians should not judge anyone about anything. I know I have before. However, as we have seen, Jesus says to go ahead a judge as long as you are right with God on that matter.

That is where conservative Christians often go wrong, or right, depending on your interpretation; interpretation of the Bible, that is. Because as a whole, there are so many mixed messages of condemnation and mercy, particularly when considering both the New and Old Testaments, that many people think that they are in the right and are acting according to God's will while doing some of the most heinous acts.

For example, in the U.S.A. there is a conservative Christian group which protests at military funerals with signs that say the fallen soldier has died by God's will of punishment for allowing gays in the military. They think that they are right with God's will, and they certainly have the Scriptural references to back them up, so they feel free to make this judgement.

Speaking of judgement, Jesus goes on to tell His followers to make judgements of character. In Matthew 7:6 we see:
“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” NIV
This metaphorical statement essentially tells you not to preach the Gospel to intractable sinners, because they will profane the Gospel and attack or persecute you. On the surface, this seems logical, but upon closer scrutiny this judgement rather appears wildly inappropriate.

For example, contrary to Matthew Henry's exegesis, this does not suggest trying to give some of the Gospel to sinners and then abandoning the effort if they become obstinate. Instead, this statement commands not giving any of the Gospel to them at all. Jesus is saying to be discerning to the point of judging a book by its cover.

Yet even more strange is that this denies the power of God, both in His potential ability to transform anyone through the Gospel message and in His ability to protect those who are spreading the Gospel. The message of this statement is “do not bother trying to convert the depraved, for your own protection.” Why would these self-denying words come from the mouth of God, in the form of Jesus?

There are two likely reasons conjoined by a single man-made thread.

First is that these expressions were somewhat in the common vernacular of the Jewish religious world, but in a much more physical sense, such as the restriction that you could not feed dogs with the leftovers from the sacrifices to God. So using this expression elevates the Gospel message to the level of Holy offerings and items. To Jewish converts, being entrusted with such a Holy thing (the likes of which were typically reserved for priests) would have seemed a great privilege and honor, and thereby motivate the spreading the new religion of the Gospel.

Second is that there was no real God to act behind this proselytizing effort to provide either a divine influence in conversion or protection against persecution. So the early church leaders would have needed to advise their Gospel-spreading foot soldiers in a way which would keep them reasonably safe.

It would be remiss to leave off a third possible reason in God's defense, if you could call it that. As McGarvey and Pendleton point out in their exegesis, Jesus never really bothers trying to convert the self-righteous Pharisees. He rebuked them plenty, but other than that He did not want anything to do with them. So the defense is that Jesus was not a hypocrite to this statement.

Yet this third reason falls short of explaining a lack of transformative power and protection for proselytizers. Plus, it is not internally consistent with the Bible, because we see that God sent prophets to the Israelites begging them to return to God or else face destruction and exile, despite the fact that supposedly God knew that these prophets would not be able to change the sinfulness of the obstinate Israelites (Jeremiah 6:10, Ezekiel 3:7).

In summary: judge. Judge, as long as you are not being hypocritical. Judge people's characters before deciding if you should attempt to save them with the Gospel, despite the fact that this would seem to contradict the part of Luke 6:37 which states “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (As by choosing not to share the Gospel with them, you are condemning them in a way.) Judge the pigs, just use your better judgement when doing so.