Friday, January 28, 2011

Foundation of Sand

Finally, we have arrived at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, a journey through three consecutive chapters of Matthew, with an asynchronous journey through two chapters of Mark and seven chapters of Luke for incomplete-but-related content. The Gospel of John amazingly has no content related to any parts of the Sermon on the Mount. Now it is time for reflection and summary.

Foundation of Sand
Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of the wise builder, or the parable of the foundations, in Matthew 7:24-27, which is similarly recorded in Luke 6:46-49. The parable: A man's house which is built on a foundation of rock will endure, but a man's house which is built on a foundation of sand will be destroyed. The meaning: Do what Jesus commands, and you will endure. But if you do not do what Jesus commands, then you will be destroyed. So let us review what Jesus instructed in the Sermon on the Mount.

Revealed from the beginning of the Sermon, this was a private sermon to Jesus' disciples, not to the crowds. The Beatitudes were meant to be a pep talk; telling the disciples that those who struggle now will be rewarded, but those who are already living well, in the materialistic sense, are going to be the ones who suffer in the future.

As a confirmation that this speech is to Jesus' disciples instead of to the masses, Jesus calls them the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34-35) and the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16, Mark 4:21-23, Luke 8:16-17). It is ironic that Jesus tells His disciples that nobody hides a light, when He Himself, as the true Light of the World, tried to hide His light when exorcising demons.

Jesus affirms that His followers should obey and teach God's Law, also known as the Law of Moses, the 613 laws, commands, and decrees given in the Torah. The problem with the Pharisees was that they were legalistic with the laws which man created, not the laws which God had provided.

Next, Jesus overrides and intensifies some of God's laws; equating hate to murder and lustful thoughts to adultery, and explaining that divorce should be prohibited because it creates adulterers upon subsequent marriages of the parties involved. Keep in mind that God's Law says that murderers and adulterers should be put to death. (Later, Jesus recommended not getting married partly due to this issue.)

In the middle of that, um, enhancement, Jesus also instructs reconciliation of grievances prior to worship (Matthew 5:23-24) and settling grievances privately instead of in the courts (Matthew 5:25-26, Luke 12:57-59).

Jesus condemns swearing to anything, instead favoring that you be honest to your word. This is despite God actually prescribing different vows in the Old Testament.

Then Jesus provides His really difficult teachings. Do not seek justice. Let someone beat you. Freely give anyone anything that they want of yours. Freely lend without expecting anything back. Love your enemies. In short, disregard personal justice, safety, and possessions, and love those that hate you.

Next, Jesus tells us that all acts of charity and prayer should be done privately, to the extent that nobody knows that you are doing them. Furthermore, prayer should be general and non-specific. So put an end to public prayer and prayer requests.

Jesus says that you had better forgive any and all transgressions against you, or else you will not be forgiven by God (Matthew 6:14-15).

Then, harping on the same chord as giving and praying privately, Jesus says that you should fast, but not look like you are fasting while you are (Matthew 6:16-18).

Jesus then preaches that the true pursuit of God is through poverty. Forget trying to work for money. Instead, work for God and have faith that God will provide.

Next, Jesus warns that people should not be hypocritical in their judgements of other people, and instructs that His followers should judge a person's character before deciding whether or not to share the Gospel with them.

From there, Jesus says that God will bestow good gifts to those who ask for them (Matthew 7:7-11, Luke 11:9-13), but we know that you should be very careful when asking for something from God.

Jesus instructs us to do unto others as we would have done to us in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31.

After that gentle sentiment, Jesus harshly informs us that only a few people will take the narrow road to Salvation, while the overwhelming majority will take the road to destruction.

Nearly at the end, Jesus simplifies judgement for us through a parable. If we see someone do something good, then assume that they are completely good. If we see someone do something bad, then assume that they are completely bad.

This brings us back to the question of foundations. Are you on sand or on rock? Are you putting into practice everything Jesus that says, or are you not doing everything and thereby on the road to destruction? Not sure? I'll summarize and simplify it for you. Answer the following question:

Do you know and teach God's Law, believe divorce is as bad as adultery, avoid swearing even in when legally required to do so, avoid seeking justice for yourself, let people hit you, have complete disregard for all possessions, love scam artists, bullies, and terrorists, pray, fast, and give charity as privately and anonymously as possible, forgive all who have ever wronged you, have an income at or near subsistence level, judge only non-hypocritically, share the Gospel only with good people, and always treat people the way you would want to be treated?

If you answered yes, good for you! If you answered no, well, you may need some house insurance, but you are not alone. According to Jesus, the overwhelming majority of the world is on the road to destruction, which doubtlessly includes many self-identified Christians.

The simple fact is that if you said no, you are at least a little honest and practical. While some of Jesus' teachings are good “as is” and others could be useful in less literal senses, following the teachings in their entirety is a prescription for disaster for you, your family, your community, and your country. If this life matters at all beyond getting to Heaven, Jesus' entire teachings as a whole are calamitous and detrimental to it; they are a true foundation of sand.

If we pick and choose the best teachings of Jesus, if we use the pressure of our better moral judgement to disregard self-destructive policies like letting yourself be abused and not seeking justice while promoting the messages of self-discipline, kindness, forgiveness, and humility, we can turn that foundation of sand into sandstone rock of practical moral teaching. With that much effort, you have to ask why even begin with Jesus for teaching morals? Yet we should not forget that this was not supposed to be just moral teaching, but rather the guideposts on the road to the Kingdom of God.

Matthew 7:28-29 concludes with the crowds being amazed by Jesus' teachings. It was amazing, too: amazing how the “crowds” even heard Jesus, being that He started off by sitting down and speaking only to His disciples (Matthew 5:1), amazing how anyone recorded this epic sermon in times when writing implements were still a bit of a luxury, and amazing how none of the other Gospels mention an epic sermon on a mountain. Perhaps most amazing is how people today do not realize that these teachings collectively only make sense if the true Kingdom of God was imminent, if your afflictions were only a very temporary testing, and that makes them that much more amazing to be writing about them 2000 years later in our world now...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Holy Divorce

Onward though Deuteronomy, where Moses is relaying God's Law to the next generation of Israelites. In Deuteronomy 23, we saw God prohibit groups of peoples from entering His assembly, including the exclusion of men with damaged testicles. The chapter continued with some miscellaneous laws, such as protecting runaway slaves, charging interest only to foreigners, abhorring the offerings of prostitutes, being committed to your vows to God, and taking freely from your neighbor's field. The next chapter begins with one of the most prevalent issues of our time.

Holy Divorce
You have heard that it was said that Jesus is against divorce, but this position seems to be a divorce from Scripture itself. No, not the New Testament Scripture, but the Old Testament Scripture – the foundation for the entire Bible. Let us look at Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” NIV
First, whose words are these? In the majority of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking, but he is simply proclaiming God's own words (Deuteronomy 1:3, Deuteronomy 8:11). Much of God's words are a series of commandments and laws which are collectively known as God's Law, with one of those laws being not to add to or take away from God's Law (Deuteronomy 4:2, Deuteronomy 12:32). So this is not Moses providing his opinion or defining the laws which he sees fit to enact, but rather they are the very word of God.

Now, what does this law actually say? This is not a law specifically about permitting divorce. This is a law prohibiting a man from remarrying his divorced wife if she marries again. The process of divorce is recorded in the law, but that is not the main focus of the law.

The right of divorce is implicit with marriage. God expected divorce to occur sometimes, which is the reason for this law, as well as the specific mention of divorce elsewhere in the Law (Leviticus 21:7, Leviticus 21:14, Leviticus 22:13, Numbers 30:9, Deuteronomy 22:19, Deuteronomy 22:29).

Look at the reason given for divorce in this case. The man is displeased in his wife, finding something unseemly about her. This is not to be understood as her having committed adultery, as she would have been put to death for that, instead of simply being divorced (Leviticus 20:10). Instead, this comes down to the man's opinion of his wife, that something about her is just not up to good standards.

In modern times, we have a tendency to read “man” as “a person” in legal matters to remove gender, but do not do so here. Only men had the implicit right of divorce from God in this patriarchal system.

An aspect of this sexual inequality is played out in this law. It is detestable for the divorced wife to marry a different man and then remarry her original husband because she has been defiled; because she has slept with a different man. Is that because a married man and woman are one flesh? No, not so fast. A man can have multiple wives, and he can sleep with one wife one night and another wife the next night, yet this behavior is not detestable to God (Genesis 30:14-18).

OK, so now fast-forward to the New Testament. Jesus says that anyone who divorces except because of adultery, causes the divorced wife to commit adultery, and the man who marries the divorced wife also commits adultery (Matthew 5:31-32, Luke 16:8). As you will remember, per God adultery is a sin worthy of immediate death (Leviticus 20:10). This is in contrast to this law from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where God only has a problem with the divorced wife remarrying her original husband; not a problem with the divorce itself or with her second marriage, or even with her third marriage except for this restriction. That would be strange enough, but what Jesus says later really is messed up.

In Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-9, when the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is OK, Jesus again proclaims that divorce is sinful and subsequent marriages are forms of adultery. The Pharisees ask Jesus why then did Moses permit divorce (Mark 10:4, Matthew 19:7)?

Jesus could have accurately either replied that Moses never gave (explicit) permission for divorce or that they have misunderstood the intention of that law because God was only providing provisions for when divorce occurred (which is still a weak defense because there is implicit approval). Instead, Jesus wrongly states that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts (Mark 10:5, Matthew 19:8). This law was not the opinion of Moses; it was the command of God. It is unfathomable that Jesus neither knew the Scripture nor the source of the command, if He truly was God Himself.

The story gets even more strange as it continues in Matthew 19:10-12. Jesus' disciples say that if that is the case with marriage, then it is better not to marry. Jesus says that not everybody can accept this, explaining further in Matthew 19:12 that:
“For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the Kingdom of Heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” NIV
Or in other words, Jesus says that some choose to act like those with damaged or removed testicles in order to gain access to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is not saying that everyone should do that, but that some have chosen that path and (implicitly) that it is a good path to take. When you consider that in the Deuteronomy 23, God forbid those with damaged or removed testicles from entering the Assembly of God, this is an interesting reversal of policy.

Summing up all of this information concisely: God implicitly permitted men to divorce their wives, and had no problems with subsequent marriages as long as they are not between the men and their original wives. Jesus, on the other hand, does not know what He is talking about. That should be a huge red flag.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Holy Balls!

We are continuing though Deuteronomy, through a section where Moses is giving God's Law to the Israelites. In the previous chapter, we saw how God misunderstands female anatomy (perhaps proof that God is a man after all), and how God requires rapists to marry their victims. The following chapter changes from bitter justice to arbitrary justice in an implicit exploration of fate versus free will.

Holy Balls!
There is a common, but errant, mantra of Christianity that Free Will is the soul means and justification for damnation or salvation; that each individual must choose to accept God's salvation through Jesus or face the consequences. The fact is that the Bible says that God first chooses those of whom are eligible for salvation, the Elect, and that is surely not everybody. With God making the first qualifying choice, a choice not based on an individual's merits, it comes down to a question of fate. Fatalism is a consistent message in the Old Testament.

Consider Deuteronomy 23:1-8. (Note that in the Torah this may be Deuteronomy 23:2-9 due to different chapter parsing.) These verses primarily discuss who is or is not allowed to join the “assembly of the Lord.” For clarification, the “assembly of the Lord” probably means the group of elders and priests who serve in leadership roles for a community, similar to the usage of “assembly” in Leviticus 4:13-15.

Like the restriction for priests in Leviticus 21:16-23, in Deuteronomy 23:1 we see:
“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” NIV
Why? Is this to prevent people with defects from being close to God? No, sin would have to be worse than physical defects to God, and we know that all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Is it that God thinks that testosterone is critical to leadership? Maybe. Or, it could be that God wants a little more collateral for His leaders, like progeny; generations to punish or bless based on your actions. The latter idea is somewhat supported in the verses that follow.

In Deuteronomy 23:2, we find:
No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation.” NIV
The “one born of a forbidden marriage” is more often translated as “one of illegitimate birth,”also known as a bastard. The exact meaning is less significant than is the fact that neither the bastard nor any of his progeny can enter the assembly of the Lord. The poor bastard did nothing wrong, and neither did his progeny, yet God is punishing them with a fate they cannot escape. The phrase “even down to the tenth generation” does not mean that at the eleventh generation they can join the assembly. Instead, this is essentially saying that the bastard's entire lineage can never enter the assembly of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 23:3-6 goes on to say that no Ammonite or Moabite can ever enter the assembly of the Lord because of how they treated the Israelites while they were wondering the desert. Deuteronomy 23:6 goes a step further saying:
“Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.” NIV
This is even more significant, because it drives a barrier between the Ammonites and Moabites and the one true God. Without friendly interaction, these peoples would never get to learn about and worship God. This is dramatically in contradiction to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:43-48 about loving your enemies. The actions of these peoples' ancestors has fated them to eternal damnation... that is if the concept of eternal damnation existed at the time of the original writing of these verses.

In contrast, Deuteronomy 23:7-8 states that the Edomites and Egyptians could join the assembly of the Lord, but they would have to wait until after three generations had passed as a form of more mild punishment.

These types of judgements make sense only if there is no afterlife, only if an individual's actions could determine the blessings or the cursing of himself and all of his progeny. Thus, your eternal judgement would be made obvious by the living legacy you left behind. Your actions control the fate of your entire lineage.

Going back to the first verse, if a man's testicles were damaged, he was not going to have any children. No children, no progeny. No progeny, no lasting judgement. A man without balls has nothing to loose, which ironically could be very, very dangerous to the faith.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Virginity, Rape, and Bitter Justice

We are approximately two-thirds of the way through Deuteronomy, in the middle of a section where Moses is listing God's laws for the Israelites. From Deuteronomy 21, we learn how you can marry captive women, practice polygamy with unloved wives, and stone your disobedient children. What will the next chapter hold for us?

Virginity, Rape, and Bitter Justice
Have you ever heard a song which starts of really well, but after the first chorus all of the stanzas are just horrible? You feel cheated, like the artist wrecked what could have been an otherwise wonderful song. Sure, you can go on singing the chorus and humming the tune, but any notion of artistic genius dissolved. This is not one for the iTunes. In a less lyrical sense, that is exactly what happens with Deuteronomy 22.

Deuteronomy 22:1-8 starts off the chapter pretty strong. Take care of your brother's lost or fallen livestock. Take the eggs, but not the mother bird. Deuteronomy 22:8 is even a precursor to OSHA, requiring fall protection for your roof! Besides the somewhat random prohibition on cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5, these laws seem to demonstrate great compassion and understanding for humans and animals. This could be evidence of a loving, omniscient God.

Then things become a little odd in Deuteronomy 22:9-12. Here, as in our study of Leviticus, we see that God prohibits planting multiple seed types in the same piece of land and wearing blended fabrics. Also, do not yoke different animals together, and make sure to put tassels on your cloak. (The tassels are to remind you not to follow your heart, but to obey God's Law instead.) Do these laws represent divine wisdom? It is hard to tell. Let us move on.

In Deuteronomy 22:13-21, the train wreck occurs. In this section, a man may make a claim that his new wife was not a virgin, claiming that there was no proof of her virginity. What exactly would that proof be? A bloody sheet from the first night that the man and his wife had sex. If his wife's parents can provide this bloody sheet to the court, then the man gets a hefty fine, and must stay married to his wife and cannot ever divorce her. (The wife, after having her good named dragged through the mud by her husband, gets no choice in the matter.) If no proof of her virginity can be presented, the man's wife is to be stoned to death.

The trouble is that not all virgins will bleed during their first sexual intercourse. When the blood does come, it comes from rupturing the hymen. However, like any other body part, the hymen forms uniquely in each woman, resulting in a variety of shapes and elasticity. A smaller and/or more elastic hymen will be less prone to rupture during intercourse.

An omniscient God would know this fact, but an uneducated man would not. As a result of this ignorance, women have been killed for a suspected premarital loss of chastity. And as a result, to this day some women choose to undergo a surgery known as hymenorrhaphy to ensure that there will be blood during their first intercourse.

Next is a somewhat good, but starkly severe law saying that both the man and the woman engaging in an adulterous relationship must be killed (Deuteronomy 22:22).

Then, we get to rape in Deuteronomy 22:23-29, and God's wisdom becomes challenged again.

For rape of a virgin who is promised to be married, the punishment depends on where the rape happened. If it was in a town, and nobody heard the woman scream for help, then both the man and the woman are to be stoned (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). So the lesson to all of those would-be rapists is to make sure that you gag your victim first, because then it is unlikely she would later report the rape, as it would mean not only her shame but also her own death.

For rape in the countryside of a virgin who is promised to be married, only the man would be killed because there was nobody around to hear the woman scream for help (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). However, per God's Law in Deuteronomy 17:6, in such circumstances this man could not be put to death for his crime unless he provided witness against himself, because capitol crimes require at least two witnesses to enact justice. So another lesson for all of those would-be rapists is that countryside virgins are fair game.

What about rape of a virgin who is not yet promised to be married? Well, in that case, the rapist must marry the woman, never divorce her, and pay her father some silver (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). The woman gets no choice in the matter. She must marry her rapist. That is truly bitter justice.

God rounds out the chapter a little more softly, giving an implicit nod of acceptance to polygamy by saying that a man cannot marry his father's wife (Deuteronomy 22:30). That wife may or may not be the man's own mother.

For those who believe, it is time to stop simply singing the chorus and humming the tune which someone else has piped out for you. Read the Bible and pay attention to its words. When you understand its text, as we have seen above, its divine veracity simply does not hold up. It is not worth $0.99 to download it, unless you just really dig the riffs of fantasy.