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That Troublesome Old Testament God - VI

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

            Violence is a topic that many feel uncomfortable discussing when it comes to Biblical theology, especially in the Old Testament.  How do we deal, for instance, with a text like Psalm 137, where the psalmist cries out for retributive justice from God?  How do we exegete these words:  “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks!”  How does a Christian, in the light of Jesus’ call to his followers to pray for and love their enemies, and to turn the other cheek when slapped, interpret a text that asks God to commit an act of violence?

            The heretic Marcion, from the early days of the church, decided that the way to do so was to posit that the God of the OT was a different God altogether.  The God of the OT was vindictive and judgmental and harsh and violent.  The God of the NT, on the other hand, was good and merciful and gracious and long-suffering.  Marcion attempted to purge the NT, therefore, of any vestiges of the Old – and so his NT canon lacked the Gospels and Hebrews and most anything outside of parts of the letters of Paul.  The OT, to Marcion, was an unreconciliable poison to be purged from Christian thought.

            Do we have Marcionistic tendencies today?  That is for another post and another day...

            But back to violence...

            In Fretheim’s final lecture, he discussed violence and offered some rich insights, I believe, into the Biblical texts.  He began with this:  God’s ultimate goal – His ultimate goal – is a world of peace.  One might recall the great passage from Micah 4:3-4, where an age of peace is envisioned by the prophet.  This is what God is working toward – this is where He is going.  But, alas, neither He nor we are there yet.  We live in a world of violence – and there seems to be no end in sight – at least in human sight.

            Fretheim also quoted the following definition of “violence” that might be helpful.  Violence is “...any activity, physical or verbal, personal or institutional, human or divine, that violates the personhood of another, so as to abuse, denigrate, injure, or kill.”  That might take some reflection to digest, but I believe it is helpful.

            The Bible often speaks of such violence, because the Bible is real.  It deals with the real issues of life.  It reflects life as it is – not as it should be or as we wish it was.  If the Bible were written today, in fact, it would be far more violent than it is!

            In the next post, we will look at some specific texts, BOTH OT and NT, that portray violence, and we will try to suggest how such texts can be understood in a way that does no violence to the Biblical text, and that makes sense to us.

That Troublesome Old Testament God - V

Friday, January 20, 2017

            Depending on where you are coming from, you may or may not have a problem thinking about a God of judgment.  This may be a theological difference, a generational difference, or something else altogether.  Some struggle with a God who judges, others do not.

            Fretheim defines judgment as “The divine mediation of the consequences of sin.”  I believe that is a good working definition.  Sin is a disruption of the moral order created by God, which calls for a response from God.  In other words, sin has consequences.

            Consider some of the major points I heard Fretheim make about the judgment of God below:

            *God created the moral order to begin with.

            *God remains involved in this created order by watching over it or tending to it

            *God sometimes uses already-existing judgmental effects to administer his judgment.

            *Human sin affects not only the sinner but others as well.  On this point, think about the terrible destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC.  The prophets preached about this for many decades before it took place, and then looked back on it for many decades after it was rendered.  It is one of the primary historical foci of the Old Testament.  The reasons it happened are spelled out in stark terms.  However, the fact is that many innocents died in Jerusalem and Judah during this event (children, the faithful few, etc).  They died not because of their own sin, but because of the sin of the majority.

            *Non-human creations suffer from the effects of the sin of humans.  This is a point I would like to consider some more and think through.  Fretheim points to a passage like Hosea 4:1-3 where the prophet laments the sin of the people, and then, in poetic fashion, describes its effects on the land, the animals of the field, the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea.

            *God is not a cool and detached judge, but rather he is personally caught up in what is happening.  Again, the example of this is from the prophet Hosea, in chapter 6.  Remember the pathos of these words?  “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?  What shall I do with you, O Judah?  Your love is like a morning mist, like the dew that goes away early.”

            Despite all our attempts to explain God’s judgment, and perhaps even to soften it so as to make it more palatable, the Old Testament text will not allow us to make it something that your typical post-modernist will want to embrace.  Consider a few final examples:  Ezekiel 22:31; Jeremiah 14:16; and Jeremiah 21:14.

That Troublesome Old Testament God - IV

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

            For some, the wrath and anger of God as described in the OT specifically is a problem.  How can we reconcile a loving, merciful, long-suffering God with a God who can be filled with wrath?

            In Fretheim’s discussion of this, he made some helpful points that may be an aid to those who cannot reconcile these diverse portraits of God.  One thing to realize is that in the OT, most of God’s wrath is directed at his own people, Israel.  God had called them into a special covenant relationship and thus they had special responsibilities before God.  The idea that the children of Israel developed down through the ages that their election meant privilege rather than service was their error, not God’s.

            The anger of God is also a sign that God cares – that he is involved in this world and that he takes things seriously.  He has not set the world in motion and then withdrawn himself from it, and is now aloof.  Rather, he works on this world from the inside-out.  How would we feel about a God that did not care about suffering and violence and injustice?  Our God cares about these issues.

            One of the most helpful points made by Fretheim was that God’s anger is always accompanied by tears.  Think first of the story of the Flood in Genesis 6-8.  Genesis 6:6 says that wickedness of the world “grieved him to his heart” – those are tears, in essence.  Tears come before punishment (verse 7). 

            Another text to consider here would be from the “weeping prophet” Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah 9:10 and following consider these words:

            "I will take up weeping and wailing for the mountains, and a lamentation for   the pastures of the wilderness, because they are laid waste so that no one passes through, and the lowing of cattle is not heard; both the birds of the air and the beasts have fled and are gone.  I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals, and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant."

            Tears precede wrath.  And what calls forth the wrath of God?  Sin.  If there were no sin, there would be no wrath.

            Next time we will consider some thoughts about the judgment of God.

That Troublesome Old Testament God - III

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

            Think about the following statement and how you react to it:  God is the ultimate team player.  Have you ever thought about God that way?  Have you ever thought about God in Genesis 1 and 2 in that way?  It is a challenging thought to me because as I think about creation I have always had in mind the great God “out there” calling the world into being and shaping, fashioning, and forming it by his great power.  That, of course, is certainly true, but there may be a richer picture of the process painted for us in the chapters on creation in Genesis.

            Consider that God in Genesis 1 creates communally, rather than alone.  Fretheim offers the following points to make us think about this idea:

            1 – God uses already-existing creatures as material for creating.  In Genesis 1:1-2 God spoke into existence the earth, but it still needed to be shaped and fashioned and brought to the place God intended.  It was formless and void, it was dark.  God’s Spirit went to work on it, and soon God added light.

            2 – God invites non-human creatures to participate in creative activity.  This one takes some time to get your mind wrapped around, but remember the language of creative days 3, 5, and 6.  In the poetry of the narrative, the text says things like “Let the earth bring forth...” and “Let the waters bring forth...”  The power, of course, is from the Creator.  But the power is described as flowing through that which has already been created to bring forth new things.  God is at work, with and through his creation, to enhance his creation.

            3 – God invites the divine assembly to be co-creative with Him.  The famous verse is Genesis 1:26 – “Let US make man in OUR image...”  Here more than any other place we see the emphasis on community in creation.  God does not work alone.

            4 – God invites the human being to be a creative co-creator.  How so?  Read Genesis 2:5.  In the description there of what the world was like before man was created, it is emphasized that there was “no man to work the ground.”  From the beginning, God intended man to be involved in His creation in a direct way.  Later in chapter 2, verses 18 and following, God again speaks communally (“Let us...”) as he describes the problem of man being alone.  He invites man to be involved in naming the creatures God had made.  He then uses man to make a new human – the woman.

            Later, man and woman begin to have children.  In Genesis 4:1 Eve bears her first child and makes this proclamation – “I have gotten / acquired / created a man with the help of the Lord!”  Translations differ on how to render the Hebrew verb there, which is actually a play on the name of the first child – Cain.  However one translates the verb, the point is made that God uses Adam and Eve to bring forth new life into the world.

            When one turns to the first genealogies in Genesis chapter 5, man is again described in creator-like terms.  Genesis 5:3 – “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son IN HIS OWN LIKENESS, AFTER HIS IMAGE, and named him Seth.”  Where have we heard the language of likeness and image before?  Genesis 1:26, there applied to God.

            Again, the point of all this is to show how intimately God is involved with his creation.  He is not separate and acting solo.  He is working from within.  He has always been Immanuel – God-with-us.

            Next post we will begin to look at some of the difficult pictures of God in the Old Testament, like his anger, wrath, and judgment.

Keeping Christmas

Friday, December 16, 2016

There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is “keeping Christmas.”

            Are you willing to forget what you have done for others, and to remember what other people have done for you;

          to ignore what the world owes you, and to think of what you owe the world; 

          to put your rights in the background and your duties in the middle
distance and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;

         to see that your fellow men are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;

         to own that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are to get out of life but what you are going to give;

         to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness—

         are you willing to do these things even for a day?


Then you can keep Christmas.


            Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children;

            to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old;

            to stop asking how much your friends love you and ask yourself whether you love them enough;

            to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;

            to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;

            to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;

            to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your good thoughts, with the gate open—

            are you willing to do these things even for a day?


Then you can keep Christmas.

            Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem so many years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?

Then you can keep Christmas.

And if you keep it for a day, why not always?



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