Friday, March 25, 2011

No War Game: Israel Pushes Into Canaan, Levels Jericho (Josh. 4-8)

SEAN - Led by Joshua, the ancient Israeli army leveled and set fire to the Canaanite cities of Jericho and Ai in the 1400's BC, not leaving any survivors. PIC: modern Israeli soldiers, apparently training for urban combat situations. Photo courtesy of Google Images.
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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum for sharing what you find.
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God Determines War and Peace
1. As Joshua son of Nun led Israeli soldiers into the land of Canaan, they were confronted with the commander of Yahweh's army (Josh. 5.13-6.2); this means that while Joshua and his men were climbing over rubble and slaughtering Canaanites, God was the real worker. His work was clearest in the crumbling of Jericho's massive walls (Josh. 6.20-21), and in giving Joshua the plan to that was used to ambush the people of Ai (Josh 8.1,18-19). God determined whether Israel conquered Canaan, just like He determines every other thing. Can a city fall, unless God does it? No. God is in control. He determines what succeeds and what fails - He makes it happen.

Get Right With Your Maker
2. If God controls the outcome of everything, we had better get right with Him before we do anything else. That's why Israel circumcised themselves before commencing military operations against Jericho (5.2-3), and observed the Passover (5.10). After that, Israel had God's blessing and stormed the city and burnt it to the ground. Israel couldn't conquer Ai either, until they had dealt with the sin of Achan (7.1-26) and made things right with God. Maybe that is why the Bible talks so much about praying in the morning - we make things right with God before we start our day, because He decides whether our day is productive or not. I've got to work harder on that, then.

God Determines, But We Still Act
3. God made the walls fall down from Jericho, and gave the strategic plan to ambush Ai. He also worked during the battle in unseen ways, making the arms of Canaanite soldiers feel heavy and tired, while giving Israel quick reflexes and strength. But Israel still fought the battle. So that should be a lesson for us - divine sovereignty and human responsibility. God is in total control (sovereignty), but we still have to do our part (responsibility). We can not just sit back, grab a bag of doritos, and sink into the couch while pleading through crumb-filled lips, "God, please (munch) fix my marriage (crunch)." The God who made you and me and created the universe is in complete control... but you and I still have to work. His total control does not equal our total lazinesss.

Summing Up the Post
  • God is in control of everything. Nothing succeeds or fails apart from Him.
  • Therefore, we've got to make things right with Him before we do anything.
  • God is in control (sovereignty), but we still have to work (responsibility).

Does a lion roar in the forest,
when he has no prey?
Does a young lion cry out from his den,
if he has taken nothing?
Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth,
when there is no trap for it?
Does a snare spring up from the ground,
when it has taken nothing?
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the LORD has done it?
-Amos 3.4-6

The Skinny On the Holy Land (Josh. 1-4)


SEAN - Israel is said to have spied out the Holy Land from a local brothel. We're spying out Israel's acquired home, too. Here's the skinny on Canaan's land. The picture up top is a photo of long-time Israeli capital Jerusalem (though, officially, the capital right now is Tel Aviv), a literal city on a hill within the old borders of the Judah's territory. That bulbous thing in the picture is a giant mosque, right where the old Jewish Temple used to be. Jews still pray on the west-facing wall of the temple mount - that big structure that the aforementioned bulbous object is perched upon.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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A Land of Hills and Valleys
1. Back in Deut. 11.10-12, God had described the land of Canaan: "the land you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, a land that Yahweh your God cares for." The geography of the place can be drastic and extreme - the changes in the terrain are enormous, even over the space of just a small number of miles. The conditions range from desert sands to ice-capped mountains, from hills and mountains 7,297 feet above sea level to the Dead Sea at -1,368 below sea level (the lowest place on earth). Check out Wikipedia's entry on Israeli geography for a taste of the layout of the land: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Israel. It is really quite beautiful.

From the Wikipedia article:
"The inland area is dominated by the Judean Hills of the West Bank, whilst the central and northern coastline consists of the flat and fertile Israeli Coastal Plain. Inland, the northern region contains the Mount Carmel mountain range, which is followed inland by the fertile Jezreel Valley, and then the hilly Galilee region. The Sea of Galilee is located beyond this, and is bordered to the East by the Golan heights... which contains a peak in Mt. Hermon... the highest point in Israel's recognized territory is Mt. Meron."
A Mostly Agricultural Community
2. Ancient Israel/Canaan was set up on an important trade route, which gave them some other ways besides selling crops to pull in cash. The natural resources of the land were limited (see here). But mostly, the way of life in Israel involved agriculture - according to the impressive online Jewish Encyclopedia, "it is chiefly owing to this feature that we find agricultural life so extensively treated of in the Mishnah, the whole first section, Zera'im (except the first treatise), being devoted to it."

From their article on agriculture:
"That the Israelites practised Agriculture with success is learned from the statement that Solomon sent to Hiram annually 40,000 kor (about 440,000 bushels) of wheat and barley and 40,000 baths (340,000 gallons) of oil (I Chron. ii. 9). In Ezekiel's time Judah traded extensively with Tyre, sending wheat, honey, oil, and balm (Ezek. xxvii. 17)... the great stride forward during the reign of Solomon indicates a very large class of the Canaanite population must have been subjugated to perform the main labor of farming."
The Take-Away Lesson
3. The point in Deut. 11.10-12, which Joshua's men would have learned about while spying out the land, is that Israel wasn't near a large body of water like Egypt was to its Nile - the Promised Land relied on rain, on God coming through and providing showers in their seasons to water the crops. The takeaway lesson is that we need to trust in God. This is not by foolishly doing things in order to make God come to our rescue -as Jesus showed us by refusing to jump off of the Temple and thereby test God- but by trusting God to provide in our seasons of work, and retirement, and in singleness and marriage and kids, in youth and old age. God will provide our rain in its season, our sustenance. Our part is to trust in Him.

Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!



Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Look Back on the Torah (Deut. 24-34)


SEAN - This post marks the end of our time reading the Torah, or Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible. Here are some reflections on the experience. This ties in with Deut. 24-34, which reflects back on the early history of the nation of Israel. By the way, the picture above is from the movie The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington plays a man (Eli) who possesses the last Bible in existence and who will do anything to protect it. Denzel/Eli's creative use of the machete made me think of the war-making Israeli people of God in the Old Testament. Now, here are some things in Genesis through Deuteronomy that have got me thinking...

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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The Messiah and the Prophet
1. Jesus Christ ('Yeshua the Messiah,' if you are a Messianic Jew) is preached in every one of the first five books of the Bible. You just need to be aware of what is going on under the surface: In Genesis 3.15 the king's scepter 'shall not depart from Judah' until 'it comes to whom it belongs,' a reference to Jesus, after Whom there has been no other king of Judah; The passover festival in Exodus 12.13 foreshadows the atoning death of Christ; In Leviticus 17.11 the blood of the sacrifice is given to make people right with God - foreshadowing how Jesus would make us right with God through His blood; Numbers 21.9 tells of a time when Israel was overrun by poison snakes, and the only way to be cured was to look at a bronze snake that Moses made, foreshadowing Jesus who became sin for us that if we look to him we might be saved from sin; Deuteronomy 18.15 tells of a (one) Prophet who would be like Moses, which had still not quite happened by the time of the Babylonian Exile (see Ezra's note in 34.10-12). The entire Bible completely points to Jesus Christ.

Attention: Graphic & Disturbing Content
2. I have covered the disturbing content of the first five books in The Heroics/War Crimes of Israel and The Barbaric/Progressive Bible, and come to the conclusion that God defines right and wrong (the first post) and that some of the measures that are described must have been necessary, even if they seemed pretty horrific (the second post). Sin makes everything just messy and hard and uncomfortable, and easy feel-good solutions aren't always available. So there is a lot of death and punishment in the Bible. It isn't easy to deal with, but it's a big part of the Bible's history.

All of the Main Figures Are Ripped Apart
3. I noticed, while reading other Ancient Near Eastern literature (in translation), that compared to other works of the same period, the Bible subverts all of its heroes and objects of study: Adam fell from grace; Noah became a drunk; Abraham was a coward; Lot slept with his daughters; Isaac was an underachiever; Jacob was dishonest; Judah paid money for prostitutes; Moses and Aaron and Miriam disqualified themselves from going into Canaan; and Israel as a whole brought God's wrath on them more than once for their stubbornness. This is to show that (1) only God is good, and (2) none of these people was any kind of savior - they all needed saving. Not one of them was a hero.

The Sacrifices Just Don't Cut It
4. The sacrifices (killing sheep, goats, birds, and other things to cover Israel's sins) make things right with God but still aren't good enough to get Adam & Eve back into Eden, or the first Israelis into the Promised Land, or Moses and Aaron into the land either. From the time of Adam and Eve to the end of the time of Moses, the questions are "who is the deliverer of humanity?" and "how do we get back to the Garden of Eden?" Put those two together and we have a Deliverer (savior) who will be more effective than animal sacrifices and who will bring the earth back to the way it was before sin entered it - a good description of Jesus Christ, come to think of it.

A Surprise Progressive Agenda
5. In the middle of all of the death and war and blood and wrath, of these books, some early forms of women's rights, anti-slavery legislation, environmentalism, rule of law, volunteer military, welfare, honor for seniors, and the like can be found in the Torah (the first five books). A little known fact is that Tommy Douglas, the ex-Saskatchewan Premiere/First NDP leader/father of modern Canadian Medicare, got all of his social society ideas from the Old Testament. The man was a Christian preacher and pastor before entering politics. He got his ideas from the Bible.

Summary of the Torah/Pentateuch
6. Finally, I have learned to love, and be confused by, these first five books of the Bible. Everything else in the Bible builds off of them, and they are the building blocks of the Christian faith, but much of it is confusing, horrifying, inspiring, and geographically distant in our Evangelical minds. Even as a Christian with Jewish background, I found myself completely out of my league blogging through these books. Nonetheless, I know that I will return to them often throughout the next year, and will continue to find that these much-neglected books give me a stronger, firmer, sharper faith. Wrestling with these unfamiliar texts will be an exercise in spiritual growth for sure.

Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!



Monday, March 21, 2011

On Sex Before Marriage (Deut. 21-23)

SEAN - Since Deut. 21-23 has more verses on sex before marriage than any of the previous chapters, this seemed like a good place to bring it up. Short blog post. Additionally, the picture (above) for today's post is from a Jewish wedding ceremony in modern Israel. I have tried to condense everything down into a good one-paragraph summary of what the Bible has to say about the serious nature of sex before marriage - these are mostly just talking points for small groups and one-on-one conversations. Links to other resources are in blue. I hope you find this post helpful.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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Sex Before Marriage & The Bible
Let's just get to business on this one. In the first passage, 22.13-21, the accusation of having sex before marriage was so serious that (1) the accuser was publicly whipped and fined if the allegations turned out to be false, and (2) the accused would be stoned to death on their father's doorstep if the allegations turned out to be true. In the second passage, 22.28-29, if a man met a single woman and the two slept together, the two of them were forced to get married. To recap: in God's Israel, if you had sex before marriage, you could either be sentenced to death (if you ended up marrying someone else) or were forced to marry the man or woman who you had sex with. In the New Testament, the desire to have sex is still fulfilled only by marriage - each man having his own wife and each woman having her own husband (1 Cor. 7.1-3).

The Bible on Sex (Copied from Justin Taylor)
An attempt to think through some things taught in the Word about sex, both by direct statement and by extension and implication:
  • Sex is created by God (“by him all things were created”—Col. 1:16).
  • Sex continues to exist by Christ's will (“in him all things hold”—Col. 1:17).
  • Sex is caused by God (he “works all things according to his will”—Eph. 1:11).
  • Sex is subject to Christ (“he put all things under his feet”—Eph. 1:22).
  • Sex is being made new by Christ (“I am making all things new”—Rev. 21:5).
  • Sex is good (“everything created by God is good”—1 Tim. 4:4).
  • Sex is lawful in the context of marriage (“all things are lawful”—1 Cor. 10:23).
  • Sex is to be done for the glory of God (“do all to the glory of God”—1 Cor. 10:31).
  • Sex is a cause for thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:4).
  • Sex is to be sanctified by the Word of God and prayer (1 Tim. 4:4-5).
  • Sex can be enslaving and its entrapment must be resisted (1 Cor. 6:12).
  • Sex should not be an occasion for grumbling (Phil. 2:14)
  • Sex should be an occasion for rejoicing in the Lord (“rejoice always”—Phil. 4:4).
  • Sex should be an occasion of contentment in the Lord (2 Cor. 9:8).
  • Sex should be engaged in with holiness and honor (“each one of you [is to] know how to control his own body [KJV: “possess his vessel”; RSV: “take a wife for himself”] in holiness and honor”—1 Thess. 4:4).
  • Sex should usually not be withheld from one’s spouse (do not “deprive one another [sexually], except perhaps by agreement for a limited time,” that they might devote themselves to prayer—1 Cor. 7:5. But then they are commanded to “come together again [sexually], so that Satan may not tempt [them] because of [their] lack of self-control”—1 Cor. 7:5).
  • Sex can be both pure and impure in this fallen world (“To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled”—Titus 1:15).

External Links


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Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Barbaric/Progressive Bible (Deut. 17-20)

SEAN - We're looking at execution by stoning, and also environmental awareness, in Deut. 17-20. Israeli ethics seemed at once jihadist and oddly enlightened. The picture up top is of an Israeli man hugging a tree, apparently taking to heart the respect for nature that is laid out in Deuteronomy 20.19-20: 'When you besiege a city... you shall not destroy its trees... are the trees of the field human, that they should be besieged by you?'

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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One Side of the Coin: The Barbaric Bible
What if I told you that at 6:00pm tonight, we were going to take a murderer out of jail and hand him over to be executed by his victim's nearest relative? How about if I told you that we were about to take a televangelist, bury him chest-deep in the earth, and crush his skull with stones for making a false prediction? Some of you might secretly think, "well, it's about time," but I'd bet most of you would be horrified. That is Taliban activity right there!

Well, those are some of the scenarios that might have happened in ancient Israel. Murderers were handed over to their victim's relatives for execution (Deut. 19.11-13); false prophets were killed for their efforts (Deut. 18.20). Although war is a reality for most countries, Israel  took their conquest of Canaan many steps further -at God's request!- by slaughtering pregnant women and little children without pity (Duet. 20.16-17). If these kinds of activities went on in this day and age, we would send soldiers to stop whatever regime was responsible. Actions like that are unconscionable. This is not the place to justify the more barbaric-sounding laws of Ancient Israel. The fact is that Ancient Israeli law had many features that our culture would condemn, and many others that we would approve of with enthusiasm.

Other Side of the Coin: The Progressive Bible

There are some more progressive strokes to ancient Israeli law, however - take war ethics for example. Israel can be faulted for committing genocide, but they also had a separate code of ethical rules for combat, which they used outside of Canaan (Deut. 20.10-15). The BBC history of war ethics doesn't mention any thought on the matter of war ethics before the Greek philosopher Cicero, and yet here was Israel 1,000 years earlier with a code of combat ethics enshrined in their national law, mandating that they offer terms of peace to enemies before engaging in war, and demanding Israel's army spare any women and children. during military conflict. There are also other more progressive laws that we could point to.

Israel was more enlightened than even recent modern culture, in a lot of other ways: they had a volunteer military instead of a draft, 3000 years before the USA got rid of their own military draft  in 1973 (Deut. 20.8); long before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, Israel had a standard where allegations of serious crime had to be proven before a sentence was passed (Deut. 17.4); civil leaders were not able to gather massive wealth for themselves (Deut. 17.17); the death penalty for false prophets meant that religious leaders were made to tell the truth (Deut. 18.20-22); and finally, unlike in our own day in politically conservative areas of the West, a respect for nature was legislated (Deut. 20.19). And this is just in Deut. 17-20!

Making Sense of the Barbaric Side
Making heads or tails of some of the more backward-sounding laws of ancient Israel is somewhat tricky for me; one one hand, I want to stand apart from that and denounce it in no uncertain terms. On the other hand, I would call God's character into question if I did so. It is my legitimate belief that God is good and just. So there has to be some other way to deal with this - perhaps, as cruel as the bits about execution and genocide seem, they are just what's necessary to keep corruption and ethical decay out of societies? Some believe that the solution to our day's defective criminal law is to quietly relax it and focus on rehabilitation; perhaps, it is possible that we just haven't taken our legal punishment of criminals far enough. That does sound pretty barbaric, and I am just throwing it out there. But could it be true? I welcome your feedback in the comments section.


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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Recap: Catching Up (Deut. 11-16)


OK, I just want to get these last couple of days out of the way, and then I'll resume with the next post:

Interesting Bits from Deuteronomy 11-16

11
-God keeps His promises (11.9)
-The promised land was dependent on rain (11.10-12, 14-15, 17)
-Loving God means following His commands (11.1)
-Short of love, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (11.2,5-6)
-Israel was supposed to saturate their lives with God's commandments (11.18-20)

12

-On entering the Canaan, Israel was to destroy all signs of paganism (12.2-4)
-Sacrifice was restricted to the Temple - to discourage idolatry? (12.13-14)
-Non-sacrificial slaughter was still alright in the towns, though (12.15)
-The Levites were taken care of by the people (12.19)
-Blood wasn't kosher. Eusebius wrote that this rule still applies. (12.23-24)
-Don't use pagan rituals to worship God - meditation, solstice festivals, etc. (12.30-32)

13
-False prophets were to be tested and then executed (13.1-5)
-If a whole town went astray, it was to be burnt down (13.12-15)
-God experiences 'fierce anger' but has mercy and feels compassion (13.17)
-Even "the wife of your embrace" and "your friend who is as your own soul" were not to be spared if they tried to lead you into heresy; your hand would throw the first stone (13.6-10)

14
-Israel was called 'sons of the LORD' and 'Holy to the LORD' (14.1-2)
-The food laws show up again in 14.3-21. Connection to 14.1-2?
-Every year the people were to bring their tithe to Jerusalem (14.22-23)
-But every THIRD year, that tithe went to the poor in your town (14.28-29)

15
-'There will be no poor'/'If there are...'/'There always will be...' (15.4,7,11)
-'Open wide your hand to the needy & poor in your land' (15.11)
-Hebrew servants got to be set free with a fat bonus in the 7th year (15.12-14)

16
-Chapter 16 describes requirements for the festivals, but doesn't get into what they are all about. For that, check out Leviticus. There are also forbidden forms of worship in 16.21-22

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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We Are Broken (Deut. 8-10)


SEAN - Israel was not chosen because it was righteous, beautiful, mighty, or intelligent. Same with us. The Gospel is as good as the words unconditional election; God chooses us (election) to be His people even if we aren't the most amazing people ever (unconditional). We come to Him humbled and broken, and He lifts our chins and grants us pardon. God is totally kind.


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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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Not Because of Your Righteousness
In Deut. 9 God tells Israel that He didn't choose them because of their righteousness - actually, Israel had been super stubborn and difficult in the desert. Moses is recorded as saying, 'you have been rebelling against God from the first day that I knew you!' (9.24). Then comes this lengthy list of all of Israel's worst moments; a highlight reel of shame. All of the complaining and testing and immorality and faithlessness comes back to show them how corrupt they've been and how good God has been regardless.

The Golden Apis
Israel was never off to a great start. The worst example was the Golden Calf incident. Moses was gone up a mountain for just 40 days, and that was all it took for them to make a cow statue and start bowing down to it. That golden statue could have actually been an image of Apis [pictured at the top], the Egyptian bull-god, but we don't know that for sure. What we do know is that despite this God still blessed them and led Israel into the promised land. What better way to let everyone know that ''Yahweh is merciful"?

Other Interesting Notes
This isn't just a history of Israel, though; it's an example. Humanity has always turned its back on God. The Church has always turned its back on God. As Christians we are totally aware of our sin and our hypocrisy - and we also know that God is good and forgiving and kind. If we come to Him in shame and repentance, then He will accept us every time.

Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!



The Best Rules Ever (Deut. 5-7)


SEAN - You don't like rules? Fine. I'll remember that when someone breaks your rule and jacks your car. But yours is a good rule - and God's are even better. The picture up top is of a group of young Orthodox Jews. These men love the commandments of the Old Testament, and recite the Shema (6.4-5) every day in their prayers. They "delight in God's statutes" (Psalm 119.16).

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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Learning the Ten Commandments
Quick: without checking, name all of the ten commandments. How did you do? I made it through other gods (5.6-7) and idols (5.8-10) before I stumbled over taking God's name in vain (5.11) and jumped straight to honoring the Sabbath (5.12-15) instead. For a lot of people the Big 10 are a lot like the Nicene Creed - everyone claims to follow it but no one remembers the contents; I'll often hear non-Christians say "I don't believe in God, but I'm a pretty good person, I follow the ten commandments." Really? You do? You worship the God of the Bible and you don't put anything else before Him (5.7)? That's a pretty astounding feat for an Agnostic.

The Most Important Commandment

First, Jesus calls the shema (6.4-5) the most important commandment in the entire Bible (Matthew 22.36-38) - so sit up and take notice! The commandment goes like this: 'Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh our God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.' In the Old and New Testaments, loving God means keeping his commandments (11.1; John 14.21). Second, there is a little theological dispute between Jews and Christians that comes up in this passage: non-Messianic Jews say that 'Yahweh is one' rules out the Trinity (it doesn't say, 'Yahweh is three!'), while Christians and Messianic Jews say that 'Yahweh is one' in roughly the same sense that Adam and Eve became one flesh (Genesis 2.24) - there's more than person involved, but they are somehow still one being. My Messianic beliefs, and a wide range of other parts of the Bible (from both Old and New Testaments), tell me that the second option is the right one. I'll send you some research if you ask for it in the comments section. Freebie: the word for 'God' in the Old Testament is actually a plural noun - it's actually the word 'Gods'. But the pronouns are all singular; it's like saying "Seans (plural noun) went to the store and he (singular pronoun) bought some milk." That kind of language shows there is something that's more-than-one, and yet there is still only one.

A Chosen People
God's commands are a blessing and a privilege. For Israel, these commands were signs that God had chosen His people and loved them - 'we got our rules straight from the Creator of the world!' - and for us they are a sign that God cares for us and hasn't left us to fend for ourselves. He's given us eternal wisdom in just 66 letters, poems, and short books, all wrapped up together into this bigger thing that we call the Bible. If you are holding one in your hand right now, it is a sign of God's faithfulness and care.


Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!



Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Bigger God Than Giants (Deut. 3-4)


SEAN - If the gods of the Ancient East were football players, Yahweh (God) would be the one making the sun shine down on them and giving them air to breathe. Ancient Eastern gods were small, regional, bit players in the world, of which God was the only real Creator and King; Israel's God was Lord over heaven and earth, and divided the borders of nations, and decided the outcomes of wars, and was unknowable, and yet He made Himself known.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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The Inside Scoop on Yahweh
In the Ancient Near East, this was how you would picture a god: he or she would be one of many others; it would reign over only a town or over one element of nature, and had a physical form. Then along comes Yahweh. This God of Israel is supposed to be the only god (4.35), reigns over all the heavens above and the earth below (4.39) -even over nations which 'belong' to other gods (3.2; 4.34)- is so incomprehensible that it is an insult to represent Him with idols (4.15-18), and yet is still merciful (4.31) as well as close (4.7) and personal (4.24)to His people. Not only that - He controls the outcome of battles (3.3)! He makes the arm strong, the muscle weak or firm, confuses the strategies of armies or makes them succeed and loads the outcome in every detail. If the gods of the nations were football players, God would be the one making the sun shine on them and giving them air to breathe; He would be sustaining the very laws of gravity and of friction that make the game possible. This was a God who was completely different.

I Can't Help But Worship Him
So it's within that framework that I find Yahweh (God) so amazing. The Hindus claim to have a really transcendent deity in Brahman -a god who is so 'other' that it is effectively nothing at all; supposedly unified, but also fractured into the same contradictory polytheistic mess of gods as all of the other ancient religions- but this god of the Israeli tribes is so completely other and yet so near that I can't help but worship Him. The other gods of the Ancient Near East are spiritual bit players competing over some land; In Yahweh, we have a real deity at work. This God is truly bigger than a giant King Bashan (3.11) and all of his petty little idols. By the new standard, He is actually the only real God at all.

Other Interesting Notes
  • Deuteronomy 4.1-40 is basically an explanation of the first two commandments.
  • The Bible is a superior law. These rules are so righteous that they speak for their own divine origin - anything other than this is doomed to fail (4.8).
  • King Bashan (3.11) was a giant. That's not impossible. Among normal human beings, you still get the odd giant. Sun Mingming -in the picture, up top- is a modern Chinese basketball player who is almost 8 feet tall. There's also a report of a Pakistani farmer who is 9 feet tall.


Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!



Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Right Hand of Judgment (Deut. 1-2)


SEAN - This is Ancient Israel 101, from their refusal to enter Canaan all the way to the genocidal campaign against the Ammorites - starting with King Sihon. These stories are much more upsetting (for the the modern reader) than what is supposed to be happening in Israel-Palestine these days. For the believing Jew, Messianic Jew, or Christian, though, Deuteronomy 1-2 is the noble history of God taking a rebellious people and making a nation for Himself out of them. Yahweh is the direction behind the nations' rise and fall.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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The Nation Made in God's Image 
The doctrine of imago dei tells us that God made homo sapiens (humans) in His own image - meaning that we represent Him upon the Earth. That's what we carry inside of us as individuals. As a God's chosen nation (Deuteronomy 1.31) Israel carried that in them as a group: God made His judgments of the people known through Israel's leaders (Deuteronomy 1.17) and brought a reckoning to the Canaanites through Israel's armies (Deuteronomy 2.34-36) - Israel was the right hand of God's judgment, the expression of His decisions about the nations. In that respect, God made Israel in His likeness, after His own image. Whether that is still true of modern Israel is a whole different discussion, and a complicated one. But it seems to have been true in Old Testament times, as King Sihon of Heshbon found out (Deuteronomy 2.24).

God Remains Faithful 

This will get covered later in the book (I think), but Israel is still a nation in God's image even when they are disobedient and unbelieving. God disciplines them so severely because of His love for them, not in spite of it. Although they disobeyed (1.26-33) God still chose to work through that nation (2.25).

Assorted Interesting Bits
  • The picture [top] is of the brook of Zered (2.13-14)
  • The site in 1.1-2 is super detailed - memorial site?
  • The Anakim were giants (1.28). Not impossible. See next post.
  • Yahweh is still the true God of Edom, a Pagan nation (2.5)
  • Yahweh also fights for Pagan nations (2.20-23)
  • The conquest of Canaan started before Jericho (2.31-33)
  • God hardened Sihon's heart; even free will is His to revoke (2.30)
  • Israel slaughters women and children - commits genocide (2.34)

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Cities of Refuge/Women & Property (Num. 35-36)


SEAN - Israeli rules about manslaughter were more liberal that Canada's, sort of. That, and women could inherit property if they married within their own tribe. Even in the middle of a male-dominated culture, where the they also had the death penalty and used it, attempts at fairness were made. We might not like all of the rules that God laid down, but He has His reasons; this is our chance to step back and realize that God loves women and even criminals, though sometimes it looks like He doesn't.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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The Cities of Refuge, and the Death Penalty

Straight up, Yahweh (God) believes in the death penalty. He blesses it here and uses it there, commands it here and here and here. So I can't apologize for that - I trust Him too much; I know He's making the right decisions. What I can point out is that in the case of killing someone, if it turned out to just be manslaughter, the one at fault didn't have to rot in jail for 5 years over a stupid mistake. In God's Israel, that man could serve out his sentence in a community surrounded by temple workers at one of the Cities of Refuge (Numbers 35.6), moving around freely and having a relatively normal life. God is about justice - but fair justice. Manslaughter is not the same as murder. So God judges accordingly and doesn't just punish for the sake of punishing.

Women Can Inherit Property
For an ancient man-dominated culture, Israel was progressive. In a family of daughters and no sons, the women could inherit their dad's property. That wasn't even the case in our culture up until recently - remember Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice? The women in that novel had to find husbands before their father died, or they would be out of a home; only the nearest male relative would inherit the house. That's how the world was 200 years ago. And yet 3400 years ago in Israel, the women could inherit property in that situation. Yes, God made rules that favored men. But within all of that - well, God showed that He still has a soft spot for the ladies. Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice couldn't have been written in ancient Israel, because God brought the culture so much further along than it was in Jane Austen's day.

A Tiny Little End Note
Like I said, much of the Bible will offend you. The death penalty is there - and God made no apologies for it, He even enforced its use. Rules that favor men are there too, and even in the New Testament some pretty chauvinist-sounding things get said ("man is the image of God, but woman is the image of man," anybody?). When you get offended, please don't box God into these categories of chauvinism or hard-on-crime, God is bigger than that. And when He makes rules you don't like, just think, He knows all things and He created the universe. I would say that He knows better than you or I do.


Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!



Thursday, March 10, 2011

Crossing the Jordan (Num. 33-34)


SEAN - When you're on the edge of life's next horizon, it's good to look back on what God taught you during the last life-stage. Numbers 33-34 is that horizon. This post should be a little less controversial than the last one. The one chapter (Numbers 33) lets us look back on Israel's time in the wilderness; the other (Numbers 34) lets us look forward with them to a new life behind the borders of Canaan. We look back in history with the full knowledge of what Israel would become, but these Israeli people were unaware and full of excitement and anticipation. This is Israel getting to leave the desert that had been their home for 40 years.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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This Side of the Jordan: The Kindness and Severity of God

Numbers 33 is just a list of all the places that Israel had camped at over the years. It helps us figure things out chronologically ("what order did these things happen in?") but the names of these places were also memories: Marah was where Israel tested God; Elim was a desert oasis which Israel found after nearly dying of thirst; Kadesh was where Moses lost his chance to enter the Promised Land; Mount Hor was where Aaron died. God had alternately cared for and judged and taught Israel in that desert for their entire lifetime up until that point. The children born in that desert were now middle-aged men. It was all they knew.

Stuck In the Middle: Reflecting and Looking Forward
Israel was now in the middle of two radically different stages of life - the world they knew was going to radically change. If I put myself in their sandals, there would have been a lot of reflection on what had happened up to that point and a lot of anticipation about entering Canaan. It's like that with every major life change. Don't we feel the weight of these changes when we move from being dependents to living on our own, for example? How about from single to married? How about becoming a parent? There is this unsettling and exciting and disturbing feeling that nothing will ever be the same again. And during that packing process, or engagement, or pregnancy, you have nothing but time to think about where you've come from and where you're going. Something is on the horizon, and all we can do is look at the map of our (now former) lives and say "that's where I was - I remember that" and then trace our finger down, "and that's where I'm going."

That Side of the Jordan: God Will Be With Us
Numbers 34
is a document telling Israel where its borders were going to be - really, telling them which nations to wipe out: nothing beyond the border of Edom, the Great Sea, Mount Hor, or Shepham. Israel would never be the kind of ever-expanding empire that always conquered the areas around it. The borders were firm and set and the limits were made public. Not only was God saying "I will be with you - you will be able to do this," but He was also saying "I will set the borders of the nations" and "I am God over other nations too - don't conquer Edom." The important part is where God says He will be with Israel. That's important for anyone to hear -"I will be with you"- as they move forward in the journey God has for them. To the one packing He says "I will be with you." To the one planning their wedding God says "I will be with you." To the one with a child on the way God says "I will be with you." And to an Israel on the edge of the Promised Land, getting ready to literally face down the giants, God said I will be with you.

Those are comforting words. For today, we remain with Ancient Israel, in the middle, full of reflection on what has been and excitement at what's to come.


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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The War Crimes/Heroics of Israel (Num. 31-32)


SEAN - Israel's actions in the Old Testament seem to fly in the face of war ethics. Not even the women or children are spared. Is this alright? Apparently yes. In Numbers 31-32 we've got a military invasion based just on Yahweh's vengeance (31.3), complete with killing all of Midian's men (31.7), burning all of their cities (31.10), and taking the spoils of war (31.11) - the women and children were spared at first but killed later on (31.14-18).

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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I Wrestle With Israel's War Ethics

I'm not a pacifist, but I don't like the idea of killing civilians. My blood boils when I read about Islamic suicide bombers murdering regular people; I shrink back from photos of children hit by military fire in the Middle East; I cheered when Israel spared the women and children in (31.9) and was saddened when most of them were killed later on (31.17). Although the tribes of Gad and Reuben ended up claiming the area for themselves in the end (32.1-32) the war wasn't even for land. It was just about revenge. I have to step outside of my pro-Israel bias for a minute (I'm an Evangelical Christian Jew) and admit that if Lebanon or Iran behaved this way there would be no end to my anger. All that is to admit that I wrestle deeply with this passage and I understand the moral problems they create. It's very difficult.

God Does Not Owe Us An Explanation
With all of that said, though, I have to back up Israel's actions and cheer them on for their recorded victory over Midian. I learned a long time ago that when I disagree with God and the Bible, I am in the wrong, not Him. Ultimately God has the right to judge the earth - He can do it however He wants: through earthquakes, floods, and famine, or through His chosen people Israel. Without God in the picture everything is a pure mess and a moral disaster, but with God Israel just becomes the obedient hands and feet of Midian's divine Judge. God doesn't need to explain His commands to us.

Which Ethics Should We Follow?
This brings up an interesting point. When push comes to shove, who do we let define our moral compass? Our culture might be enlightened but it is still separated from the knowledge of God.
Our consciences are also scarred by sin - so that's of no real use either. We need something outside of ourselves and our culture to define right and wrong for us, and that something is the Bible. When God's commands seem too harsh, we follow them; when they seem weak and fluffy and wishy-washy, we still follow them. God defines right and wrong. We either use His standard -despite our misgivings- or we have no standard at all. If not God's standards, then whose?


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A Return to Jewish Customs (Num. 28-30)


SEAN - Our Holidays (even the Christian holidays) have turned into the worship of wealth and capitalism. The Jewish holidays point the way to something deeper. This is a chapter-by-chapter run through of the major Old Testament holidays/rites and what they mean. By the way, the picture at the top is a modern Samaritan Passover sacrifice. I think that's a lamb on the fire.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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Numbers
28: Day, Week, and Month
The Priests were told to offer sacrifices to Yahweh every day, week, and month. The Daily Offering was one lamb in the morning and one at night, showing that we are to offer prayers and thanks to God at least every morning and every night. The Weekly (Sabbath) Offering had double the amount of lambs and shows us that we should make an even more demanding effort once a week to pray to God and thank Him. The Monthly Offering was a grand spectacle with sacrifices of bulls, lambs, one ram, and a goat - showing that every month we should make a still more strenuous effort in our prayers and thanks to God. (For those of you who are engaged, by the way, all of the marriage books that I'm reading say we should check in with our spouses every day [regular], week [bigger deal], and month [very big deal]... I guess our prayer life goes the same way, as the Jewish sacrifices suggest.)

Numbers 29: Israeli Holidays and Festivals
The Jewish holidays have some special significance: The Passover is about God 'passing over' Israel's firstborn sons during the killing of the firstborn in Egypt; for Christians, Jesus is our Passover Lamb and God 'passes over' our sins because of His sacrifice. Pentecost was a day to thank God for providing that year; for Christians, it is the day when God provided the gifts of the Holy Spirit to His Church. Trumpet Day was the beginning of 10 days of repentance before The Day of Atonement when the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place of the Temple to make a sacrifice for Israel's collective sins. The Feast of Tents was about remembering how God made Israel stay in tents during 40 years in the desert - also a good reminder that we are wanderers on the earth, and a good chance to remember that for 30+ years Jesus wandered the earth right along side us.

Numbers 30: When Women Make Vows
Men have to keep their rash oaths, but women get to have a way out - their father (for a minor) or husband (for a mature woman) could overrule their oaths. Widows, with no strong male figure in their lives, did not have that kind of protection. This points to God's relationship with us in the same sense that marriage and parenting always points to our relationship with God.



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Monday, March 7, 2011

Crunching Numbers, Making Plans (Num. 26-27)


SEAN - From the new census, to property laws, even to new leaders, Israel became prepared for a new life in the Promised Land. This post is about preparation. At this point everything was a generation removed from the Exodus: Moses and Aaron gave way to Joshua and Eleazar, the census revealed a brand new army of soldiers, and children were claiming their fathers' land. This was Israel getting ready to storm Canaan.

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Based on ESV.com's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.
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What Comes After Your Goals?
So you know where you want to live, what you want to do for work, and you've got a decent Five Year Plan outlining how to get there. Awesome. What comes after that? You see, when Israel was about to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 27.12), they had to think further ahead than just 'win the Battle of Jericho.' Israel had to figure out how many people they had to work with (Numbers 26), who was going to be their leader (Numbers 27.18-21) and who would be able to own property (Numbers 27.7-11). You know what, maybe you're not even in the five year planning stage; that's okay, just as long as you work on getting a five year plan. When you do get one, take some time to figure out what you'll do with all of your accomplished goals.

Some Good Things to Plan For:

Leadership - who are you going to be accountable to? Ancient Israel had civil leaders (Joshua) and spiritual leaders (Eleazar), and so do we. Civil Government: Do you want to submit to the leadership of your town, province, or country? Can't do it? Go somewhere else. Spiritual Authority: What church are you going to attend? Running your own? Who is your coach going to be? This was the concern of Numbers 27.18-21.

Property - Are you going to rent or purchase a home? When you pass away, who is going to get your house? You've got the options of handing it off to one of your kids, getting tenants and doing a sort of rent-to-own deal, just a lot of different options like that. This was the concern of Numbers 27.7-11.

People - From reading the census, this came out as a major concern: what about the people factor? For us, this could be everything from figuring out how many friendships you can manage while doing all your other responsibilities, to whether you want to live in a big city (lots of people) or a little city (not as many people), to how many children you are planning on. The concerns of Ancient Israel were a little bit different, but the People Factor was still a concern in Numbers 26.

I think that, as I'm just about to get married, these are the types of things that I'm starting to think about. I'll be honest here: I have just barely gotten working on some of these things. I'm learning more than anyone else just by writing this (I literally backed up after I wrote 'figure out what to do after you've accomplished your goals,' I thought yeah Sean, you should do that). Anyhow, feedback is always welcome.


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