Wednesday, October 25, 2006

How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place (Exodus 25-31)

After telling the people the Law, the Lord calls Moses up to the mountain. He has something important to discuss with him, and the writing here is meant to bring memories of Genesis – both creation and flood:
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. … Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
God was able to summarize the law to him at the base of the mountain. What conversation is so important that Moses needs to be in the very presence of God for a flood’s worth of time? As it turns out, God actually wants Moses to build him an Ark (of acacia wood rather than gopher).

Well, that and then some. Reading these chapters of specific architectural instructions does call to mind God’s instructions to Noah – of how many cubits wide, long, and high, of what to cover it with, of how to build a roof over top. But that structure was fairly utilitarian – it had to float and hold animals for a short time. The tabernacle, on the other hand, is much loftier:
Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. … And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill.
What a wonderful set of chapters for artists! Such affirmation of beauty and creativity coming from the one whom we knew as creator before anything else. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Lord himself is sometimes a carpenter.

What follows is a beautiful and detailed description of a magnificent structure. It’s the Lord’s house, and he knows what he wants. I can’t help but be struck again by the contrast between the people’s shallow ambitions and the purposes of their God. They would be content with the meat pots of Egypt; He wants them to aspire to build a house fit for the one for whom the Earth itself is a footstool.

As with the Law, the tabernacle designs are rooted in the story of the people of God. The golden lamp stand, with one candle privileged over the other six, reminds us of the order of creation and the Sabbath day. Cherubim in particular are all over the place: those angelic beings standing guard over the tree of life now lost to man. But the ark was built to provide man hope of redemption – that God himself intended to put right what had gone wrong in the garden. Now he invites a man to pass between the cherubim, wearing the stones of the twelve tribes of Israel on his heart.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

The Dark Night of the Soul

Hey Faithful Readers,

I fear I am entering a time of vocational and educational insanity from now to the end of November. So you won't see me posting quite as often as I'd like. Sorry about that! It'll pick right back up, I promise.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Your Friendly Neighborhood Leviathan

Cheesehead, Chad, and I have been having a fantastic discussion on the notion of reconciling the creation stories of Genesis and the scientific stories of animal predation long before human life on Earth. Rather than continuing deeper down that thread, I thought I'd make a new post in order to keep the discussion above the radar.

Cheeshead has argued that assuming the modern story of origins, with its eons of animal predation and death, undermines some key themes of Genesis 1-3: that of creatures being at peace with each other before the fall, that of death originating with the sin of man, etc. He focuses particularly on the contrast between God giving every green plant for food and him providing Adam and Eve with skins to cover their nakedness. The death of innocent animals covering the sin of guilty man. Heck, this even sheds some light on the choice of Abel's sacrifice over Cains'. I have to say, Cheesehead's makes some great points. I honestly enjoyed having my foundations shaken up a bit - I've long stopped being afraid of this, because it is when our paradigms are challenged that God so often is speaking.

But I still insist on having my cake and eating it.

In my defense, I do this because, as a Christian, I'm rather used to it. I get a God that is one substance, and yet three persons. I worship a first-century Palestinian Jew, by whom and for whom the entire universe was created. I expect to die and my body to rot, and in so doing, to live forever in that same glorious body. My inheritance in Christ is God's glorious Earth, which will be Heaven as well (as the dwelling place of the transcendent God will be with men).

So, naturally, I want to affirm the story of Genesis 1-3, and also thankfully receive the great historical insights brought about by modern science. So yes, we are to understand God's created order as intending harmony between his creatures. Yes, we should see the source of death and decay upon creation as the rebellion of God's image-bearers. But perhaps we should also see how death itself seems to have been a tool for life, in honing creature designs over the millennia. Perhaps we should also see the terrifying predators as expressing an essential part of God's nature and character. Can we do all this in genuine Christian mystery, rather than intellectual sloth and cowardice?

Well, Job has been a great guide in the past. And it just so happens that the end of the book of Job has some fantastic meditations on creation out of the mouth of the creator himself. These are not ruminations on the effects of the fall, but meditations on his creation:
Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens
or lie in wait in their thicket?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God for help,
and wander about for lack of food?
God himself is the author of the hunt of the lion and the raven. He bids us look in wonder.
The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear,
because God has made her forget wisdom
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider.
God himself has made the ostrich foolish and cruel. What is he showing us through this?
Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home,
on the rocky crag and stronghold.
From there he spies out the prey;
his eyes behold it afar off.
His young ones suck up blood,
and where the slain are, there is he.
God guides the great birds of prey. Consider their ways and be wise.

But of course all pale in comparison to the great sea monster, Leviathan, whom he formed to play in the tumultuous chaotic sea. No other creature is so fierce, so violent, and so deadly.
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
or press down his tongue with a cord?

No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before me?
Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.

I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
or his mighty strength, or his goodly frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who would come near him with a bridle?
Who can open the doors of his face?
Around his teeth is terror.

His heart is hard as a stone,
hard as the lower millstone.

On earth there is not his like,
a creature without fear.
He sees everything that is high;
he is king over all the sons of pride.
This is not the voice of an artist bitter at a work gone awry. No, this is God the creator glorying in the works of his hands. God isn't upset or ambivalent about the fierceness of Leviathan - he absolutely revels in it!

And yet, we are told that in the end the Lord will punish Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. He will give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. Once his creation is fully complete, once his glorious will is ultimately realized, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and, though he called it good on the second day, there will no longer be any sea.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

The Law of the Lord (Exodus 20-24)

Now that the Lord has the people's terrified attention, his booming voice shouts his law down to them. By the time he's done with the Ten Commandments, the poor wretches have had all they can take. They beg Moses to mediate for them, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die." Moses replies that this is for their own good. The terror of God will help you to remember to behave.

Some people have said that the Ten Commandments are the best summary of the universal moral law than has ever been devised. However, in reading them, and the following several chapters of case laws, I do not primarily encounter a global ideal guiding human behavior. On the contrary, this is perhaps the most narrowly focused and contextual legal system in all of human history.

Why should we have no other gods before the Lord? Because he is the one who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Why should we remember the Sabbath day? Because in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.

Why should we honor our fathers and mothers? So that our days may be long in the land. Joseph himself took Jacob's bones back to Canaan and buried him with his fathers - a sign that his children would possess the land.

Why should we not oppress a sojourner? Because we were sojourners in the land of Egypt, as was Abraham in all the lands God showed him.

Why are we to offer the firstborn of our animals in sacrifice to the Lord, and pay a redemption for our firstborn sons? Because we are to be faithful as Abraham was, not sparing his own son in obedience to the Lord. We must express faith that the one who has made these promises is capable of following through on them. We must recognize that all of these blessings have come from his hand.

The first five books of the Bible are the torah - the law. That includes everything we've read so far in Genesis and Exodus. The story of creation, fall, judgment, promise, calling, covenant, alienation, wrestling, reconciliation, bondage, salvation, and rebellion - this is all part of the law. Despite the iconic pictures of Moses bringing down tablets from the mountain, there is nothing coming down from heaven that had not already been written on the pages of Israel's experience. The commandment is rooted in the story of the people of God.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

My initial post and further discussion of myths in Genesis has drawn more comments than anything else on my blog! This may have to become a recurring feature.

A newcomer, Cheeshead, recently posted a thoughtful response to my position, and I thought I'd blog again to extend the discussion. He began by pointing out the difference between empirical science and things which really are more historical by nature. Many genuine modern creation myths want the respectability of experimental study, but are little more than imaginative stories weaved in the language of science. We've seen in the past how quickly one theory is discarded for another, and things which supposedly disproved our faith have been themselves disproved.

He then honed in on the heart of the matter. He sees the modern story of origins as corrosive to the Christian faith, even if the spiritual meaning of Genesis 1-3 is taken on board:
The biggest hurdle I see when we force the Bible to fit with what our surrounding culture says must be true is the issue of death. If the geologic column is interpreted as an eons-long record of disease, death and dismemberment rather than an artifact of the judgement God visited on the world at the Flood we have some real fancy footwork to do in describing this creation as "good." One of the awkward places this leads us to is a pre-Fall world in which Adam and Eve and their descendents would live an endless, painfree life, uncorrupted by sin and thus immune from death. And yet they and the God who made them would be blissfully serene about the carnage, suffering and death taking place all around them. . . . Nature red in tooth and claw would be the natural order of creation, not a corruption of something which God made very good that has now fallen under a curse.
He concludes that this undermines the crucial idea that creation is groaning under the curse of man, for death upon death was endured by animals millions of years before his existence.

All in all, a very compelling theological argument. Before I respond, let me make two points to focus our discussion.

First, I think it is essential that we acknowledge the importance of the scientific enterprise for the Christian. If God's attributes can be seen from what has been made, we need to study what has been made, and study it with integrity. We must be open to the notion that all truth is God's truth, and that what we learn in science may shed light on what we see in scripture. However, we must not be naive about the materialist ideology of many scientists. Cheesehead's point on this is well taken.

Second, if Genesis is to be understood as mythology, it needs to read as such on its own terms. We absolutely can not be in the habit of throwing away doctrine just because it is being attacked at the moment! "Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens." I've been inspired by our discussion to study ancient mythology a little more deeply, in order to understand what our scripture has in common with, and in contrast to, other literature of that genre. Daniel Kirk over at Sibboleth has some great thoughts on this.

So, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that our scientific and historical studies lead us to believe that there were millions of years of animal death before the creation of man. Let's also assume that we understand Genesis to be written not as a blow-by-blow historical or scientific account of creation, but as a story to reveal the true relationship between God, man, and the world, in contrast to other ancient creation myths. Given this, can we reconcile death and decay existing before any human rebellion against God?

A few thoughts:
  • We are used to speaking of the garden as "paradise". The picture illustrating this post is from Gustave Dore's illustrations for Paradise Lost. I've heard pastors so often teach that, before the fall, everything was absolutely perfect. Yet, need something be perfect to be declared "good"? Can we not even now look at a beautiful mountain landscape, turning a blind eye to the harsh predation, and call it "good"?

  • We have another myth well-known in Christian tradition, though not explicitly spelled-out in scripture: that of the rebellion of Satan and his angels. If God's good creation included that vile serpent, what evil might he have worked already? Images come to mind of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, where the marring of Morgoth is mixed with the song of Illuvatar from the beginning.

  • No corruption of creation could have lasted long under the wise stewardship of paradisal man walking with God. This makes the fall of man even more tragic - the creation looked with joy at the arrival of the image of the Creator, only to see that image fall and bring not good but evil.

  • Though this is certainly getting into mystical and esoteric territory, could we be engaging in something akin to an "after this therefore because of this" fallacy? Need spiritual and lasting effects only work through prior causes? We know that now we live in the light of the future glory of Christ rocketing into our present life. Paul talks of things we see as future events happening in the here and now as well. Might not the fall have worked this way as well?
Those are my initial ponderings. What are yours?

The discussion of death before the Fall continues here.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

How Dreadful Is This Place (Exodus 16-19)

There is no honeymoon for the marriage of the Lord and Israel. Oh, there is a wedding feast (Passover) and a consummation (The Red Sea), but as soon as they are free from danger the people begin to grumble:
Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
In a heartbeat they would trade the salvation of God, and all the promises and hope that it entails, for pots of meaty stew. After all, they would argue, “we are about to die; of what use is the Lord’s victory over Pharaoh to us?” Thus Israel despised his birthright.

There is indeed little the Israelites have to commend themselves to anyone. They are a whiny, ungrateful, cowardly, unorganized rabble. It is one of the things that testifies to the truth of the story of Exodus – if this were not indeed the history of this people, they certainly would not invent it for themselves!

But God sticks by them, consenting to provide them with bread from heaven to feed them, water to quench their thirst, and victory over the Amalekites to ensure their survival. And God’s reputation is spreading. Jethro, an outside observer, cannot help but be impressed at how much greater the Lord is than the gods he is used to.

The Israelites are about to learn this lesson all too well. Here God reminds them, not only of the deliverance they have just experienced, but also of the great vocation he is calling them to:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
With flashes of lightning and booms of thunder, the cloud of God’s presence descends upon Mount Sinai. The people are warned: keep absolutely clean, be on your best behavior, abstain from sex, don’t go near the mountain! Here is a presence so potent that a mere touch will kill you in an instant. Danger seems to be the only thing this motley crew respects, and the fear of the Lord is at least the beginning of wisdom.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

The Lord is a Warrior (Exodus 12-15)

A bizarre and so often overlooked incident happened shortly after Moses talked to God in the burning bush. The Lord encounters Moses’ son at a nearby inn and is about to kill him. Then Moses’ wife, Zipporah, quickly circumcises her son, touching Moses “feet” with the foreskin, saying “surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” So God leaves him alone.

I don’t really know what to make of this, but it is interesting that it follows right after God giving Moses his speech for Pharaoh:
Israel is my firstborn son…If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.
Moses’ own son is spared by circumcision, that is, by being identified with the promise of Abraham and Israel. It is a sign painted with blood.

So the people are given strict orders to eat the first Passover meal. It is a paradoxical celebration – the most lavish of all Jewish feasts is meant to be eaten quickly and on the run. They kill a spotless lamb and spread its blood on their doorposts, so that the disaster to come will see the mark and pass them by.

What is the connection here between circumcision and the Passover lamb? Why the importance of blood? It’s hard for me to put my finger on, but my mind inevitably goes back to Abraham and Isaac. Here a father gives his own firstborn son to God, only to find him redeemed with the life of a lamb. The mark, both of bloody circumcision and the blood of the lamb, signify that these people’s very lives have been bought with a price, and are chosen by God.

Against this claim stands Pharaoh with his vast Empire. His legacy is the casual drowning of Israel’s sons in the river. His policy is one of cruel slavery of those whom God had called to represent mankind. His attitude toward God is implacable defiance. And his horses and chariots, in their splendid armor, stand ready to slaughter this fledgling nation before it can even be born.

The Israelites are trapped against the Red sea, and begin to panic. But Pharaoh has underestimated his enemy. This is no mere tribal deity, this is no mere slave god. This is the creator of the world who brought the land up out of the sea on the third day. He parts the sea for the people of Israel and then brings it crashing down on Pharaoh’s great army – drowning the finest sons of Egypt in the river.

The people are astonished and praise the mighty warrior who came to their rescue:
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a man of war;
the Lord is his name.
This is God’s grand entrance onto the world stage. He takes on the greatest army in the world and crushes it in battle. Egyptians and Israelites alike, now know that this is no petty ethereal spirit to be trifled with. This is the King of all the Earth, armed for judgment and for war.

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