Unless you are preaching don’t read this book for Lent

crossJust around the corner from Ash Wednesday, two suggestions for reading… a blog post and a book you should NOT read for Lent, unless you are preaching.

The blog post is written by The Rev. Michael Sniffen: “Ashes to Go or not… that seems to be the question” and can be found here —–> https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/article/ashes-go-or-not-go-seems-be-question%E2%80%A6. He votes against “Ashes to Go” and I agree with him.

He is not against “taking the church to the streets.” On the contrary, he writes:

Let’s do it! Our common life as Episcopalians is grounded in the Eucharist and rooted in resurrection. Why don’t we begin by offering the body and blood of Christ outside the sanctuary? How about washing and massaging the feet of weary commuters waiting for the bus? Let’s offer anointing with holy oil for healing on the sidewalks. Why don’t we venerate the feet of the homeless and outcast on Good Friday at a local shelter? How many baptisms have we conducted in a public park lately? Why don’t we set up hours to hear confessions in local bars and offer God’s forgiveness?

There are so MANY ways we might “take the church to the streets.” Starting with ashes is (a) an odd place to start, and (b) probably meets more of the church’s and maybe the clergy’s needs than it does the world’s.

The book is Bp Jack Spong’s  The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.  If you are preaching this Lent, GET IT AND READ IT!  If you are not preaching this Lent – if you plan to be listening to someone else preach – don’t torment yourself by reading this now. Save it as an Easter treat.  If you read it now and you have to listen to someone else preaching the traditional understanding of John’s Gospel, it will make you nuts.

I loved this book. Spong says it was the fruit of three years of intensive study, and when I finished reading the book all I could think was “thank you for those three years of study!” The book will change the way you think about John’s gospel for ever, in a good way.

Two suggestions…

First, ignore the subtitle (“Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”) It is misleading.  The Fourth Gospel is not about ancient Jewish Mysticism. It is about how we as Christians should/can understand the Gospel of John today.  Second, feel free to skip the Preface. If you read the Preface and feel a little put off by the tone, remember, I warned you. The book is SO MUCH BETTER than the Preface.


Frogs know: Doubt can be a good thing.

Photo credit: The Beauty of Animals  http://beauty-animal.blogspot.com/2011/07/tree-frog.html
Photo credit: The Beauty of Animals http://beauty-animal.blogspot.com/2011/07/tree-frog.html

  About a year ago, I doubted that I had anything good to say about the Book of Joshua. The Book of Joshua is a horrific tale. Its portrayal of God is antithetical to anything I have ever believed. In Joshua,  God practices genocide and holy war: God choses some and rejects others, killing the unchosen (men, women, children and their animals) simply because they occupy  land that God wants.

I wondered if I could ignore book of Joshua. There are many biblical stories which we ignore. They have been left out of the lectionary. They are not commented upon in sermons or taught in Sunday School. But the book of Joshua is hard to put into that category. A  few bits of it DO  appear in our lectionary, (see the page, “Joshua in the Lectionary”) and worse, as we’ve probably all been told, that Jesus’ name points to Joshua’s. Both names suggest  “God saves.”  Is holy war and genocide the way God saves? I had doubts about that.

About the time I was finding myself with nothing (nice) to say about the Book of Joshua, I learned that there was a new book out about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I decided to lay my lectionary project aside for a week or two and read that book. A couple of weeks became a year as I kept reading. At first, I was reading to discover what it was that Bonhoeffer saw that led him to do resist Hitler.  Bonhoeffer’s biography did not answer my question,  so I started reading other books:  In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin  (Erik Larson), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (William Shirer), Hitler, the Germans and the Final Solution and The Hitler Myth both by Ian Kershaw,  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (by Timothy Snyder, an account of Stalin’s planned starvation  and genocide of millions in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine starting in the early 1930’s),  The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland  (Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski, The Nuremberg Trial by Ann Tusa, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, (by Ian Buruma) to name a significant few.

I came away from this year of reading with two impressions. (1) Hitler and Joshua had a lot in common,  and (2) Hitler’s was not an anamoly: it could happen again.

Hitler and Joshua

These two people, one probably a myth and the other very real, had several important things in common.

  • Both were “charismatic personalities” in the Weberian sense, (according to Ian Kershaw.) Both leaders were “saviors” attempting or purporting to lead their people to a better life.
  • Both led a divinely chosen people in a struggle against those unchosen. The chosen were instructed to regard the unchosen as subhuman, suitable only for slavery or death.
  • Both led a nation that felt shamed and oppressed. For both, the acquisition of land then occupied by others was a rallying cry.  For Joshua and the Israelites, it was the Promised Land.  In Hitler’s ideology it was lebensraum – land needed for expansion. Literally, “living room.”
  • Both directed armies to commit massive murder of civilians and non-combatants claiming “rights” which superceded ordinary laws and moral codes. Both treated dissenters very badly.

Given the holy war and genocide and Joshua’s likeness to Hitlera, I believe that the only way the Joshua story can warrant being part of Holy Writ is as cautionary tale. Its moral is: when you see a leader like this, no matter how attractive they may seem, start having some doubts about them and their vision.

It could happen again

I had believed that Hitler’s rise to power was a tragic, one-time anomalous event made possible by some unidentified unique circumstances. It was never clear what those circumstances were, but it seemed unimaginable that they could ever happen again. And of course, if they DID we would all see the signs immediately and put an end to it. In my reading this past year, having learned more about pre-war Germany and I have come to see Hitler’s rise to power as no accident or terrible “perfect storm.” Hitler rose to power because he was a clever politician and a masterful  manipulator of public opinion, and I believe that it all could happen again.

Hitler cultivated the leaders of business and industry. He lied easily and played the media and public opinion. He crafted and adapted his image and ideology to meet the public’s emotional needs and aspirations so that ordinary people felt hope and purpose. Intelligent and thoughtful people supported him for the sake of the nation. Others thought him dangerous, but trusted the electorate to keep him in check.  There was street violence, arrests, disappearances and “concentration camps” (not originally death camps) for communists and dissidents. These were tolerated, sometimes as the excesses of rogue subordinates. They did not seem to be evidence that should give rise to doubts about Hitler or his ideology.

We can imagine that pre-war Germans ought to have had more doubts about Hitler and much earlier. But so many hoped for the best until it was too late, until it was 1933 and the Reichstag had been burned and martial law was imposed. And after that, it was too late for doubts. Hitler was in power.

And are we doing any better now, in this country? We have been hoping for the best for nearly ten years. We still have Guatanamo, and the curtailment of civil liberties of the Homeland Security Act , and I guess we believe the electoral process will take care of these things, even though we know that the electoral process in this country has been hopelessly compromised by special interests.  We have become accustomed to the whittling away of rights the way a frog gets used to steadily warming water. And maybe it is too late for us to express doubts: Seven months ago, the  US  government a US citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki was executed by a US drone missile. Someone or some agency had labeled al-Awlaki an “enemy combatant” and that was the only due process afforded. There was very little objection, very few doubts expressed.

We should be having some doubts, about the denial of due process, about “war” being offered as a justification for otherwise illegal acts even though constitutionally, no war has been declared, about civilians being tried in military courts, about the acceptability of torture, about the thought-policing implicit in the notion of “hate-crimes.” We should be having lots of doubts.

Doubt is a thing to be practiced early and often, because it can become too late. Is it too late for us to start having doubts? Is the water already too warm?  As frogs might remind us, it’s best not to wait to find out.

We need to start doubting whenever we find ourselves believing that our leaders are too good to lie to us or to value their own power more than common morality. We need to start doubting whenever we find ourselves excusing our leaders’ behavior, accepting the explanation that they know something we don’t that makes their behavior a lesser of two evils and therefore not evil at all. We need to start doubting anytime the leadership asks us to suspend disbelief, or civil rights or due process or our innate sense of morality.

The gospel for the second Sunday of Easter tells us that Thomas doubted. Maybe what he doubted that Jesus had risen. But doubters are, in the first instance, believers. Maybe Thomas doubted because he also believed that Pontius Pilate, the Roman occupation system and all those who colluded with it were selling lies intended to pacify the population and quell resistance.  Maybe Thomas thought that a “Jesus, the friendly ghost” story was one of Pilate’s lies and that the disciples had bought it.

Thomas doubted, and it was his doubt which enabled him to see the truth – the Risen One bearing the wounds of Pilate’s brutality, not covered up, not excused or explained away.

It takes a believer to doubt, and doubt can be a very good thing.

Photo credit: Tree Frog- The Beauty of Animals.  http://beauty-animal.blogspot.com/2011/07/tree-frog.html

Easter Sunday — only a beginning

DSCF1776Easter Sunday can feel like the party after Lent.

“Alleluia, the strife is o’er.” Lent is done and we  survived. The clergy — who only nearly survived — will be on vacation next week taking a well-earned rest. Many of the faithful will rest too, giving church a skip next Sunday.  But I think we’re shortchanging Easter Sunday. It is not the victory party after Lent, and it is only a beginning.

In last night’s Vigil gospel, we heard:  “He is not here.” There was no body.  There were no brightly colored eggs to be found in the basket. The tomb was empty.  Jesus – all that had been the focus of our attention and devotion for so long, and certainly for the weeks of Lent – was gone. Not even his remains remained.

Easter Sunday begins with and in our failures — the absence of our best hopes and dreams and plans.  Our alleluias need to feel a little iffy. If they are feel victorious at this early moment in the season,  we need to check that we are not celebrating the end of Lent.


Easter Sunday is not climax: it is the beginning.  The Sundays of the Easter season are not post-climax. Pentecost will be the climax liturgically. Spiritually, the climax will be the moment we are ready to claim for ourselves a new purpose, inspired by a Risen One who met us someplace we never expected.







We are probably not there yet.  We could not even begin the journey towards it until we heard the “good news” of an empty tomb, and it took us all of the work of Lent to get us there… to shuck off the excess baggage and get back into shape, so that we would be ready to look at life anew from the perspective of the disaster of an empty tomb.

Alleuia, here we are. Easter Sunday is the not the party after. It is only a beginning.

Good Friday

Last year Good Friday began a difficult weekend. It’s hard to be an “extra parochial” priest on Easter weekend.  Perhaps almost as hard, emotionally, as it is to be “parochial.”  I am grateful for the friends who shared this weekend with us last year. Their presence helped.

This morning, as I went for my jog, I remembered what Good Friday feels like for those who have been keeping Lent and Holy Week and who plan to keep the Triduum. It feels a lot like the day of the funeral for someone beloved. There is a lot to do, a schedule perhaps: Time has to be watched. But in a larger sense, it seems like a day “out of time.”  Our lives feel stopped, and time should stop too.  Or we simply wish it would because once the day runs its course, we will be left with the awfulness of the loss, the absence, the unwanted change of so much. If only the world would stand stil…

But the world does not stand still. It can be a little hurtful to see that.  As we go from funeral home to church to cemetery, the rest of the world goes to work, keeps appointments, open and closes stores and does business as usual.  There was a time when at least the traffic stopped for funeral processions. Not so much anymore. As hurrying drivers cut in on the procession of mourners, we are reminded that the  loss of one life, the end of our world, doesn’t matter to the rest of the world.  It is a lonely feeling.

We remember that loneliness on Good Friday, because in our world, very little stops on anymore. The world goes to work, keeps appointments and does business as usual. For those of us who have been keeping Lent and Holy Week and who plan to keep the Triduum, Good Friday can leave us feeling lonely. While we remember and relive the loss of one life —  an extraordinary life – gruesomely ended by a conspiracy of power, lies, fear and apathy, the world’s business goes on, as if nothing were happening.

For those of us who can bear to keep it, Good Friday can be saving.  Our dwelling in the story of Jesus’ death  is a way to reaffirm the Talmud’s insight that the loss of one life is, in God’s eyes,  the loss of the world. God help us if Good Friday means that only certain special lives matter. It must mean that every life matters that much — whether it is the life of Jesus, or the life of one of the thousands who died in the “Arab spring,” or one of the millions who have died of hunger and malnutrition, or one of the thousands who have died in war zones, or because they were homeless, or mentally ill, or because they were said to be guilty of certain crimes (as Jesus was.)  Good Friday is a day of grief which we must continue to keep precisely because the dying continues – the conspiracies of power, lies, fear and apathy continue —  and the world continues to go about its business, as though nothing were happening.

By keeping Good Friday, by stopping and stepping outside of time and the usual busy-ness to notice the dying, to  grieve, and to protest the conspiracies, the lies, the fear and the apathy, we open ourselves to the saving that Easter can bring.

Déjà vu all over again

Many days into Spring, it was snowing yesterday: déjà vu all over again. Reading Deuteronomy left me feeling the same wayas though I had seen and heard it all before.

I did not expect to be interested in Deuteronomy. It surprised me to be fascinated by it. I’ve been reflecting on it and working through it for two weeks and I still feel as though I have only scratched the surface. I look for the answer to one question and find three more questions. I would linger longer, but I need to move on in order to stay on track for the lectionary project.

Deuteronomy – in brief 🙂
The story is simple enough. Deuteronomy opens with the Israelites camped just across the river from the Promised Land after 40 brutal years in the wilderness led by Moses who has in turn been led by God. Of the 601,000 people who left Egypt, only three remain alive: Moses, Caleb and Joshua. Moses will soon die.  Joshua and Caleb are the only persons who will survive both the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance to the Promised Land.

In giving Canaan to the Israelites, God is making good on the second promise made to Abraham. God had promised “descendants and land” and had provided “descendants.” By the end of Numbers, the tribe of the 70 who went into Egypt back in Jacob and Joseph’s day has grown to 601,000. But the promise of land has not been fulfilled. God says that Canaan will be it: Israel’s land as long as the people observe the covenant.

New covenant for a new lifestyle
God’s promises had remained constant, but what constituted the people’s “observance of the covenant” had not. That changed. In Genesis their “observance” or “obedience” was to practice circumcision and  follow various ad hoc directives. After the escape from Egypt, at the beginning of the wilderness journey at Mt. Sinai (Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers) it was the Ten Commandments, Sabbath-keeping, dietary rules and the proper construction of the sanctuary.

In Deuteronomy, (lit., “the second law”,) the people’s covenant duties change again. The “second law” was not a law for wandering and surviving in the wilderness. It was a law for a prosperous, settled existence. It presumed permanence (cities and houses on which you could put a mezuzah), and the stability of agriculture (from which one gives first fruit offerings and tithes.) Deuteronomy sets out rules about marriage, cities of refuge, the duty of care owed to neighbors, rules for dealing with unsolved murders, the establishment of a welfare and a judicial system, and the choice of one (unnamed) city among others as the center of liturgical activity and judicial authority. Entering the Promised Land was going to mean living a new kind of life, and Moses describes the demands of the covenant for that new lifestyle in which the danger will not be wilderness hardship: it will be complacency.

New danger
Structurally, Deuteronomy consists of three speeches which Moses makes as the people prepare to enter Canaan. He gives the new laws and then warns of the new danger – that in their complacency, people will be tempted to forget God. They will imagine that their comfort, wealth and military victories are due to their own effort and skill. “Do not forget how it was in the wilderness, Moses seems to say, “and remembering, obey.”

In the end, Moses privately doubts that his warning will be effective. He predicts that the people will not remember, they will not keep the covenant so that in Canaan, instead of enjoying blessings, the fulfillment of God’s promises, they will be cursed, coming to misery and trouble. Specifically, they will lose the promised land and become exiles. Moses’ only word of comfort is that when this happens, if the people return to God, God will relent and bring them home.

When did all this happen?
The actual events in the Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy saga (i.e., the escape from Egypt, the wilderness journey and the entrance to the Promised Land) are impossible to assign to an actual year, although attempts have been made. Scholars have tried to use the Bible to “count back” to an actual year and decided on 1450 BCE. Rabbinic Judaism, in the 2nd century CE said the escape from Egypt was in 1312 BCE. An American 20th century biblical archaeologist (Wm Albright) argued for 1250-1145 BCE. There is no good historical or archaeological evidence for any of those dates.

It is a little easier to date the story itself. It shows up in biblical literature (e.g. Hosea) in the 8th century BCE (c.760-725 BCE.) It is thought that Deuteronomy’s canonical form first emerged about 600 BCE (during King Josiah’s reign), and was reworked after 586 BCE during the Exile. [For a good explanation of Deuteronomy’s history, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Deuteronomy, “Composition, history and structure.”]

Deuteronomy déjà vu
As a Christian reading Deuteronomy, I had a recurring sense of déjà vu. Much of the time I spent reflecting on Deuteronomy was spent on looking at that ways Deuteronomy is used elsewhere and especially in the gospels. In the end, I felt I was getting a fresh reading of the gospels when I read them through the lens of Deuteronomy. (A couple of the charts I used to keep track of the connections are on the “Deut” page. They are based on the “Quotations of the Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament” which appears at the back of the 1993 Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV) at 2339 et seq.)
♦ Deuteronomy 5 has a version of the Ten Commandments. Déjà vu Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, of course. (“You have heard it said…. But I tell you…”)
♦ Deuteronomy recounts key episodes of Israel in the wilderness previously told in Numbers. Déjà vu Matthew and Luke’s account of Jesus in (wait for it)… the wilderness. All of the answers Jesus gives the Tempter are from the Israel-in-the-wilderness story. (Deut. 8:3 – One does not live by bread alone; Deut. 6:16 – Do not put God to the test; Deut. 4:10 – Worship God and serve God only.)
♦ At Deut. 10:12, Moses rhetorically asks: “What does the Lord require of you?” Déjà vu Micah 6:8, in which the answer, frankly, is a lot catchier. But déjà vu the gospels as well, in which the underlying question is “What must we do?”

What must we do?
This question matters. There are no less than four versions of the story in which “someone” (Mtt. 19:18), a man” (Mk. 10:19), “a lawyer” (Lk. 10:25) and “a certain ruler” (Lk. 18:20) asks “what must I do?”

For both Moses and Jesus the answer is covenant observance or “the law” and both know that the listeners do not understand the paradoxical simplicity and difficulty of what God requires of them. Both want their people to “understand” – to have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Moses at Deut. 29:4, déjà vu Jesus at Mk 4:9, 4:23 & 8:18; Luke 8:8 & 14:35.) Both fear that the simple-but-difficult law will be forgotten when people become wealthy and comfortable. (Moses at Deut. 4:25, déjà vu Jesus, who concludes three of the four “What must I do?” stories by saying that it is hard but not impossible, for a rich person to enter the realm of God. )

Deuteronomy is written for a people who have lost security and prosperity. It says that we have only ourselves to blame because we have strayed from our original purposes and values. If we repent of our neglect and rededicate ourselves, God may restore our security and prosperity. Consequently, it is of utmost importance to name and understand those original purposes and values.

“The law” is Israel’s original purpose and value. Moses says that the law – that which is “required of us”– is easy to learn. Jesus says it is easy enough for a child to observe. (Mark 10:20). It is not “too hard or too far away” (Deut. 30:11.)  The difficulty is “knowing it” with understanding.
In Jesus’ lifetime, (and certainly decades later, after the destruction of the Temple) the religious community was threatened by the power and influence of the Roman empire. They knew that the key to their survival was faithful observance of the covenant – keeping the law with understanding. They knew they needed to understand, as Paul would say, not only the letter of the law, but its spirit. Every generation needs to understand “the law” for its own time and circumstances – on the eve crossing into the Promised Land in Deuteronomy,  in the face of Roman occupation as in Jesus’ lifetime, and in 21st America.

Jesus was part of his religious community. He was part of their conversation devoted to finding true understanding. His intent was not to abolish the law, but to uncover, for his peers and for us, its deepest meaning. I think the image of the Transfiguration gets it right: Jesus and Moses have the same message and mission. Déjà vu all over again.

Lectionary Notes

Sunday Deuteronomy Story
Pr. 17B – optional Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9 Moses tells the people to heed the statutes and ordinances he is about to give them. (In the verses omitted, Moses reminds the people that God has killed Israelites who followed other gods.)
Pr. 4B – optional Deut. 5:12-15 Observe the Sabbath
Pr. 26B – optional Deut. 6:1-9 The Sh’ma and “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might…”
Thanksgiving Day A Deut. 8:7-18 The Promised Land is wonderful. When you get there, remember God.
Pr. 4A – optional Deut. 11:18-28 Put these words in your heart, bind them on your hand, teach them to your children… I set before you blessing and curse.
Epiphany 4B Deut. 18:15-20 God will raise up for you a prophet like me. Heed that prophet. False prophets should die.
Lent 1C &Thanksgiving Day C Deut. 26:1-11 You shall make an offering of first fruits to the priest I the chosen city. When he takes your offering you shall say: “My father was a wandering Aramean…” NB: In this “creed” story, there is no mention of the wilderness years. ???
Pr. 10C – optional Deut. 30:9-14 This commandment is not too hard for you, or too far away. The word is very near.
Epiphany 6A – optionalPr. 18C – optional Deut. 15-20 I set before you today life and death. Choose life.
Pr. 25A – optional Deut. 34:1-12 The death of Moses. “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face…”

As appears from the chart, Deuteronomy is read 10 times in three years…. MAYBE. Of the 10 readings, one is a repeat (Lent 1C and Thanksgiving Day C) and eight are optional. Technically, of course, “Thanksgiving Day” is not a Sunday (although I used to substitute “Thanksgiving Day” for “Christ our King.”)

What is NOT in the lectionary?
♦ The Ten Commandments as they appear in Deuteronomy.
♦ None of the passages Jesus quotes when he is tested in the wilderness. (Is the presumption that everyone knows Jesus is quoting, or are we trying to suggest that Jesus came up with those answers on his own?)
♦ Deut. 10:12-22 – What does the Lord require of you?… Circumcise your heart… God’s justice is concerned for the widow and orphan. God loves the stranger. You should love the stranger, for you were once strangers yourselves.
♦ Deut. 16:18-20 – Justice only shall you pursue. Accept no bribe. Be impartial.
♦ Deut. 22:1-4 – Duty of care towards neighbors. An affirmative duty of care.
♦ Deut. 24:10-15, 17-20 – Economic justice: Do not withhold a laborer’s wages. Do not keep a necessity as security overnight. Leave gleanings for the poor.
♦ Deut. 29 :1-10 – “Diligently observe the words of this covenant, in order that you may succeed in everything that you do.”

Déjà vu John?
Unlike the synoptic gospels, the gospel of John does not quote Deuteronomy (unless you count Jn. 8:17.) Still, consider Deut. 17:7 which says that to prove a crime, at least two witnesses are required and in the event of a crime carrying the death penalty, those witnesses must be prepared to cast the first stone. Déjà vu the woman taken in adultery in John 8:4-10. Presumably there were two witnesses. The Law already makes it hard for anyone to “casually” accuse someone of adultery. If they would be an accusing witness, they must also be prepared to act as executioner by throwing the first stone. Jesus makes it tougher still: they must be without sin. More questions: Without what sin? The sin of adultery? Without any sin? Questions, questions, questions! These two passages (Deut. 17:7 and John 8:4-10) would make an interesting set of Sunday readings.

PS – Thanks for the suggestion that shorter is better, or at least easier to read. I was not very good at being “brief” this time. I’ve tried to include enough section headers so that one can skip bits that look too tedious.

Take a number? Maybe not.

One could easily decide from reading thecomplaint-department-grenade Book of Numbers that God does not deal well with complaints and that customer service may not be God’s calling. Responding to complaints about lack of food and water, a lack of leadership or the folly of fighting a losing battle, in the Book of Numbers, God gets angry and sends fire, plagues, leprosy, curses and poisonous serpents.

God’s personality is revealed to have some very unpleasant aspects in Numbers.

● God seems overly concerned with acquiring material goods. On the occasion of the dedication of the sanctuary altar, God receives

-12 silver plates

-12 silver basins

-12 gold dishes

-36 bulls

-72 rams

-72 male lambs

-12 male goats. (Num. 7:84-88.)

● God is high-maintenance. The Tent of Meeting requires the full-time attention of 8,580 people (the number of Levites per Nu. 4:48). (Num. 8:19) And then there are the priests, whose only job is to tend the sanctuary within.

● God doesn’t have much regard for women. Women suspected of infidelity are to be tried by ordeal, (Num. 5:19) and women can be parties to a contract (take an oath) only if there husband or father agrees. (Num. 30)

● God is a strict disciplinarian, imposing the death penalty for failure to keep the Sabbath. (Num. 15:35)

● God can be murderous. God kills…

• The 10 scouts who explored Canaan and gave a false bad report about the    desirability of the land, hoping it would dissuade the people from taking on a losing battle of conquest. (Num. 14)

• The 250 Levites who aspired to be priests and who thought the leadership should be more egalitarian. (Num. 16)

• The 14,700 Israelites who protested the killing of the rebel Levites (Num. 16),

• The 24,000 men who died in the plague of God’s anger over Israelite men consorting with Moabite women and their gods.

• The 603,550 men, plus Levites, women and children whom God enticed out of  Egypt with a promise of land, but who were never allowed to set foot on that land  for the offense of having believed someone else’s lie. (Numbers 14.) They had to remain in the wilderness until every last one of them died, even if it took 40 years,  which it did.

I cannot think of a way to make this God look friendly, godly or Jesus-like. The stories in Numbers challenge our image of God. They are a good reminder that we are not supposed to have or worship any images of God and certainly not the image that emerges from Numbers. Worship of a murderous God has tragically allowed us to imagine that some wars and some killings are holy.

There is also no way I cannot be offended by God’s disregard of property rights and nationhood. Why is it okay for the Israelites to invade, conquer and occupy other nations? On the other hand, maybe we are supposed to feel offended. Maybe the earliest editor  or author of Numbers felt the same ethical ambivalence about the fact that  in a zero-sum world, for the “have-nots” to become “haves”, the “haves” must lose something.

But fundamentally, Numbers is about complaints and rebellions – the protests which arise when we are pushed beyond the limits of our patience, our endurance and our courage. That is what happens in a wilderness: when we are pushed beyond the limits of our patience, our endurance and our courage. We’ve all been there.

The moral of the story is not “don’t complain.” We complain and rebel when our sense of justice is offended – when we believe we or someone we care about is not being treated fairly. A sense of justice is a good thing to have, and sometimes complaining and rebelling is the right thing to do.

Leaders, like Moses, often get caught in the middle – between the righteous complaint and the Boss. It is a meditation to watch Moses maintain his relationship with God, with the people and even with his brother and sister even though  each of those parties have conflicting agendas and needs. Leadership is not an easy thing.

Lectionary Notes

Pentecost A Numbers 11:24-30 God’s spirit on the 70 elders & Eldad & Medad. “Would that all God’s people were prophets.”
Lent 4B Numbers 21: 4-9 The people complain about no food; God’s sends poisonous serpents. The bronze serpent on the pole cures those who are bitten.
Proper 21B Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29 The story of the 70 elders, responding to Moses’ request for leadership help, omitting the parallel request made by the people for more meat.  God promises to send the people so much meat that it will come out of their nostrils. The 70 elders, similarly, were too much. Consequently, they are not heard from again.

Three readings – only two stories, and the story that is told twice (70 prophesying elders) is told without the parallel story which interprets it. With the parallel story (about the people getting more meat than anyone would want), the tag line (“Would that all God’s people were prophets.”) takes on a completely ironic and different meaning.

On to Deuteronomy.

A Closer gets Matthew to tell all: The New Isaac

One of my favorite shows is The Closer. Kyra Sedgwick plays Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson, known by her colleagues to be “a closer” because she specializes in getting suspects to confess, and nothing more definitely closes a case than a confession that makes sense of all of the evidence and lose ends. She is clever, yea verily wily, in getting suspects to confess, but she only brings her wiles to bear on a suspect whom she knows to be guilty. In other words, the first part of the show is about Brenda Lee doing her homework, conducting a thorough investigation, keeping her mind open to whatever suspects or motives the evidence might point. Judging from his university web page, Dr. Leroy Huizenga does not look much like Brenda Lee, but his investigations are thorough and open to new directions, and when he gets the Gospel of Matthew to “confess” its methods and meanings, it sings in a whole new way.

I like to read the book reviews in the RBL. Books reviewed there rarely make the New York Times Book Review, and the RBL reviews are so detailed that you can often get the gist of the book from the review.  I hardly ever read the book itself. A few weeks ago, I read a review of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew, (Brill, 2009) and I decided I wanted to read the book. The New Isaac,  argues that the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Isaac.  Recently, I had written in this blog that I found the character of Isaac to be a non-event. Compared to Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, Isaac just seemed like such an uninteresting character. Why would anyone want to use such a boring character to present the meaning of Jesus? What had I missed about Isaac. I wanted to read the book.

It turns out that I had not missed anything.  Isaac was boring. Abraham, Jacob and Joseph are interesting, complex characters with good doses of “badness” in their personalities. Not Isaac. He was just good: Friendly, forgiving and obedient.

The New Isaac argues that the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Isaac in large part because after the destruction of the Temple, the question was “where is God now?” Remember the Temple curtain being torn after Jesus’ death in Matthew? That was God leaving town. The Gospel of Matthew wants to say that Jesus is “a replacement for the temple.” Jesus is “a new and decisive temple.” (The New Isaac, 278)  Isaac is the perfect vehicle for that message: The story of his near- sacrifice in Gen. 22 (the Akedah or “binding”) was the foundational story with respect to the practice of Temple sacrifice and what those sacrifices meant to God.

Dr. Huizenga’s book was a real pleasure to read. Unlike many published doctoral dissertations, it is quite accessible. Being able to read Hebrew and Greek helps, but I only have a little of those languages left in my memory, and I was able to figure out the significance of most of the untranslated passages.

I read the book in two days and found that  Dr. Huizenga was a biblical Closer. Having completed his  investigation and concluding that there was an Isaac typology present in Matthew, he then got that Gospel to confess and explain itself in a new an unexpected way. In the second half of the book, when he reviews key moments in Matthew’s gospel through the lens of Jesus-as-Isaac, I felt as though I were reading Matthew for the first time, in a way that made so much sense.

Here is some of what I learned from The New Isaac:

(1) In our scripture study, we can spend too much time comparing one gospel to another and not enough time appreciating individual gospels for their own internal “narrative logic.” We need to read each individual gospel as distinctive, individual literary works and assume that their structure and devices will communicate key messages and themes. As Dr. Huizenga writes: “The empirical Saint Matthew (probably) did not pass out copies of Mark and Q to his congregation and insist that they take careful note of his editorial work. Rather, the evangelists composed wholes and intended their Gospels to be read and heard as such.” (New Isaac, 8.)

(2) OT/Tanak themes are not present only when its passages are directly quoted. Themes are conveyed and suggested in allusions and subtle evocations not only of “scripture” (as it existed when Matthew was written) but of themes, stories and characters that would have been present in a 1st century reader/hearer’s “cultural encyclopedia.”  The character of Isaac and the story of the Akedah in the 1st century, lived not only in “scripture” (Gen. 22 of the MT or LXX) but also in the 1st century Jew’s cultural encyclopedia made up of tradition, lore, canonical and non-canonical sources.

(3) Isaac and the Akedah was a strongly present in the 1st century cultural encyclopedia and earlier. Canonical and non-canonical sources evidence a Isaac tradition in which  (1) Isaac actively and willing participates in his near-sacrifice (2) the sacrifice/obedience may have had an atoning or saving effect, (3) an association is made with the time of Passover and  (4) with the place of the Temple Mount.  The Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah did not live “within the ancient Jewish encyclopedia within which the Gospel of Matthew operates…” (The New Isaac, 189). The figure of Moses did, and arguments can been made that the Matthean Jesus is a “new Moses,” but the evidence for a Moses typology is not supported by the internal narrative logic of Matthew.

IOW, in Matthew’s Jesus, we have learned to see Moses, or perhaps the suffering servant of Isaiah, and we have missed the subtle but more powerful signs of Isaac. If we were listening to Matthew through the lens and with the cultural encyclopedia of a 1st century Jew, we  probably would see and hear Isaac.  This argument made so much sense to me. Moses is all about the Law. But the issue a 1st century Jew faced was not the sufficiency or adequacy of the Law. It was the loss of the Temple and the inability to continue the world-maintaining ritual of sacrifice, and Isaac was all about sacrifice.

The first part of Huizenga’s book  — the investigation — was interesting for someone like me who knows next to nothing about semiotics, Umberto Eco (except for The Name of the Rose) and Model Readers. I learned a lot. But when he “closes the case” by explaining the Annunciation & Birth narratives, the Baptism and Temptation, the Transfiguration and the Passion, it is one “aha” and “of course!” after another.

I now have a lot to think about as I reconsider Isaac and the story of his near-sacrifice. Huizenga quotes Judah Goldin’s description of the Akedah as “one of the most terrifying narratives in all Scripture…”  I agree. I don’t think I am alone. Contemporary Christians avoid it whenever they can with the help of an avoidant lectionary and reluctant preachers. I have long thought that it functions as the pink elephant in the room. We pretend it’s not there all the while making sure we don’t bump into it. I think we need to stop ignoring it and confront it, with our terror and revulsion intact. That is all the more true if in fact, Jesus is “the new Isaac.” So now, I have a lot more to think about.

If you’re thinking of reading The New Isaac, get thee to a library. It is expensive to purchase ($159 on Amazon.) Let’s hope Brill, the publisher,  brings out a more affordable version in the near future.

Nota bene!

The New Isaac is a work of serious biblical scholarship. This post reflects my amateur understanding of what I read and may or may not accurately describe Dr. Huizenga’s work. For a more competent, scholarly review and summary of the book, please the recent review written by Russell C.D. Arnold of DePauw University, in RBL 02/2011. You’ll find a link to a pdf of the review on the tab above.