Deuteronomy

“This is Your Life”

The day was hot and dusty.  The sun beat down mercilessly on the hills, the rocks, the long-parched dirt.  The people were standing in the sun, sweating.  There were a lot of people!  Maybe half a million, maybe a million, perhaps more, unimaginably many people.

And they were on the move.  They had been walking for years with their tents and their families, their goats and their sheep.  More than years, it had been decades.  Most of them were not old enough to remember when they started; they had only heard the stories, terrifying stories what life was like before- before…  They didn’t even have a word to call the crazy events that had set them moving all those years ago, which only the oldest few among them now remembered.  But they knew the heat and the dust, the tents and the rocks, the animals and the sacrifices.

Their old leader, the last of his generation, the oldest one among them still alive, remembered those days, and he knew where they were going.  He said they were getting close, that in just a few more weeks now, they would get to their new home.  But he did not expect to live that long himself.  He looked healthy for one so unimaginably old, still sharp-eyed and walking around.  But he had already named his successor, another one of the oldest among the people (he was over eighty years old!), who remembered when it all started.  Their oldest leader warned them that he himself would not arrive with them to where they were going.

And so, on this hot, dusty day, they stood outside in the heat and the sun, in their sweat and their thirst, to listen to their old leader for what might be the last time.  He had a lot that he wanted to tell them!  He had been talking to them for days, preparing them for the future, but also reminding them of what happened in the past, before most of them were born.  They needed to know where they came from, and where they were going, and most importantly, why.  And they listened, because they knew he was speaking the words of their God to them.  Their old leader was the spokesman for the God who had rescued them back then and who walked with them now, the God whose tent was among them, who had come with them all these years and decades, the God who was with them here in this hot dry place, and who was soon going to bring them to their destination.

Their old leader struggled up a slope, helped by some of the younger men, so that his voice could carry above their heads.  When he finally reached a spot where most people could see him, he turned around slowly, and everyone hushed except for some of the babies scattered among the crowds.  The people waited in silence for his words.

But unlike previous times, when he had told them of their God’s care for them, had warned them to avoid evil, and instructed them how to live good lives with their God, this time he… sang.  He sang!  His voice, surprisingly strong in one so old, echoed off the rocky slopes above him, and the beautiful, mysterious words echoed in their hearts.  It was a song about their God and about his people – about them!  It was a confusing song about worship and rebellion, about their God and other gods, about how awe-inspiring their God was, in both his kindness and his unique perfection.  The oldest among them listened most intently, and tried to save the words in their hearts; they knew they would need to think about this more later.  And after the old leader sang, his appointed successor repeated it after him, just to make sure that it was remembered, that it would not be lost.

Moses finished speaking all these words to all Israel.  He said to them, “Pay attention to all the words which I am warning you today, which you will command your children to keep doing all the words of this Law.  For it is not a meaningless message to you, but it is your life, and by this message you will prolong days upon the ground which you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 32:45-47)

Over three millennia ago on a hot dusty slope overlooking the Jordan River, Moses, the servant of God, taught a prophetic song to the Lord’s people and encouraged them to remain faithful to God and to pay attention to his message.  God’s message to his people is not just good advice, not just beautiful poetry, not just rules to live by.  God’s message to us is our life.  “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1).

Is Donald Trump God’s “Chosen One”? An Advent Reflection on God in Politics

There has been a lot of discussion over the past week of Rick Perry’s claim that President Trump is God’s “chosen one” to be president.  Obscure points of Christian theology have spilled over into mainstream media, and political commentators have felt obliged to weigh in on doctrines of predestination and election.  The two most common talking positions seem to be shaping up as “God has nothing to do with politics” and “Of course God chose our president; get over it.”  But the analysis has focused primarily on politics, and I think reflecting on the theology may be more helpful.  In particular, what the Bible says about God’s involvement in selecting leadership may be useful for adding the nuance lacking in the public discussion, and may serve as a useful reminder of what Advent is about. (more…)

Hell and the God of Love

Hell is a problem.  It makes compassionate Christians uncomfortable.  It makes hateful Christians gleeful.  Some people say that hell is unfair.  Others say a loving God could never create people to send them to hell.  How can hell be reconciled with “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8)?

Let us be careful.  Jesus, who revealed God’s love, discussed hell more than any prophet. (more…)

Israel and the Church

Last month’s decision by the US president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought out the full range of responses, as usual.  Such responses always dismay me as to how poorly both sides understand what the Bible says about Israel, land, and the Church today.  Here are some notes for a discussion I led on the subject, specifically for Christians; the notes have been somewhat edited since the original version. (more…)

Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 2: What Jesus Said

This is the second post in a series.  Read the first post here.

Is the Trinity in the Bible?  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity asserts that Jesus Christ is the second divine person, God the Son.  So if the idea of the Trinity is anywhere, we should find it in the words and actions of Jesus.  What did Jesus say about the whether or not he was God? (more…)

Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 1: The Old Testament

Is the Trinity in the Bible?  I have talked with Jews, Muslims, atheists, and even some Christians who say no.  Recently I had the privilege of discussing the issue with an ex-Muslim and with a Jehovah’s Witness, who have prompted me to revisit the issue here.  Of course I admit that the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the inspired text of the Bible.  But the lack of a word does not mean the absence of the reality to which that word refers.  The word “omnipresent” is also not to be found in Scripture, but the idea of God’s omnipresence is clearly taught there (e.g. 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-12).  Like God’s omnipresence, we need to explore what the Bible actually teaches about God’s oneness, and then consider what to call it. (more…)

Biblical Authority: Yes! Sola Scriptura? Maybe.

The Bible is amazing.  The God who created all the universe and each tiny flower in a mountain meadow decided to communicate with people in their own language, and to inspire people to write it down for future generations to read!  Even the Bible talks about about invaluable and awe-inspiring the Scripture is.  God gave the law through Moses, and after he re-hashed it all to the Israelites in the plain of Moab (Deuteronomy means “second [statement of the] law”), Moses said, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:47).  God spoke through Isaiah, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).  When Jesus quoted a difficult passage of the psalms, he parenthetically remarked, “And the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).  The Bible is fully authoritative, life-giving, and amazingly clear (indeed, often far too clear for our comfortable self-deceptions).  I do not think we can speak highly enough of God’s gracious gift of Scripture.  But it is possible to speak inaccurately of it.

“Sola Scriptura” is one of the five Reformation “solas” (the plural ought to be solae, or rather soli, since one of them is masculine).  It is called the “formal principle” of the Reformation, meaning what distinguishes Protestant theology’s method from the theology of Roman Catholics.  But “sola Scriptura” has come to mean many different things to different people.  It seems to me that some of these meanings are true, but some of them are false.  We must evaluate these meanings in turn. (more…)

Worshiping the Unseen

My last post suggested that part of the difficulty in adjudicating the debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is that we mean so many different things when we say “worship.”  But there is another problem: how do we know what someone worships?  In grammatical terms, “worship” is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object.  But how do we know what the actual direct object is of any particular act of worship?  The first answer would seem to be that someone is worshiping whom or what they claim to be worshiping.  And in cases of frank idolatry, that is undoubtedly sufficient.  When an ancient Greek claimed to be worshiping Aphrodite, or a modern Vaishnava Hindu worships Vishnu, there is no reason to doubt them.  The greater difficulty is determining the object of worship when people of different religions claim to be worshiping simply “God,” or even “the God.”  This question takes us to the center of some tricky problems about meaning and language, especially the meaning of language describing non-physical realities. (more…)

What is Worship?

My last post mentioned the dispute as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and suggested some reasons why the answer is not obvious.  These in particular have to do with the range of meanings given to the verb “to worship,” and the difficulty of determining precisely the object of worship when that object is unseen.  I think the result is that Christians who believe the same theology may nevertheless answer the question differently, depending on the contextual meanings of the words and the philosophical underpinnings.  Therefore I suggest we should avoid being dogmatic on this question.  I am not opposed to dogma on other questions, such as the “three-ness” (Trinity) of God or the deity of Christ, but it seems to me that whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not a question which admits of a single correct answer, nor is it a question whose answer is essential to the maintenance of Christian faith. (more…)

Who Were the “Hebrews”?

Biblical scholars like something to argue about, because they are academics, and academics make their living by making arguments.  (I know; I am one.)  And since what is at stake in biblical scholars’ arguments is almost always the question whether the Bible can be trusted, for skeptics who wish not to believe as much as for believers who wish to do so, biblical scholars’ arguments often degenerate into battle lines.  Often, I feel, a little more careful attention to the text may shed some useful light on the subject.

One debate which has intrigued me in the past is the question of the (non-)relation between the Hebrew word “Hebrew” (ʿibri) and the word “Habiru” and its variants in Akkadian and Egyptian.  It seems that some conservatives have argued that Habiru = Hebrews = Israelites, and thus the Ancient Near Eastern texts which mention the Habiru corroborate the biblical accounts of the Israelites.  Against this, some skeptics have argued that the term Habiru is used in contexts where the biblical Hebrews cannot possibly be intended, and sometimes carry non-Semitic names, which these scholars take to indicate that the Habiru were a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic.

Now, I am not an expert in the Ancient Near East, nor do I read Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or any of the other languages, so I can only approach this question from the Hebrew side.  But it seems to me that what the Bible says about Hebrews is not what most people have presumed, and may open the door to a different solution to the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru. (more…)