Babel: Genesis 11

1. Babbling in Babylon
Superheroes were important in my childhood. As a child I first learnt to read for myself with Spiderman comics and the weekly adventures of the Fantastic Four. There’s a tradition with superheroes that they have an origin story. With Spiderman, part of his origin story is that he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science experiment. With the Fantastic Four their origin story involved a freak burst of cosmic radiation whilst they were on a space mission.

There are usually some features of an origin story that have a legacy for a superhero. The account of the Tower of Babel is an origin story, and it has a far-reaching legacy. It is presented as the origin story for the immense variety of languages we find in the world. There are more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. This does not include dialects and extinct languages.

In Genesis we see God frustrating a building project—a massive city with its crowning glory, a tower that could reach the heavens. The people wanted fame and they wanted to avoid being scattered across the world. They got infamy but ended up being scattered.

The word Babel is fitting, as it sounds like the Hebrew for mix, as in mixing up. Babel also literally means ‘God’s Gate’—perhaps pointing to the interface of earth and heaven as the goal of the tower. This origin story has been received into popular culture. It is where the English word babble originates. But perhaps the most well-known example for us is the Babel Fish in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A fictional fish that undoes Babel by translating any language if you are happy to stick one in your ear! As soon as we have different languages the problem of communication goes beyond words to culture. The Babel Fish is an illustration of this, known to many English speakers but probably not part of most other world cultures.

Douglas Adams is playing on medieval theology’s proofs for the existence of God (if you are not familiar with his version clicking here). What he failed to appreciate is that medieval proofs are not proofs in the modern sense. Rather they are an invitation into a worldview with not only an origin story but a wonderful goal in Jesus Christ the Son of God. Douglas Adams like many atheists refutes a God who is the construct of secular modernism rather than the creator revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection. As Christians we find that the Bible’s world makes sense of the world in which we live, of ourselves and of the God who lies behind both creation and salvation.

2. Scheming on Shinar
What were those people trying to do on Shinar plain? It seems to be a building project of a magnitude greater even than the efforts that created modern Dubai or Doha. What lies behind God’s concern? Why did God choose to confound them? This is the theological origin story. The first attempt to reach heaven, to overthrow God. From a pre-modern understanding this is a literal attempt to reach God’s dwelling place—God’s Gate.

What would have happened if the whole of humanity devoted themselves with singlemindedness to building this city and tower? What would have happened if they could have fulfilled the fullest extent of their desire for fame? What else would they have gone on to achieve?

Our modern world is a place of division between peoples, nations, and language groups. We might imagine that a common language would be a blessing, bringing people together, preventing wars, enabling solutions to world problems such as global warming. And yet the Bible says differently. It takes our sin, and fundamental inability to have good relationships, seriously. This would indicate that for all the failings and brokenness in our world it would be even worse if all humanity were not divided by language barriers. Unlimited building, unlimited science, unlimited cultural expression might just equate to unlimited sin. Genesis, and the wider Old Testament, tell God’s story of limiting sin as his first step to dealing it the decisive blow in Jesus Christ.

The scattering of the schemers at Shinar is both judgement and mercy. God’s actions of judgement and mercy belong together in story after story in the Bible—perhaps they are always two sides of the same coin. In the future, this currency of judgement and mercy will be the basis for the re-creation of heaven and earth. A future when we will be able to join all humanity with one voice in praise of God, in the heavenly city.

3. Building at Babel
The early chapters of Genesis detail, among other things, the gifts and capabilities that God gave humanity. The problem is that humanity has the ongoing ability to use them for both good and ill.

The beginning of agricultural technology in Genesis, via Jabal, can be for good or ill. We need efficient and effective agriculture to produce food. Without it the world’s population is unsustainable. And yet the environment and wildlife pay the price for careless use technology. Biodiversity is diminished. Toxic chemicals go into our bodies and the environment. Soil is vulnerable to being washed away. The list goes on.

The beginning of music technology with Jubal is also for good and ill. Music can be a source of great delight and is emotionally therapeutic. Music can also lie at the heart of darker cultural expressions.

Engineering and my own area of materials technology is no exception to this choice:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
Genesis 11:3, NIV

At Babel the possibility of taller buildings and a quicker building technology was founded on bricks and tar. In my view they could have done better than tar, but that’s not key right now. Today we do unnecessary violence to our planet by over-engineering with concrete and steel. In many cases bamboo might suffice.

The bottom line is that broken humanity cannot decisively solve its problems—this is counter to the world’s narrative, despite the overwhelming evidence. This should not lead to fatalism. Acknowledging the problem of sin still offers the possibility of real progress in undoing its pervasiveness and consequences, from a more realistic stance.

4. Kingdom Construction
That said, we eagerly await the heavenly city of peace where we will know unlimited life and joy rather than Babel’s unlimited sin and death.

God has the most remarkable alternative to Babel. Out of the nations, peoples and language groups he calls men, women and children to a subversive activity.

He calls us to gather and worship him, in and through his son Jesus Christ. It is subversive because the call is to serve him before all other things. Our commitment to Christ, to his Church, to the Kingdom of God comes ahead of our commitment to our nation, our ethnic history, our culture.

It is also remarkable because we are the body of Jesus Christ as we gather.

It is subversive because we believe that all humanity is called to join with us. Pentecost’s gift of interpreting languages is the first fruit of the undoing of Babel. The sign of the age to come which is the undoing of the sin that lay behind the scheming, building and babbling of Babel. As John the Elder saw:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Revelation 7:9-10, NIV

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A Reflection on Genesis 3:1–24

1. Certain Death
Many people are quick to dismiss the Bible—often without pause to think what it is they might be disowning. There is, however, an assertion of the Bible that is difficult to deny. Written on most pages, in different ways, is the bad news that precedes the good news we have in Christ Jesus. This underpinning claim is that the world is broken, and that humankind is at the heart of this problem.

We readily believe this biblical claim because it is evident all around us. Our newspapers, news channels and social media are filled with enough evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that something is wrong with this world. Organised crime, sexual violence, war, and environmental damage, to name just four, cover a multitude of sins.

Early in Genesis we read this:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:16–17, NIV

Surely, on this basis, we now know what to expect if Adam should ignore God? This is storytelling at its bluntest: “you will certainly die” says God to Adam.

We have all seen TV dramas where what happens next is so obviously set-up, we don’t feel the need to watch the next couple of minutes. In the UK this is embodied in the hospital drama Casualty. The opening scene might have an elderly couple whose car breaks down close to a bend in a very narrow country lane. They get out of their vehicle to see what they can do. The camera cuts to a group of young people in a car. They are acting boisterously with more than a hint that alcohol, as well as the passengers, are impairing the driver. On this limited evidence we know what happens next.

In Genesis when Eve and Adam eat the fruit, they don’t drop down dead—this is no poisonous apricot. Nor is God’s judgement an instantaneous bolt of lightning from heaven. Rather, Genesis 3 is a slow unfolding car crash, far worse than two people poisoned or fried by lightening.

2. Naked Wisdom
Some people struggle with the apparent arbitrary nature of God’s command to Adam and Eve.

. . . but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:17, NIV

But this is the heart of the story. Captured in this act of eating a singular specific fruit, is our failure to recognise the creaturely need for instruction from the creator. To ignore God’s instruction is a denial that we are creatures, and a choice to break the created order.

Both biblical wisdom and our everyday experience testify that we are our own worst enemies. John Donne puts it well:

Nothing but man of all envenomed things,
     doth work upon itself, with inborn stings.
John Donne

In Genesis 3 we notice that the snake craftily nudges Adam and Eve:

but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
Genesis 3:3, NIV

The added emphasis on touch seems to exaggerate the sense arbitrariness and invites another sense. They have seen this fruit, they know they should not taste it, and now the serpent suggests even touching it is out of the question. And yet the snake makes a good point:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:5, NIV

There is nothing in this story to suggest that either Adam or Eve are more at fault. The women sins by her words, the man by his silence. But to even think about the blame game is a mistake. They fall into temptation as one, just as they are united in one flesh in Genesis 2. They fall as one, and this joint act sows the seed of future disunity.

They acted unwisely at the most fundamental of levels—by not fearing God. Where has their earthly wisdom got them? The first fruit of their action is the irreversible road to perceive right and wrong for themselves rather than looking to God. They now question everything, and most fundamentally they know shame. They know they have betrayed the one that made their bodies, and that they are naked before him.

3. Poetic Justice
Death is now inevitable as there will be no opportunity to eat of the tree of life. The good of creation—captured in the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2—has been marred. Genesis 3 captures the consequences in poetry. It is laid out in short lines in the NIV, and other most modern translations, to show this form. But why poetry? Its form highlights the importance of these verses. The consequences started with the first humans, but they are still with us today.

Hebrew poetry testifies to divine order even amid disorder. Some of the most difficult parts of the First Testament are poetry. The consequences of the fall are undoubtedly negative, but they are part of bigger story guided by a God of order.

The poetic justice is that Eve labours to bear children and Adam labours to grow food. Life is a struggle in this broken creation. And we know all of this is worked out in a morass of complexity to this day, and ironically amid a divisive web of irreconcilably different interpretations.

4. East of Eden
The first couple were made from dust—with no access to the tree of life, to dust they will return. Rather oddly, Adam only names his wife as Eve after the fall. Might it be that they were so united in idyllic Eden that they went by a single name? In any case Adam and Eve will both become adamah, or earth, on their death.

Now East of Eden, we can only guess how much they may have looked hopefully West, longing to go back to the garden and to be with God. In Near-Eastern and European culture the West has often been looked to in hope—the place where the sun sets as the place of blessing. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth will know the haunting appeal of the Undying Lands:

But islands lie behind the Sun,
That I shall raise ere all is done.
Lands there are to west of West,
Where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Bilbo’s Last Song, JRR Tolkien

The problem is that there is no way back. Rather than the wide ocean of Tolkien’s fiction, Adam and Eve are thwarted by cherubim and a flaming sword. The way to God is shut.

And yet for us, on this Earth, the fate of the snake offers us hope:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15, NIV

Later theology sees this as the conflict between Church and the evil one. Genesis 3 might be the bad news. But this self-evident broken world is a constant reminder of the one who will redeem it, and us, by destroying evil, sin and death. It also provides the starting point for conversation with those who hastily dismiss the Bible—for they know the reality of the bad news, and this is the start of the road to the quiet and rest of the good news.

Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Humility in the Time of Corona — Romans 12:1–3

What? — Defining Humility
God calls us to future perfection in Christ but for now we are to attempt to lead a good life. This is not about an attempt to earn salvation. Our future with Christ, and our loving Father, is established in Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection. We will one day be made good, once and for all because Christ himself is wholly good. In the present we should live a good life because we follow a God who defines goodness. Goodness is arguably the most fundamental characteristic of God. His glory, his wisdom, his love, his grace, they are all intertwined with his fundamental goodness.

Of course, the very concept of goodness, as well as humility more specifically, is not a priority in the modern world. Humility is not typically a topic in self-help manuals—I am not commending self-help manuals but simply pointing out that humility is not a modern preoccupation, nor in many eyes a desirable trait. Humility is not generally a theme in secular management training. Humility is arguably not the best attribute for getting to the top in business, politics, law, performing arts, science, or anything else.

Pride, of course, is the opposite of humility. The self-confidence, the self-reliance, the self-belief that can lead to pride, they are more often celebrated as keys to success. In contrast to self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-belief, humility can be perceived as weakness. Even in Church circles it is questionable whether humility is anywhere on the list of attributes we normally look for in our ministers and leaders.

And yet the Bible celebrates and champions humility. We have the near-paradox of an almighty God being revealed best in a humble man who set aside power and glory. For Jesus Christ—the best of us, the only perfect human to have graced creation—was humble. As Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5–8, NIV

Perhaps Jesus Christ is the place to start to define humility? What happens when we do this? We can note that his humility is not the one-dimensional passivity we sometimes equate with humility. The same Jesus who surrendered himself to death, even death on a cross, overturned traders’ tables. The same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, confronted, without fear, cold-hearted religious leaders and proud authorities. The same Jesus who did not raise a hand, or a voice, in the face of violence to his person rebuked his disciples in the boldest terms.

Romans 12:3 defines this sort of humility without even mentioning the word:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

For Paul, our humility is a static underpinning reality. We should exhibit humility. We should see ourselves as creatures before God our creator. This requires sober judgement. As both creatures and broken humans we are brought down to size. In Christ we are mercifully made whole again. This is our dependence on God which leads to humility. But humility is also a dynamic thing. The nature of our humility will change. It is according to the measure of our faith. As our faith deepens so our humility changes. The greater our faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us the greater our dependence on him the more we can boast in him.

How? — A Renewed Mind
Our ability to show humility brings to mind the maxim that used to be found on school reports in days gone by—a phrase that would be frowned upon today I think:

“Could do better.”

When it comes to humility, we could arguable all do better. This means different things for different people. For most of us we need to take verse 3 in its simplest sense and think of ourselves less highly than comes naturally. For a few of us we might need to transform a broken meekness, grounded in a feeling of lack of self-worth, into wholesome humility by thinking of ourselves in Christ more highly. But either way, how can we display humility as seen in the life of Jesus? How can we be good by being humbler? How?

Romans 12:2 provides an answer to this question:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Humility, as the opposite to pride, is also the opposite to conforming to the world. It was pride that set the ball-rolling in Genesis 3. It was pride that is captured so powerfully in the vanity project called the Tower of Babel a few chapters later. Pride rears its ugly head in wider society, time and again as well as continually in us as individuals. Moral theologians often suggest that pride—the opposite of humility—is the foundation of all sin. So, if we are already wired this way—conformed to a pattern of thinking that is the natural way of human flesh—how are we to be transformed?

We have already defined humility through Jesus. But the meaning of the word in English is also a help to us. The word humility has the same origin as humus, or earth. Humility is about being earthy, lowly. It’s about being grounded. It’s about remembering where we came from. The Bible tells as that we were made from earth. In Hebrew adamah means earth, hence Adam:

. . . then the Lord God formed adam from the adamah, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.
Genesis 2:7

Being humble means remembering where we came from and where we are, in one sense at least, going. As Ecclesiastes says:

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ecclesiastes 3:20, NIV

Such sobriety before God is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. Being grounded in this way means recognising our earthiness is not a firm foundation. It is God our rock, it is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that we should build upon. Humility makes room for the grace that we so desperately need in our lives—this is the grounding we need.

Humility means standing on the earth from which God made us and looking to him in all his majesty. Unless we do these basics, we return to our Eden factory settings, one hour at a time. There is grace that comes through being together in fellowship. Never underestimate the grace that we can show to one another. In the face of Corona, and limited gatherings and self-isolation, let’s work hard to find ways to be available.

If some of us do get more time at home over the next few weeks and months, use your imagination to find ways to improve your time with God. Store up treasure for life after Corona. Be transformed by the grace of God. Humility should be a foundation for disciplined dependence—a realisation of our need to pray and listen to God’s word.

Why? — Being Living Sacrifices
Humility is the foundation of other virtues. It is the foundation of the good life lived before God. How can we serve God unless we understand ourselves in relationship to him?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Romans 12:1, NIV

Don’t miss Paul’s point here, spiritual worship has real physical consequences. Paul knows nothing of a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. In a time of pandemic, we can show Christ to those around us. The simple acts of avoiding the excesses of panic buying, stockpiling at the expense of others, and  the discipline of washing our hands. These are a start, but only a start.

Washing your hands in the current context is a remarkable picture of humility. Each time you wash our hands you have no idea whether this is preventing the spread of disease. In most cases it won’t make that difference. But its only by doing it regularly and frequently that it works—it is a discipline. Persistence is everything in this as in spiritual disciplines. So, see each 20-second hand wash as a necessary step of humility putting the needs of our healthcare system and the frailer members of society ahead of yourself. Such a frequent discipline will on occasions make an unseen difference. But, on every occasion it can be a celebration of our collective frailty—our dependence on a loving God. Like any discipline each and every occasion can help shape us, change us, and transform us.

Life in the time of Corona can remind us of our lack of control—our dependence on God—the very basis for humility. In a time of pandemic we can make a difference. We have the love of God that eclipses fear. Humility enables us to be living sacrifices for God.

Over the next few days and weeks let’s be creative and attentive to how we can support one another and minister to our neighbours. Let’s do what Christ always makes possible—the turning of darkness into a place where his light shines all the brighter.

Surely our faith in Christ, our trust in our Father, can make a real difference in the time of Corona?

 

Matthew 28:16–20: We Have One Job . . .

1. Making Disciples—Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

“You had one job”, has become a popular Internet meme over the last couple of years. It is a way of celebrating those tasks that seem like they should be simple, but an individual has managed to get them disastrously wrong. To this end, the Internet is awash with examples of benches facing walls, tee-shirts with upside down logos and ineffectual security barriers. The one job that the Church has differs in just about every way to this meme. The one job of the Church is stated in the famous Great Commission:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

A job, or task, it might be. But let’s be honest this is not an easy one. It is rather more challenging than getting benches the right way around and logos up the right way. And a lot trickier than building a barrier. We can all remember times when this one job might have looked rather less than straightforward. There are times when being a disciple feels embarrassing. There are times when it brings fear. Perhaps the fear of losing our job or of discrimination. For some it might bring the fear of violence. Even when we overcome fear and embarrassment the right words seem difficult to find in the heat of the moment. On some occasions the right words do come but the person we share with, smiles happily that our faith is good for us, but they have their own alternative. Sometimes our efforts elicit hostility; when we listen in turn we find out about someone’s pain from how a Christian ill-treated them. There are also times when we encounter someone who cannot entertain the idea that God is a God of love due to some personal tragic experience.

All of these obstacles, and more, can be roadblocks where our effort at discipling grinds to a halt. Sometimes these obstacles are merely hard ground which we can overcome. But let’s be clear it’s a difficult job. There are two things that help with this job. The first is to remember that the calling is a corporate one. The second is to remember the remarkable resources that God give his people to carry out this commission or mandate or job. I’ll look at three such resources each of which reminds us that we are called as churches, in fact the Church, to this task.

2. Resource 1: The Authority of Jesus—All authority in heaven and on earth . . .

The task of making disciples is not a hobby or a marketing exercise. It is not something based on the authority of politicians, business people, economists, experts or any frail human. This is something that is God’s plan for creation. He doesn’t just permit it, it’s the actual point of the Church. William Temple, a Twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

“The Church is the only organisation
that does not exist for itself,
but for those who live outside of it.”

It is important to note that the world is also ready for this role of the Church. This is all part of God’s post-Eden plan. The way back to God is the one-by-one discipling of those who hear the gospel. We can do much to serve people outside of the Church, and so we should, but our greatest hope is for them to become disciples of Jesus and to join God’s plan.

Sometimes we worry about such single-minded mission. What about the Church? By which we mean us—what about all our issues, concerns and needs? There is no tension if we understand mission and discipleship correctly.

God’s mission—being made a disciple—is not a one-time event. It is a lifetime pilgrimage. It is a lifestyle. Mission and discipling are on-going way of being and doing. As Church we are an organic living body—the body of Christ. As an organic entity we grow, firstly, by each of us becoming healthier, holier, more virtuous, more like Jesus (or whatever term we prefer), second, as new disciples join us. Paul famously said, that the gospel was “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). This might not only reflect the obvious racial and religious distinctions at the origin of the Church. Perhaps today he would say: “the gospel is first for The Church and then for the Nations”. Perhaps. In any case, the gospel of Jesus Christ is an organic reality—if the gospel is not alive and well in our lives and collective life—if we are not growing as disciples—we cannot disciple.

All authority has been given to Jesus and he freely delegates it to us—that is we his body. Like most biblical images its more than a picture, it’s an expression of an incredible reality. The plan was, and is, audacious. The Three-in-One-God sent the Son to become the man Jesus. Then Jesus who was both God and man made for himself a group of disciples. These disciples are no less than a revived Israel. This is the significance of the twelve – although at the Great Commission there are only eleven of course. The final stage is that Jesus delegates authority and empowers his disciples by the Spirit.

God’s authority had already been given to God’s people, of course. They were to reach and teach the nations—the ups and downs of that commission is the narrative core to the First Testament. Sadly, the story of Jonah sums up the overall impact made by the people of God. Jonah famously didn’t want to go and disciple the nations but went in another direction.

At the Great Commission the disciples were still reeling from recent events. They were still eleven not twelve. They had seen Jesus die the death of an insurrectionist. They had seen him resurrected. Some still doubted. They were, like us frail. The Great Commission started, and continues, from such a point of frailty. That is the right place to start because we have resources from God himself. For a plan such as this has the authority of God. An authority worked out in death and resurrection. An authority given first to Jesus and then to us. Surely such a mandate must stir our hearts to overcome fear? Doesn’t such authority put embarrassment in perspective? Surely such an important call must impact our life choices?

In this Great Commission we are the first to know the freedom we have in Christ. The gospel reveals God as a God of freedom. The gospel reveals that we are free in Christ. If we know what it means to live in such freedom we can’t help but contribute to the core work of the Church—in being free we become active for God.

3. Resource 2: The Baptism of Jesus—Baptising them in . . .

Have you ever thought about baptism as a resource? It is, but like all expressions of the gospel in our Information Age we can lose confidence in it. Despite first appearances, baptism is a powerful act—but it is not just something we do. It is not an arbitrary rite of passage. It is not a test, although maybe we experienced one afterword like Jesus did. It is nothing less than being incorporated into the body of Jesus. For as we go down into the water we die with Christ. As we rise from the water we are resurrected with Christ. It is the visible start of the life in the body, the Church. This is something to be remembered. It is something to call to mind as we continue the long walk as followers of Jesus.

But baptism is not about an individual. This sounds especially odd to those of us who see so-called believers’ baptism as the right approach (as do I). But it is only in our ridiculously individualistic modern world we could see it as an individual affair. It is about joining a body of people. Sometimes the individual guilt and feeling of failure we have around speaking the gospel is because we see it as an individualistic enterprise. It is not. We all have parts to play to be sure—but as corny as it sounds we are a team. But the Jesus team takes teamwork to a whole new level—we are one body. We need to know our part in the bigger work of the Church. Because together we have been baptised into one body. None less than the body of Jesus Christ.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this idea in his short but remarkably rich poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, where he says:

. . . — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Christ plays in the churches, as we gather in worship and fellowship. What a beautiful truth.

Many religions have acts of cleansing with water. But no other has an act of union with the living God. As we carry out Jesus’ task, we baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a great encouragement—when we see others baptised we are reminded of our baptism. This rather odd act is a life-giving one. It is an organic act. We visibly see the Church grow, one disciple at a time. As we see others baptised we see the gospel at work in the present and remember it at work in our past.

4. Resource 3: The Presence of Jesus—I am with you . . .

What a remarkable promise. What an encouragement. But what does it mean? Firstly, we can note that God has always been with his people. As Israel set out to inherit the Promised Land, we hear, God speak to Joshua:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

On the return from exile and during the building of the Second Temple we read:

Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: ‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord.

Haggai 1:13

How do we experience the presence of Jesus? Let’s be real and let’s be honest—it does not always feel like Jesus is right here in our midst. But our feelings are no measure of spiritual reality. There’s also some serious theology behind the promise of Jesus being with us. Because God as holy creator is distant, or transcendent. Yet in His grace He is close, or immanent. It has always been so. The first two chapters of the Bible show God as transcendent in the first creation account (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and God as immanent in the second creation account (Genesis 2:4–25). After the events of Genesis Chapter 3 it is in Jesus Christ that God’s resolution of the problem of our frailty and his holiness is made. God the Father is wholly other—neither our flesh, nor spirit, can survive his presence. But in Jesus, the God-Man, we have God with us, by the Spirit. This is mystical and not magical. We can’t conjure Him, we can only seek to experience him because God has promised to be gracious to us. And Jesus has promised to be with us to the end of the age. He’s bridged the gulf between us and God. Unlike the human response to fixing a broken relationship, Jesus didn’t meet us halfway—he came the whole way. Jesus came the whole way to make us disciples. He came the whole way to make disciples of all nations.

Sometimes we joke that God must have a made a mistake in delegating the discipling of the nations to the Church. But this is no joke. We are not inadequate for the task, because despite our weakness we have been given resources from God:

  1. We have the authority of Jesus himself.
  2. We have the gospel on show here in our midst in numerous ways including baptism.
  3. More than these two, we have Jesus with us.

We have not been set-up to fail. We have been equipped by the living God so that together we can make disciples of all nations.

 

God and Wisdom, Part 1

The form of this post is a little different to the previous ones in this #AtoZWisdom series. It is a book review. The book in question is by Tremper Longman III and the reason why it provides a fitting post on ‘God and Wisdom’ will soon become apparent.

Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017

Both the title and subtitle of this book distil the backbone of Tremper Longman III’s account of wisdom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB). He argues, with clarity and conviction, that the diverse elements of wisdom in the OT/HB find their unity within a theological framework. Such a view is not shared by all scholars. Indeed, some drive a wedge between wisdom (often in the form of the three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job) and the cultic life of Israel. Longman not only sees the wisdom elements of the OT/HB as theological but in his commitment to a canonical reading (p.26) he sees ‘Fear of the Lord’ as the specific theological locus. Perhaps some will find such a reading displays too great a hermeneutic of trust, but the book makes an excellent case for such a reading—and despite the claim of theological canonical unity the wisdom material is not flattened but is permitted its wide-ranging claims and emotions.

The book has fifteen chapters and covers more ground than many introductions to the wisdom books of the OT/HB. I would recommend this book, because of its clarity, to anyone wanting a first introduction to wisdom literature. The book engages with wider technical scholarship, but it is written without pretension and little prior knowledge is required to get the best from it.

The rest of this review will make some brief comments about each chapter to give a flavour of the book’s thesis—and yes that is what it is, a coherent argument for a specific reading. For this reason, readers already familiar with biblical wisdom will also find this book stimulating.

The length of this review means that it will be posted in two parts. In this post the first six chapters are covered.

1. Proverbs: The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom

This chapter considers three ways in which the Book of Proverbs defines wisdom. The first of these is at the practical level, as a skill for living. Longman suggests that wisdom, in this sense, parallels how emotional intelligence can lead to success in life. The second aspect of wisdom is the ethical level—the Book of Proverbs continually equates a wise person with a good person. The third level, according to Longman, is the theological level and especially the Fear of the Lord as expressed at the outset in Proverbs in 1:7. The theological perspective is further developed by considering the rich imagery of woman wisdom who permeates the Book of Proverbs.

2. Ecclesiastes: Fear God, Obey the Commandments, and Live in Light of the Coming Judgement

Longman explores from the outset his view that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the product of two voices and not just one. He argues that the bulk of the book, 1:12–12:7, are the words of Qohelet as indicated in by the constant use of the first person. He identifies Qohelet as a pseudonym of a post-exilic author. The case is made for the prologue (1:1–11) and the epilogue (12:8–14) being the second voice; the editor who commends the work to his son and thereby to all subsequent readers. This epilogue is key to Longman’s theological approach to the book. He argues that the work shows the limits of human wisdom—it is Fear of God (12:13) that is an essential stance for overcoming the limits of wisdom.

3. The Book of Job: “Behold, the Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom” (Job 28:28)

Longman dismisses the unhelpful caricatures of the Book of Job, such as a supposed concern with answering the questions of either suffering or theodicy. He rightly sees the book as a wisdom dispute. The three friends of Job share a similar wisdom view—so-called retribution theology. Because of this view they are convinced that Job’s suffering testifies that Job must have sinned. Job shares their perspective but knows he has not sinned. Thus, argues Longman, Job’s concern is that God is unjust (p.47). Longman sees Elihu as largely sharing the same view but being especially ‘full of hot air’. In the light of Yahweh’s speeches to Job and the book’s epilogues, Longman argues that Job makes three key contributions: (i) God is the source of wisdom, (ii) the proper human response to such wisdom is submission, and (iii) the fear of the Lord already articulated in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is central.

4. Other Sources of Wisdom: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Prophecy

In this chapter Longman explores various parts of the OT/HB some of which are generally recognised to have some wisdom elements (for example Psalms) and others that are more controversial with respect to the role of wisdom (Deuteronomy for example). Longman is at pains to point out that even if there were such a concept as wisdom literature the books mentioned in this chapter would not be part of this literature. His argument is that wisdom motifs and ideas are found more widely in the OT/HB than is generally appreciated. This is important to the argument about the nature of wisdom in later chapters.

5. Joseph and Daniel: Paragons of Wisdom

In this chapter, and the next, Longman further broadens the concept of wisdom to the narratives of the OT/HB. This chapter is concerned with the Joseph and Daniel narratives. Longman explains that some scholars, for example von Rad, have made much of the wisdom influence in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50). Others, like Crenshaw, have argued quite the opposite. Longman steers a clear middle road. He does not argue that wisdom is the dominant genre or theme within the Joseph narrative or the Book of Daniel. Rather he points to some core similarities between the characters at the heart of these stories. These are (i) their use of wisdom to interpret dreams, (ii) they acknowledge God as the origin of their wisdom, (iii) they use their wisdom to guide their foreign royal masters.

6. Adam and Solomon: From the Heights of Wisdom to the Depths of Folly

In this chapter Adam and Solomon (and the king of Tyre) are explored as examples of individuals who journeyed from wisdom to folly. The example of Adam is of course interesting due to the account of his folly at the outset of the HB/OT. The account of the fall in Genesis 3 is rich with the language of wisdom: the serpent is described as crafty/prudent (3:1), there is the tree of knowledge (2:17) and the fruit is perceived by Eve as being useful for gaining wisdom (3:6). The negative outcome of the story shows the stark problem of humanity seeking wisdom on their own terms without God. Longman shows that Solomon, despite his wisdom, followed a similar path of trusting in things other than God.

 

Q is for Quelle

Quelle is the German word for source and is used as a technical term by scholars who advocate source criticism. This approach to biblical texts was introduced briefly in an earlier post and the basic idea is a simple one. Its implications however are far from simple and raise a lot of questions.  Source criticism assumes that behind many of the Hebrew Bible’s books there are previous documents or sources. This is neither controversial nor even surprising. Many biblical books even refer to their sources as we shall see in the next post. What can be more complex, and sometimes controversial, is the quest to recover these sources and what might be done with the results of such an exercise. In the Hebrew Bible the most famous example of source criticism is that applied to the torah/Pentateuch.

It was Julius Wellhausen (1844‒1918) who provided the first detailed hypothesis about the textual origins of the Pentateuch. He suggested that there had been four separate sources, or documents, which all originated centuries after the time of Moses, hence it became known as the documentary hypothesis. This is the first complication of source criticism: it challenges traditional views of authorship. The four-document hypothesis came to be generally accepted in the early twentieth century although like all scholarly proposals of this nature there are many rival variations on the theme. In its classic expression the four hypothesised sources were designated:

  • J—a document which names God as Yahweh. The German for Yahweh is Jahweh hence the use of the letter J.
  • E—a document which refers to God as Elohim.
  • D—for essentially the book of Deuteronomy.
  • P—for a document with a priestly outlook.

These four hypothesised documents were said to date from the mid-9th century BCE, mid-8th century BCE, mid-7th century BCE and around 500 BCE respectively. Despite its original popularity this model is no longer the consensus view. This is not to say that the idea of sources is wrong. Rather it is recognised that the use of sources and the subsequent editing processes will never be reliably recovered. To complicate matters further some of the features of the Hebrew Bible which were said to provide evidence supporting the fourfold documentary approach are quite possibly literary devices. For example the two accounts of creation are said by some source critics to be contradictory accounts. It is possible however that there is a deliberate theological point behind the two accounts—they are designed to be complementary since one conveys the story of creation from a transcendent perspective (1:1‒2:3) and the other from an immanent one (2:4‒25).

Robert Alter in his brilliant book The Art of Biblical Narrative [1] looks at type scenes and explores how similar events in a book are actually a reflection of literary artistry rather than an indication of a patchwork quilt of sources. He uses the conventions of Hollywood Westerns as a masterful illustration of how conventions can be misunderstood. In this way he shows just how wide of the mark some biblical source criticism is. His concerns it should be noted are not whether the events are true but simply squashing the hegemony of sources as the explanation of similar stories and narrative motifs.

From a stance of faith there is no sense in awaiting a final outcome of such critical work as this will never arrive. Instead the question must be faced: given that there are some complex editing processes and source texts behind the Pentateuch (as well as other parts of the Hebrew Bible), does this invalidate the possibility that we have Scripture, i.e. an authoritative religious text? If the Pentateuch is understood as Scripture, then even if some original texts could be recovered what would be done with them?

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York: Basic Books, 1981.

 

J is for Judah

We met Judah a few posts ago as the 4th Son of Jacob. The sons of Jacob are the founders of the tribes of Israel. Despite being the 4th son of Jacob, Judah founded the tribe that ultimately gave its name to the people of God at the end of the story of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Jews. We saw in the last post that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was ravaged by a destructive war in the 8th Century BCE—a war that it never really recovered from in a tangible way. This saw the loss of ten tribes whose descendants, in part at least, gave rise to the Samaritans. The Southern Kingdom took its name from the dominant tribe of Judah although it incorporated the territory of the tribe of Benjamin and also included some Levites as they lived scattered among the other tribes.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible various events prefigure the dominant role of tribe of Judah. The earliest of these is the Joseph narrative in the book of Genesis. Judah leads the way in suggesting that he and his brothers rid themselves of the irksome Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:26‒28). Much later when Joseph has risen to a position of power and influence in Egypt, it is Judah who plays a lead role. Joseph turns on the emotional blackmail which will really test his brothers by holding Simeon, Judah’s full brother, hostage until the absent younger brother Benjamin is brought to Egypt. Judah offers himself to his father Jacob as surety of Benjamin’s return, thus persuading Jacob that Benjamin can go to Egypt. After Joseph enslaves Benjamin in a ruse it is Judah who pleads for Benjamin’s life. It is at this point that Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.

Very much later in the story of the people of God, King David from the tribe of Judah arises as a replacement for the failed King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. The foundation of a kingly dynasty from the tribe of Judah is prefigured in Genesis 49 where each of the sons, and thereby the tribes of Israel, are prophesied over by their father Jacob. The kingly motifs are rich when Jacob speaks of Judah:

‘Judah, your brothers will praise you;

    your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;

    your father’s sons will bow down to you.

You are a lion’s cub, Judah;

    you return from the prey, my son.

Like a lion he crouches and lies down,

    like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?

The sceptre will not depart from Judah,

    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until he to whom it belongs shall come

    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

Genesis 49:8‒10 (NIV)

We will see in the next post that similar language is used in the psalms to speak of King David and his line. As we have seen, the nation of Judah was the surviving nation and on return from exile the people of God took their name from the tribe which gave its name to the nation and they became Jews. One of the challenges in interpreting the role of Judah in the earlier narratives is to what extent this might be viewed as reconstructed history. To put it another way how much of the later history of Israel/Judah is read back into the earlier story? We will look at this issue in a later post.

G is for Genesis 12–50

We have already met the opening three chapters of the book of Genesis in the earlier posts on Creation and Fall. The book of Genesis falls into two unequal halves. Chapter 12 initiates a new turn of events in the book as it follows on from the flood narrative. Up to this point Genesis reads very much like a prehistory which accounts for the way things are in the world. In chapter 12 the concern with origins continues but at a much more specific level—it is with Abram that the story of the nation of Israel starts. In this chapter the founding father of the nation of Israel is introduced. Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, hears the voice of God and embarks obediently on a journey from his home of Ur of the Chaldees to what will become Israel. This is the start of God’s dealings with Abram which indicates that he is chosen by God to be the first of the Patriarchs. His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, later renamed Israel, are the foundation of a people who will become the nation of Israel.

A large part of the story of Abram is the covenant that God makes with him. This covenant takes place in two stages. The first stage in chapter 15 takes place whilst Abram is facing the challenge of being childless. This is ironic in that a key part of the covenant promise that God describes is that that Abram’s descendant will inherit what is often termed the promised land—God says ‘on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’ (Genesis 15:18). In the second stage, Abraham has a son but one born not to his wife Sarah but to Hagar, an Egyptian slave. As part of this more detailed unfolding of the covenant promises, God promises that Abraham will have a son by Sarah, and that it is this son from who his numerous descendants will come.

The stories involving Abram are just as foundational to the biblical story as the earlier chapters of Genesis but now we see that God is unfolding a complex plan. The promises of Land, along with descendants beyond counting, and the ultimate blessing of the nations are clearly long-term in nature. In many ways this covenant is a prelude to the covenant with Moses mentioned above in the post on the Deuteronomic History. Genesis a key religious marker, male circumcision, is introduced. The act of cutting foreskin is a literal echo of the cutting of a covenant in Genesis chapter 17.

The stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob contain similar elements to those of Abraham himself. Like most biblical narratives they are open to interpretation. The Hebrew Bible presents the story but often leaves readers unclear as to what to do with the story.

F is for Fall

Right on the heels of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 there follows the story of what is often termed ‘The Fall’. This familiar story of the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve and the serpent poses an interpretive challenge. Just as with the Creation accounts, translating Genesis 3 into straightforward propositional truth tends to pit science against the Bible. We should also note that seeing this story as in some sense symbolic or mythical poses different challenges. It is however this latter approach that I find sensible.

There are a number of reasons why this approach seems necessary to me. One example will serve for this post. What are we to make of the cursing of the serpent by God? What else is going on in this account about why snakes have no legs, and crawl on their bellies? Surely this has to be mythopoetic language and if so, the whole story must function in the same way. The challenge of seeing the narrative as imagery does however beg the question ‘How do we equate the symbolic language with the theological concept of the fallen nature of humanity?’ Throughout much of Church History theologians have taken Genesis 3 at face value and have built ontological arguments on it—the most famous of these being Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.

In contrast a more mythical interpretive paradigm does not provide a cause-and-effect account of how it is that human beings have collectively chosen their own path and have a broken relationship with God. For some this lack of mechanism is unnerving as it leaves unanswered questions. And yet more positively the very lack of a mechanical account resonates with the wonderful mystery, that though science can explain much about biology, including genetic evolution, it cannot provide a metaphysical account of ‘the world’ except for the singular possibility that there is no purpose to ‘creation’. Is ‘The Fall’ an account of the first two people making a bad choice that echoes through eternity—accounting for the broken relationship between man-and-man, man-and-woman, humanity-and-creation, humanity-and-God? Or is it a mythic statement of the way things are, a state of affairs which it is difficult to refute?

One way of looking at Genesis 3 is to note that it sounds like something of a prequel to Exile. The account of Genesis 3 concludes with Adam and Eve being exiled from Eden. When viewed in this way the history of exile, the mythopoetic imagery of Fall are mutually enriching and the common experience of human beings cohere into a theology of being strangers in a strange land. We are all lovers of those who share our humanity and yet we are unable to live this out with consistency; simultaneously in awe of the world around us and yet sowing the seeds of its destruction; day-by-day seeking self-fulfilment but discerning that something is absent.

Opening ourselves to a rich nuanced interpretation of The Fall (and Creation) is the start of a journey to a new worldview and this possibility turns into a exilic pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the heavenly Eden. It does this in a way that asks as many questions as it provides answers.