Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Joshua

The narrative of the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land continues for the first 12 chapters of this book, but after that it gets less interesting, although it does raise some very interesting questions. The book ends with the people, now apparently settled, getting another pep-talk from Joshua, along similar lines to that from Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, and publicly renewing their covenant relationship with God. Joshua dies peacefully, and we reach the end of an era, with a brand new chapter starting in the next book, Judges.

 

The main problem with the land promised to the people of Israel by God is the fact that it is already populated by several nations who quite understandably are not too happy about this new nation coming in believing that their God has promised it to them. Put that together with the previous instructions to remain separate from the nations around them, and the Israelites seem to have little option but to embark on a bit of serious ethnic cleansing. That is exactly what they do, much to the consternation of today’s readers of the book who find it difficult to cope with a God who commands such inhumanity.

 

It is a standard principle of biblical interpretation that we use the Bible to interpret itself wherever we can, so on one level the question ‘Why did God command the slaughter of all those people?’ is easily answered, from Deuteronomy 9, where the take is that the nations deserved all they got because of their sin and idolatry, and that God was using Israel to bring upon them the punishment they so richly deserved. We might not like that, but it is clearly what the Bible teaches, and we can begin to realise the depth of God’s patience and mercy that he hasn’t (yet) done the same to Britain. It was Billy Graham’s wife who said that if God didn’t judge America, he would have to go back and apologise to Sodom and Gomorrah. And in fact subsequent history suggests that this policy was the right one: most of the trouble in which Israel later found herself came because of compromise, intermarriage and worship infected with idolatry. Even in this book the instructions to destroy the other nations completely are not fully carried out. The suffering of generations was the result of this kind of compromise: later we’ll see this truth worked out in the book of Amos. As one who has undergone extensive surgery for cancer I fully understand that some things need rooting out completely, lest they reinfect the whole body and lead to its death.

 

But on the plus side, though, we have here the story of a God of miracles, who acts powerfully for the salvation of his people. Walls collapse, water parts in a scaled-down version of Moses’ earlier miracle, thus validating Joshua’s leadership in the eyes of the people. Victories are won in battle against overwhelming odds, sin is revealed and rooted out, and even the sun stands still. So this book highlights in a very clear and powerful way the choice which is made explicit in the final chapter: ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’. To serve God means the powerful protection and salvation of a loving saviour, but to choose something else means that one makes an enemy of God and must face the consequences. This was the same challenge set before the people by Moses, and the same one which faces us today.

 

OT Lectionary November 2nd 4 before Advent (Kingdom 1) Micah 3:5-12

I find myself on a steep learning curve at the moment. I am an unashamed townie, but I am working at the moment with several different groups of deeply rural Lincolnshire parishes. I am discovering just how profoundly I don’t understand rural life, and how tempting it is to try to plant urban ways of thinking into the rural fields of the diocese. I’m also discovering how deeply ‘Norman Tebbit’ I am: ‘Don’t moan because you can’t get broadband – just move to somewhere proper where you can get it!’ I am aware that this attitude will only alienate me, and so I try to keep it quiet (apart, of course, from blogging about it), but I am aware of the need for me to learn and grow in my understanding, and for the church to discover a genuinely rootedly rural spirituality, but one which is also thoroughly biblical.

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But at the same time it may be that my distance can help me to see some things more clearly. So when people from country parishes tell me that their greatest calling is to ‘be there’ for people in case they might need them in hard times, I wonder what happened to challenge or a call to repentance. Christ and the apostles called people to repent, even ‘commanded’ them to do so. I see this deeply absent from rural Christianity, and, the more I think about it, from much urban Christianity too. Have we all become far too nice?

 

When I first began to learn about pastoral counselling, we were told about the need both to comfort and to confront. Either one without the other is counterproductive in different ways, but both together can be very effective. In the time of Micah in the 8th century BC, we appear to have ‘prophets’ who would only say nice things, but Micah himself, who is gloriously free from such a tendency, has the task of declaring Israel’s transgression and sin. Their failure to care for the poor, their perpetuation of class systems and injustice, their corruption, bribery and bloodshed are deeply abhorrent to God, and all this is made so much worse because of their presumption and complacency. ‘No disaster will come upon us!’, they believe, and it is the prophet’s job to burst their bubble and warn them of the danger of their presumption.

 

Many in today’s church have bought into a package in which the belief that God loves us unconditionally, that Jesus was there to serve the needs of everyone, and that hell and judgement are outdated ideas, are all wrapped up together in a warm fuzzy gift-wrapped spirituality of inoffensiveness. Isn’t it ironic, therefore, that Micah is the one filled with the Spirit, power and justice. The implication, which we see so often in the pages of the Bible, is that to be Spirit-filled is not a nice option, and is likely to lead us to speak unpopular truth rather than beautiful lies. As we enter the ‘Kingdom’ season and approach Advent, with its themes of penitence and preparation, we need to watch this tendency to become infected with the spirit of the age and its highest value ‘tolerance’, a deeply sub-Christian sentiment. And we need to remember that ‘Gentle Jesus’, the Servant King, is also the one who proclaims woes against those who live in tolerant presumption.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is one of the most important books of the OT: without it we wouldn’t really be able to make much sense of several later books. It is presented as three sermons from Moses as the people overlook the Promised Land, which through their own faithlessness and grumbling the previous generation were doomed not to enter. So before he dies at the end of the book Moses gives the people a pep talk, reminding them of the journey so far, of some of the laws from Exodus (hence the book’s name, which means ‘second law’) and telling them how they and their children should live when they did cross the border.

Two themes ring out from this book: one has to do with separation, the other with worship. These two areas are to become foundational for what lies ahead. The Israelites are to keep themselves separate and holy by not compromising with the standards of the nations around them, when it comes to morality and idolatry. And they are to worship God as he demands, not as they might fancy, and in particular they are to worship him in the place which he is going to choose, which will turn out to be Jerusalem. These principles are set out clearly in chapters 12 and 13.

The next few books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, are known collectively as the ‘Deuteronomic History’. Like all history they are written up from a particular point of view, and that point of view is set out in Deuteronomy, the ‘preface’. A few centuries later the people find themselves in exile in Babylon, and they can’t help but ask themselves the question ‘What went wrong? How did we get ourselves into this mess?’ The answer they come up with is that we have systematically violated the two principles set out in the book of Deuteronomy: we have not kept ourselves separate and holy to God, and we have tried to worship in places other than Jerusalem. The Deuteronomic history books, and some would say Deuteronomy itself, were almost certainly compiled during the exile, and served both as a review of the past but also a warning for the future. So we shall see in a few weeks that all the kings of Israel and Judah are judged almost exclusively on whether they adhered to the policy of ‘centralisation of worship’, in other words did they allow worship only in Jerusalem or did they tolerate it elsewhere?

A distinctive section of the book is the ‘blessing and cursing’ section in chapters 27 to 30. If the people will do as they are told, they will experience a long list of blessings throughout the land, particularly centred around victory over their enemies and fruitful harvests, whereas if they choose disobedience (which of course they subsequently did most of the time) they would know God’s curse in the shape of defeat in battle, sickness, removal of possessions, unfruitfulness and lack of harvest. Finally the choice is set before them in the starkest of terms: life or death (30:11ff).

Moses then prepares for the future by appointing Joshua, who along with Caleb, the other faith-filled spy are the only ones from that generation to enter the land, as his successor as leader, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. After blessing the people he dies on Mt Nebo, is mourned, and the stage is set for Joshua to lead them over into the land.

How are we to read this book today? Surely the same two principles around which the book is centred apply every bit as much to those the other side of Christ’s cross: we are to be holy and different from those around us, and we are to worship God on his terms and not our own. Blessing and cursing may not be quite so clear cut as they are set out in Deuteronomy: indeed we shall see much agonising as we continue through the OT about why innocent people suffer and the nasty get away with it. But ultimately the choice is ours, on an eternal canvas – death or life?

OT Lectionary October 26th Last Sunday after Trinity Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Those of you who, like me, are more interested in the bits filleted out of our readings by the lectionary creators than in the bits they have left in will be filled with joy this week. Leviticus is in many ways a fascinating book, but it does create some interesting difficulties, so those responsible for the RCL have decided to play it safe. The first two verses tell us what the rest of the chapter (indeed most of the rest of the book) is all about, and then as an example they pick a few motherhood-and-apple-pie examples. We’re to be holy, because that’s what God is like and we’re called to reflect his character. So what does that mean? Basically be nice to people: that’s the thrust of v 15-18, and who could argue about any of that? File:Two orthodox Jews (Jerusalem, Israël 2013) (8683269416).jpg

But what about the bits in between? I think we can go much more deeply into what it means to reflect God’s holiness if we take the trouble to tackle the more awkward bits of the chapter, indeed of the book. Here we find material about respect for parents, idolatry, sacrifices, horticulture, swearing, mixed economies in clothing, horticulture, who you mustn’t sleep with, kosher food, occultism, hairstyling, dishonesty and selling your daughter into prostitution. Read on a bit further and you get the really good bits about sleeping with another man as one would a woman, bestiality and child sacrifice. Put that together with all the stuff we’ve already had about not eating prawns or herons and you get a pretty bewildering array of definitions of holiness, which would leave most of us somewhere near the third division in the holiness league tables.

I wonder whether we might cut through the problem by stating a key principle: holiness very often means that we live differently from the prevailing culture, choosing to reflect God’s will and resisting the pressure to conform with those among whom we live. I can only assume that the things they were not supposed to do to be holy like God were things which at least some people around were doing. God’s call is a reminder that we dance to a different drum if we’re God’s people. Once we get that, we can begin to make sense of this bewildering variety of laws and prohibitions.

Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for us: we now know that many of the dietary laws do make some kind of sense in a more primitive society where pigs carried tapeworm, seafood carried goodness knows what, and people didn’t have the medicines to protect them.

Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for others. Selling your daughter into prostitution would be a good example, as would the prohibitions against fraud and dishonesty and the commands to respect others.

Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for society. The more 21st century life in Britain goes down the pan, the more evidence there is to suggest that stable marriage and family life are the solid foundations of a healthy society. Anthropologists know that no civilisation in history has survived very long once family life has broken down, yet we seem hell-bent on self-destruction in the West.

And some things are forbidden not because they’re harmful in themselves, but because they provide symbolic reminders and visual aids about our call to be different. Polycotton shirts might not be the world’s greatest sin, but for the Israelites to keep their clothing made of only one kind of material was a visual aid they literally carried with them all the time, as were the distinctive hairstyles.

The other side of the cross we know we’re free from the petty regulations of the Jewish law, but the principles behind it remain. How are we to live in ways which are healthy for us, which bless others, which strengthen society, and which constantly remind us of our call to holiness? That is something we have to work out for ourselves on a daily basis.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Numbers

If you think you’ve kind of got the idea having read Leviticus, I should begin with Numbers around chapters 9 or 10, as the first section is really more of the same, with various laws and regulations, some censuses of the population (which is where the name of the book comes form), a long list of the offerings at the dedication of the tabernacle, and how to tell if your wife has been unfaithful. However there are a couple of important nuggets even in these uninspiring chapters: the lovely priestly blessing in 6:22-27, and the section on Nazarites at the beginning of the same chapter: this is going to become important later in the OT.

 

But the more exciting narrative section begins at 10:11 where the cloud over the tabernacle lifts, signalling that it is time for the Israelites to move on from the foot on Mt Sinai where they have presumably been since Exodus 19. What we have in these chapters is a miserable account of fallen human nature, with its fear, lack of vision, conservatism, backward-lookingness, and general moaning. It takes less than two years to get from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land, but when they get there and send in 12 spies they are too scared to go on in, and so comes one of the saddest verses of the whole Bible in 14:25 ‘Turn back tomorrow and set out towards … the Red Sea’. You’ve said so many times that you want to go back to Egypt, so off you go! The rest of the book is about those years of wandering, with various interactions with neighbouring peoples, and it ends with the people on the edge of the Promised Land, having been told by God that none of that faithless generation would make it in, including Moses who has led them on the journey.

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As a church leader, now working at Diocesan level, I find this an incredibly powerful book which could have been written yesterday. It is a study in unredeemed human nature and in the leadership of such people, and I have long admired Moses as my own model for leadership. I love his glorious political incorrectness: his calling from God was to get the people to the Promised Land, by hook or by crook, whether they wanted to go or not. Democracy doesn’t get a look in: if it did they’d have been back in Egyptian slavery in a trice. And yet we see also in Moses a heart of compassion, a mighty ministry of intercession, and some of the real emotional struggles of a leader working among people who just don’t get it. Shining out like two diamonds among the dust are Joshua and Caleb, who symbolise the small number of people one usually finds among the faithless crowd, who really are on message, can see God’s opportunities rather than human problems, but whose voices are so often drowned out by the crowd.

 

Numbers is a depressing book, and one which we would do well to look into as one might a mirror. It can show us our fears, intransigence and conservatism, our reluctance to enter into the new things which God may be trying to lead us to, and it can give us a glimpse of the agonies we sometimes put our leaders through. It can remind us also, though, of the mercy and patience of God, who does in the end get the people to the edge of the Land. They have severely delayed his purposes, and caused themselves great hardship in the meantime, but they have not ultimately thwarted them.

 

 

OT Lectionary October 19th Trinity 18 Isaiah 45:1-7

Our passage for today comes from the second part of the book of Isaiah, and therefore dates from the period when Israel was in exile in Babylon. Towards the end of their imprisonment God sent a prophet, known only to us as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, to proclaim their coming release and repatriation. Today’s passage forms the epicentre of his message, and it contains some deeply counter-cultural messages if we can unpack the background and understand them.

 

We must begin with the prevailing view of God, or rather ‘gods’. It worked a bit like the Anglican parish system – depending on where you lived, there was a particular god who ruled over your patch. So it was a common feeling among the exiles who, in spite of the fact that they should have known better, became infected with this worldview, and therefore thought they had moved out of Yahweh’s patch and so now were beholden to the gods of Babylon. There was also a sense of conflict among the different gods, a kind of ‘my-god-can-beat-up-your-god’ mentality, which suggested that Yahweh was just one among many, and might well be liable to lose when playing an away match. This passage, like much of Deutero-Isaiah, sets out to subvert these worldviews.

 

So the previous chapter contains a vicious attack on idols and those who manufacture them, as satirical as any stand-up comic today. The message is that Yahweh alone is God, there simply is no-one else with whom to fight, and certainly no-one to whom he might lose the fight. The chapter comes to a climax in v 24-26 with the declaration that God is the Redeemer, the Creator and the Lord, who promises that Jerusalem will be restored and reinhabited.

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But then ‘Cyrus’ walks onto the stage. Whohe? In fact he would have been something of a celeb to the Israelites, but the way he is described would have shocked their socks off. He was the king of Persia, the latest up-and-coming nation, who in fact was to go on and rule over one of the largest empires ever in the area. Yet he is described by the prophet as God’s ‘shepherd’, at whose command Jerusalem is to be rebuilt. But an even greater shock comes in 45:1 where Cyrus is announced as God’s ‘anointed’ – the word is literally ‘Messiah’. What came to pass was that Persia conquered Babylon (you can read that story in the book of Daniel) and decided to let the Israelite slaves return home. All this, the prophet claims, is what God is doing, moving the nations and leaders around like pieces on a chessboard for his purposes and for the good of his people. Not only is he the only God: he is also more than able to use pagan rulers to further his purposes.

 

So how would we react if a preacher told us that the one true God has called ISIS to fulfil his purposes, or to have referred to Usama bin Laden the ‘Messiah’? I think we have a similar degree of shock here among the exiles at the prophet’s words. Yet we are still tempted to believe that we have a powerless God, who has been defeated by the combined forces of secularism, the multi-faith society and Richard Dawkins. We are still tempted to divide the world into two – the bits God rules over (ie church) and the rest where he has little power. We need Isaiah’s radical message as much as ever, although we need to remember that the exiles had been living as slaves, and believing their delusions for a long time before it was heard.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Leviticus

In part three of our journey we come to the book everyone loves to hate – Leviticus. Most people have never read through it, and who can blame them? Half of it is about cutting up animals, and the rest is about stuff you mustn’t do or eat. The book raises all kinds of awkward questions, like ‘Who on earth thought this lot up?’ and ‘What has this got to do with me trying to live for Jesus in the 21st century?’ Realistically we ignore it much of the time: the fact that wearing polycotton clothes is forbidden does little to affect my lifestyle: think of all that extra ironing if I stuck to pure cotton. And whilst I’ve never been tempted to sit down to a nice hoopoe madras I do happen to love prawns, so I happily ignore that stuff too. And yet when Christians see, for example, homosexual acts roundly condemned in the same book, they want to stick rigidly to that particular law.

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There is also the question of importance. Not selling your daughter into prostitution seems quite a good idea, but is it really in the same league of holiness as not cutting the edge of your beard? The book seems weird, outdated, disproportionately concerned with pointless details, and yet somehow we can’t seem just to do away with it in its entirety. So what do we do with it?

Standing back and taking a bigger view, we can soon see that it does tell us some significant truths. Three seem to stand out: worship is important, we need rules to live by, for our health and stability, and we screw up and somehow have to cope with that.

The amount of attention given to the minutiae of the celebrations and festivals shows us a God who wants to be worshipped, and who wants to be worshipped well. Taken as a whole there is a balance of different moods, seasons and occasions. We have already seen from Exodus that the physical setting for worship is important, and that only the best will do. Perhaps surprisingly Leviticus urges Christians to think about how we worship, the quality of it, and, most pointedly, whether we construct our worship around what we happen to like, or on God’s terms.

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Secondly Leviticus reminds us that any society needs rules to live by. Whilst we might find some of these a bit strange, in context they make some sense if you remember that ‘health’ for a society involves physical wellbeing (so be careful what you eat – pork harbours tapeworms, molluscs can really get you into trouble, and hoopoes … well!); and it involves stable family life, so no prostitution or anything which would compromise family and tribal stability, and make punishments fair and not excessive. In addition, though, for the Israelite community it meant purity for their worship and identity, hence all kinds of laws which were like visual aids to them that if you mix and match, things go wrong. You only have to look at the subsequent history of Israel to see how often things went pear-shaped when their devotion to God was compromised through syncretistic worship and lifestyle. So polycotton shirts may not be mortally sinful, but they could be a daily reminder of the need to remain single-mindedly devoted to your God.

Thirdly there is so much detail about sacrifice and sin-offerings because in the human race there is so much sin. The seriousness of the solution speaks volumes about the seriousness of the problem, a problem which must involve the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22), and which is only going to be solved finally when the blood of Christ is shed on the cross.

What really makes the book fascinating, though, is the issue of ‘hermeneutics’, the branch of theology which deals with the appropriate interpretation of the Bible for today. How does it all work? Is it OK to read Lev 18:22 and interpret it to mean “‘Having sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman is fine by me”, says the Lord.’ And how is that different from eating a prawn cocktail? There are answers to these questions, rules in the hermeneutics game, as it were, but they are not simple, and that is partly why this book comes over as difficult. However, we still need it!