Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Kings... am I missing anything?

Obviously I haven't blogged for awhile. I assure everyone that I am still reading and reflecting but I don't have a whole lot to say that I haven't yet already said. Just a couple bullet point reflections:

  • I keep falling back into haze mode when I read. It's easy to skim the names and the places and dates without really paying attention to them.
  • I find it difficult to look at the kings as moral exemplars when they frequently kill one another; trust me, I'm not looking for perfect characters because everyone is flawed in the Bible but I'm pretty uneasy about patterning my faith off of someone who not only murders but is joyous about it.
  • Yes, I recognize that the people aren't doing the fighting but it's God that's doing the fighting for them. Yes, I understand that. No, I don't think that makes it okay.
  • Noticing some definite literary pattern changes. Certain themes are disappearing (or being clarified). Yay for being trained to read Scripture.
That's all folks. Happy reading.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lev. 11-Deut. 7

Well friends, I promise I haven't been forgetting about doing the Shema Summer. I've kept up with the readings fairly well but my blogging has slacked significantly. When this summer began I vowed to try my hardest to only do reading at work so I could just shut my brain off in the evenings (in order to recover from last semester). That said, I grouped blogging in with reading and in the past week I've been pretty busy at work (orientation and what not). Now that that confession moment is over, I just want to quickly bullet point some ideas I've been thinking about while reading these passages. I won't go as in-depth as my other entries but I think I'll provide enough to just think about for a little bit.

First, as my friend Katie pointed out quite well, the concern for blood in Leviticus is more of a concern for life than anything else. Bloggy blog blog

Second, when taking Introduction to Old Testament, I found Leviticus one of the more fascinating books that we talked about. Something that really peaked my interest was the concept of holiness being similar to a concept of separateness and distinction. One of the theories that was remarked in class (as well as a brief discussion in another class I had that semester) was that Leviticus is not necessarily about setting up the best ways for one to live but setting up the ways to live that are separate, or holy, from the other ways to live. Consider that the Israelites receiving these commandments lived next to other world powers that had very different ways of life including economics, governmental structure, and religion. If, for example, one of these religions incorporated pigs as a part of their worship then it is possible that the command to not eat pig could be taken as a way to keep on the good side of that religion. Or maybe not on the good side, but just invisible entirely. Consider further the strict commandments about incest or homosexuality. In order to keep divinity within a particular family tree (a. la Egypt), wouldn't one marry someone in their own family? What about religions that incorporate homosexuality into their worship practices (most likely in the form of orgies)? Is the practice of homosexuality an abomination or is its use to worship a false idol an abomination?

Third, another interesting bit of information that I picked up in Intro to Old Testament was that Numbers 22:22 is the first instance of the Hebrew word "שטן" or "Satan" (in the NRSV it is translated adversary) being used in the entire Hebrew Bible. Think about this. It is not used for the snake in the Garden of Eden. It is not a part of the story of Cain and Abel. Satan is not the one being destroyed in the Great Flood. No, instead "the adversary" makes his first appearance not as an actual character but as a two-dimensional figure that represents an idea. An adversary. Someone who stands in the way; someone who impedes progress. Sometimes we think of Satan in these ways today too but it's important to notice how "Satan's" first appearance is not even as an actual character, it is not to battle against God in some way, and in fact Satan isn't even the focus of this story at all (it's Balaam). That said, the adversary kind of scares me in this passage just because he is so mysterious (and he's got a sword, so that adds to the scary factor).

Fourth, Moses goes nuts in Num. 31:13-20 when he finds out that the army didn't kill all the women. He accuses the women of "[making] the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord" because, you know, women in these times were in a position to force men to do whatever they pleased (Num. 31:16). This passage is violent, sexist, and disturbing. Simply put, it is unacceptable to do anything with this passage but wrestle with it and engage it critically.

Fifth, I couldn't think of anywhere else to mention this so I'll just throw it in here as a footnote to all of this. The conception of heaven and hell in early Judaism (note: this conception applies to these books so pay attention) was... well there wasn't one. Hell didn't exist and heaven wasn't a place where people went. No, heaven was a place where God was (or is, I suppose). People didn't go to heaven when they die, they went to Sheol. In fact, sometimes they went there when they were alive (Num. 16:33). Sheol is a place that is not paradise or torment. It's just... there. Your soul goes there and slowly fades into nothing. Picked this information up during my Intro to Old Testament class as well.

It's important to understand this conception of the afterlife because of how we conceive of the afterlife in contemporary Christianity. We tend to think of eternal life as a life of bliss and happiness. We also think of it as a place of renewal where our aching bodies are given new life (or, in some theologies, we don't have physical bodies but we're just spirits. The result is similar though because we no longer have to deal with our physical ailments). However, we tend to picture heaven as a place where our lives are extended rather than a place where we flourish as what we are meant to be (we're all guilty of this, some of us more frequently than others). However, the hope of extending one's life in the Old Testament, particularly these books, often takes the form of keeping the bloodline going. So just to recap: Christianity extends life through the afterlife, Judaism extends life through passing on the bloodline. Important.

Finally, the Shema is found in Deut. 6:4-9. Notice that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and might. Let's notice two things about this. First, the heart in this worldview is seen as the seat of intelligence, similar to how we think of the brain today. Second, notice how at first glance this is different from the Greatest Commandment in Matt. 22:34-40. Deuteronomy doesn't say anything about loving your neighbors! Not so fast. How does one love God with all their heart, soul, and might? By obeying God's commands and remembering that God is their God. Most of the stuff before Deuteronomy (as well as in Deuteronomy) are God's commands to God's people. Notice that most of these commands deal with ethical and moral conduct. Obeying God's commands to act ethically and morally with one another is the same as loving God.

Love God's people, love God.

For further reflection: Is it important that we are aware of the differences between our contemporary worldview and the worldview out of which these books were written in? What are some benefits of reading the text in either way? What are some disadvantages?

Do you think reading the Old Testament is important for Christians today? Do you think the Old Testament should be read on its own terms or through the lens of the New Testament?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lev. 1-10

Leviticus is often panned as one of the most boring books of the Bible. Rightfully so, because it establishes a pretty strict moral code for a culture we are completely out of tune with and a strict operational procedures to accompany said moral code. However, when we step outside of the Bible and stop trying to pick out key pieces of theology directly in the text, we can start to see part of how Leviticus makes sense as a written document.

Among other things, the Bible is a collection of writings belonging to a particular people who testify to experiencing their God in similar ways. Moving forward, what can Leviticus reveal to us about how these people experienced their God? Well, what is Leviticus? It's a moral code for God's people. What does this mean? Well, it likely means that their understanding of God included moral ethics. Their God cared about their "ordinary" lifestyles (notice that proper procedure for burnt offerings would not be "ordinary" in this culture, but like all things that are done repetitively it might have been routine after a while). Not only did their God care about their daily activities, it seems that God cares about their daily activities more than other things. Faith? Trust? Proper conduct reveals the truth of both.

One reveals one's faith and love for God by acting properly according to God's commands. But remember what I said above that proper conduct might have been routine for the Israelites? Think of some routines in your own life. Have you ever felt exhilarated by doing the same routine every. Single. Time? The first day of reading for the Shema Summer it was intriguing, exciting even, but now that we're halfway through the next week the excitement is starting to wear off. True, it could have something to do with the dryness of Leviticus compared to Genesis but it's also that the reading has become routine.

But is that bad?

I have heard it said best like this: just because you don't feel the mushy-gushy feelings toward someone when you say "I love you" doesn't mean that you don't mean what you're saying (I did learn something in Biblical Worldview). It just means that it has become a habit. After the luster wears off, you still say it. In contemporary Christianity we have tricked ourselves into thinking that we need to feel "on fire" for God at all moments in our lives. What does it feel like to be "on fire?" Well, you should feel God's presence in all that you do, especially worship. What happens if you don't feel God moving in you during worship?

Do I believe enough?
Am I really "on fire" for God?
Or am I just a hypocrite after all?

My point here is that while offering sacrifices to God in a really meticulous way might have become routine for the Israelites (I'm sure it's much like the practice of praying five times a day in Islam), it doesn't mean that their faith wavered. Notice how it is when they break proper conduct that they incur God's anger (Lev. 10:1-3). I wonder if Nadab and Abihu felt like they were "on fire" for God when they offered unholy fire (no pun intended).

I want to challenge us to consider what our faith looks like in the scope of our entire lives. Is it true that we should feel an emotional pull toward God in order to really be faithful or does proper conduct matter more? If we are truly offering our entire lives, wouldn't that mean the parts we don't care about too? The parts we don't feel for? If we're so concerned about putting God in a box then why do we limit faithfulness to God to one part of our life, the emotional discharge of our life?

For further reflection: Should contemporary Christianity continue practicing the commands of God in Leviticus? What does it mean that we desire a return to the primitive church in Acts but do not desire to return to the roots of our faith in Leviticus? Is the desire for the Acts church consistent with not desiring the conduct of holiness according to Leviticus?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Exodus 1-30

So far the Shema Summer has gone either exactly or better than I had planned. I expected to be able to knock out the readings for the weekdays with ease because there is a lot of downtime while at work in the Tech Center. After I began blogging, I expected I'd be able to keep up with it fairly regularly during the weekdays too (see above). And finally, I expected that I would be a bit behind after the weekends because... well, it's the weekend and I don't want to do work-type things on the weekends in the summer. However, I was pretty pleased that I instinctively read the sections for Saturday and Sunday on their assigned days. Regularity in a reading schedule is something I am not very familiar with outside of the last two semesters of college, so it is cool to see that some of those habits are sticking (and hopefully will stick even more by the time I graduate from college). Of course I keep telling myself that I'm only reading 10 chapters a day. It's not like you're reading five times that much each day (like I would during the school year). But hey, I'll take whatever I can get right now.

That said, my reflections on these chapters in Exodus are more broad than my reflections in Genesis. The theme of being brought into the wilderness by God is a theme that pervades not only Old Testament theology but even contemporary theology. I recall a month dedicated to this theme at my church in Defiance, Family Christian Center. This theme is also explored by the biblical scholar Frances Young in her book Brokenness and Blessing, where she asserts that the early church fathers picked up this theme immediately.

What is the wilderness? It is a place of trial. A place of testing; a place of finding the truth (Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial). It is a place where we are brought to see who we really are. In Ex. 13:17-18, the Lord brings the Israelites through the wilderness after bringing them out of Egypt. For most of the Israelites, that situation must seem like going from the freezer to the frying pan. What lies in the desert that is better than Egypt (Ex. 14:12)?

The wilderness is dark, wet, and scary. It reveals an inconvenient truth about ourselves. Who are we and what are we made of? It reminds me of the beginning of the movie 300 when young Leonidas is sent into the wilderness to see if he can survive on his own. Obviously, he does survive but others are not as fortunate. When left to their own instruments they fail.

So would the Israelites if not for God. The Egyptians would have tracked them down at the Sea of Reeds. No way to cross, some probably would have tried and drowned; others would have turned back and faced lifelong slavery or torture or death; maybe they would have had the hat trick and gotten all three. Recognize also that if it were not for God the Israelites would have still been stuck in Egypt.

But time and time again God delivers the Israelites from certain failure. Whether parting the Sea of Reeds, turning the bitter water into sweet water, or raining manna from heaven, God is always there for the Israelites; always providing, always delivering. The wilderness is a place of trial, but God is there in those trials. God is there and always delivering and providing. I sound extremely cliché right now because this seems like the feel-good message everyone hears at least once a month at church but as much as I hate repeating this dime-a-dozen message, it is important that we recognize that God is there for us in our trials. God is there for us in the wilderness.

God is there in our trials because the Lord God is our God and we are God's people. The Israelites went into the wilderness and were tried again and again, revealing more about themselves that they were never aware of in Egypt. But what was the most important thing they found out? That they are God's people. God continued to deliver them because they are God's people and because the Lord God was their God. What they found out was their close relationship with God. They found out that they are God's.

I chose this background for this blog because I thought it would be fitting when we got to the wilderness sections of the Pentateuch (Exodus and Numbers), but also because this theme is evident not only in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament; Jesus is tempted (read: tried) in the desert by the evil one (Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial). The daunting trees and the suffocating atmosphere of the wilderness is being broken down and overpowered by God's magnificent and healing light.

For further reflection: What does it mean that God brings the Israelites into the wilderness to avoid taking them near the warring Philistines (Ex. 13:17-18)? Do you think this is another act of deliverance or not?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gen. 41-50

Today's reading is littered with the narrative of Joseph. Since I am familiar with this story, my mind began to wander...

But it's not like my mind began to wander only today. It wandered yesterday too when we got our introduction to the Joseph narrative in Gen. 37. It went something like this:

"Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien..." (Gen. 37:1)
Oh this is where the Joseph narrative starts.
"This is the story of the family of Jacob." (Gen 37:2)
I'll read it again just to get a fresh perspective.
"...he had made him a long robe with sleeves." (Gen. 37:3)
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat... I wonder how many other people that read this today are thinking about this right now.

As my eyes scanned the following lines, I kept having to refocus because I was thinking about the Joseph musical. You see, our high school did this musical during the spring of my junior year. In the musical I played Isaachar, one of the horribly insignificant sons of Jacob in this narrative.

Less responsibility. That's what I wanted.

But of course, I began to reminisce of my time with that musical. You see, I often dreaded musical practice, but what high school student doesn't dread nearly everything at one point or another? There were a lot of aggressive personalities in the production. A lot of drama. Starting to sound like high school yet?

One thing struck me right at the beginning of Gen. 41: Everything that I was reading I kept remembering how it was depicted in the musical. Not only was I remembering everything as it was depicted, I remembered my feelings toward how it was depicted. In a lot of ways, this reading is more personal to me than the creation narrative ever will be. Why? Because I've played a part in recreating this story in some way. Not only did I play a part, I invested three and a half months of my life doing it!

I remembered the annoyance I felt toward some of the other actors in the production.
I remembered feeling annoyed at how the choreography had. To. Be. Perfect.
I remembered feeling like I wanted to quit. Walk away. Never come back.
I remembered the elation I had as the curtain pulled on the first night and how happy I was to be a part of this production.

You see, my experience wasn't all bad. Just mostly bad. Okay, looking back on it I made it worse than it really was. Seriously, six hours a week. That's nothing.

But then I started to remember a lot of details and explore how this story was depicted by us, a group of high school kids who, for the most part, were devoid of jaw-dropping talent to sing, dance, or act. I remembered how the kid that played Joseph was a tall, scraggly looking fellow who was embarrassed to go shirtless in the play so he wore white Under Armour during the shows. I remember how Potiphar had the most aggressive personality off-stage but when he needed to be aggressive on-stage he couldn't cower away from the limelight fast enough. I remembered how the kid that played Jacob couldn't have possibly been more disinterested in the role or the musical in general.

All of these things affected my reading of this. How I pictured it. How I felt it. When I read this story, I noticed that Jacob is a lot more active than I remember it being depicted in this musical. The brothers are a lot less important. Joseph is powerful in a convincing way as opposed to our Joseph who was powerful in a wholly unconvincing way. Indeed, I'm certain the twelve brothers could have kicked his butt, the guards on stage, and taken all comers off-stage too. There was no power to be had. There was nothing to fear. Let's not forget how ironic it was to sing about starving to death when everyone in the audience could tell I'd had more than my fair share to eat...

Okay, so it wasn't convincing or very good. But it's still our musical. It's still our rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It's still the thing I think of when I read the Joseph narrative in Genesis.

What's my point? Well, simply this: our past lived experiences affect our readings in more or less ways when we encounter the Bible. This became true for me in an incredibly surreal and nostalgic way today when I read Gen. 41-50. .

Do I think remembering this event severely altered my reading of the text? Absolutely. I still think it's the best way for me to read it, too.

For further reflection: Do you think entertaining representations of biblical stories (such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Ten Commandments, or Veggie Tales) are good ways of introducing people to the text? What are the dangers associated with this?

For those who have never read this narrative, can you think of other stories that are similar to the Joseph narrative? Do you think your prior experience with those stories affected how you read this story?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gen. 21-30

My first blog entry concluded with a statement about how when I declare that I am a Christian I am recognizing that I am a part of centuries of a tradition that testifies to experiencing and understanding God in a particular way.

I am going to balk on this a little bit.

Am I still a Christian? Yes. Do I still claim to take part in this tradition? Well, for the most part yes.

The theme that keeps jumping out of the text and slapping me in the face is the theme of election of God's people. Election in this sense means favoring one group over another, an in-group vs. an out-group, God's people vs. the pagans.

Of course this type of theology makes sense when reading the Bible. Think about it. God reveals Godself to you, God delivers you from the power of other nations, etc. However, it was summed up best in a class discussion once when someone referred to election as a "violent claim." Why is it violent? Because it excludes people. It dehumanizes people. It sets up a clear in-group and a clear out-group. The insiders and outsiders, us and them.

The basic principle of war strategy is to dehumanize the opponent. First, you single out a radical difference in their way of life. Second, you figure out a way to alienate that difference entirely from your group. Third, you establish authority. Finally, you use that authority to completely exploit that radical difference in their life. Notice how we do this with the war in Afghanistan by noticing their difference in religion, alienating it by showing its violent tendencies, establishing that the Christian God is on our side, and then using that logic to back a full-scale assault campaign on the country, killing anyone who dares get in the way of the Christian God.

The disappointing thing is that this violent line of thought is evident throughout the Old Testament. For example, God favors Leah by making Rachel barren (29:31). God flips this around and favors Rachel's son Joseph because Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Gen. 30:22-24). The last section of today's reading was a story about how Jacob tricks Laban and Jacob ends up with a strong flock and Laban ends up with a weak flock (Gen 30:25-43).

The most disgusting incident of this in my opinion is how Abraham's servant confidently remarks that God blessed Abraham by giving him male and female slaves (Gen. 24:35). Other human beings. Abraham is favored and the slaves are not even named in this narrative, so it's okay. Right?

If God created all people, why does God favor some at the expense of others? I think a better question would be "Does God favor some at the expense of others?" I am aiming to keep my blogs short, so working through an answer here is pretty much out of the question. However, I think a lot of times we pick up on this theme of election in our contemporary reading of Scripture and forget that we are called to love outsiders (Lev. 19:33-34). How can we truly love outsiders if our will trumps theirs? Can we truly love outsiders?

In sum, I recognize that I am a part of a tradition that has a tendency to make some pretty violent claims. However, instead of forsaking that part of the tradition (or simply moving away to another tradition), I would like to transform the tradition into something else. Something more. Something loving.

For further reflection: Do you think this theme of election is acceptable? Why or why not? What influences your belief on this the most?

Does it disturb you that God gives Abraham male and female slaves because God favors Abraham (Gen. 24:35)? Do you think God actually gives Abraham male and female slaves or that Abraham's servant simply claims that Abraham has the slaves because God gave them to him?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gen. 11-20

The Bible: Prepare to be Shocked.

Shocked? Perhaps you mean surprised?

Nope. I mean shocked. What's shocking about the Bible? Well, how often do we think of the Bible as a kind of medicine that we go to in our time of need? When we need a hug the most? Or a shoulder to cry on? The Bible can do this better than any book, but I want to remind us all that the Bible can shock us out of our wits (and if it doesn't then we need to check our reading of Scripture).

Today's reading was Gen. 11-20. What happens in Gen. 11-20? Well, how about a father offering his two daughters to an entire city full of men hellbent on raping two complete strangers that the man brought under his roof? What about Lot's daughters giving him one-too-many glasses of wine so they could "know" him? Now, this might seem like something straight out of an arthouse movie but it's not. It's in the Bible.

The Bible is filled to the brim with various stories, subject matter, and themes (believe me, these two stories are tame compared to the Levite and his Concubine in Judges 19, which I will likely blog about when we read it). We have to recognize that the Bible can operate as many different things at once. It can be our best friend when we need someone to be there. It can be the guide to how to live our lives. It can be the place we turn to when we desire to know more about God.

We must also recognize that it can be a place full of confusion and odiousness. It can be a place where we read about a father sending his daughters to a life of emotional and physical destruction (Gen. 19:8). It can be a place where we read about daughters drugging their father and taking advantage of him (Gen. 19:30-38).

The Bible is a shocking place filled with many things and it is important we keep these tensions present in our reading of Scripture. Why? So we can recognize that the Bible reflects the deepest and darkest parts of our lives (and often times even darker... much, much darker) and is still a place that reveals a God to us who creates and restores out of love.

For further reflection: Since Lot's daughters rape him in Gen. 19:30-38 after he offered them to be raped in Gen. 19:8, what does it mean that poetic justice is depicted in this way in the Bible? Does this offend your sense of justice or does it support it? Where does your sense of justice come from and why is it offended or supported in these passages?

Gen. 1-10

This summer I will attempt to read the entire Old Testament from start to finish. This blog serves as my personal diary to reflect on my readings as I make my way through the summer.

Before I reflect directly on the first ten chapters of Genesis, I want to make some preliminary remarks. First, I believe firmly in peace and read the Bible through a peaceful lens. It is my belief that God is a loving, merciful, forgiving, and gracious God that does not intend for life to be taken but for life to flourish. Second, I am aware that the Hebrew Bible stood alone prior to the New Testament so do not expect me to do a lot of allegorical interpretations of Hebrew Scripture as a revelatory remark about the coming of Christ.

Without further ado, my reflections on Gen. 1-10. While I could reflect upon many things (such as how the creation narrative that begins the Pentateuch differs from the
Enûma Eliš or how even though the writing is clearly patriarchal the image of God is on both males and females), I chose to reflect on one part of the narrative of the first sin and its punishment. Contemporary Christianity does not forsake, forget, or reject its Jewish roots but it is often not consciously aware of the role the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Pentateuch, plays in contemporary Christian theology.

Indeed, the creation narrative at the beginning of Genesis lies directly in the center of debate over theological anthropology. Are humans good? Well, God declares that humans are created good (Gen. 1:31). What about sin? Evil? Well, humans clearly sinned first and were cast out of the utopia of Eden and into the perils of the world, so humans must be evil. Death is the curse that humans must now live with because of their sin (Gen. 3:19).

So then which is it? Good or evil? Some traditions have emphasized the complete spiritual takeover of one's day-to-day actions because of the pure evil of humanity, the desiring to be like God (Gen. 3:22a). Since humans are pure evil then there is nothing in them that can do good but only as God works in them may they do good. Humans do not have the capacity for good but they do have the capacity to be redeemed by God.

Is this so? Does humanity deserve punishment for their wickedness? Perhaps. Notice that humans are punished in this story. However, upon reading this story I noticed something vitally important to the story itself: God provides for the humans after they sin. Notice in Gen. 3:21 that God "made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them." God is a loving and gracious God in the face of the failures of humans. I want to stress that despite the flaws and failures of God's people, God still forgives and provides for them. The God of the Israelites is a loving, forgiving, and graceful God.

Through my studies in religion at Bluffton University, particularly the Hebrew Bible, I have come to believe that these set of Scriptures are ways of talking about how a particular people understood their God, how they experienced their God. This is juxtaposed to other religions that understood their gods in different ways. As a result of this understanding, by declaring that I want to be a part of the same faith tradition I am confessing that I understand and experience my God similarly to how these particular people did centuries ago.

For further reflection: What does it mean that God destroys humanity in the great flood (Gen. 7) after being angry with Cain for destroying Abel (Gen. 4:11-16)?

What is revealed about God when God protects Cain after he murders his brother Abel (Gen. 4:15)?