Archives for posts with tag: Old Testament

In Matthew 26:52, Jesus made a statement that has become famous: “Put your sword in it’s place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” The statement was made to Peter who had drawn his sword in order to defend Jesus from being captured and crucified. The saying of Jesus is often paraphrased as “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” What it means, of course, is that people who conquer through violence ultimately end up dying by violence. Or to put it more simply: what goes around comes around. Live a peaceful life towards others and they will generally be peaceful to you.

As with essentially all of Jesus’ teachings, stories from the Old Testament teach similar themes. In the case of “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” Genesis 31 gives us a vivid example of how this principle works through the story of Jacob and Laban. Prior to chapter 31, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and then tricked his elderly father into blessing him rather than his elder brother. Jacob then left the promised land to obtain a wife from his uncle Laban’s family. Laban ultimately lied and tricked Jacob into serving him for many extra years to obtain the wife Laban originally promised him. Jacob, in turn, cheated Laban out of the strongest lambs from his flock after they had reached an agreement. Ultimately, Jacob flees Laban and Laban and his tribe pursue Jacob.

From this story we can see what Jesus later taught explicitly: “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” If our life consists of lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, and fighting with others, then we can expect the same in return. If we wish to hold everyone accountable “an eye for an eye,” then we can expect the same from them. But God provides us with a different option. At the end of chapter 31, we see that although division and fighting and separation are part of our human existence, we can overcome these tendencies. At the end of chapter 31, Jacob and Laban reach a truce, an agreement to stop the cycle of violence.

And ultimately, stopping the cycle of violence and creating a new cycle of forgiveness and mercy is what Jesus offered us. Rather than fighting back against his captors, he tells Peter to put away the sword. Instead of cursing his persecutors he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Even if our life has been full of deception, division, and fighting with others, we have an opportunity to follow the example of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31:43-55, and “put away the sword.” We have the ability, like Jesus, to begin a different cycle: one based on mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

In my most recent post on Genesis 27 (a couple weeks ago) I discussed how Jacob, the “founding father” of Israel, is presented negatively in the Bible. In posts prior to that, I mentioned how his father, Isaac, is presented in Genesis as the ideal because Isaac was the one born of God’s promise and not out of human desire. The story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah (Genesis 28-30), further illustrates this point. It also shows how God’s “chosen people” often behave as bad, or even worse, than those outside their community. I will highlight a couple of important points from the Jacob and Rachel/Leah story and then speak of the significance.

(1) Unlike Isaac, who remained in the promised land his entire life, Jacob leaves that land to find a wife. And again, in contradistinction to Isaac, who did not labor for his wife, Jacob ultimately ends up laboring 14 years for his desired bride, Rachel. The significance of this passage cannot be overstated. The idea of laboring for one’s own desires (like Jacob) versus resting in God’s promises (like Isaac) is a biblical theme throughout the Bible, including the New Testament. For example, in the famous story of the Samaritan woman (John 4), this distinction is central. The woman of Samaria came from the city of Sychar. The root of Sychar in Hebrew implies one earns a living by work as a servant/slave. The fact there is little to no evidence such a city ever actually existed by this name indicates John is using the word as a play on laboring as a slave. John then contrasts Sychar with the Greek word kopio, which is the term Paul uses to speak of laboring for the Gospel. The difference between “Sychar” and “kopio“, of course, is that the laboring for one’s desires brings about discord whereas the laboring for the peaceful message of the Gospel brings salvation and healing to broken people. In other words, the laboring for the Gospel leads to rest. I went on this sidetrack to help show how the Gospel of Jesus is rooted in the Old Testament. Even in the story of Isaac/Jacob we see the distinction between laboring for our desires and resting in God’s promise.

(2) In English we have the saying, “What goes around comes around.” Jacob learns this lesson the hard way. Remember from the previous chapters Jacob dealing deceitfully with his father and brother to steal his brother’s blessing. Now, Jacob is tricked by his father-in-law Laban, who substitutes Leah for Rachel as Jacob’s bride after Jacob labored for Laban seven years. In order to obtain Rachel also, Jacob agrees to work yet another 7 years for Laban. “What goes around comes around!”

(3) Although technically the Mosaic Law had not yet been given, the astute biblical reader will no doubt realize Jacob is violating God’s law when he marries Rachel and Leah, who are sisters. In Leviticus 18:18, God commands: “[You shall not] take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.” Yet, this is exactly what Jacob did–he took Rachel as a rival to her sister. Beginning at the end of Genesis 29 through Genesis 30, we hear the pathetic story of this rivalry, with Rachel and Leah competing for Jacob’s love and attention, and bearing children in competition with one another. Once again, this story illustrates a serious problem with Jacob.

As I mentioned in the previous post, these stories of Jacob, the founding father after whom Israel is named, are intended to teach us humility. Being the chosen people of God does not mean we are better than others. Furthermore, if we hear the story of Jacob and his wives as intended, we are taught the importance of laboring not for our own desires, but instead putting our trust in God’s promises, which alone brings rest, reconciliation, and peace.

Genesis 22 is a fairly well-known story of Abraham’s faith in God being confirmed by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Of course, God does not desire human sacrifice, so He provides a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his son. The moral of the story is obviously a willingness to be obedient to God, to put your trust in Him, even when it seems dangerous or absurd.

 

Many commentators correctly see a link between this story of Genesis 22 and the crucifixion of Jesus. God, like Abraham, was willing to offer up His Son for the salvation of the world. The legitimate question comes up: why would God do such a thing? Isn’t it cruel to sacrifice your son? And, by the way, isn’t it the son who suffers more than the father. The answer to these questions requires a contextual reading of the text.

 

In the ancient world, and perhaps most so in the Semitic world, the role of the firstborn son cannot be understated. Anyone who has spent time around people of Middle Eastern descent notices the great honor granted the firstborn son of the family. In the case of Isaac, although he was not what we Americans would classify as the firstborn to Abraham, for family purposes in the ancient Near East, Isaac was the firstborn, the only-begotten of Abraham from his wife, Sarah, and the heir to Abraham’s inheritance. Not only was the firstborn the heir, but the thinking in this time was that the firstborn especially (although, technically, not exclusively) continues the life of the parents. In other words, your life continues to exist through your progeny. To have no children, or for your children to die before re-producing, means your name and life is cut off for eternity (at this time, there was little or no idea like we have of life after death).

 

In this way of thinking, to allow your firstborn, only-begotten son to die means to essentially kill yourself. You are allowing your name, your inheritance, to die. You are being cut off the earth. You are making the sacrifice. So in Genesis 22, Abraham is himself making a great sacrifice. He spent 100 years childless, with no one to carry on the family name. Finally, God intervened and gave him a child, and now God asks Abraham to offer the child as a sacrifice. This would again put Abraham in the position of dying off with no inheritance, no name, no memory of him left on earth. Despite this, Abraham puts his trust in God, realizing the son he was given is not his own, but a gift from God. Abraham understands he is accountable to God for the child, and so obeys God’s seemingly outlandish command. Abraham is then rewarded and reinforced for his obedience and God reveals this scenario as a simple test of Abraham’s faith.

 

Incidentally, this way of thinking is also significant in the New Testament. That Jesus is underscored as God’s firstborn, only-begotten Son, dramatizes even more the crucifixion of Jesus. Before the victorious resurrection, it is as though God’s name, His inheritance, and the memory of Him is completely obliterated from the face of the earth.

The first half of the 17th chapter of Genesis deals with the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.  The sign of this covenant is the circumcision of Abraham, his household, and his progeny.  Below I have highlighted three important aspects of this covenant.

Age

In verse 12, God commands the male children to be circumcised on the 8th day.  Obviously, this is at a time when the child is not able to choose for himself whether to be circumcised.  We learn from this a vital lesson that Jesus later taught His own disciples: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16).  Accordingly, in both the Jewish and traditional Christian tradition, a child is circumcised (Jewish) or baptized (Christian) as an infant.  They are put in covenant with God first, and then as they grow older are taught God’s commandments.  This is where the Jews get the name “bar mitzvah,” which means “son of the commandment.” 

So for neither Jews nor traditional Christians is circumcision or baptism seen as the end, but rather as a new life, “…that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).  You can now see from the full quote of Jesus in John 15:16 the consistency between Genesis 17 and Jesus’ teaching.  We are chosen by God, before we even have a choice in the matter, but only so we may go forth and bear fruit through following God’s commandments.

Sign

Another significant facet to circumcision is the obvious mark circumcision leaves on the one who was circumcised.  This mark is important because in the ancient world slaves were known by their mark.  In the Bible, it became common to refer to a believer in God as a “slave of God” (often weakly translated into English as “servant of God”).  This terminology became the common phrase used by Paul to refer to himself in the introduction of his epistles.  Obviously, the physical mark and the terminology used indicates we are “owned” by God and are, thus, accountable to Him.  It is our responsibility to live by the rules of His house, and we are to have no other master.

Biology

Circumcision, as I understand it, was fairly unique to the Jews.  Certain other societies practiced it, but even today only an estimated 30% of males are circumcised, and the vast majority (if not all) of those have been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  From a biological standpoint, what I find interesting about circumcision is God commanding the people to do something contrary to their biology.  In other words, God is asking males to do something that biologically changes them from the way they were born. 

The reason I find this fascinating is because the Bible—and most especially the teachings of Jesus—teaches us to behave contrary to our biological impulses.  For example, we have a biological impulse promoting selfishness, or an ability to survive.  In Scripture, however, you are taught not to be selfish, to give freely and generously to others in need.  Another example: biologically speaking, we intuitively know to stay away from people who are unkind towards us—it is a survival mechanism.  Yet, Jesus taught us to love those who hate us.  Many more examples could be given, but I think you see the point.  Most of what Jesus taught us to do is overcome our biological impulses, which is essentially what Paul means when he speaks about living according to the will of the Spirit rather than according to the desires of the flesh.

These three facets of circumcision are certainly not the only significant aspects of the covenant in Genesis 17, but to me they stand out as important principles that play a role throughout the Bible.

 

Genesis 16 begins a fascinating story of Abram (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Abraham) and his descendants.  In the previous chapter, God promised Abraham he would be given an heir, a son “who will come from [his] own body” (Gen 15:4).  In Chapter 16, Abraham and his wife Sarai (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Sarah) are said to be childless.  Consequently, they concoct a plan for Abraham to be able to bear a child.  As with basically all human ambitions and endeavors in the Bible, this plan goes awry. 

The first problem with Abraham and Sarah’s plan is clearly that they had lost trust in God’s promise.  Rather than waiting patiently for the promise to be fulfilled, or even praying to God for its completion, Abraham and Sarah devise their own scheme.  The second problem is Abraham and Sarah resorted to polygamy in an effort to force God’s promise in their own time.  I will briefly expound on each of these problems below.

Regarding trust in God, remember from chapter 15 that Abraham was deemed righteous for believing in God.  In the Hebrew and Greek, the words faith/trust/belief are summed up in one word and, therefore, could be translated any of these three ways in English.  So Abraham is straying from righteousness by doubting God, as shown by his effort to speed up or force God’s promise through his own devising.  Later in Genesis, we will see how everything works out much better when God fulfills His promise in His own time.  When Isaac, the son of promise, is given to Abraham, everything falls into place.

With respect to the issue of polygamy, or Sarah giving her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham to bear him a child, we see the disastrous results.  Before I discuss this any further, I want to dispel a notion many people have about the Old Testament.  Many people assume polygamy was OK or accepted in Old Testament times, and to a degree they are correct–it was the normal practice in the ancient Near East during these times.  However, an important distinction needs to be made.  Although things like polygamy, prostitution, and concubinage were more acceptable in those times than ours, the Bible, if ever so slightly, challenges those norms.  I plan to discuss in depth later how monogamy is upheld as the ideal since the three prime examples from Genesis–Noah, Isaac, and Joseph–are all monogamous.

But, for now, back to the main point.  The polygamous (or, perhaps more properly, simply extra-marital) relationship between Abraham and Hagar complicated the household of Abraham.  As we should expect a woman to do, even after giving her consent, Sarah becomes jealous and angry towards Hagar since Hagar was able to bear a son for Abraham.  After confronting Abraham, Sarah is allowed to expel Hagar from the household.  Genesis is quick to point out that God will continue to take care of Hagar and her son, Ishmael (multiplying his descendants also), but clearly serious, irreparable damage has already been done to the household of Abraham and to the relationship between Abraham and Sarah.

Again, these complications resulted from Abraham and Sarah forcing their own timing on God’s will.  As Genesis (and, God willing, this blog) unfolds, we will learn the proper response Abraham and Sarah should have had towards God’s promise.  Of course, these stories are related to us not to recount mere factual events, but to instruct us in the way we should behave towards God (1 Corinthians 10:11).  With that in mind, we are reminded by Genesis 16 to be patient in waiting for God to fulfill His promises and to refrain from forcing our own will on situations.

I am back from vacation and the Parish Life Conference, so I hope to keep this blog more regularly updated.  Today I will return to the book of Genesis, chapter 15.

Chapter 15 offers a pivotal moment in the Bible, primarily because in verse 6 Abram (later re-named and subsequently referred to here as Abraham) is “accounted righteous” by God.  Whether we like it or not, in a very real way this one verse has shaped the past 2,000 years of history.  The reason I make such a bold statement is simple: this verse is the cornerstone of the defense/apologia of the Christian movement as seen most explicitly in Acts, Romans, and Galatians.  And, of course, we know that history has been changed because of Christianity.

According to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as thoroughly outlined especially by St Paul of Tarsus, being accounted righteous by God is independent of being perfectly obedient to the Mosaic Law.  I believe it is important for Christians to understand that the teachings of Jesus and Paul–that righteousness is found apart from the Mosaic Law–is not a “new” concept, but one found in the Old Testament.  Put differently, in defending the teaching of Christ, Paul did not invent a new argument or concept, but simply referred back to Scripture to make his case.

In Paul’s time, as in our own, we are tempted to think (even if we profess something different with our mouths) we are righteous because we follow certain rules (insert the rules of a specific religion or denomination).  With religious Jews, it is easy to fall into the trap of righteousness by following the Mosaic Law.  However, as Paul correctly points out, Abraham is deemed righteous by God BEFORE the Mosaic Law even exists.  Therefore, if one is accounted righteous before the Law is given, then righteousness does not come through the Law.  Instead, as Genesis 15:6 indicates, it comes through belief in God.

Now it is important to keep in mind that the word translated “believe” in Genesis 15:6 is more than an intellectual ascent or a simple confession of faith.  Rather, biblical belief in God means you put your trust in God.  I often compare this to kids and their “belief” in gravity.  Give a 3-year old kid a balloon and take him outside.  Watch him let go of the balloon and cry when the balloon flies away.  The child has such a strong trust in gravity he believes whatever goes up will always come down.  The 3-year old in this example has a biblical “belief” in gravity–he behaves according to something unseen based on a trust in that principle.

Ultimately, putting this kind of faith, trust, or belief in God is what leads to us being accounted righteous.  It is our authentic admission that we are insufficient before God, and our recognition that only He can correct that, which leads us to holiness.  Certainly, if we have that sincere faith, action should follow; we should behave in a certain way.  As St James pointed out in his epistle, if our behavior does not match the confession of our lips then it proves we do not have a biblical belief in God, but only the kind of intellectual belief I mentioned previously–and one shared even by the demons (James 2:18-19)!  Yet, we should never permit ourselves to think our actions make us holy.  It is only God who can deem us holy, and only when we are willing to admit our deficiencies and inadequacies. 

I have just returned from vacation with my wife.  We had a great time.  I will again be leaving town for the Parish Life Conference in Houston, but I hope to keep the blog updated regularly this week.

Yesterday in the Orthodox Church we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit.  For those of you who heard my sermon yesterday, I apologize for repeating myself to you.  For those who did not hear it, I hope you find these comments helpful.  By the way, if you want to listen to the sermon in its entirety–or any sermon offered at St Mary, whether by me or our bishop or deacon or a guest homilist–check out our website at http://www.stmarywichita.org/sermons.html.  It is usually updated from the weekend by Monday or Tuesday.

In my sermon I tried to make the function of the Holy Spirit clear to my parishioners.  They have a great advantage over everyone else because they live in Kansas.  Why, might you ask?  Because in Kansas we understand what it is like to have a mighty wind.  In the Greek and Hebrew, the word translated as “spirit” (in reference to God’s Spirit) means “spirit,” “wind,” or “mighty wind.”  They are all one and the same word.  In relation to the Holy Spirit, this takes on great significance in two areas especially.

First, the wind cannot be controlled by human beings, or essentially anything else for that matter.  It blows where it wishes.  You cannot grasp the wind or stop it.  This is quite relevant to the function of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit is uncontrollable.  He does what He wishes, when He wishes (of course, it is assumed He only acts in accordance with the will of the Father), irrespective of human thought or custom.  For example, in Genesis, God consistently chooses the younger rather than the older for the continuation of God’s promise and covenant.  This goes strongly against human convention at the time.  Another example: God decides to take His message to the Ninevites, a people despised by the Jews as we learn from the story of Jonah.  In the New Testament, God sends His Spirit upon the Gentiles equally to the Jews–the Jews cannot stop God from choosing the Gentiles just as He chose the Jews.  In yesterday’s reading, we also heard from the Pharisees that a prophet had never arisen from Nazareth.  Well, if God’s Spirit wants to blow on one from Nazareth and make him a prophet He will do so.  The consistent theme is this: the Spirit, just like the mighty wind of the Kansas tornadoes is unpredictable and unstoppable by us humans.  Therefore, we must always be ready for Him to blow where He wishes; we never know when He will raise a sinner to be a saint or bring in people who previously had been lost.  Consequently, we at all times must be prepared to welcome the sinner, the foreigner, and the stranger.

Second, as with the mighty wind, the Spirit can bring destruction.  The Holy Spirit blows a “gentle breeze” on those who follow God’s teaching, but on those who stubbornly refuse He wreaks havoc.  This is what St John the Baptist said would happen when Jesus “baptized with the Holy Spirit”: the threshing floor would be cleared with the wheat separated from the chaff.  If a tornado comes through Kansas, like it did so memorably this Pascha, we flee to our basement for shelter.  To be saved from the mighty tempest of God’s Spirit we have one protection: to walk in the commandments of God as taught to us most clearly by Jesus Christ.  In Ezekiel’s prophecy (which we read at Great Vespers of Pentecost), Ezekiel mentions that God will send His Spirit so we may walk in His commandments and keep His statutes (Ezekiel 36:27).  Jesus Himself mentions how the Spirit will remind us of all the things Jesus taught, so that we might walk in that way (John 14:26).

I know there is much more that could be said about the Holy Spirit, but for the time being I am limiting myself to these two key areas because I believe they are often overlooked.  Further, I think it is important to see that names are never chosen randomly or haphazardly in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit of God is thus called for specific reasons.  Namely, the Spirit functions as a mighty wind, with both the capability to bring about a gentle breeze or complete destruction.