Exegesis and Why Noah Isn’t a Jewish Hero

So . . . heard any good exegesis lately? What’s an exegesis, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t ask. Too bad. I’m going to tell you anyways.) Exegesis is simply the practice of explaining a section of text from the bible. So, a lot of sermons include exegesis because they start with the text and then offer an explanation as to their meaning.

A good exegesis is a thing to make the heart sing. My favorite are the ones that show you something in the text you never noticed or understood before. Typically these explanations draw on what the preacher knows about the history, the cultures involved, the language and nuances which aren’t clear in translation, other Christian’s interpretations, the text’s relationship with other texts. It should also be spiritually astute. And it should always be humble enough to offer a possible way to read the text, not the only possible way. That’s not asking much, now is it?

I’m not sure that the wider public really appreciates what it takes to teach (or explain or exegete) scripture well. But even a two bit preacher with no education and terrible theology has devoted more time to studying scripture than the average person has ever devoted to any idea in their life. Obviously, this is no barrier to preaching some really stupid, dull and idiotic stuff from the pulpit. But we’re all merely human. We’ll have to trust that God can get it all sorted out eventually.

One of the things I’m going to start doing is passing along clips of really good exegesis that I come across. Because I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’ll like them as much as I do. Because we’re geeky like that. No, actually because they’re really good. And if you have to be geeky to see that, so be it.

Anyhow, I’ll just start with the insight of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the role, character of and errors of Noah in the bible (it’s not your typical exegesis, I suppose. But close enough):

the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement. . .

Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. Continue reading

The Kingdom of God = Love?

What if when we read the bible, we substitute the word “Love” for “the Kingdom”,”the Kingdom of God”? What if what Jesus was telling us is “Love is like this” and “Love acts like that”?

Considered this way, all those parables Jesus told about “the Kingdom of God is like . . . ” take on a different hue.

Job’s Wife

Well, it happened again. OK, it actually happens nearly every time someone decides to write about the book of Job. Inevitably they take a swipe at Job’s wife for telling Job to “curse God and die”. She’s unfaithful. She’s unhelpful. She’s a tool of the devil, tempting Job to blaspheme. Bad, bad Job’s wife.

Actually, not bad, bad Job’s wife. Bad, bad us. Seriously. All those dead children? She had carried, birthed and fed them with her body. Job’s lost wealth? That was her wealth as well. Job’s position in the community was her position as well.

How in the world do we look at a woman who has lost all of her children, her household, her security and standing and condemn her for telling her sick, oozing husband that it would probably be best if he just cursed God and died? What kind of monsters are we?

I know she’s just a character in a very old story. But still. Can we all agree not to take potshots at Job’s wife anymore?

BTW, a couple of years ago, I took another look at the book of Job and came to some surprising conclusions about it. If you have any interest in the subject, you can find the series here. Don’t worry, I skipped over the boring parts. 😉

Your Goodness Isn’t Filthy Rags

If there’s one word which describes my experience of 2014 so far, it’s “inadequate”. I have felt utterly inadequate to the challenges of my life. Whatever good I can and have done has been wholly inadequate. In fact, this feeling has been so strong that I have frequently found myself battling a sense that anything I do or try to do is pointless.

And into this jolly state of affairs, a few little church mice come whispering in my ear, “it’s all filthy rags. Whatever you do is no more than filthy rags.” Which just makes it all seem even more pointless. If everything I do is as worthless as a pile of dirty rags, then life is hopeless. Maybe I’ll have better luck in the afterlife.

Except that’s just not true. Which is why this post from Derek Leman is an important corrective to the all too common notion that God regards all our efforts and good works as filth:

Isaiah 64:6 is not a divine dismissal of the rightness of loving deeds; it is a prayer of complaint by the people about how they feel overlooked by God. . . In the voice of complaint, the believers are saying, “Where are you, God? It’s like our words and actions of love and faithfulness for you are filthy rags!”

It turns out that this idea that our deeds are worthless, disgusting even, does not come from God. Instead, it’s the perspective of people who are worn out and tired from waiting and suffering who fear that God has rejected them. This passage isn’t a condemnation of our good works and efforts, but a very human cry many of us can relate to.

More:

Is this what God actually thinks of their deeds?

Not at all. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. That is God’s counsel from Isaiah 1:16. The righteous will not labor in vain. They will be blessed by the Lord. Their prayers will be so powerful, God will answer them before they speak them (Isa 65:23-24). God does not despise the good deeds of his people. He teaches us to do them. It is good to pray, to visit the sick, to provide justice for the widow and orphan. These things God does not despise. They are not filthy rags, according to the Bible.

And at the center of human beings is not corruption, but purity and holiness. It is the image of God. It is who we truly are. The corruption is not at the center, but is a veil of darkness refusing to let out who we really are. We are not evil beings pretending to be good, but good people fallen from our true selves finding in God and Messiah the path back to our pre-ordained glory as his sons and daughters.

What we need to hear when life is hard isn’t the human perspective which says that what we do is pointless or worse than nothing. What we need to hear is God’s perspective which views us as beloved image bearers whose goodness is precious to him.

 

Who’s In Charge Around Here Anyhow?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you are well aware that I have a bit of an obsession with the creation stories in Genesis. (No, I don’t read them literally – I take them waaaaaaaaaay too seriously to inflict that sort of nonsense on the text which all but screams “this is a mythological telling, not a history lesson!”) If you could make money by meditating on and studying these stories, I would uber rich. But, alas, God pays in insight and wisdom, not cash. I know he says that wisdom is to be valued above rubies, but try telling that to the electric company – “here, take some wisdom. It’s worth more than that money you keep demanding!”

Anyhow, what I want to talk about today is the first thing God ever did with Adam (read mankind). Even before there was man and woman. Even before he assigned us the job of raising food and making babies. Even before he warned not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Do you know what he did? He had man name the animals. Isn’t that amazing? Can you believe it?

Alright, alright. Some of you just started wondering if I’ve been smoking something. The answer is yes. I had a cigarette a couple of hours ago. Don’t tell anyone.

So the naming of the animals doesn’t seem that remarkable or amazing. Just one of those odd, throw-away details that trying to read the text as history obscures. But it’s revolutionary. It could change everything. Really. Allow I to explain.

It’s a common narrative in Christian teachings that God is in charge of everything. Some people take it to the extreme of saying that every bridge collapse, every act of abuse, every sickness is the direct result of God, in his infinite wisdom, specifically causing that event and its results to occur. Most of us are unwilling to take it to that extreme. We punt and say that God is in charge but allows, rather than causes, terrible things to happen for mysterious reasons.

Now, contrast that view with the very first thing God does with mankind. God doesn’t start by offering instructions, demanding obedience or demonstrating his power. Quite to the contrary. The first thing God does with man ask him to act independently, according to his own judgment. He doesn’t bring the animals to Adam and tell him what they are called. He brings the animals to Adam and has Adam tell God what they are called. Instead of God putting on a display of God’s own power, God has Adam put on a display of mankind’s power. Think about that. Isn’t that amazing? Can you believe it?

This small, seemingly insignificant detail reveals something very important about God’s desire for us and our relationship with him. Naming has long been considered an act of power and responsibility. Far from being a God whose sovereignty demands that he maintain control over all things, we see a God who willingly and eagerly hands power and responsibility over to mankind.

When was the last time a pastor or Christian teacher told you that God wants mankind to take hold of our own power and responsibility? Most of us have probably never heard such a thing taught. God wants us to be obedient, to submit to his will, to hand over control to him. If a Christian pastor had written Genesis, God would brought the animals to Adam, told him what their names were and given instructions for how to deal with each. And then he would have monitored the situation to make sure Adam was using the right names and following the instructions. Yet the God in scripture puts mankind in charge and doesn’t come back until he’s taking his evening stroll through the garden.

Now, am I claiming that we don’t need to worry about being obedient to God, seeking his will, etc? Nope. Not at all. I’m going to get into that in my next blog post, in fact. But for today, this is my point: in the beginning, before it all went wrong, God’s first priority was empowering man to use his own judgment and act independently. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, our relationship with God is redeemed, corrected, healed and restored. God’s first desire for mankind was that we be empowered, given responsibility and control. And that’s still his intention for us – that we would be empowered to use our own judgment and make our own choices. Isn’t that amazing? Doesn’t that have the potential to change everything?

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~ T.S. Elliot

John the Baptist Says to Stop Being an Arse

Some of you will recall that I was raised Catholic. So each week at mass I would listen to a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospels. And at the end of each the person reading would intone, “The Word of the Lord” and we’d respond together in monotone: “Thanks be to God.” Because we were so excited.

Now, I understand the intent of this little ritual and I truly do offer thanks to God for his Word. But now that I’ve actually read the bible myself, I kind of think that all of heaven must occasionally roll their eyes and guffaw at this response to scripture. Like say that day’s Old Testament reading was from 1 Samuel 6 where the Philistines have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from their neighbors and been duly smited. To set things right, they are instructed to “make models of their tumors” as well as of rats out of gold to give to the Israelites when they return the object. Can you imagine? Make models of your tumors? You cannot tell me that the Israelites didn’t laugh their asses off at being given a bunch of gold lumps cast from the Philistine king’s goiters. And we respond with the same old monotone “Thanks be to God” in such a way that makes it clear that we’ve missed the joke entirely. Once again, these stories and poems and words, so filled with beauty and passion and humor just get flattened into monotony and so lose their power. It’s kind of sad the way we do that (and no – this is hardly a Catholic problem!).

I was thinking about this last night while reading a story about John the Baptist which really, could have come right out of a Monty Python skit:

And the crowds were questioning [John the Baptist], saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”

Can’t you just see it – here’s this wild-eyed crazy man out by the river and people come to ask him what they should do to be saved from the coming wrath. He leans in, maybe puts a stinky arm around the questioner and essentially says, “listen closely – stop. being. an. ASSHOLE.” Like it’s some big friggin’ secret or something. Continue reading

Christianity and Giftedness

When I was putting together my book The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress last summer, I went back and forth and back and forth about including an essay I had originally published here titled “How Being Gifted Means Being Different”. It was one of the most popular posts I had done. And many people had contacted me since I put it up to thank me for writing it. However, it didn’t seem to fit. The book is very grounded in my faith and the post is about being gifted. The two seem incongruent. But every time I went to take it out, there was that little tug that I’ve learned to listen to telling me to leave it be. So I did without really know why it was there. And I’m sure that those who read it wondered what it was doing there as well.

It wasn’t until some time later that I began to understand why it was there. The fact is that the church as a whole does not do a good job of making room for or embracing those parts of the body which are smarter and more creative than the norm. We see this in those parts of the church which fiercely oppose science and will even claim that those who engage in the work of science are doing the devil’s work. It is present in those who insist that a “plain reading” of scripture is good enough and refuse to consider context, history, translation or any of the other issues which affect the way that we read and understand the text. It shows up in how churches deal with their members who produce art, literature or music. This past fall, I talked with a lot of pastors and uniformly they told me that they have a policy of not supporting the work their creative members produce. (I talked about my frustration with this practice here – The Sheeple Are Leading the Flock.)

This animosity also floats on a the good number of verses which seem to speak critically of those who are learned or wise over those who are more simple: Continue reading

Church and the Parable of the Talents

Our lesson today, ladies and gents, is the parable of the talents and what it can tell us about ways we Christians end up being like the bad servant:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ Continue reading

The Sacrifice of Isaac . . . Or Provincial Much?

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. ~ Micah 6:7-8

In the pantheon of weird stories in the bible, the Sacrifice (or Binding) of Abraham is often treated as the most inexplicable or as the clearest evidence of how capricious the God of the Old Testament is. However, it seems to me that these conclusions simply demonstrate our poor understanding of history, God’s ways and human nature.  In context and with a decent concept of human nature as well as a proper understanding of what God is about, the story and it’s moral aren’t so hard to understand.

The reality is that infanticide has always been part of human behavior. It’s been practiced everywhere and through all time periods. Including during the time of Abraham. In fact, there is evidence from both ancient writings and from archaeology of wide-spread infanticide and ritual child sacrifice in the Ancient Near East continuing into Greco-Roman times. Continue reading

Does God Get Angry?


If you haven’t contemplated murder, you ain’t been in love. ~ Chris Rock

“I will turn my beloved people over to the power of their enemies. The people I call my own have turned on me like a lion in the forest. They have roared defiantly at me. So I will treat them as though I hate them. The people I call my own attack me like birds of prey or like hyenas.” ~ God (Jeremiah 12:7-9)

Over the weekend I happened to come across an email I had sent my husband a couple of months after he left me and the kids. (Background here and here.) It was just a short note rejecting his request that we strive to be on friendly terms. Not that I wanted to be in conflict, but I wasn’t going to pretend to be OK with someone who had treated me the way that he had. In fact, I think it would have been really unhealthy for me to agree to be friend-like under the circumstances. I was very, very angry and I had a right to my anger. I had been betrayed, rejected and turned on by someone who I had done my best to love unconditionally through thick and thin. Emotionally, I was not in any condition to have anything more than a cold, barely cordial relationship with him. (As always, I am speaking of my own perspective here. My husband could give you an encyclopedic list of all the ways he feels I wronged him as well.)

During those days in between praying fervently for God to hit my husband with a bus, I was often grateful for the words of 1 Corinthians 13:5: “Love is . . . not easily angered.” It meant that there was room in love for anger. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I hadn’t turned into a terrible, hateful, unloving person because of my anger. I didn’t have to be afraid of it or deny it or hurry up and get rid of it. In fact, being so angry was a legitimate part of being a loving person. I knew I would be able to work through it in time. Continue reading