Short Sabbatical

Posted in Uncategorized on July 13, 2015 by ancienthopes

Dear Readers,

I apologize for not informing you earlier, but circumstances in my life have made it impossible to create weekly blogs. I am therefore taking a short sabbatical and hope to get going on it again in the fall.

Work Out Your Own Salvation with Fear and Trembling

Posted in Uncategorized on April 6, 2015 by ancienthopes

It is not in the nature of things for humanity, at least in our present state, to feel comfortable with God. Rather, it is in our nature to either ignore God the best we can or recreate God in a way to our own liking. We especially do not like it when God makes demands on us, or sets moral boundaries as He does here at this point in our narrative. We have already discussed the Ten Commandments earlier in this blog (See September 6, 2012 through December 4, 2012) and will not repeat ourselves here. Two things, however, are worth revisiting from these posts. First, all the images and motifs that we find in the Ten Commandments are anchored in creation. To experience the law in obedience is to experience the world as it was originally intended to be experienced on God’s first Sabbath, the seventh day. Second, the preface to the commandments, where God sets before Israel the fact that He delivered them from Egypt for this very moment, demonstrates that grace comes before command and is the very context for obedience. Salvation is not something earned. Law is creation goodness and was a gift of grace to Israel at this juncture in their history.

Yet we find Israel running away from YHWH’s dreadful sound just as Adam and Eve ran and hid themselves when they heard the sound of God approaching them in the Garden. Clearly YHWH invited them out of desire for friendship, to re-establish what was lost at the fall. On a negative note, YHWH wanted them near because distance causes suspicion and relational breakdown. We see this in 19:9 where YHWH tells Moses that He will come in a thick cloud so the people will hear when He speaks to him, so that they might believe Moses forever. Then, in 20:20, when the people stood afar of trembling at the pyrotechnic display of divine terror, Moses pleads with the people not to fear, for this was a test. Moses gives 2 reasons for this. The first seems very paradoxical. It is so that the people will “fear” YHWH. There are two types of fear; one that drives us away from God, and one that drives us to God. The former is a fear of distrust; that God is out to destroy us. The latter is a fear before the immensity and reality of God, a fear that inspires faith and obedience. Strangely, this fear can mature into the love of God. Second, Moses wanted them to brave it out so that they would not sin, which, in fact happened in chapter 32.

The law of God is bracketed by YHWH’s warning in 19:24 for Israel not to break boundaries lest “He break out” against them, and this moment, when Israel actually hears YHWH thundering His commands and stood afar off in fright (20:18). The first has to do with presumption, the second with spiritual feebleness. YHWH and His law are terrifying while at the same time good. We cannot approach with presumption on one hand, and we cannot allow ourselves to be frightened off on the other. St. Paul must have been meditating on this very passage when he exhorts us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12b, 13). Israel did not have the advantage of the last part “for God is at work in you …” for we have Christ, who is the very divine Word, the law, indwelling and at work within us. Yet, something strangely remains the same, and that is the “fear and trembling.” Are we presumptuous? Do we really know anything about holy fear? Do we choose to stand afar off and therefore fall into sin? Or, do we turn our face toward the terrifying mount with its dark cloud where we must face God and ourselves? It is not easy living with a Holy God!

They Love Thee little, if at all,
Who do not fear Thee much;
If love is thine attraction, Lord!
Fear is thy very touch.

Our blessing will be to bear
The sight of Thee so near,
And thus eternal love will be
But the ecstasy of fear.

Frederick Faber

God-Awful Terror on the Mount

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2015 by ancienthopes

We see with our mind’s eye Israel before the mountain on the morning of the third day. The atmosphere was charged unlike any approaching storm in the natural order. Indeed, the heights were shrouded in billowing clouds of smoke produced by the fiery presence of divine glory, of uncreated light. The thunder and lightning accompanying the cloud were not natural either, for they were not the result of weather conditions, but of transcendence coming into contact with the temporal. Along with this was a blaring noise likened to a trumpet blast, but so eerie, weird, and oppressively loud that all in the camp trembled (19:16). Because of YHWH’s immensity and sheer force of being, nothing on earth, heaven or hell, is even remotely more terrifying than His holy presence to sinful and fallen humanity.

Yet we see that this God of infinite immensity desires to become intimate with humanity. Moses brings the people of Israel out of camp to the base of the mountain for the purpose that they would believe Moses forever (19:9, 17). As the people drew near and Moses began to speak to YHWH, the supernatural phenomena intensified and the mountain itself began to quake (19:18). YHWH calls Moses up to the top of the mountain with the specific intention of commanding him to warn the people not to break the boundaries at the base of the mountain, should any be drawn to pass beyond and gaze upon YHWH’s glory. It is certainly a strange moment for Moses to remind God that He had already warned the people before (v. 23), yet this little instance of presumption serves to highlight’s YHWH’s compassion for the people who as yet have no experience with approaching the Holy. YHWH wants to make doubly sure that the people, and even the priests, do not break the boundaries.

Why is this? The answer is given in verses 22 and 24; lest YHWH “break out” against them. The language here with the Hebrew word “break out” (Heb. pāraṣ) is very sharp, even violent. We might even say that YHWH would “go berserk,” unleashing destruction in a flash of uncontrolled rage, much like warriors do in the heat of the battle. We must be careful here. It is not that YHWH is like humanity in its violence and rage. Rather, it has everything to do with YHWH’s unapproachable holiness. By virtue of just being who He is humanity cannot approach Him. For intimacy to happen, boundaries must be set and carefully observed. If boundaries are broken, death is the natural result. This is exactly what YHWH does not want to happen.

We might not like this feature of the divine. We would perhaps prefer a benign deity that is more approachable on our own terms, something like a gentle old grandfather that does not get stirred up very easily. But the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is all fire and passion, the fire of love and holiness that burns away all that is unholy in us, and yet purifies and preserves all that is worthy. Human life is more precious to God than it is to us, for He is the Creator, and sees in all of us His divine image, something we do not always readily see. Yet He will take life when it breaks its boundaries, for God hates the presumption which breaks and redefines boundaries as if we are ultimate. God cannot change who He is; it is left to us to conform to the reality of His immensity and holiness.

Thunder and lightning is often associated with theophanic encounter in the Bible. We have a little western highland terrier. When thunder rolls over us, she is beside herself in fear, trembles as if she was about to die, with no appreciation for the noise whatsoever. As I observe her, it is clear that she has no capacity at all for the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. When I hear the thunder, my soul is thrilled with awe and a touch of terror. There is something in my soul that is receptive to the terror of God, and this has, no doubt, something to do with the fact that I am made in His image. Our souls simply cannot be satisfied with the explainable, the predictable, and the common. We have the capacity for the holy, the exciting, the thrilling, the unpredictable, yes, even the terrifying, in short, for YHWH Himself.

Preparing for Divine Rendezvous at the Mountain of God.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 9, 2015 by ancienthopes

YHWH is lofty and His dwelling is elevated; in the Old Testament, we find Him on mountains. As we have seen before, Eden was a mountain. Mountains and structures of divine dwelling are three fold. Eden was the mountain source of the river of life, the “Holy of Holies.” The garden from which the river divided onto the 4 corners of the earth was part way down, the “Holy Place” where the priests stood before God. Then there was the base, the border of Eden, like the outer courtyard of the tabernacle. What we have here in Ex. 19 is of supreme importance in the history of humanity. Humanity is invited back to the Mountain of God. The mountain is different – Sinai is not likely the primal Mountain of Eden – but it is essentially the same with regard to its importance and three fold structure. Moses alone is able to ascend its summit into the very presence of God (Ex. 24:2), certain of the priests and 70 elders, who represent the whole of humanity are invited to a position part way up the mountain (Ex. 19:22, 24:1, 9-11), and finally, the people of Israel were to be stationed at the base where they were to hear the very voice of God speaking with Moses and “see” God (19:9,11). For the first time since the fall, humanity was to prepare for divine rendezvous at the Mountain of God.

What is expected of them for the preparation of such an auspicious encounter is instructive. First, the people had to be willing (19:8). YHWH never forces Himself on anyone. By and large, humans get what they want when it comes to the things of God. Second, the people had to be “consecrated” by Moses. What this looked like we do not know, but it is associated with the washing of clothes (19:10, 14). The clothes motif is critical in Scripture. The fall, as we have seen, is described in terms of nakedness, the sad attempt to cover ourselves (fig leaves), and God’s provision of animal skins. Dirty clothes are not appropriate for divine rendezvous; the body has lost its original glory, and to appear before God foul and smelly is an affront to holiness. The foul is associated with mortality, and death cannot come into contact with the divine. Moreover, purity of exterior clothing is meant to symbolize interior purity.

The people must wait three days (19:11). The number three is a perfect number in Scripture indicating completeness. Humanity must not rush thoughtlessly into the divine presence. One must center the soul, and this takes time. Such work often is frightening, for we create noise and interior clutter for the very reason to avoid encounter, and to create interior silence to come to terms with who we really are is an unnerving process. Next, boundaries at the base of the mountain are to be set and strictly observed. Only God can exist without boundaries comfortably. For humanity, to break boundaries, either physical or spiritual, is to play God; it is chaos. Of course, this was the human primal sin.

Finally, the men were to keep away from women (19:15). In the Hebrew world, sexuality within its proper boundaries is celebrated as a gift of God. Indeed, maleness and femaleness in all dimensions are part of the imago dei, and although God is infinitely beyond our notions and experience of sex, it has some correlation to the divine. In fact, sex is holy. That is, of all human experiences, it stands alone in its mystery, power, ecstasy, intimacy, relational union, etc. For this reason sexuality and religion have always been interwoven, and this is true in the worst sort of way with pagan fertility cults, an ever present temptation for Israel as we shall shortly see. This is exactly why YHWH prohibits sexual contact here. As holy as sex is, human experience of God is categorically beyond and incomparable. At best, human sexuality can only be a sign of something that spiritually dwarfs it. Here before the Mountain of God sex could only be a distraction, out of place, inappropriate.

These five requirements provide for us a meditation on spiritual preparation, on the holy. We find ourselves drawn into this scene before the mountain. It begs the question, “Who shall ascend the Mountain of God?” (Ps. 24:3). Are we ready for a rendezvous with God?

What Are, After All, YHWH’s Intentions?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2015 by ancienthopes

Slowly the homeless nation made its way through the desert, dusty and mangy, scared and very suspicious. The word that spread around was that Moses was taking them to a mountain, the mountain of God. They had not the background and experience Moses had in these parts (See Gazing into Divine Fire, Oct. 8, 2014). Too much had happened over the course of the last 3 months for their minds to process. So many amazing miracles! So many mortal dangers! Along with this, there was the matter of massive identity shift. A few months back they were slaves and thought like slaves, and they no doubt viewed the world much like their Egyptian captors did; they were “Egytianized,” very pagan in their thinking (See Lev. 18:3). Their identity as YHWH’s covenant people through Abraham their father was a faint memory of the misty past.

In this state they found themselves under the shadow of this mysterious mountain to meet YHWH. We enter into their thoughts as they gazed up its sheer rocky flanks. This YHWH was a stranger to them. True, He miraculously brought them out of Egypt and bondage, but for what? Why did He do this, and what were His intentions? They have already accused Him of taking them out into the desert to kill them. As absurd as this seems, we must place ourselves in their sandals. They were as raw as could be, and possessed absolutely no spiritual knowledge of the Holy. We the readers are really not too far removed from them, and we certainly live and move among masses of people who are just like them.

YHWH gently begins to teach them the way of covenant. What we have in Ex. 19:3-6 is the very bed rock upon which the covenant is built. Indeed, these verses are the foundation for all the rest of the Pentateuch. It is here that YHWH reveals His intentions for Israel. To begin with, YHWH uses a very tender image to describe His love for His people: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (19:4). This last phrase “bringing them to himself” is especially startling. Pagan gods did not talk like this. The gods could never make themselves so vulnerable. In fact, it is hard to know how to respond to such intimate language from another human let alone God who as yet was still strange to them. Be this as it may, relationship begins with vulnerability, and YHWH is the first to make Himself vulnerable to the people.

What follows is a condition and a promise. The condition is their responsibility to be obedient by keeping covenant. The promise is three fold. First, they will become YHWH’s own special possession (v. 5, Heb. segulâ, a word elsewhere used for a king’s private treasury apart from the national, I Chron. 29:3). Israel will be God’s special possession of all the nations, the one He values the most. This speaks to their worth. Yet, Israel’s special status is juxtaposed to the phrase, “for the whole earth is mine.” Election of the part is in the context of the whole, for YHWH desires to reach the whole through the part. This becomes clearer with the second promise, that Israel would be a “kingdom of priests,” or more properly, a “priestly royalty” (v. 6, Heb. mamleket kōhanîm). Kings and priests were images of power to the ancient mind. Yet again, the implication is that they were to minister to the world, for priests stood before God in behalf of the people, in this case, to the rest of the world. Finally, they would be a holy nation (Heb. gôy qâdôš). On one hand, only God is holy for He is utterly unique and above and beyond all creation. On the other hand, Israel, by living in relationship with God through obedience to the covenant will reflect divine holiness to the world. This speaks of their dignity.

What are YHWH’s intentions for this frightened mass of humanity before the mountain? It is to restore to them the lost glory of Adam’s race. Intimacy with the divine changes one’s very identity from slave to God’s special possession, to a priest and king, to a holy likeness to God. Implicit in this identity change is a purpose that lay far beyond Israel as a nation, and that was to change the world around them. All this demanded intimacy with a holy God … intimacy is not easy for us fallen creatures, and it certainly is not easy living with a holy God, as we shall see in the ensuing narrative.

Jethro of the Desert

Posted in Uncategorized on February 26, 2015 by ancienthopes

The desert is a strange and complex place, full of surprises. One would think that all of its inhabitants would be “desert demons,” as Amalek most likely seemed to the Israelites, taking on the harsh character of their bleak environment. This is not so. Our text (chapter 18) juxtaposes Jethro the Midianite with Amalek of the last chapter, not to associate them, but to contrast. It is through this contrast that the Book of Exodus transitions out of its first part, Israel’s redemption out of Egypt (1-17), to the great second part, of Israel before Sinai (19-24).

Jethro, Moses’ Father-in-law, is a complex character. He is said here in Exodus to be a priest of Midian, a tribe of desert people who like Amalek, roamed the wilderness. As a priest he stood as a mediator between the tribal gods and his people, a man of obvious importance. It is of interest to us that later historical material associates Jethro with the Kenites (Judges 1:16, 4:11), a tribe named after Cain their notorious ancestor, condemned to be wilderness wonderers in this world. We can never know what is behind this seeming confusion of tribes, but it is clear that Jethro is a pagan priest of the wilderness, and that, contrary to the old legends of the Jews (L. Ginsburg), never converted to YHWH, but nevertheless was intimate with Moses as both a helpful councilor and family relation.

Jethro is not at all like Amalek. He provides a wife and a home for Moses at the beginning of the first section before the great conflict with Pharaoh in an idyllic familial scene (2:15-22), and now we find them eating bread together in another peaceful scene (18:12) which forms “bookends” around the fast action of the Exodus, slowing the narrative to transition into the great covenant episode (Childs). Amalek “came and fought Israel” (17:8) while Jethro “came” and sought Moses’ welfare ( šālôm, 18:5, 7). Moses commands Joshua to “choose” men for war against Amalek (17:9), but Jethro commands Moses to “choose” able men for judging Israel (18:21). Moses’ hands grew “heavy” holding his hands up (17:12) and Jethro observed that Moses’ task of judging all the people was too “heavy” (18;18, see Cassuto for other parallels). Jethro rejoices when Moses tells him all that YHWH did in Egypt (18:9), “blesses YHWH” (18:10), and acknowledges YHWH to be greater than all gods (18:11). He even worships with Moses in sacrificing to God (18:12).

But Jethro never converts. Though he sacrifices to “God,” the word used is the generic ʹEl ôhîm, not YHWH of the covenant, and though he recognizes YHWH as supreme over all deities, this does not mean that this pagan priest embraced the faith for himself. Indeed, the narrative ends with him parting ways with Moses and Israel, never joining the covenant community (18:27). His lot was the desert from which he came, not the Promised Land. Jethro was not at all like Amalek, but he was not a convert to YHWH either. We are not compelled to believe that Moses divorced Zipporah, but re-united with her and his two sons after separating for his task in Egypt. Jethro remained his Father-in-law in parting, bonded relationally.

Jethro symbolizes, in the best way possible, the wisdom of this world and how close the covenant community draws from this wisdom and is even related to this wisdom. At this crucial moment in Israel’s life, he was able to see what Moses, who talked with God, was not able to see. He introduces an organizational principle in Israel, that of decentralization and empowering others. Humble and wise Christians know how to gather nectar from all sorts of flowers. Yes, in the desert there are all sorts of rare and wonderful flowers; it is a strange and complex place, full of surprises.

The Desert: A Haunt of Demons

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17, 2015 by ancienthopes

The desert was never far from the thin little strip of land which we call Palestine. Indeed, the vast Arabian Desert would certainly have swallowed her up long ago if she did not safely sit upon two mountain ranges running parallel to the Mediterranean coast. These mountains shut out the desert on the East and capture the rains and mists of the Great Sea on the West which feed the rivers and streams that tumble down into its valleys. Still, the Israelites never forgot the fact that the ever encroaching sands of the wastelands were at their back door, for every once in a while the desert would blow its hot, ominous breath that “neither fans nor cleanses” (Jer. 4:11, the Sirocco,” or east wind that comes off from the desert) to remind them of its presence. Those who ventured out into it could not help but experience the horror of formlessness and void (Gen. 1:2, tōhû wābōhû) and shutter in dread before the low wailing of the wind as it passes through the barren rocks (cf. Deut. 32:10, ûbtōhû yelēl yešimōn). Lilith the night hag was feared to haunt these lifeless places along with other unsavory creatures who let out lonely cries as they preyed upon one another for food (Isa. 34:13 14). Those banished to the desert, such as Ishmael (Gen. 21) and Esau (Gen. 27:39ff.), were not looked upon with envy. It was the land that felt the curse of the fall the greatest, and theologically represented the extreme opposite of the paradise for which humanity was made.

In our narrative, the Amalelites, a nomadic people of the desert fringes, attacked Israel (Ex. 17:8-16). They were the descendents of Esau, and took on the nature of their harsh environment. Highly mobile, they made seasonal forages in Palestine as elsewhere to raid. Every encounter Israel has with Amalek is hostile in the Old Testament. As dwellers of chaos they represent on a spiritual level demons that attack with intent of sucking the life out of God’s covenant people in their vulnerable state of testing. This is the harsh reality of the desert. This is the harsh reality of our lives in this life that can be compared to a desert journey on our way to the Promised Land. We will be attacked by demonic powers.

Moses represents our deep interior spirit out of which we live our spiritual life, our core “self.” Aaron represents our will. Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up to a high hill. This is understood as an act of prayer which places us on a high vantage point. Demons are invisible and can be perceived only in prayer. The foe is powerful and stubborn, vicious and even desperate. Israel, representing our bodies and emotions that are so closely tied to our physical nature, succumbs to the enemy when Moses wearies in holding up his hand in prayer. We prevail when we engage our wills in the act of prayer, for the spirit succeeds only when the will supports it. Everyone would pray if it felt good and was easy all the time. Prayer is many things, but is fundamentally an act of war in which we must engage our wills. It is no coincidence that the two places where we have a clear window into Jesus’ prayer life are in his desert temptation at the very beginning of His ministry and in the garden at the end of His ministry. Both times He was fighting demons with all the might of his will!