Archive for January, 2014

Greatness

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2014 by ancienthopes

Fame is no plant that grows in mortal soil …
The last infirmity of a noble mind.

Milton, Lycidas

Every human being that ever was and is was made for greatness and longs for it. This is because we were made in the imago dei, and greatness is an essential aspect of the Divine. Glory, honor, dignity, and being known as opposed to being forgotten, are all a part of the original order of creation, part of what it means to be holy. The absence of this is chaos.

With the fall from original glory came a fall from greatness. The problem is that we are still image bearers and long for greatness and fame when our mortal frames cannot bear it. The earth we walk on is cursed so as not to sustain anything for long, and time itself sweeps everything into oblivion. In spite of this humanity does everything it can to defy the odds and grab the wreath of greatness. There were those before the flood, the Nephilim of old, that are faintly remembered as “mighty men of old, the men of fame” (Gen. 6:4 Heb. šēm = name, fame). Babel’s tower was begun with the motivating cry “Let us make a name (šēm) for ourselves lest we be scattered … (i.e. forgotten, Gen. 11:4). It is in this context God called Abraham, the seed of Shem (Heb. šēm = fame), and promises him a “great name” (Heb. šēm, Gen. 12:2). God promises Abraham the very thing that the nations were striving for, true and lasting greatness!

Abraham’s greatness defies the curse and oblivion because he is associated with God, who transcends all things. Moreover, true greatness is linked with a corresponding depth and development of the imago dei, for Abraham was to “walk before [God] and be perfect” (Gen. 17:1). Those poor mortals that seek and to some degree attain “fame” and “greatness” in this world without reflecting God’s image and glorifying God become mere abstractions of being and a farce, for there is no substance to their fame. Even if history remembers them, what does this mean for them when their frames crumble in the dust and they stand face to face with eternity? Even those godly persons who achieve greatness in space and time, such as the Blessed John Paul II or Billy Graham, if you would ask them what their fame means to them, they would probably say something to this effect: “I am glad my life glorified God before the world, but personally, the fact that I am famous is not essential to me. It is an illusion. People and historians think they know me, but they really do not know me; I am a mystery even to myself. I do not exist as I really am in the minds of others. I pass on unknown in this world.” This is why Milton said, “Fame is no plant that grows in mortal soil.”

True fame, true greatness, belongs to those who embrace God and no longer care about what the world thinks of them. I remember my dear mother, a saint and most obscure housewife, came to me, and gathering herself together as to declare something she long rehearsed, said, “You know John, I spend my days doing small tasks, washing clothes, making dinner, doing dishes, etc., but some day I am going to be great!” She intuitively knew that greatness and renown belong to those who belong to God and to the New Jerusalem (Rev. 2:17, 3:5, 12), where every soul shall be known to all.

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The Nations Motif: God is a Nationalist!

Posted in Uncategorized on January 21, 2014 by ancienthopes

God is a “nationalist” judging from the Primeval History, the Abrahamic covenant that directly builds upon it, and the general tenor of the rest of the Bible. True, the dispersion of Babel and the chaos of the multiplicity of tongues is considered a divine judgment, but the resultant expansion of humanity throughout the world is the divine will as expressed in the cultural mandate at creation. God loves diversity as well as unity, and the variety of human cultural expression is not a negative thing in the Bible apart from idolatry.

Out of the seventy nations God chose one nation to be uniquely great, and this is the one that will come from Abraham. God elected the Hebrew nation not because it is better or more special than any other nation (Deut. 7:6ff. is very clear on this), but chose it for the purpose of converting the nations, the offspring of Babel, to God as we elaborated in the Post “My Covenant in Your Flesh” (Jan. 2 2014). Again, the land of Israel is the Temple (symbolic of Eden and lost origins), and the Hebrews the priests who are to expand the sanctuary to the whole world.

It is in this context that we need to approach chapter 14, the story of the four kings, Lot, and Melchizedek. I remember my doctoral adviser remarking that this chapter does not seem to fit into the flow of the Abrahamic cycle of stories, and was material just “stuck in” for lack of a better place to put it. However, I have since discovered that this chapter is placed here to demonstrate God’s fulfillment of His initial promise to Abraham in 12:2 to make Abraham a great nation. The fact is that God makes promises that are both fulfilled in his life time, and more completely in the far future. This is obvious with the promise of seed, but even land, where the whole of Chapter 23 is devoted to the purchase of Sarah’s burial plot; it is a part that represents the whole, a piece that is a guarantee of the rest. Here in chapter 14 we find that Abraham even in his life time emerges as a great nation.

The four kings are Amraphel of Shinar (ancient Sumer the cradle of civilization), Arioch a Hurrian (North of Syria), Chedorlaomer an Elamite (East of Sumer), and Tidal, a Hittite (modern day western Turkey). They represent the 4 great Mesopotamian powers of the age. What were they doing in Palestine and specifically the “cities of the plain” (most notoriously Sodom and Gomorrah near the Dead Sea)? A possible scenario is that they were vassal “petty states” to these great powers which rebelled. To crush the rebellion, they sent a raiding party sufficient to punish and loot, and in the process made off with Lot and his family. That Abraham was powerful enough to deliver Lot and recover the loot demonstrates that he was in this instance a player on the world stage bringing justice to the nations, a foretaste of what is to come.

The mysterious priest-king Melchizedek fits into the great nation promise as well. He blesses Abraham and his God (13:17ff.) thus fulfilling the promise of 12:3 “I will bless those who bless you” and therefore blessed of God. He serves as a model of how the nations should interact with Abraham. He is rewarded in becoming the prototype of David, who as God’s anointed, is rightfully king of all kings. Finally, we find Abraham interceding for Sodom in 18:16-33. His greatness lies in the fact that God admits him into his exclusive council on the basis of the promise that “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world shall be blessed in him” (18:17f.).

If we read these introductory chapters of the Bible carefully, we find that God is anything but provincial, anything but a territorial spirit. True, He elects, calls, and chooses a people, but does this to reach the whole. Even evil nations have rights that God must respect; the intercessory dialogue between Abraham and God suggests that if there were even 10 righteous persons in Sodom the city would have been spared. The Amorites, destined to be destroyed in Canaan by the offspring of Abraham, has integrity as a people with rights to exist before God, judging from the text of 15:16, where their iniquity was “not yet full” to justify their immediate destruction. We can only conclude that national and cultural variety is a revelation of the very heart of God.

Abraham’s Blessing a Primal Creation Power

Posted in Uncategorized on January 14, 2014 by ancienthopes

The Abrahamic covenant rests on the four great pillars of chapters 12, 15, 17 and 22 which we briefly touched on in the last four posts. Chapters 12 and 15 focus on the land motif, where the Promised Land is understood theologically, a return to Eden. Chapters 17 and 22 focus on the seed motif, where Abraham’s offspring will fill the earth and bless the nations, thus fulfilling the cultural mandate given to Adam in the garden. Land, specifically the Land of Israel, becomes the new Eden from which Abraham, the new “first man,” and his seed will spread forth and bring creation blessing to the world at large. Thus, God’s original design for creation to be a cosmic temple will be fulfilled, where God and humanity will live together in communion.

This process can only come about through a primal power that underlies the cosmic temple, and that is the power blessing. God blessed creation at various stages. It is then and only then does creation actually function as it was intended to function in the mind of God. Blessing sets everything in motion. So when God blessed Abraham, He established Him to be the priest in His cosmic Temple. When we see this, everything in the Bible falls into place with regard to calling, election, and predestination. It is not as if God pulls out a few lucky souls out of the mass of humanity doomed to destruction. Everything about creation, everything about the cosmic temple, is functional. Abraham, like Israel after him, was to be a priest to the nations and reverse the effect of the fall that culminated with Babel and the subsequent judgment of scattering and language/cultural confusion. The tabernacle, and later the Temple on Mount Zion, become the place from which blessing flowed. The High Priest gave the blessing to the people at the temple, the formula of which is found in Numbers 6:24-26 where the divine name YHWH is used 3 times (triple utterance signifies perfection), and all the rest of the words add up to 12, the number of the tribes of Israel. The whole blessing crescendos to “shalom,” which is the state to which God’s blessing takes us, a state of fullness, purpose, contentment, and glory. From there the people were to be a ‘priestly royalty,” like Adam in the garden, to fill the earth with creation blessing.

Blessings are not mere words. For that matter, curses are not mere words either. I remember almost hitting a biker years ago, and felt his curses hurled upon me. To this day I remember them even though I never new this man. Curses uttered even casually are extremely effective, and their power is to deny a person the opportunity to find their way and purpose in creation. Cain was separated from the earth, a wanderer (Gen. 4:12). Many people cannot function well in life either because they are under curses, or because they were denied a blessing. On the other hand, blessings essentially empower persons to be all that God created them to be, and allow them to fulfill their unique destiny on earth. Isaac’s blessing on Jacob, even though intended for Esau, demonstrates this power in Genesis 27:27ff. The words of the blessing are a reversal of the curse in 3:17 (“… the smell of the field which God has blessed,” the “dew of heaven” and “fatness of the earth,” and rule/dominion is suggestive of the ground before the curse). There was no real blessing for Esau; all that was left for him was the desert, violence, and rebellion (27:39-40).

In a world that thinks of power in terms of athletic strength, sexual prowess, and weaponry, the power of blessing seems like a rather quaint idea. The truth of the matter is that creation as cosmic temple is a fundamentally relational system built by divine word, and nothing works as it should without a blessing.

The Sublime Climax: Genesis 22

Posted in Uncategorized on January 7, 2014 by ancienthopes

The forth great pillar of the Abrahamic Covenant is chapter 22. Genesis 12 and 15 center on land; Genesis 17 and 22 focus on seed. On these four pillars the whole of redemptive history rests. No story can be more exquisite in plot and brevity than what we have before us; it is magnificent, it is sublime!

God tests Abraham. Where there is faith there is always testing; faith’s beauty can only be displayed by trial. God calls out “Abraham,” and he answers with the profoundly simple “hinnēnî” (“Here I am,” So Isaiah 6:8). God takes aim at the most precious thing to Abraham, his son of promise, beginning with the general “take your son” then to “your only son,” to “whom you love,” finally to the heart of his heart’s target, “Isaac.” God demands the unthinkable, the unreasonable, and the most terrible. Is his God just another manifestation of the pagan deities that demand human sacrifice? The narrative does not allow us into Abraham’s thoughts; there are no questions, only action. They begin the 3 day long journey with two servants and a donkey carrying the wood; three days of what we all know must have been filled with deep interior struggle, dark and frantic thoughts, solitude and silence. This is sublime!

Abraham leaves behind the two servants with the cryptic remark “I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (v. 5). He loads the wood on the boy’s back, the wood for his own sacrifice, and Abraham leads the way up the mountain with torch and knife. Isaac breaks the silence with “my father,” and Abraham he responds “hinnēnî.” Isaac is confused; where was the lamb? His father assures him that God would provide. Then the darkly beautiful phrase “So they went on both of them together.” This is sublime!

The altar is set, the boy lays bound upon the wood, and the knife is lifted. There is no doubt, in spite of what Abraham told the servants and Isaac, that he was ready to plunge the knife into his son. The “angel of the Lord” (a Theophany?) watches this drama unfold, and at the last second cries out “Abraham, Abraham”! He responds with a third “hinnēnî” making a triple utterance in the narrative. God, who transcends time, knows all along Abraham’s heart and what he would do. However, God never allows his omniscience get in the way of His wonder; He experiences the sublimity of the moment with Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God …” A ram is provided, the sacrifice is made, and the story ends with the divine oath that Abraham’s seed will indeed be multiplied.

The narrator concludes this sublime drama with a critical statement “… as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (v. 14). Whatever the ancient readers took from this story, they understood by this saying that this dramatic episode rises above a mere historical event to something higher. The land of Moriah (v.2) symbolizes Eden, the Mount of God. Abraham is a first man like Adam. However, unlike Adam, Abraham responded to his test with faith, that pre-fall, original attitude for which humanity was made to have to relate with God. This moment is a reversal of the fall. Through Abraham there will be a race that will fill the earth with person with like faith; he succeeds where Adam failed.

One might be repulsed at the fact that God would ask Abraham to do such a terrible thing. However, God never asks what He Himself is unwilling to do. It is Godlike to sacrifice that which is most precious. There can be no sublimity without sacrifice, and what would the world be without sublimity? God in fact is most sublime, for he performs Himself what he spared Abraham. The Jews identified the land of Moriah with its mount with the Zion, the Temple Mount (II Chron. 3:1). Christ came to judge the Temple establishment for failing to produce the seed of faith their ancestor Abraham displayed on that same mount. He in his own flesh becomes the New Cosmic Temple which in three days is destroyed yet resurrected, from which comes a whole new race of men and women with Abraham’s faith that spreads out over the earth like sand on the seashore. This is sublime!

Gen 17: My Covenant in your Flesh

Posted in Uncategorized on January 2, 2014 by ancienthopes

We have in verse one the first reference to Abraham’s age; we do not know how old he was when he left Haran to go to Canaan, but here he is old. However virile Abraham was at his age, and however well preserved Sarah was in chapter 20 so as to excite desire (historical sequence of events are not critical here; the structure is what is important), it is clear that they were well beyond natural ability to procreate. This fact is critical, setting the context for the great sign of the covenant, circumcision.

Everything centers on the phallus; the “covenant is in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (v. 13). What this does is theologizes the male member. True, other peoples circumcised their males for various reasons at various ages, but in Israel, circumcision is directly linked to covenant, to relationships both divine and human. Here in the structure of the Abrahamic covenant where the promise of land is established in chapters 12 and 15, the covenant now turns to the second great promise of the covenant, that of seed. The phallus is that through which the seed passes. Foreskin symbolizes alienation from God, moral dissolution, spiritual lostness and purposelessness ─ in short, everything which even a son of Abram is by nature, fallen from original glory. Therefore, the foreskin must be removed on the eight day, or the boy is to be “cut off” from the community.

As a symbol, circumcision is very rich with multiple meanings, a meditation on what it means to be a son of the covenant. A man has to think twice about how he uses his member; it is not his own to do with whatever he pleases. Circumcision not only links him to God, but is the bond with his wife; she becomes a daughter of the covenant through her father and later through her husband. Covenant with God necessitates sacred covenantal bond with one’s wife. The phallus is the most intimate place on a man; covenant with God and wife is intimate. Intimacy therefore becomes the very center of covenant, a revelation of the very heart of God. This explains the rather strange imagery of having a “circumcised heart” (Dt. 10:16, 30:6). Thus the physical and the spiritual come together by this covenantal symbol and sign. The covenant is “in the flesh” thus spiritualizing the flesh.

Every Hebrew entered into covenant apart from personal choice; he was born into this grace. However, he was to grow into this grace by choice and become what he was born to be. There is no hint of modern individualism and existentialism here. Born alone and alienated, he was quickly brought into community and salvation through the objective act of the knife. It is an irremovable mark. True, there is always the danger of merely being circumcised outwardly and not inwardly, but this did not necessitate in their minds the rejecting of ritual and retreating into their spiritual interiors! No! The objective and the subjective must work together or nothing works at all.

Moreover, circumcision is in the context of the creation promise of filling the world (13:16, 15:5). Therefore, the sign of the covenant is eschatological. The world is to be filled with the circumcised. The pagan world around them worshiped the phallus; it becomes magical on one hand, or profane on the other, or both. Again, everything centers on the phallus; it becomes a weapon of lust among the pagans, or a means of intimacy and relationship among the new covenantal people of God. In the context of Genesis 3:15 and the promise of the woman’s seed crushing the head of the serpent’s seed, circumcision becomes the eschatological sign fulfilled ultimately in Christ, the only true Israelite, the only truly circumcised.

We now see the link between circumcision and spirituality. The whole chapter is prefaced by El Shaddai’s command to Abram to “walk before Him and be perfect” (v. 1). Circumcision is a symbol of wholeness; done to the part, it symbolizes the whole. The word for “walk” is the very same word used in the garden when God would “walk” in the evening (3:8). Once circumcised, Abram supernaturally impregnated his aged wife. Circumcision is the physical symbol of the supernatural life lived in the Promised Land, a return to the Garden in Eden.