Archive for December, 2014

Life: A Drama of Inescapable Terror

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2014 by ancienthopes

The scene before us in Exodus 12 and 13 is full of terror. The perfect year old-lamb from the flock lives with the family for four days before it is sacrificed on the Passover. It is very adorable and everyone is deeply aware of its presence. Its blood is smeared on the doorposts and lintel; it must be eaten completely by morning and whatever is left is to be burned. The historical context of this ritual is the divine act of killing enemy firstborns. But YHWH demands the life of every male firstborn of Israel, man and beast, the very best, as well! Everyone in the family passed through the bloody doorposts not only thinking of the lamb that recently became a part of their family, but keenly aware that the blood they see is in the place of their very own firstborn male (13:1, 2, 15). The law of the firstborn and the Passover are intertwined by their juxtaposition in the narrative.

This terrifying scenario can only make sense in the context of a world where YHWH was the ultimate reality that must be reckoned with, or, in the broader pagan society, the gods. Human sacrifice was thought to be a necessity, for human life is most precious, especially when the child sacrificed is most precious. Life before God or the gods could not be lived out with integrity without offering them the very best! Feeling deeply the reality of sin and failure, how could things be made right by offering something less than the best? The remarkable thing about Israel, surrounded by a sea of human blood sacrificed to the gods, was that YHWH forbade the sacrifice of their children, accepting the blood of perfect lambs instead. However, human sacrifice was never far from the psychology of their worship. The majestic act of Abraham, their father in blood and faith, ready with outstretched arm for the ultimate sacrifice of His son Isaac, was always before them. And then there was that lamb they lived with for four days every Passover, sacrificed in the place of the most important person among the children, their own first-born male.

There is a profound similarity between the pagan world and Israel in that both YHWH and the gods inspire terror. There are profound differences as well. The pagans were terrorized by the gods, and never quite knew if they were appeased by their sacrifices. They lived in a climate of terror and had no way to escape the fear it inspired. No doubt it seemed to them that the gods smiled at times upon them, but inevitably, angry clouds would set in. For Israel, who was called to live with a Holy God, terror was inescapable as well. In fact, the very idea of the “holy” cannot be separated from the mysterium tremendom, holy terror. Terror gives way to šālôm and the sheer joy of divine acceptance and mutual relationship established by covenant and its liturgical requirements performed with faithful hearts. For Israel, terror and joy were never far apart. In fact, the Crucifix brings together the paradox perfectly.

Today, we are far removed from old paganism and old Israelite ritual and sacrifice. The terror they experienced before the holy is incomprehensible. A God that is so absolute and real that He demands ultimate sacrifice is offensive to us. Such concepts are dismissed as old relics of a stage in human development out of which humanity is hopefully emerging. True, there is terrorism inspired by misguided religious fervor, but there is also the terror that springs forth from the secular world view. The human soul was made to engage with God and to experience the sheer terror and delight the mere force of His being inspires. Without this quest the soul shrivels up and the sheer boredom of aimlessness settles in, creating terrorists of our own making. Our world is far more full of terrors than the old world; terrorism is an imbedded part of our world culture, and there is no true joy. We run from the terror of God to our own manufactured terror. Terror is inescapable. It is a holy terror to run toward God, but to run away from God is terrible in the most awful way.

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History, Memory, and Liturgy

Posted in Uncategorized on December 17, 2014 by ancienthopes

The way our biblical text is arranged in Exodus 11-12, that is, the form in which it is presented, is of as great importance as its content. We go from the three sets of three plagues (chapters 7-10), which we may call “history,” (although it is highly stylized for theological effect; very foreign to the way we do history in our age) to a divine oracle of instruction (chapter 11), to liturgical instruction (12:1-28), back to the historical narrative (12:28-42), and then back to liturgical instruction (12:43-49, along with 12:50-13:16). What does this tell us about the Scripture and the Hebrew mind in which it was conceived? It suggests to us that history, in and of itself, means nothing outside of a theological context. But what is more, redemptive history can only have its full meaning as liturgical history which is acted out in prayer and worship.

By “liturgy” we mean “work,” for the Hebrew word used to describe the action of sacred worship is `abôdâ (the word for both labor and worship; the LXX reads latreian from which we get our word “liturgy”) as we read in the command, “when you come to the land which YHWH will give you … you shall keep (Heb. šāmar) this service (`abôdâ) in 12:25. Here we have a direct link to creation, for Adam and Eve was to keep (Heb. šāmar) the work (`abôdâ) the Garden (Gen. 2:15). God is preparing Israel for the Promised Land, a return, as it were, to the Garden, and their main responsibility in it, as it was supposed to be for our first parents, was to “keep and work” it.

This day of the Passover in which the liturgy was to be performed, is a day of “remembrance” (12:14). To the Hebrew, “remembrance” (Heb. zikkārôn) is not a mere cognitive, subjective, act of recalling something to mind as it is to us in our culture. Rather, remembrance is an objective liturgical act where the worshipers were transported back in time to the original historical event in a way that made them as present to that event as the ones who first experienced it. We see this in 12:26-27 where the deliverance is as much the experience of the children in generations to come as the first generation. History is therefore preserved in the liturgical act, and is given continuous meaning as the generations pass by. There is no word for “history” in Hebrew. What we have is the word “remember” (Heb. zākar) which is essentially linked to liturgical action. History becomes a prayer acted out in liturgy, a sacred drama, a reenactment.

Now it is true that liturgy can become an empty form when done thoughtlessly or in ignorance. The prophets condemn this and it is an ever present danger (e.g. Is.1:10-17). But it is equally true that without the objective prayer acted out in the community, we are no longer essentially connected with the past, and we become lost in our own subjectivity. There is a direct relationship between our present disregard for history and our disdain for the ancient liturgy. Most Christians are aware, at least vaguely, that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice described here in Ex. 12, but many do not experience it liturgically, and therefore do not experience it as a corporate, objective act of worship. That is, they are not, as the ancient Hebrews were with their Passover, transported back to the original sacrifice of Jesus at the cross, thus binding themselves to Jesus with all the ages of worshipers in one divine moment at Eucharist. This is because they are completely blinded to the ancient idea of history by our modern idea of history given to us by the Enlightenment. Worship is reduced for them to subjective feelings and has little to no objective reality in the here and now.

The Christian liturgy of the Eucharist is often called the “divine liturgy,” especially by the Eastern Orthodox. We see from the connection made above between the garden of our origins in Eden and the liturgy of the Passover to the Holy Eucharist that we enter into paradise through the prayers acted out together. Only then does history become real to us rather than some vague mental recollection of something that happened long ago.

YHWH’s Strange and Terrible Weapons: The Plagues

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2014 by ancienthopes

The actual battle begins with a skirmish that at first might remind us of a magical contest. Aaron throws Moses’ staff before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent. Again, we imagine this serpent to be a Cobra representing Pharaoh’s power. (See Taking the Cobra by the Tail, Oct. 27, 2014, and the Uraeus in Pharaoh’s crown). The Egyptian magicians somehow could manage this as well, but Aaron’s rod swallowed them up. This is a bad omen, and Pharaoh should have picked up on this, but could not, for his heart was hardened. It is a prophetic sign that YHWH will swallow Egypt up, which in fact happens at the Red Sea.

There are three stages of three plagues, each stage intensifying, concluding with the worst of all, the Death Angel. In the first stage the Nile is turned to blood (7:20 24), the plague of frogs (8:1 7), and the gnats (8:16 19). Note that the magicians could imitate plagues one and two, as well as the serpents (7:11 13) with their sophisticated dark arts, but could not imitate the third plague (“This is the hand of God,” 8:19). In the second stage there are the plague of flies (8:20 24), the death of Egypt’s livestock (9:1 7), and the boils (9:8 12). Note the distinction made between Israel and Egypt at this stage (8:22). Also, after this stage the magicians could not even stand before Moses because of the boils (9:11). In the third stage there are the plagues of hail (9:22 26), locusts (10:12 20), concluding with the ninth plague of thick darkness (10:21 29). It is important to notice that the magicians are not even mentioned now. Also, in some way there was intensification, for God’s power was “unrestrained” at this stage (9:14).

What is happening with the magicians is significant. They could duplicate snakes (7:12) and plagues 1 (water to blood) and 2 (frogs), but could not produce gnats, so they declare, “This is the finger of God” (8:19). After the second stage, they could not even stand before Moses because of the boils. They are not even mentioned after 3rd stage. YHWH is not only warring against Pharaoh (parental battle), but is putting to shame pagan magic in the heart of Egypt, the land of the occult par excellence. It is not even portrayed as a magic contest, for YHWH and Moses transcend magic. It is a “no contest;” the battle is prolonged merely to show off God’s power over what in that day and age was considered ultimate power, Pharaoh and Egypt. In the Hebrew world view, all power is God’s power, and any power the magicians could tap into is ultimately “on loan,” so to speak.

The ninth and last plague of the three sets of three, deep darkness, is significant as well. One might think that one of the previous plagues, such as boils, would be worse. However, this darkness was unnatural; the Hebrew wording in 10:21, 22 implies an unnatural darkness, a return, so to speak, to the pre-created state where “darkness was over the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2). It was felt that the natural order and bounds of creation, day and night, were altered, and therefore inspired terror. This is of special import to the Egyptians, for their sky is perpetually clear by day (clouds and storms extremely rare), for Re the sun god (symbolized by the beetle [scarab]), daily drove across it in triumph. Re was the highest god in the Egyptian pantheon, and Pharaoh was Re’s manifestation on earth.

The tenth plague is set apart from the three sets of three because the battle is portrayed fundamentally as a parental battle (4:21-22). YHWH is fighting for his firstborn, and Pharaoh, the god of Egypt, fighting for his dynasty (firstborn). The basic issue involved here is, who is God, YHWH or Pharaoh? The Magicians knew it after 3rd plague, the servants at the 8th plague and Pharaoh after 10th (12:31-32). Note the forced submission of this god-king after 4th, 7th, and 8th plagues; Pharaoh forced reduced to beg for intercession with, and bless me also (12:32).

YHWH turns the gods of Egypt against the Egyptians in His warfare: the Nile, frogs, livestock, the sun and Pharaoh himself. Therefore this is a judgment against the pagan world view that worships nature. YHWH proves His identity in that “all will know that He is YHWH” and that there is no god like Him (5:2, 6:7, 7:5, 17, 8:10, 22, and esp. 9:14, 29, 10:2).

“… Let us go a three days journey …” Really?

Posted in Uncategorized on December 1, 2014 by ancienthopes

As we have seen, YHWH shows a lot of “personality” for being utterly transcendent, beyond words, and even beyond “personality” as we know it (See, A Meditation on the “Personality” of YHWH on Nov. 3rd, 2014). He is not an impersonal “force” who is too transcendent for real relationship, oblivious to those who revere him or not. YHWH takes note of those He loves and with whom He relates, but also His enemies. In our previous post, we see that YHWH is an active agent in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. We must not think that Pharaoh is a mere play thing to YHWH, an object of His disdain. On the contrary, YHWH is taking Pharaoh seriously, for he is deeply engaged with His will. YHWH respects the fact that Pharaoh is exerting his will, and deals with him accordingly. The spiritual reality is that the more our wills conform to YHWH’s, the freer we humans become. Conversely, the more we fight YHWH’s will, the more constricted our freedom becomes.

If the idea of “hardening” is difficult for us to fathom, the fact that YHWH lies to His enemies is even harder to comprehend. However, it is undeniable from the text. It is clear that YHWH’s intention for Israel is to deliver them from Egypt completely (3:8, 6:6), defeat Pharaoh in a spectacular way (3:19, 20, 6:1,) and slay his firstborn (4:23). It is also clear that YHWH wants Pharaoh to believe that all He wants is for Israel to go out for a three days journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH (3:18, 5:1-3). Really? What is more, there are other texts where YHWH, or His people, is involved in deceit. For instance, Rahab the harlot is praised for her action which was essentially a lie (Joshua 6), and David lies to the Philistines (I Sam. 27:8-12). What is of particular interest is the story of the prophet Micaiah at King Ahab’s court, where YHWH asks the hosts surrounding His throne who will seduce Ahab so as to bring him down. A spirit comes forward and says that he will do the job, and when asked how, he responds that he will be a “lying spirit” in the mouths of the king’s prophet. YHWH sanctions this plan and it is implemented (I Kings 22:13-23).

What are we to do with this, especially in light of the fact that YHWH is truth and cannot lie? Is not the false word that brings chaos (e.g. the serpent in the garden) the dark side to YHWH’s word by which creation comes to order? Again, as it is with the problem of the hardened heart, the divine lie can only properly be understood in the context of holy war. All the above instances have to do with God warring against His enemies. In fact, war by definition is the art of deception. There can be no war without deceit. That “YHWH is a man of war, YHWH is His name” (Ex. 15:3) means that YHWH out maneuvered His enemies and defeated them. One of His weapons is false intelligence as well as hardening, both of which induced Pharaoh to make foolish tactical decisions. This idea is carried also into the New Testament where God sends His enemies false delusions to make them believe what is false because they do not love the truth (II Thess. 2:11). God defeats Satan, the father of lies, by deceiving the deceiver, beating him at his own game.

All of this is so offensive and absurd to our western “enlightened” culture that long ago rejected the God of the Old Testament. These associations, which C.S. Lewis called “horrid red things,” referring to anthropomorphisms and “primitive” metaphors, cannot be avoided for some more “sophisticated” language without falling into meaningless vagary (Miracles, chap. 10). True, God is beyond all language and metaphor, but we can only make our way to Him through the language and ideas of our human context by means of analogy. We must embrace God as He is presented in these old stories, and if we refuse, we find that we will embrace some benign deity of our own making, or reject God completely. Yes, YHWH has “personality,” and we must take Him seriously, for He certainly takes us seriously.