Pushing it with God

Posted in Uncategorized on February 9, 2015 by ancienthopes

One cannot help but get the feeling that with this next test in the desert, that of no water, the people’s fear, anger, and impatience are escalating. In the first two episodes, the people murmur against Moses; now they are contentious with Moses to the point that he felt that his life was threatened (v.4). Moses is at his wit’s end. God, as before, shows no reaction other than responding to the issue at hand. He commands Moses to take some of the elders on ahead of the people, and strike “the rock at Horeb” so that water will miraculously spring forth (v. 6). The definite article with the word “rock” suggests that this rock was acknowledged to be unique. The mention of Horeb (i.e. Mount Sinai) before the congregation reaches this sacred destination is difficult to understand sequentially. The association, however, draws our attention to the whole idea of the sacred mountain as we have already seen in Exodus 3 (See Gazing into Divine Fire, Oct. 8, 2014). The imagery of “the rock” in connection with the “mountain” is a spiritually loaded biblical motif combination (cf. Dan. 2:34-35, Matt. 21:42-44). We clearly see that God creates in the wilderness a river of life, a virtual Eden in the wilderness.

There is another similarity here with lost origins. The people accused Moses of taking them out into the desert for the express purpose of killing them (v. 3, cf. 16:3). This accusation against Moses is here interpreted by Moses as “putting the Lord to the test” (v. 2). The fact of the situation is that God was testing them to pull to the surface of their consciousness what lies deep inside. What was inside was a heart of disbelief in YHWH. They were committing the same primal sin in the desert that Eve committed in the Garden. She came to disbelieve that God had her best in mind, that He had good intentions for her (See Snaky Words, Sept. 3, 2013). Unlike Abraham their father, who trusted God in the face of the inexplicable (See The Sublime Climax: Gen. 22, Jan. 7, 2014), they were reverting to the primal sin of disbelief. In this darkened spiritual state, the soul deflects the test God applies for spiritual healing, and strikes out against God. This is what it means to put God to the test. Testing God is the reversal of His testing of us. He tests us to ultimately bring healing; we test Him when we push back, accusing Him of bad intentions. We cannot grow and be healed when we are fighting God, and we run the risk of “pushing it too far.” Israel is well on the way of doing this very thing when she asks, “Is the lord among us or not?” in the face of God’s constant provision (v. 7).

Picking up on our allegory, Moses represents the spirit of the person who desires to be reunited with God. The people represent the body with its senses (See The Young Moses, Sept. 29, 2014). This narrative visualizes the strife between the interior spirit driven by God and the exterior driven by the appetite and senses. The exterior appetite is so strong that it would want to kill off the spirit, and would but for the intervention of God. Moses, representing the spirit, is committed to the body but strives to put it under the subjection of God. This is the great battle of everyman, every woman. We all have fight! To fight the good fight is to subject our senses and appetites to our spirit before God. To fight against God is to put him to the test. When we do this, God is extremely patient over a long period of time, but there is a point where we can push it too far. Israel in fact reaches this point a couple of times on their desert journey. The question remains, what about us?

Panis Angelicus: Man ate the bread of Angels (Ps. 78:25).

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2015 by ancienthopes

In the desert, two things were happening for the Israelites at the same time. First of all, they were facing death daily. Their problems were real and serious. In the last post, they faced poisonous water. No one can last long in the desert without water, and the problem is compounded considering the provisions for a whole congregation of people. Now after traveling a few days, they came to the Wilderness of Sin (16:1), the first of seven deserts crossed by the Israelites in their journey to the Promised Land. Food now becomes a problem. In these difficulties, God never makes light of their plight. He is remarkably patient with the people. The other thing that is going on is God’s marvelous provision. He displays his power at the Red Sea, and turned bitter water into living water, led them to springs, and now was about to provide for them bread from heaven, the “bread of angels.” We must not be quick to condemn the Israelites for murmuring at every test along the way. Again, Israel is everyman; she is a mirror into our own souls. It is shallow to assume that if we had seen all the wonders they had seen that we would calmly walk through the desert joyfully, always in expectation for the next miraculous provision. This is the ideal, but how many of us actually live the ideal in spite of all the evidence of God in our lives? Here the Israelites are so angry at God for leading them into the desert that they utter a death wish (16:3), and fantasized about the “fleshpots” in Egypt as if their former masters were their cooks and waiters. The problem is that they were living by their senses, from the outside in, and not the inside out. We humans lose our dignity when we live from the outside in, always driven by our physical appetite. Our dignity is living from the inside out, from the spirit in the depths of our being, which in turn rules the soul with its reason, imagination, will and emotions, and from there to our sensual and physical exteriors. (See The Haunted House “… I was afraid…” Sept. 24, 2013) It is this dignity God is intent on restoring. Israel finds herself now in the school of God. Exodus chapter 16 is a classic text in spiritual formation. God addresses their need for food, but He does so in a most directed way. YHWH rains bread from heaven down upon them, but they must be extremely careful with how they handle it. They are to gather only what they daily needed. The miracle here is not only that the bread came from heaven, but that however much anyone could gather, in the end each individual had just the right amount for him or herself. (16:18). This informs us that God fully satisfies everyone no matter what capacity they have to receive, whether things spiritual or physical. But if we become gluttonous and try to hoard things physical or spiritual, what we gather rots and turns to stench as the manna did if the Israelites kept some overnight (v. 20). God was teaching them to enjoy Him morning by morning with their daily bread without fear for the future. Moreover, they were to gather it each of the six days of the week, and only on the sixth day were they to gather for the Sabbath day, for on the Sabbath day there was no manna. The Sabbath is not a day where the people were to gather; it was their dignity to rest in the presence of God. In God’s school we are to learn not to live to eat, but to eat to live, not to live from the outside in, but from the inside out. Spiritual formation is all about restoring our dignity lost at the fall when humanity chose to live by the senses and not by the spirit. No purely natural explanation for the manna will suffice. The name itself, derived from the Hebrew mah hûʹ (man hûʹ is an etymological corruption from which we get the word “manna”), means “What is this?” The Hebrews themselves did not know, and could only compare it with coriander seed and honey wafers. We do know that it was material and thus earthly, but that it was “from heaven” as well. It was so special that the Lord commanded Moses to place some in a jar “before the Lord” for all generations to come (vv. 31-36), and ultimately placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Heb. 9:4) at the very heart where the transcendent God touched the temporal, the most holy place on earth. This connection with heaven and earth makes Manna a clear type of Christ who in His incarnation was both from heaven as the Eternal Logos and made of this earth through the Blessed Mother, as well as the Eucharist, where Jesus plainly teaches that His flesh is the bread of life come “down from heaven,” (John 6:22-71). God always works salvation through the physical; it is never purely a spiritual affair.

Bitter Water: Bitter Hearts

Posted in Uncategorized on January 21, 2015 by ancienthopes

Now that deliverance was accomplished and Israel was birthed into a new creation through her “baptism” in the Red Sea, it was time for her to take her next step with her God. Israel is every man, every woman. What is true about her in these narratives is true about us all. Salvation takes on the same pattern of creation: God draws us out of chaos, sets up order, bringing us to rest. Israel was taken out of chaos, that is, Egypt. Though taken out of chaos, chaos has yet to be taken out of her. Ahead is the long six day process of putting to order the primal elements of our souls. Rest is attained only by degrees, in fits and starts, not fully realized in this life. Moreover, it is interesting the text never tells us that Pharaoh died in the battle. This is because, as we have said before, Pharaoh represents that “old man,” or “seed of the serpent” (See The Battle Begins: An Allegory, November, 2014) which never really dies in us until our physical body dies. He remains, even though defeated, a force to be reckoned with, representing that part within us which is in rebellion with God.

It was always YHWH’s intention to take Israel into the wilderness. It is there, and only there, that God can really deal with our interior chaos. True, we were made for the fertile earth, the garden. But a garden on the outside does not match well with chaos on the inside; it would be like remaining in the garden after the fall, partaking of the tree of life with darkened hearts. The Cherubim would not allow this duplicity. YHWH therefore takes them three days journey into the wilderness (Ex.15:22). Of course, three days stretches out to forty years, the span of a lifetime in those days. This life is a journey with God through the wilderness. The garden is the goal.

The people do not know themselves. The last we saw, they feared God and believed in YHWH and Moses (14:31). This was before their three days journey into the horrors of the desert. The Goshen of their former days of slavery was fertile delta country. When placed under this extreme situation, it is no wonder that they remembered “leeks and onions” (Num. 11:5) and not the whips of their former cruel masters. Their first trouble was bitter water. Imagine experiencing a thirst onto death, coming upon water, only to find that it was poisonous. This is a real problem; death is always near at hand in the wilderness. The natural reaction is murmuring. Murmuring is the sign of bitter waters of unbelief within. Indeed, YHWH placed them before bitter waters so that they could have a visible image of their invisible interiors. God’s tests are always serious and exactly to the point.

That the real problem wasn’t the bitter water itself is evident by YHWH’s response to their murmuring. YHWH “showed” Moses a “tree” which, when he threw it into the water, it became sweet. Evidently, the tree was missed by all and had to be “shown,” therefore it took a revelation to see it. A murmuring heart that focuses on the chaos blinds us to what is really there. Of course, the tree motif takes us back to the Garden in Eden, and functions here as the tree of life creating the living waters of Eden. The point is that God changes chaos into life as at creation. But the lesson takes us even further. The context would have us link the healing of bitter water with the healing of Israel’s interior diseases picked up in Egypt, the “world” (15:26). True, Egypt’s diseases on one level mean physical diseases, but as we have seen before, the physical is directly related to moral and spiritual condition.

God heals the interior through external circumstances. It was a harsh lesson. But God’s motives in all of this are made clear in the conclusion of the matter where He led them to Elim. In this place there were 12 springs of water and seventy palm trees (15:27). Twelve is the number of tribes of YHWH’s covenant people, and seventy is the number for the totality of the nations of the world (Gen. 10). The oases of life’s desert journeys sustain the body and soul, and remind us from whence we originated as well as point us to our journey’s end.

The Bard’s Song

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2015 by ancienthopes

In the old world, no mighty military feat would be complete without a bard to compose a song or ballad that would immortalize the victory. And so we have it here with “The Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15). However, because of its rich theological content and its direct address to YHWH praising His attributes, we may also consider this an ancient hymn that opens up for us the heart of Hebrew worship. It is surely one of the oldest songs in the Bible (so Albright).

The hymn has two parts to it. The first is a highly poeticized description of the battle itself and how YHWH triumphed over Pharaoh’s chariots (15:1-10). It is interesting that although YHWH is likened to a “Man of War,” He is not at all like any human warrior. He is incomparable not only because He is incomparable God (15:11), but also in that He does not fight like any human warrior. Human warriors kill directly. On one hand, we can say that since all life is initiated and terminated by God, God does take life directly, as we clearly see in 12:29. However, on the other hand, the narrative depicts YHWH warring through nature, such as we have seen with the plagues and here the watery deep. In the Hebrew cosmology, God has so “rigged” nature that if humanity breaks moral and spiritual boundaries laid out at creation, then creation itself will war against the culprit. In other words, there is a symbiosis between natural and the moral/spiritual. We see this in the prose description in 14:21-29 as well as in this song where it is clear that what happened was supernaturally initiated by Moses’ stretching out his hand creating a wall for the Israelites to walk through on dry ground, but yet we see the God did this naturally through His wind. It is useless to argue over a supernatural explanation or a naturalistic explanation, for the two could not be separated in the Hebrew cosmology as it is in our modern thinking. Humans are punished through nature for their moral choices as Pharaoh was. This hymn does not celebrate a God that loves to kill as a warmonger, but a God who established boundaries, both physical and moral, by which we can happily live, and if we break them, nature itself rises up against us. God both judges and saves through nature.

The second half of the song reveals the purpose of this mighty deed of salvation. We have seen how the battle is depicted in terms of creation (See Unleashing Chaos on Chaos, January 6, 2015). YHWH’s strategy was to lure the Egyptian army to the watery deep where God separated the waters, creating dry land to save Israel, but unleashing them upon the Egyptians. This parallels the first six days of creation where God divided the waters from the dry ground and filling them with life, especially humanity, culminating with the seventh day of rest in God’s cosmic temple. Here the battle culminates in the establishment of a new humanity in Israel and the establishment of a new land, a new garden “planted” by God on a new mountain (v. 17), a restored rest. YHWH’s act of deliverance and establishing Israel on the land promised to Abraham is as important as creation itself; indeed, it is but a continuation of creation. It is a sanctuary not made, like Babel, with human hands, but is established by YHWH’s own hands (v. 17). Chaos will not win out, but “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”

The same pattern that we see in creation and in this battle is also the same pattern we see in the salvation of each individual. We are born into spiritual and moral chaos, and God’s saving acts in our lives are much like the separation of light from darkness, dividing the watery deep from fertile ground in the internal caverns of our soul, subduing its sea monsters lurking within. The goal is the same as creation and this battle at the sea, bringing our interior sanctuaries into the rest of the seventh day, worship in union with God. When this happens, we cannot help but sing hymns to God for our deliverance like Moses, Miriam, and the sons of Israel did. Yes, this old bard’s song, this most ancient and original of hymns, becomes ours.

Unleashing Chaos on Chaos

Posted in Uncategorized on January 6, 2015 by ancienthopes

YHWH dismantles his foe in three stages. Having toyed with Pharaoh in the first stage of the battle with the 3 sets of 3 plagues culminating with an unnatural darkness reminiscent of the pre-created state (See YHWH’s Strange and Terrible Weapons: The Plagues on Dec. 8, 2014), and winning the battle of the firstborns in the second stage of the battle (12:29-32), YHWH now leads forth His people as a great captain of war with a plan to destroy Egypt’s army, the best in the world (13:17-14:31). He does this by trickery and by engaging the powers of chaos against Egypt, the great symbol of moral and spiritual chaos.

We see that YHWH did not lead Israel in the most direct way to the Promised Land (13:17). The word “lead” (Heb. nāḥâ, but with the 3 mp suffix, nāḥām, “lead them”) in this context is military in nature, and is a pun on the verb pen-yinnāḥēm, “lest they change their minds,” when they face the Philistines in war (Heb. milḥāmâ – note the nḥam alliteration and assonance) at the border. YHWH’s low estimation of Israel’s warfare prowess is directly followed with the curious fact that this rabble of ex-slaves was armed (v. 18), which, of course, verges on the humorous in comparison with Pharaoh’s elite troops. It is YHWH’s intention to prepare a grand spectacle where Israel stands back, as if before a stage, to see YHWH destroy the mighty Egyptian army all by Himself (14:13-14).

YHWH sets this stage by leading them into the desert. The desert is not only the context of this battle (13:18, 14:3) but of the rest of the Pentateuch. As we have seen before, the desert motif is associated with the formless earth of the pre-created state, that which is inhospitable, the opposite of the Garden and its river of life. Immediately the question arises, “how shall this vast crowed survive even without an enemy at their heels?” The second primal element of chaos is the watery deep, here described as yam suf, the Red/Reed Sea. There are all sorts of speculation as to where or what body of water this refers to. For us, we assume with the narrative that this is a historical event that happened at a substantial body of water, wherever it may have been. However, we simply cannot miss the cosmic dimensions with which our text frames this battle. YHWH intentionally leads the people “toward the Red/Reed Sea” (13:18). The word “suf,” often translated “Reed,” sounds much like the word “sof” to the Hebrew ear, which means “end.” Following this clue, we see that YHWH is leading his people, as well as the Egyptians, to the very “end,” or “edge,” of the watery deep, which for Pharaoh’s army, means death. Finally, the third primal element of chaos, that of darkness, is instrumental in the fight as well, as we find in 14:20, right before the very end, where we see the angel of the Lord coming between Israel and Egypt with a “cloud and darkness.” YHWH therefore is engaging the three primal elements of chaos that we have seen at creation in his battle with Egypt, especially the watery deep (See Genesis 1:2, Primal Elements of Chaos and Primal Fears on April 30, 2013).

Pharaoh is tricked by the fact that Israel is now in a vulnerable situation, hemmed in by the desert and the sea (14:3). YHWH hardens his heart to go after them with his all of his chariots (14:6-9). The Israelites respond in fear (14:10ff.) in spite of the supernatural leading by the cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night. These moved in between the Israelites and the Egyptians to separate them that night. Moses stretches his hands over the sea, and YHWH responds by driving the sea back with a strong east “wind,” “dividing” the waters for them to cross over on “dry ground” (cf. Ex. 14:22,29 with Gen. 1:2, 6, 9, 10). Egypt’s army perishes in the watery deep (14:28).

The language and imagery intentionally connects this event with creation. What happened at the sea was not merely a historical event, but a cosmic event parallel to creation itself. By delivering Israel out of Egypt, YHWH was effecting a new creation; the very inception of human salvation, for all humanity will trace its salvation to this event. It is noteworthy that the text explicitly states as an outcome that even the Egyptians shall “know that I am YHWH” (14:18). To “know YHWH” is to enter into truth and thus salvation itself. After all, YHWH was not fighting an ethic war as if He hated Egyptians, but what Egypt as a nation represented; the world in conflict with YHWH. YHWH unleashes chaos on chaos!

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.

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.