Friday, September 22, 2017

Small-town Minnesota

Just ran across a marvelous essay on living in a small town in (southern) Minnesota.
Yet I know that all that scarcity—or the perception of it—is what drives cultural life here. Rather than paucity, I see abundance of life and fullness of experience. A dynamic current runs through our community life. Though much of rural life is defined by scarcity of people and places, it’s precisely that sparseness that compels people to get involved. That’s what moves us toward action and makes events more meaningful. It’s a scarcity that’s vibrant.

Rural life is plentiful and life-giving in its own way. So I continue down this path, engaging in life’s mystery. I look for opportunities. I take on some of the boldness mirrored by so many around me. I say yes. I will continue to experience the mystery of life and faith as I cast anchor in the vibrant scarcity of rural life.

Indeed! Of course, Grand Marais is a bit different in that we aren't a farming community—not enough dirt or level ground here—and the nearest town over 250 is Two Harbors, about 1.5 hours away (or you could go to Thunder Bay in Canada). We already have a food co-op and a thriving art scene that is nationally known. And, most importantly, we have Lake Superior!

The limited role of intercession

Intercessory prayer, however, rarely eradicates sin. Sin usually remains suspended over the sinners until divine judgment has been fulfilled (cf. Num 14:19–25, Jer 7:16) or until an act of atonement has been made (cf. Num 15:22–29). The same understanding seems to apply to David’s intercessory prayer and his subsequent sacrifice of atonement. Not unlike in the wilderness rebellion against Moses and Aaron, the people’s offense required both intercessory prayer (“they fell on their faces”) and Aaron’s cultic form of intercession (incense offering) to propitiate the divine wrath and to atone for the people’s sin. Only then the plague came to a halt (cf. Num 16:45–50, 2 Sam 24:18–25).—Standing in the Breach, page 247

Thursday, September 21, 2017

From despot to servant

Schenker catches the narrative development insightfully when he observes that from 2 Sam 24:3 onward, especially from v. 14 to v. 17, the account testifies to the transformation of the ruler. David’s conception of power does a 180-degree turn. At the outset of the narrative, the king is only concerned about personal power that is expressed through a numerically strong army. When the king’s seer confronts David with his guilt, David repents and attempts first to save himself (v. 14). As the extent of the disaster that David has caused becomes evident to him, the king prefers the downfall of himself and his family to that of the people (v. 17). Schenker observes,
King David changes from a despot to a father of his country; he no longer exploits his people and his power, rather he offers himself and his family for the people.
Only when David comes to stand in the right relationship to the power of a just ruler does he receive divine instructions to build an altar for himself and the people.—Standing in the Breach, pages 244–45

<idle musing>
I think there might be a lesson for us there. Servant leadership is a buzzword, but this passage shows that if it is really embraced, and not just tossed about, God can do something.
</idle musing>

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why was David forgiven, but Saul not?

A brief comparison with 1 Samuel 15 is quite illuminating. Besides the reoccurrence of the expression of God’s change of mind concerning the punishment (נחם [nḥm]; cf. 1 Sam 15:29, 2 Sam 24:16), in both accounts we find reference to the sin of a king. In both instances, God sends a prophet in the morning to draw attention to the monarch’s transgression (cf. 1 Sam 15:12, 2 Sam 24:11). This is followed on both occasions by a double royal confession of guilt (cf. 1 Sam 15:24, 30; 2 Sam 24:10, 17). Initially, however, Saul sought to justify his failure by blaming the people (1 Sam 15:14, 21), while David fully acknowledges his guilt and is eventually ready to take upon himself all the punishment (2 Sam 24:17). Saul is not even ready to accept his own judgment (1 Sam 15:24–25). In fact, Saul does not change much during the conflict with Samuel, while David acknowledges the divine word communicated through the prophet and thus repented genuinely. Authentic repentance of sin averts the wrath of God and often leads to the reestablishment of the divine-human relationship. By praying that Yhwh would redirect the punishment onto himself, David appears to earn the right to pray for pardon for the people. David’s prayer was heard.—Standing in the Breach, page 244

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Wrath? Yes!

The notion of the wrath of God is not a pleasant one. Indeed the modern consciousness resists it mightily. Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is cited often, but only for negative and antiquarian reasons, that is, an example of a time and a theology that are long gone. Again, however, a dismissal of this notion may be simplistic and reflective of a tendency to cut the moral nerve of our theology. The wrath of God is a metaphor, an anthropomorphic figure, to express the conviction that there is in the universe a moral connection, that the love and mercy of God are not apart from or understandable without the justice of God. Sin is not finally, and in the Bible never actually, an abstract notion. . . . It is a breakdown in the nature of relationship, a moral breach that always has consequences . . . It is not a divine appetite that confession seeks to satisfy, but a divine nature that is just and insists that the universe reflect that justice.— Patrick D. Miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) 247–48; cited in Standing in the Breach, page 239 (emphasis original)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Carta Online!

Carta has a new online program coming soon. It looks great; they are going to premier it in Boston at AAR/SBL in November. You can get a preview here:

Figurative language? Or literal? Is there a difference?

The traditional position, both in philosophy and in linguistics – and indeed the everyday view – is that (1) there is a stable and unambiguous notion of literality, and (2) that there is a sharp distinction to be made between literal language, on the one hand, and non-literal or figurative language on the other. According to this view, while literal language is precise and lucid, figurative language is imprecise, and is largely the domain of poets and novelists. In his 1994 book The Poetics of Mind, cognitive psychologist and cognitive linguist Raymond Gibbs examined this issue. Based on a close examination of the key features that are held to distinguish literal and figurative language, and based on a wide-ranging survey of different kinds of psycholinguistic experiments aimed at uncovering such a distinction, Gibbs found that there is no evidence for a principled distinction between literal and figurative language.—Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction, p. 287

All that's left…

Like so often in the psalms, David entrusts himself to Yhwh’s mercy (cf. Ps 51:1 [MT 51:3]). Divine mercy is one of the fundamental attributes that Yhwh has revealed to Moses in the aftermath of Israel’s archetypal sin, the golden calf (רחם [rḥm]; cf. Exod 34:6). Since then, Israel has invoked divine mercy, as one of the last resorts, like one who has nothing left to claim for oneself, but to throw oneself to the “womb pity” of God (רחם [rḥm]; cf. Dan 9:18).—Standing in the Breach, page 237

Friday, September 15, 2017

How does this king thing work anyway?

The prophets speak on behalf of God to the people, while the kings are called to rule and judge wisely on behalf of the divine King. The prophets are called to stand in the breach on behalf of the sinful people, whereas the kings have the responsibility of protecting the people against earthly enemies (cf. Ps 72). Unlike the prophet, the king’s role is not primarily advocating for the people before the heavenly throne and speaking to the people on behalf of God. In fact, it is interesting to note that God communicates to a person as great and pious as King David through the prophets Nathan and Gad. Having said this, Israel’s kings also intercede occasionally for the people.—Standing in the Breach, page 224

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Worship wars, part 2

From The Christian Week
I have recently had the opportunity to visit two of the most popular churches in my city. They both had something in common when it came to worship. First, both had very good worship bands that were obviously very talented. The lights in the auditorium were dimmed (or right out) and the lights were on the band. The band only played a few songs and most of the congregation listened instead of singing along. Basically, both churches put on very nice and professional Christian music concerts.
I’m seeing and hearing a lot of this in the last several years.

Back some 15 years ago, while we still lived in the Twin Cities, we went to a all-city gathering of a megachurch that had local campuses scattered throughout the city, such that each branch was only a couple of hundred. Our daughter was involved with one of the branches and invited us to join her for the big gathering, advertised as a worship service. The first 30–45 minutes were basically a big concert, complete with light show. Truly spectacular, but I wouldn’t have called it worship; the songs were not singable by a congregation and there was no attempt to involve the congregation. It was just a (well-done) concert.

Sadly, that seems to have become the norm in many places—and not just megachurches, either. : ( Maybe I’m an old man waxing nostalgic, but I seem to recall that once upon a time people would enjoy sitting on the floor and singing (admittedly not very good or theologically deep) choruses together. If somebody could play a couple of chords on the guitar, they would accompany, but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was the body was together and sharing.

That seems to be dead now. People talk about getting together for a Bible study, and you enquire about the format. Response, “Oh, we’ll throw in a CD and sing along with some well-known Christian artist for a song or two, then we’ll throw in a teaching DVD by a well-known Christian teacher.” My question, “Is there any interaction on the part of those there?” Response, “Oh, sure, we’ll discuss the teaching a little bit, but hey, what do we know compared to the teacher?”

The Reformation is dead.
</idle musing>

Justice? What is justice?

In the Old Testament, justice always describes a relationship between two entities. When applied to God, the terms for justice can be used with reference to the relationship between God and the world, between God and society, or between God and individuals. Correspondingly, when applied to humanity, justice can refer to the relationship between an individual and the world, between an individual and God, or between an individual and society. The relational aspect of justice gives it a dynamic and process-driven character. That is to say, justice can increase and decrease, it can be attributed or denied, and therefore ultimately remains elusive.

The motif of justice in the Old Testament has two axes: divine justice and human justice. Both axes involve—albeit with different emphases—cosmological, historical, anthropological, theological, and ethical dimensions. Both axes share three further aspects: the belief in justice, the problematizing of justice, and the redefining of justice.—The Development of God in the Old Testament, page 30

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

There are limits!

The outcome of Samuel’s prayer (1 Sam 15:11) is already foreshadowed in the prophet’s warning that was voiced in the context of his commitment to pray for both people and king: “But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king” (1 Sam 12:25). We find the same dynamics in Deut 10:12–22. There intercessory prayer for pardon can only be effective in the long run, if the prayed-for party returns to Yhwh and His ways. In the case of Saul, we have seen that there are indicators that suggest that his repentance was not genuine. This understanding of intercessory prayer is strongly endorsed in Jeremiah’s intercessory activity. Jeremiah has to learn as well that there comes a time when intercessory prayer for the disobedient party is rendered ineffective and judgment takes over, if the party itself does not return to God (cf. Jer 15:1). In spite of the prophets’ persistent warnings and prayers, Israel persisted in their disobedience. The prophetic warning materialized in 721 and 587 B.C.E.—Standing in the Breach, page 222

<idle musing>
Yes, there are limits to how long. I was in a discussion with someone a week or two ago who thinks that it is "too late" for the US and the Western world. Personally, I don't agree. Anyone who has read about ancient Greece and then compares it to modern western society would have to agree that western society still looks puritanical compared to them … and look at the success of the early church in those areas! If only we would spend more time praying and less time soapboxing, maybe we'd see the same results.

Of course, praying isn't as "sexy" and doesn't bring the personal accolades. And big gatherings, proclaiming victory over the darkness, are much easier than the moment-by-moment death to self necessary for real victory over the darkness.

But the call remains. It's our choice to obey it—or not.

Whose praise would you prefer? Society's? Your subgroup's? Or God's?

Just an
</idle musing>

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Are you listening?

This pattern of informing the prophetic mediator is categorically spelled out in Amos 3:7: “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” Particularly in the case of Moses’ advocacy, I have argued that Yhwh does not just make the prophet privy to His intentions for information’s sake, but Yhwh does it because He seeks to elicit an intercessory response from the mediator (cf. Exod 32:10, Num 14:12, Deut 9:14). Moses responds to what is most likely a concealed divine invitation to plead for mercy by imploring the Lord: “why does your wrath burn hot against your people. . . . Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind (נחם [nḥm]) and do not bring disaster on your people” (Exod 14–32:11). As a result of Moses’ prayer, Yhwh changed His mind (נחם [nḥm]). about the intended judgment (Exod 32:15). So when we read in 1 Samuel 15 that “The Word of the Lord came to Samuel,” saying that God regretted (נחם [nḥm]) that He made Saul king because of his disobedience, we are most likely to understand that Yhwh is not only informing Samuel in characteristic fashion about His plans, but also that God is inviting a response from His prophet.—Standing in the Breach, page 209

<idle musing>
Are you listening to God? Are you hearing him say he's going to judge? If so, maybe instead of getting on your soapbox and condemning everything, you should get on your knees and intercede. OK, forget the maybe. You definitely should get on your knees and intercede. Then, and only then, do you have a right (and responsibility) to warn the people.

My experience (limited though it may be) is that if I start blasting without interceding first, it's out of a self-righteous attitude. On the other hand, if I intercede first, I find that I'm crying out for them because of love, not with a judgmental attitude. Try it!
</idle musing>

Monday, September 11, 2017

No silver bullet

In the context of Moses’ prayer, as recorded in Deuteronomy 9–10, there is good reason to argue that the efficacy of the intercessor’s prayer is dependent on the reception of the prophets’ instructions (cf. Deut 10:12–22). In other words, the response of the guilty party plays a decisive role in whether the mediator’s prayer is answered or not. Only if the sin is recognized and confessed, and one is committed to do so no more, is the mediator’s intercession likely to be effective long-term. This dynamic of biblical intercession is further confirmed in the context of Jeremiah’s intercessory ministry. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that Samuel’s speech ends in a warning that reminds of the covenant curses as we find them in the book of Deuteronomy: “you shall surely perish” (Deut 8:20, 27).—Standing in the Breach, page 205

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Long-suffering defined

The fact that Yhwh kept on calling and commissioning prophets over the centuries reveals that God is fundamentally committed to His people in love and righteousness.—Standing in the Breach, page 204

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

I can't help it!

[First Samuel 12] Verse 23 strongly suggests that intercession “is an inextricable part of the prophetic role.” It seems as if Samuel is not at liberty to refuse Israel’s request for advocacy before Yhwh. We shall see in our reading of Isaiah’s, Jeremiah’s, and Amos’s intercessory prayers that their ministries were driven by a compulsion to defend the sinful party even against divine prohibition to pray for the people. … Defending the sinful people in intercessory prayer before a loving and just God is the benchmark of the authentic prophet. Like Moses, Samuel is aware that Israel breached the covenant, and yet he could not but advocate for divine grace. In doing so, the prophet reflects in a sense the heart of Yhwh. Just as God could not cast away His repentant people in spite of their sins (cf. 1 Sam 12:22), so Samuel could not help but intercede for the undeserving.—Standing in the Breach, pages 203–4

Monday, September 04, 2017

Sensing the tension

Psalm 99 illustrates well God’s fundamental challenge. That is, how to be both a loving God and an “avenger of their wrongdoings” (Ps 99:8). According to Psalm 99, Yhwh’s kingship and holiness are ultimately defined by divine willingness to bear Israel’s sin, without leaving the sinners unpunished. Yhwh does not avoid sinners and their wrongdoings, but is patiently willing to endure their sins. At the same time God ensures that justice is done. This portrayal is not only fundamentally rooted in Yhwh’s self-revelation as a God of love and justice (cf. Exod 34:6–7), but is also of central importance for our discussion of Samuel’s intercessory ministry as depicted in chaps. 12 and 15.—Standing in the Breach, page 201

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Languages change, so should we

The old King James translation “helpmeet” does not mean a help mate but rather a helper who is “meet,” that is, suitable for the task. Woman is not man’s maid, nor merely his assistant, but a “suitable companion,” corresponding to him. She is the crown of creation, God’s last act that makes it all very good.—Ben Witherington in Torah Old and New, forthcoming from Fortress Press

Friday, September 01, 2017

Not just a veneer

Chapter 7 [of 1 Samuel] portrays a people who come to their senses in the face of opposition. With the help of Samuel, the covenant mediator, Israel is readily willing to remove all their idols from their midst and put their trust anew in their covenant God only. As we have seen, the narrative reports in some details of their repentant hearts. Israel confesses their sins and put their entire trust in Yhwh and His mediator (1 Sam 7:6). In other words, it is not about manipulative or mechanical practices that seek to evoke Yhwh’s favor. Rather, the narrative paints a picture of genuine repentance, reorientation of trust, and allegiance.—Standing in the Breach, page 189