Chapter 7 – The Prophets and Writings

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 6 – A Nation Settles

Messengers of a Greater Power

During the entire time when Israel had kings, it also had prophets. Some prophets like and Elijah and Elisha did not leave any writings, although sixteen prophets did. The prophets focused more on “forth-telling” (telling about changes that the kings and/or the people needed to make immediately) than “fore-telling” (telling about some future events) and were a constant reminder that God was acting in ways that transcended the earthly kingdom. Sometimes the prophets were there to encourage and sometimes to challenge the kings: The prophet Samuel anointed Saul as king, then later had to let Saul know that God had rejected him. Samuel also anointed David as king. Later, the prophet Nathan let David know that God was aware of David’s sin with Bathsheba.

The Prophets of the Old Testament were precursors of the prophetic ministry of Jesus. And now the Church, as the Body of Christ, has the privilege of carrying on that ministry.

Challenging Unfaithfulness

Sometimes the prophet’s warnings would be not just for the kings but for everyone in the kingdom. The messages from the prophets often mixed the foretelling of the consequences for rejecting God with the hope that God will someday make things right. The most common offense cited by the prophets was the people’s lack of justice and how their ritual sacrifices were useless if they ignored justice. There were also diatribes against false prophets and against making idols. The most common metaphor used to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to God and his commands was prostitution, even to the point where God told the prophet, Hosea, to marry an adulterous woman to be a visible reminder for Israel.

Lament and Anger

God’s response through the prophets was to lament. There is even one entire book lamenting what happened to Israel. The lamenting would include pleas for Israel to repent and turn back to God. But then Israel’s continued sin would then be followed by God’s anger and God’s promise to root out, pull down and destroy Israel or any other nation around Israel that engaged in sin. Sometimes God used other nations to discipline Israel followed by threats to those same nations for their sinful own behavior.

Future Hope

But in the end was God’s promise to restore his kingdom and bless all those who repent. God even sent one prophet, Jonah, to a Gentile nation to call them to repent or be destroyed. When they did repent, God held back his punishment – although history tells us that God destroyed them when they went back to their old ways.

The strange story of the ark and the tabernacle

The Ark in the Promised Land

After Israel entered the Promised Land, Israel placed the tabernacle and all its furnishings in Gilgal. After Israel had settled in the land, the tabernacle was then set up in Shiloh where it stayed for two hundred years. During the time of Samuel, Samuel’s sons, without consulting God, removed the ark from the tabernacle to take it into battle with the Philistines who not only won the battle but took the ark with them. The Philistines found that although Yahweh did not see fit to help Israel win the battle, Yahweh did create issues with the Philistines. The Philistines responded by moving the ark a couple of times, but the problems did not disappear and so they sent the ark back to Israel.

The ark initially ended up in Beth Shemesh, but after 70 people died when they tried to look in the ark, the people of Beth Shemesh sent the ark to Kiriath Jearim where it stayed for 20 years. The Bible is not explicit about when it happened, but sometime during the reign of King Saul, the tabernacle, sans the ark, was moved to Nob and then to Gibeon.

After David established the capital in Jerusalem, King David set up his own tabernacle and then moved the ark there. In moving the ark, David had to learn a lesson. He first tried to have the ark carried in a cart, but when the ark started to slip out of the cart, the people died who touched the ark to prevent it from slipping out. So, the ark ended up in Obed-Edom’s house for a while. Hophni and Phineas learned the hard way that you don’t necessarily take the presence of God when you take the ark, but David learned the hard way that you can’t ignore the presence of God when you take the ark. David was successful in moving the ark to Jerusalem after he had the ark moved according to the instructions God had given Moses.

The Tabernacle and the Temple.

When Solomon was king, he oversaw the building of a temple to replace the tabernacle. A foreigner from Tyre named Hiram built all the furnishings except the ark itself. The original furnishings of the tabernacle were possibly put into storage in the temple. Even though the temple was much more grandiose than the tabernacle, Solomon recognized that it still could not hold God. Some years later, the Babylonians would destroy Solomon’s temple.

The interesting thing with this history is that during the time of King David all the rituals of Moses were conducted at the tabernacle in Gibeon where there was no ark and no presence of God, while the ark itself, with the presence of God, was in Jerusalem where there was a service of joy, dancing and singing instead of the ritual sacrifices. Also, the ark was no longer concealed in the Holy of Holies where there was limited access, it was now in a place where everyone could access it.

This brings us to the prophet Amos who prophesied that God was going to destroy most of Israel, except for a remnant, and that He would restore David’s tabernacle– not the one at Gibeon, not the temple Solomon built, but David’s tabernacle. In Acts 15, the Bible records that the apostles quoted this passage from Amos because they determined that Amos was referring to Gentiles now being accepted into the kingdom of God. The tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon were restricted to the nation of Israel, but God was now going to make himself available to the entire world, Jews, and Gentiles alike.

Diaspora

The term “diaspora” usually refers to a group of people that has been scattered from a specific location. In this case, the term refers to the scattering of Jews from the Promised land. But this particular diaspora is only a part of God’s larger plans for His people.

Our God is a God of overflowing love. His love caused Him to create us so that His love could overflow from Himself to us. He wanted His image-bearers to accomplish His mission of overflowing love and overflow from Eden to fill the entire earth. When we rebelled against His overflowing desire so that we could make a name for ourselves instead, He confused our language at Babel so that we would continue to flow out over the earth. When God wanted to prepare His Holy Nation for His mission, He scattered them to Egypt. When Israel rebelled against His mission of overflowing love, He scattered them from the Promised Land. The Son of God came in overflowing love to offer Himself in sacrifice in order to restore us to Himself. When the scattered Jews from many nations gathered for Pentecost, God reversed the action of Babel, and the apostles shared His message of overflowing love in many languages so that the message would be carried to the Jews in many nations. To continue the overflow, God guided Peter and Paul so that His love could flow out to the Gentiles as well. God further ensured the flowing out by using the Romans to scatter both Jews and Christians from Jerusalem. To this day, when our focus is more on building our Christian institutions, becoming too ingrown, God continues to scatter His people so that His message of overflowing love will reach more people in more places across the earth.

This program of overflowing creates a Dynamic Tension between our scattering and our unity. It would be well if our scattering were motivated by love so that we would continue to stay unified as we scatter. Sadly though, our scattering is often due to divisiveness rather than love, countermanding the intent that the world will recognize that we are disciples of Jesus because of our love.

Judgement Unfolds

The covenant God made with Israel had the proviso “if you follow my commands.” Israel continually demonstrated its inability to do that by its continuous practice of polytheism and God’s judgement followed. The nation of Israel would suffer the consequences. The first sign of the consequences manifested itself in the splitting of Israel into two kingdoms.

After that, the northern kingdom of Israel was the first to collapse in 535BC with the invasion of the Assyrians whose policy was to scatter the captured inhabitants throughout their empire and replace them with Assyrians. These northern tribes seem to have been totally assimilated into the Assyrian empire and they would not be heard from again in history.

In 722BC, the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah and took the best and the brightest of Judah as captives to the capital of Babylonia for “retraining” so that they could contribute to the Babylonian society. It was at this point that the nation of Israel would now be referred to as Jews. It was from this point on that, despite the return of some of the Jews to their homeland, most Jews would now be living outside their homeland.

Worship in exile

During this exile, the Jews as they would now be called, had to become more deliberate if they were going to preserve their culture. It was during this time that the Jews would begin to collect all their writings in order to begin to determine what would be their scripture. They had the writings of Moses, but they had to determine what else should be included in their scripture.

During this time, they focused more seriously on worshipping Yahweh. Before this time, the biblical and archeological records indicate that Israel had a habit of adopting the worship of any idols of the culture they were in contact with. But now they had to preserve their culture while living amid a dominant foreign culture. Although the origins are a little obscure, as temple worship was no longer available, synagogues as a permanent institution developed during the exile.

The books of Daniel, Esther and Ezekiel give examples of how the Jews were able to thrive, even while experiencing opposition, while the nation was in exile: Daniel as an exceptional administrator, Esther as queen to the emperor and Ezekiel as a prophet.

From this time forward, most Jews have remained outside their homeland with no access to the one temple in Jerusalem. It was during this time that the Jews created local synagogues, with worship now focused either in the home or at the synagogue.

Return

Assyria scattered the Northern Kingdom then the Babylonians overran Assyria, captured Jerusalem, and took the prominent citizens into exile. After the 70 years in captivity prescribed by God had passed, the Persians overran Babylonia and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. The first batch of returnees went back with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. A second batch would go back to Jerusalem with Ezra who confronted the Jews about their failure to keep separate from the nations around them. A while later, Nehemiah would go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. And yet, with all the returnees, the majority of the Jews chose to remain in Babylonia – and even today, most Jews live outside the Promised Land.

In another reminder of God’s provision, the rulers of the Persian empire strongly supported the Jews as they returned to Jerusalem, giving them what they needed. God even provided prophets to encourage the Jews.

In a reminder of the times when Moses collected contributions to build the tabernacle, contributions that the Egyptians gave to the Israelites as they fled Egypt, the people returning to the Promised Land with Zerubbabel willingly contributed from the provisions that the Persians gave to them for the rebuilding of the temple.

In a reminder of their own inability to follow Yahweh, when the Jews first returned to the Promised Land they ended up once more intermarrying with the non-Jews and following the practice of idol worship. So, when Ezra came to Jerusalem, he had to lead the Jews to repentance and to put away their foreign wives.

Then, in the end, God would send one last prophet, Malachi, who had words of condemnation of Israel for all the sins committed and of the promise to restore everything because that is what he promised. After the prophet Malachi, God did not raise up another prophet for Israel until Jesus came. That prophetic silence would last four hundred years.

Songs and reflections of the heart 

As creatures made in the image of the Creator, it is self-evident that we cannot avoid creating. We are also creatures that are born to worship, as even our popular culture makes very evident. When we put those together, we get a work like the Psalms, a book of poetry which was set to music. The psalms are a collection of praise songs written by various people. They are songs that reflect the thoughts of those people experiencing life with all its emotions in a broken world.

In addition to musical notations, several psalms have notations indicating the events which inspired the writing of those psalms. Some of the psalms have notations indicating the kind of occasions in which the psalms would be used. As poetry, the psalms use various poetic devices such as parallelism, acrostics, and figures of speech.

The Psalms express various themes such as the character of God, the experience of people, the worship of God, lament, petitions for help, confession of sin, praise and thanksgiving, expressions of wisdom. The emotions expressed in the Psalms are sometimes very raw with feelings of abandonment, questions of God’s provision, hatred, and vengeance. Yet all these expressions are included in that book of praise songs. The inclusion of the full range of human expression is an acknowledgement of the reality of the human experience and an affirmation of being honest with God about our feelings while placing all of that in the context of a just and merciful God who is worthy of praise.

The Psalms are not the only place where one can find poetry in the Old Testament. Poetry can also be found in various portions of other books of the Bible. There is even one book of the Bible that is entirely a poem/song, The Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs) which is a positive and passionate expression of marital love.

Wisdom can also be found in the Psalms and other places as well. The pair of books, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, show the benefits of and limits of wisdom. Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes and was the primary author of Proverbs. In 1 Kings 3-4, God grants Solomon’s request for wisdom to rule the nation, but God also grants Solomon much more. Proverbs reflects that wisdom as a collection of rules to live a good life. On the other hand, Ecclesiastes reflects the limits of wisdom in finding the meaning of life.

Silence and waiting

After the time of Nehemiah and Malachi, there were no more explicit words of prophecy from Yahweh until the coming of Jesus. And in this time of silence from God, there was much turmoil.

  • The Greek Empire would overtake the Persian Empire and therefore Israel.
  • When the Greeks desecrated the temple, there was a revolt led by a Jewish family, the Hasmoneans, who successfully overthrew the Greeks. Hanukah is a celebration of the miracle that took place in the temple.
  • The Roman Empire would overtake the Greek Empire and the Hasmonean kingdom in Israel. Despite the Romans taking over, the Greek language and culture became part of the infrastructure of the Roman Empire.
  • The exact origins are unknown, but some of the Jews would adopt the Greek culture, becoming Hellenized. The aristocratic leaders of these Hellenized Jews would become the Sadducees. In opposition to the corruption of Judaism brought in by the Sadducees, a group known as the Pharisees arose. These two groups were still active when Jesus broke into history.

In the midst of God’s apparent silence, all this activity indicates that God is still working. Several times in the Old Testament, God pointed out that, despite everything else going on, there was still a remnant of people with which he was still working. No matter what the situation is, no matter how good or how bad things seem to be, God is always working on his plans, and he is always preparing, however quietly and behind the scenes, for the next step.

Questions:

  1. Read Zechariah 7. What words of warning does Zechariah pass on to the people who were not faithful to God?
  2. Read Isaiah 10:5-11. Here, God is chastising a “godless” nation, Assyria, which He used to discipline His own chosen nation, Israel, which had also behaved godlessly. Both nations will suffer the anger of God. God uses both nations to accomplish His will. What is the warning and hope in that for us?
  3. Read 1 Samuel 4:1-11; 2 Samuel 6:1-7. What do these passages tell you about the presence of God?
  4. Read Jeremiah 25:11-12. It seemed hopeless. The unfaithful nation of Israel was no more. But a faithful God made promises to eventually restore them. What are God’s promises to us?
  5. Read Jeremiah 29:1-23. What did Jeremiah say that the exiles were to do while they were in exile?

Chapter 6 – A Nation Settles

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 6 – A Nation Settles

Courage and memory

When the people of Israel first approached the Promised Land, Moses chose twelve spies to scout out the land. Joshua and Caleb were the only two spies that did not bring back a report of discouragement. The discouragement brought by the other ten spies caused all the people of Israel to rebel against God as they forgot all the miracles of God’s provision in their flight from Egypt. This resulted in God subjecting the people of Israel to encamping in the wilderness for forty years. All the adults except for Joshua and Caleb, were subject to die in the wilderness before the people of Israel would enter the promised land.

Therefore, God chose Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land at the end of the forty years. As before, the nation of Israel would encounter other people already living in the land, so Israel would need to fight for the land; it would not be easy. Before Joshua led his people into the land, God repeatedly said to Joshua, “Be strong and of good courage … do not be terrified or discouraged.” Then as a refresher, God also performed miracles as the people entered the land, causing the Jordan River to cease flowing to allow the people to cross on dry land – repeating the miracle of the parting of the sea as they fled Egypt.

Before Israel even left Egypt, the Egyptian people gave the Israelites gold and other wealth that was not theirs, the water from miraculously made springs and the manna that fell from the sky was not theirs. Now the homes and fields that God gave them to capture were the provision of God as well.

God’s fullness, his followers’ emptiness

God’s provision though was going to require their involvement. It would start with the way they crossed the Jordan River where the people carrying the ark needed to get their feet wet in the river before it would stop flowing. And since this time, the river would now be the boundary of their new land, God told the people to set up a monument of twelve stones to be a reminder God’s provision. The next miracle which came soon after was the crumbling of the walls of Jericho which occurred after seven days of marching around the city. That miracle would be followed by others as the people of Israel continued to capture the cities.

According to the message that Yahweh shared with Abraham, the entry of Israel into the Promised Land meant that the sin of the Amorites had now reached its full measure. As with the time of Noah, that full measure would now end in the destruction of the inhabitants of the land, this time by the people of Israel. The danger to Israel would be, that if the current inhabitants of the land with their idolatries and atrocities, which included burning their children alive to sacrifice them to their gods, were allowed to live among the people of Israel, the people of Israel would be tempted to also turn from God.

So, beginning at Jericho, the people of Israel to instructed to “totally destroy” (Hebrew “herem”) the inhabitants of the city. God would repeat this instruction at other times as well. But Israel did not always follow these instructions with the consequent result that Israel continuously fell into the idolatries of the current inhabitants.

Before Joshua died, he challenged the people to serve Yahweh and the people responded that they would choose to serve Yahweh. Joshua replied that they could not serve Yahweh, the God who is so holy. Nevertheless, the people responded that they would serve Yahweh. Joshua then said that they were “witnesses against themselves.” They would be. In the end, they did not follow God’s commands to defeat the tribes in the Promised Land. They did not “completely destroy” the cities as God told them to do. Israel therefore allowed themselves to be subject to continual temptation to sin by turning from worshipping God and towards worshipping idols, participating the same atrocities that God found so reprehensible.

The God of War

One of the troublesome tensions of the Christian faith is how to reconcile our picture of Jesus who came to bring us peace with the picture of the “pre-Jesus” God who seems so violent. In particular, the God who commanded Israel to “totally destroy,” to leave no one alive in the cities of the “promised land” they were to inhabit.

It has been so hard to reconcile the two images of the God, one of the Old Testament that engaged in violence and the second of one of the New Testament who came to “bring peace,” that from the earliest days of the church some Christians felt compelled to abandon the Old Testament altogether. There are several issues that come affect how we deal with this problem.

There are less differences between God’s portrayal in the Old vs. New Testaments than many think. (See Chapter 2; Paradoxes and Mysteries; Gracious, Merciful and Just). If we have a problem with God in the Old Testament, then we have a problem in the New Testament as well. Both Testaments together provide the full story of the Gospel and a full picture of God.

We need to see all suffering and death in context of Jesus’ suffering and death by execution. Jesus is God the Son, present from before Creation, the God of Creation, the God of Abraham, Moses and Israel, and the God who commanded Israel to herem (“totally destroy”) the people in Canaan. We cannot separate Jesus from all the activity ascribed to God’s activity in the Old Testament. The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace that we are more comfortable dealing with, is only available because of all that He had done beginning with Creation, extending through history of the patriarchs and Israel and eventually his own incarnation, suffering and death.

We need to accept that there is much that we do not know. This comes at us a couple of different ways. We must deal with our cultural separation from the times before Jesus, there are things going on with the ancient near east culture that we don’t know. We also must deal with a knowledge of God that is far beyond ours. We need to take seriously Yahweh’s criticism of Job, and of Yahweh’s admonition to Isaiah, “my ways are higher than your ways,” we must be careful to accuse Yahweh of injustice because there is much that do not understand.

The totality of destruction implied by herem catches our attention, but this is only a specific, though perhaps extreme, case of the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The answer to the everyday issue of why “innocent” people suffer, is the same answer that underlies the killing of people that we assume are innocent.

Our modern-day culture is in many ways sanitized compared to the Biblical culture. Because most of us do not witness the slaughter of animals we eat, we have a challenging time associating with those who lived in the time where there was the ritual slaughter of animals, not for the sake of food but for the sake of sins. We have not had to watch the slaughter of animals and contemplate the awfulness of our sin and of God’s hatred of sin because of its awful effect on us. All that makes is difficult for us to grasp the concept of a God so jealous for us that he would even offer himself to be slaughtered on our behalf.

Add to that difficulty is the reality, that although the church has not always lived up to its professed values, we still amazingly live in a world that has been cleansed by the effect of the grace of Christian values, even if the world is unable to recognize how our current values had their roots in Christian values. It was the Christian value of life that confronted the once customary practice of abandoning babies on the street to die and so today it is rare. It has been Christian values that have elevated the status of women and children. It has been Christian values that led to the development of modern science, technology, and medicine.

Yet another level of “sanitization” occurs when we don’t consider the extent of our own sin and depravity in context of the extent of the holiness of God. A contrast that caused the prophet Isaiah to proclaim, “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” Hiding our own sins darkens our view, hiding the extent of sin around us.

We also are forgetful of the mercies of God. 1) Jonah was perturbed when Yahweh responded to the repentance shown by the Ninevites by not bringing about the threatened destruction. 2) The mercies shown to many of the idolatrous kings of Israel when they repented. 3) In the case of Israel entering the Promised Land, we don’t know what kind of warnings the Canaanites may have received prior to the “total destruction” of their cities. We do know that Yahweh patiently waited until he “sin of the Amorites would reach their full measure.” The Canaanites may have had sufficient warning to change their ways (and they had, among other abhorrent practices, that of sacrificing their children to the flames) and yet they didn’t. While we, in our time, may think of the “total destruction” as genocide, it may be instead an act of mercy – reducing the pain and suffering that would otherwise go on.

Sparing the lives of the “innocent” within the borders of the Israel did lead to the Israelites to continue the reprehensible practices of the Canaanite religions, prolonging the suffering that Yahweh wanted to put an end to. Israel’s fell into the sin of the nations around them, even after God warned them that allowing the original inhabitants to live alongside of them would cause the Israelites to adopt the same abhorrent practices – which is what happened.

God had already used the forces of nature to directly perform his herem version of justice (ex: The Great Flood which killed all people except Noah and his family, the crossing of the Red Sea in which innumerable Egyptian soldiers died). God’s commanding Israel to invoke herem was now calling Israel to serve as his agent in executing a type of justice that God had already been practicing.

How innocent were the Canaanites: men, women, and children? We can’t argue from silence that the Canaanites did not have a chance to respond to God’s warnings. We do know that God waited several hundred years before executing his judgement.

It is not just in the Old Testament that we witness immense suffering. All around us today and through the years before, there has been great suffering among God’s image-bearers caused by our own violence or the violence of natural events or the violence of birth defects. All these can cause us to question, “Why, God?”

All these are various issues, and likely not the only issues, to consider while grappling both with God’s implication in violent activity and with the suffering endured by those people who we consider to be innocent. These issues, even all taken together, will not necessarily provide us comfortable answers. But we also need to remember, that if we have a “God” we think we totally understand, then it is not God that we are really understanding. Also, if we have a “God” that we are fully comfortable with, then we are not fully dealing with the holiness of God and the totality of our sin.

Jesus dealt with the totality of our sin by his suffering and excruciating death. It is only by the violence endured by Jesus that He has become our Prince of Peace. And in the end, when Jesus returns, His promise to bring peace will include herem, the total destruction of sin and death. The Biblical images of that time are of much violence. This then, is the lens through which we must see the violence around us. But even with that lens, we are not likely to have a ‘satisfactory’ answer. Even with that lens we will still struggle.

Perhaps we are meant to struggle, to lament about all that’s wrong, evil, awful, terrible, sad, and more that our hearts can bear. But in our lament, not to give up the hope that is also in our hearts, the hope that God our Father is alive, that our Father cares so deeply that He gave His Son, that miracles still do happen and that we can expect God to show up in our midst.

Judges and the Cycle of sin

Israel’s action reveals to us what happens if we fail to totally destroy the sin around us. Because Israel had not been faithful to “totally destroy” the people whose land they conquered, the foretold consequence became true, Israel became ensnared in the horrid idol worship practices of those people. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

To discipline his people, God allowed the peoples surrounding Israel to plundered Israel until they cried for mercy. God then raised up leaders called judges to successfully fight off the oppressors and Israel would respond by turning from idol worship, but only for a while. Eventually Israel would fall away from Yahweh once again and the cycle of oppression, rescue, and falling away would repeat.

God raising his people

During the time of the judges, while the nation of Israel struggled and failed to follow God, we find that God was raising judges in response to Israel’s cry for help in their ongoing cycle of sin, God was also quietly working the background through individuals to fulfill His larger plan.

During the period of the Judges, God used drought to cause Elimelech and his wife Naomi and their two sons to move to Moab. Both of her sons got married in Moab and one of them married a woman named Ruth. When Naomi’s husband and sons died, Naomi moved back home to Israel. While Ruth could have stayed in Moab, Ruth desired to follow Naomi and particularly to follow Naomi’s God. God used that act of faith to arrange for Ruth to meet and married Boaz, and thus inserting a Moabite woman into the lineage of people who would become the ancestors of Jesus.

There is a recurring story that began in Genesis with Abraham and Sarah, where God working through women who have difficulties in pregnancy. In the time of Judges, the woman was Hannah. In her struggle to become pregnant, Hannah leaned on God. One day, while she was praying at the tabernacle, the priest, Eli, saw her and asked God to grant Hannah her wish. Shortly thereafter, Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Samuel. In an act of gratefulness, after giving birth to Samuel, Hannah committed Samuel to serve at the tabernacle with Eli. Little did Eli know at the time that God would raise up Samuel to be a priest in place of his sons. When Eli’s sons had become corrupt and unfit to serve as priests, God worked with Hannah’s fervent worship to raise up Samuel and eventually called Samuel to replace Eli as priest. Samuel ended up being a prophet for Israel and served as the last of the judges.

The Cycle of Sin Continues

While Eli was priest, there came a time when Israel had to fight the Philistines, a nation with iron instruments that was exceedingly difficult to fight. After the Philistines routed Israel in one battle, Eli’s sons thought that the solution for victory was to take the ark with them into battle. They thought that they surely would win the battle if they carried God, whose presence was supposed to be in the ark, into battle. What they didn’t do, however, was to consult with God. Not only did Israel lose again, but Israel also lost the ark itself to the Philistines.

The mistake that Israel made was a mistake as old as Adam and Eve. We would rather have a God that we can manage rather that one we are accountable to. Want wisdom? Don’t wait for God, just eat from the tree. Want to win a battle? Don’t wait for God to lead you, take God (as the ark) with you. One of the previous judges, Gideon, would make an ephod that would become an idol for Israel. Also, in the period of the judges, a priest named Micah, would make an ephod that would also become an idol. One of the convenient things about idols is that while they may not have the power of God, they don’t make uncomfortable demands about changing our lives either.

Rejecting God as King

Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, we have had a problem of thinking that we know better than God. After Israel started to settle into the Promised Land, that same problem appeared again with the diagnoses, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It was that problem that caused the cycle of God discipline of Israel: Israel would fall into sin, God would then allow surrounding nations to dominate Israel, Israel would then cry for help, God would raise up a leader who overcame the dominating nation, Israel would then turn back to Yahweh for a while, but then would fall into sin and the cycle would repeat.

Eventually, Israel figured that they thought they knew what the problem was … that they needed a king … like everyone else. When the prophet, Samuel, was old and people became uncomfortable with Samuel’s sons leading the nation (Note: It seemed that Samuel had the same kind of problem with his sons as Eli had with his), the people rebelled against God and asked the prophet Samuel to ask God to give them a king. Samuel was troubled because he knew that their diagnosis was wrong. Yahweh confirmed that when he told Samuel that the real problem was not that they rejected Samuel, but rather they’ve rejected Yahweh as king. Unexpectedly, Yahweh said that he would grant their wish anyway. They will get a king (!!!) … like everyone else (!!!). One of the lessons from this event is that we need to be careful; in our rebellion, God may condemn us to what we want.

Saul

God gave Israel a king in the mold of other kings. In physical appearance, King Saul was a tall, handsome son of a powerful man, but spiritually, Saul would continue the national habit of “doing what was right in his own sight.” In fact, there were times when Saul was talking to Samuel that Saul made references to “Yahweh your God” instead of “Yahweh our God.” (That phrase was used before by Jacob before his wresting match with God and would be used again by King Jeroboam at a later time.) Saul had ceased to trust in God. There would also be other times when, instead of leaning on God for victory, Saul would also resort to making foolish, rash vows.

Saul barely began his 40-year ministry as king before Samuel had to inform him that God had rejected him as king. Although that rejection happened early in his career, God did not replace Saul until much later. Saul would have to endure the knowledge that God had rejected him for the rest of his career, which was most of his career, as king. That may have been a factor in him becoming more unstable as time went on. Yet despite his rejection by God, he did have some success in conducting war against Israel’s enemies, but Saul’s standing with God did not change.

David

Testing and Waiting

Meanwhile, God had selected David, who the Bible describes as “a man after God’s own heart,” to be the next king. However, David’s reign did not begin until many years later. This meant there was going to be a long and difficult in-between time of testing. In the meanwhile, there would be much conflict in which David had to trust God and do what he thought he needed to do. David didn’t test God by unnecessarily putting himself in harm’s way, rather he looked to God for wisdom and acted accordingly. When David had opportunities to kill King Saul, he refused to do so and instead waited for God to act.

This is the area where we typically fail: Adam and Eve could not wait for God to give them knowledge so they grabbed for it; Abraham and Sarah could not wait for God to give them a son through Sarah and so they used Hagar; Jacob could not wait for his inheritance so he and Rebekah had to trick Isaac; Moses could not wait for God to provide water by just speaking to the rock and so he had to strike it. In contrast, to be obedient, David was willing to wait for God to replace Saul and did not take advantage of the opportunities he had to kill him.

Friendship

In this difficult period, David would form with Saul’s son, Jonathan, the best friendship he ever had. Jonathan recognized that God had rejected his own father, Saul, as king. However, instead of jealously trying to hold onto what he could not have, he accepted David as the heir to the throne. In fact, Jonathan was crucial to David’s survival.

The war King

In time, Saul did die, and David became king, although it would be in phases. Initially there was a civil war as people that were loyal to Saul did not pledge loyalty to David but to another king. As in many conflicts, in addition to the overt conflict, there was much subterfuge and political intrigue as well which would have consequences later. Then, even after uniting the kingdom, David had to lead Israel through constant warfare as he expanded the kingdom. So even though God had called David to be king, that did not mean that there was a clear path to becoming king and it did not mean that there would be no conflicts once he became king. It also did not mean that David would be perfect.

Repentance

There were a couple of instances where David committed sin but, unlike Saul before him, David responded to Yahweh’s rebuke with repentance. The most egregious sin David committed was to have an affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, getting her pregnant. Then when he failed to cover it up, he arranged for that soldier to be killed on the front lines. When the prophet, Nathan, confronted David about the sin, David repented and confessed his sin. The baby born from that affair died shortly after being born, but later David would have another child with Bathsheba, Solomon, setting up the next story line.

Messy family life        

David did have many wives and concubines, but unlike Solomon, the king who reigned after him, David’s polygamy had not led him to worshiping other gods. The Bible doesn’t condemn David for his polygamy, but it seemed to exasperate a weakness in David. David had many children through his wives and concubines, but he failed to discipline them. His inability to discipline his sons resulted in rape of one of his daughters by one of his sons, who was then murdered by another son to avenge the rape, and then attempted to dethrone David. This all meant that the path to succession to David’s throne would not be straightforward, but in the end, David selected his son Solomon to succeed him.

Solomon

Solomon had a great start. David gave him materials with which he could start building the temple. Solomon’s heart was humble enough to ask Yahweh for wisdom above all things, for which God blessed Solomon not only with great wisdom but with great wealth besides. The one weakness in all this provision was that Solomon, like other Oriental kings, accumulated wives and concubines. The problem was that Solomon loved his wives who came from other cultures more than Yahweh. Because of that, he not only tolerated their idol worship but took part in that idol worship as well. One thing that Solomon ignored despite his great wisdom, was the warning for kings not to accumulate great wealth and many wives. One early sign of his failure may have occurred during his prayer of dedication for the new temple when, despite the use of wealth from donations or taxes and despite the slave labor and labor from other countries, he still said, “the temple I built.”

The Divided Kingdom

Solomon’s divided heart ended up dividing the kingdom. When Solomon’s son Rehoboam succeeded him on the throne, Rehoboam foolishly followed the advice to increase taxes, causing a revolt. Yahweh, who knows all things, had already selected Jeroboam to lead the revolt. The result was that ten tribes (the Northern kingdom, commonly called Israel) followed Jeroboam, leaving only two tribes (the Southern kingdom, commonly called Judah) to follow Rehoboam. With only a few exceptions, most of the kings in the divided kingdom participated in idolatry and the associated practices of the surrounding communities, earning God’s wrath. These two kingdoms were in continual conflict with each other until each came to an ignominious end.

Questions:

  1. Read Deuteronomy 6:10-12. It is a good thing to have God provide for us, but what dangers are there when God does provide for us?
  2. Read Deuteronomy 7:1-5. God certainly had the power to simply wipe out all the inhabitants of the Promised Land. God did many miracles, intervening many times on Israel’s behalf. Why do you think that God had the Israelites carry out those many battles?
  3. Read Joshua 6:17-21; 1 Samuel 15:1-3. If you think about Jesus being one part of the moving, brooding, dancing God who invoked violence in the Old Testament, how do you process that?
  4. Read Judges 2. The book of Judges is a record of our penchant to turn from God and of his patient faithfulness, continuing to rescue us despite our persistent failure. How does this cycle make you feel?
  5. Read Ruth 1-4; Matthew 1:1-17. Think about the travails of Naomi and how God worked in the midst of her troubles to insert a foreign woman into Jesus’ ancestry. What does it mean that Jesus set it up so that non-Jews were part of his human ancestry?
  6. Read 1 Samuel 8. Knowing that God may discipline us by giving us what we want instead of what we need, how should we then pray?
  7. Read 1 Samuel 24:1-7; 26:1-12. On more than one occasion, David had a chance to kill the man who was out to kill him. Why not?
  8. Read 1 Samuel 15-16; 2 Samuel 1-2. Many years and many difficulties passed between God anointing David to be the next king and then actually becoming king. Why might God call someone to do something but allow many difficulties to occur in the process?
  9. Of the three kings of the united kingdom of Israel, why was only David was also known as a man “after God’s own heart.”
  10. Read 1 Kings 11:11-13. What does this passage say about the messes we make and God’s plans for our lives?

Chapter 5 – Family to Nation

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 5 – Family to Nation

God working through broken individuals and communities

Although the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe is capable of simply doing things by a show of great power and irresistible force, he usually chooses to work through His image-bearers. He can work through individuals or groups, although even when he works through groups it’s typically through individuals within those groups. Most surprising is that even though all his image-bearers have flaws, God has still chosen to do His work within those flaws. Despite our persistent failures, not only does God patiently empower us to fulfill the responsibility of stewardship of Creation that He gave us from the beginning, but He also empowers us to participate in His work of restoring the universe.

Abraham

Walk of faith

Sometime after the scattering of nations, from the line of Shem and Noah, God called a man named Abram to leave his country in the Euphrates River Valley and go to a land “I will show you.” As Abram left his home country, at the age of seventy-five, God promised not only to bless Abram and his descendants but to bless the entire world though Abram. Despite his occasional failures, Abram (later named Abraham) was noted for his faith because he believed God and showed this by being obedient in following God’s instructions even when they didn’t make sense.

When God called Abram to journey to another land, we don’t know what earlier experience Abram or his family or any other citizens of Ur or Haran may have had with God. Was there any experience at all? If not, then with what confidence did Abram have that he was following God when he took that journey to the Promised Land? Then after Abram arrived in the Promised Land, what further questions may Abram have had when he experienced a deep drought in that same land, such that he needed to take a brief trip to Egypt?

After Yahweh told Abram, that he would make a great nation from him, Abram initially expressed his faith by his obedience when he took that journey to the Promised land. Again, when Yahweh showed him the stars and told him that his descendants would be as numerous as those stars, Abram believed, and Yahweh credited that to him as righteousness. Then Yahweh reiterated the promise again when Abram was 99 years old and changed Abram’s name (which meant exalted Father) to Abraham (Father of many nations).

God told Abraham that a great nation would come out of him and Sarah. Yet, this did not look promising when the only son born to Abraham and Sarah was Isaac who was not even born until Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety. Isn’t it interesting that God told Abraham and Sarah to name their son, Isaac, which means “laughter.”?

Hospitality

One day, while Abraham was sitting in the entrance to his tent, he saw three visitors approaching and offered them water to wash their feet and then went to much effort to offer them something to eat and drink. As we read this description of Abraham’s greeting his visitors, it may sound extravagant to us, but would have been normal for the culture of the time. The normal custom was to regard visitors as those who have been sent by God.

Pleading to God

We don’t know the moment that Abraham recognized that one of the visitors was Yahweh, but it apparently happened by the time the visitors talked about Sodom and Gomorrah, which they were going to destroy. Concerned about his nephew Lot, who was living down there, Abraham made a plea to save the city if there were righteous people living in the city. At first, Abraham asked what if there were fifty righteous people living there, would they still destroy everyone there. When Yahweh said no, then Abraham asked, what about if there were 45 or 30 or 20 righteous people there. Each time, Yahweh said that he would not wipe out everybody if there were only that many righteous people there. As it turned out, God destroyed both Sodom and Gomorrah after He gave Lot and his daughters the chance to escape.

Faith and obedience

In one of the most controversial events, God called Abraham to take Isaac and go to a mountain, build an altar, and then offer Isaac as a sacrificial offering. Abraham must have severely tested, but Abraham obeyed God and went through the entire process to the point where he was about slay Isaac when God provided a substitute, a ram. Isaac would indeed be the next link in the genealogical chain connecting Abraham ultimately to the birth of the Messiah 2000 years later.

Slow and steady

The man who Yahweh would say would be the “father of many nations” had only one son born very late in his life and that son, Isaac, would have only twins. Even then, Esau and Jacob were born late in Isaac’s life, so the “father of many nations” would die only seeing two grandchildren.

Isaac

Ordinary believers

Meanwhile, the Biblical record for life of Isaac is unremarkable. God had blessed Isaac with wealth, however, the most notable events in his life were 1) failing just as his father Abraham had done in fearing that king Abimelech might kill him to get his wife, so he claimed that his wife was his sister and 2) when he was preparing to die, he got fooled by Jacob into giving Jacob the primary blessing instead of his older twin brother, Esau. Blessed, fallible, unremarkable, yet still used by Yahweh to accomplish Yahweh’s will.

Jacob

Deceit instead of faith

The biblical descriptions of Jacob and his twin brother Esau are not flattering. Esau is the older twin brother, but for a pot of porridge Esau was willing to give up his birthright. To seal the deal, Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, would conspire to deceive Isaac: They would take advantage of Isaac’s blindness by deceiving Isaac and setting it up for Jacob instead of Esau to receive the primary blessing from Isaac. This deceit happened even though when Rebekah was pregnant with the twins that Yahweh had told her that “the older would serve the younger,” so it is curious that Isaac still insisted on giving the primary blessing to Esau instead of Jacob and that Rebekah saw fit to use deceit to help Jacob receive that important blessing.

A higher order

The case of Jacob and Esau is not the only example where Yahweh would choose to upset the common order of things. In this case, it was side-stepping the normal primogeniture and instead have the older sibling serving the other sibling. In other times it would be stronger serving the weaker or having people outside the family displacing sins within the family. God repeats this pattern later by selecting Samuel to replace Eli instead of Eli’s sons, and in God selecting David to replace Saul instead of Saul’s son. And in all these cases, we see God preparing someone new to lead while he arranges to end another’s leadership.

Nation of wrestlers

After the deception of Isaac, Jacob’s would continue his pattern of deception. Yet, despite that character flaw, God would continue to bless Jacob with success just as he had blessed Abraham and Isaac. Jacob’s deceit with Isaac and Esau forced him to leave home and visit his uncle Laban, in Haran for many years. On the journey to Laban, Yahweh shared with Jacob the promise he made with Abraham and with Isaac, that “all the people on earth would be blessed through you.”

While staying with Laban, Jacob would continue his deceit to take advantage of Laban. Then years later, when Jacob left Laban to return to the promised land, God saw fit to engage with Jacob on both the journey to and from home. On the journey home, Jacob now has two wives and two concubines, thirteen children and a great wealth in flocks, herds, and servants. On that trip home, Jacob finds himself in a wrestling match with a man that Jacob learns was God. During that struggle, Jacob confessed his character by admitting that his name means “deceiver,” but then was given a new name, Israel (which means “wrestles with God”). Wrestling with God would become a hallmark of Israel’s descendants (that is, the nation of Israel) and is evident throughout the Old Testament.

Joseph

Discipline and character development

Of Jacob’s 12 sons, Joseph was the most notable. When Israel treated Joseph as his favorite son and then Joseph developing a sense of self-importance, Joseph created a sense of jealousy among his brothers. So, on one occasion while out tending flocks on one opportune occasion his jealous brothers sold him off to merchants traveling to Egypt. In Egypt, the merchants sold Joseph to a captain of the Pharaoh’s guard as a slave. While he was a slave to the captain, Yahweh caused Joseph to prosper in whatever he took care of, inspiring the captain to trust everything to Joseph. However, Joseph became imprisoned because of an unjust charge by the captain’s wife.

Bloom where you are

While Joseph was in prison, Yahweh continued to cause Joseph to prosper, inspiring the warden to entrust many things to Joseph. A couple of the prisoners, the cupbearer and baker for the Pharoah, had dreams to which Yahweh gave Joseph the interpretations. The predictions Joseph revealed to the prisoners did come true, the cupbearer was restored to his job, but the baker was executed. Sometime later, when the Pharaoh had dreams that he wanted to have interpreted, the cupbearer informed the Pharoah about Joseph. Through the help of Yahweh, Joseph was able to interpret those dreams. This led to the Pharoah making Joseph his second-in-command, putting Joseph in charge of overseeing the harvesting and storage of grain in preparation of a coming 7-year drought.

Dreams come true

The drought extended up to the Promised Land, Canaan, where Israel was living. This gave the opportunity for Joseph to invite Israel and all the rest of the family to come to Egypt where Joseph would make sure they were provided for. Joseph was able to see that while his brothers had intended to harm him, Yahweh was able to use for the good. In fact, this provided the setting that Yahweh had revealed to Abraham in a troubling dream, that “your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own.” For a moment, Egypt seemed to be promising, but it wasn’t the final destination. It particularly wasn’t the promised land. More than that, God warned that dark times lay ahead before they would arrive there.

Discipling (a nation)

Following the process of growth

After Joseph and the Pharaoh who knew him died, the growing nation of Israel became enslaved in the land of Egypt just as God had foretold to Abraham. There are various questions that surrounded the captivity of Israel in Egypt:

  • When there was a drought, why didn’t Yahweh provide for the Israelites in Canaan instead of having them go to Egypt?
  • If they needed to be in Egypt, why couldn’t the Pharoah continue to treat them as guests instead of enslaving them?

We know that Yahweh told Abraham that a great nation would come from him and that He would give them the land of Canaan to live in. But why the side-trip into Egypt and why the slavery? The only reason given to Abraham was that “the sin of the Amorites was not yet reached its full measure.” 

The reason given to Abraham for being in Egypt follows a general pattern. Although God occasionally supernaturally intervenes during events, it seems that God most often allows natural, normal processes to take place, whether they be physical, psychological, sociological etc. We see that process in living things – plants, and animals – as they grow through specific physical processes. Regarding, the great flood in Noah’s time, that only occurred after evil gradually, through normal psychological and sociological processes, eventually reached a particular threshold.

Fullness of time

The emerging story of the chosen people of God becoming a nation started slowly with Abraham, with one child of the promise, Isaac, who had two children, only one through whom the promise would come, Jacob. Finally, Jacob had thirteen children. But it would take time for that family to grow into a size that could be called a nation – and that took a couple hundred more years – in which time the “sin of the Amorites would reach their full measure.”

Although the Bible does not specifically mention it, there may have been other things that God was waiting to happen such as the development of the Israelite community and the consequent interaction of the Israelite community with the Egyptian community during the Israelite captivity. God allowed events to gradually unfold until “the fullness of time” came for God to orchestrate a dramatic release of the Israelite community. This event would serve as a foreshadowing of another event, the spiritual release of all peoples from slavery to sin.

So it was, that in the fullness of time, when the sin of the Amorites reached its full measure, Yahweh called Moses to release the enslaved Israelites from Egypt to bring Israel back to the Promised Land.

Discipline, Miracles, and Death

Miracles abounded.

There were the ten plagues that God brought upon the Egyptian captors to show the Pharoah that Yahweh was not just a local God in Canaan but that His power extended over all creation, even in the land of the Egyptian gods. In the process, the Pharoah’s own heart continued to harden against Yahweh to the point where God would seal the Pharoah’s fate and further harden the Pharoah’s heart. In the end, it took the killing of the firstborn of Egyptian families, including the family of the Pharoah to not only convince the Pharaoh to let people of Israel go, but the people of Egypt also supplied the people of Israel with great wealth as they left, with some Egyptians joining the people of Israel in their flight.

Then there was the miracles of the pillars of cloud and fire, which would continue until the nation entered the Promised Land, and the miracle which let Israel cross the Red Sea on dry land followed by the drowning of the Egyptian army. The Bible reveals the pattern of God punishing nations that He used to discipline the people of Israel.

Once on their way, the Israelites experienced more miracles, the mountain enshrouded in a cloud where Yahweh talked with Moses and delivered the Commandments and other rules, manna and quail falling from the sky, springs of water in the desert. Despite seeing all those miracles, Israel wasn’t ready to have Yahweh lead them into the Promised Land to face the obstacles there and so God had them encamp in the wilderness for 40 years until all the adults who refused to trust Yahweh died. So many deaths must have happened, but scripture barely mentions them. Here we will see, not for the last time, seeing miracles not only did not change hearts but that all our hearts seem predisposed to turn away from God.

Shadows of the Kingdom

The Tabernacle

During the time in the wilderness, God instructed the Israelites to build a tabernacle that would serve as the point of presence for Yahweh in the community. God’s presence within the Tabernacle would allow Israel to see God both as an unapproachable and transcendent God and as a personal, immanent God living among his people. In this way, the tabernacle would serve to display the shadow of a deeper reality.

The instructions are quite detailed. The materials used to build the tabernacle were gifts given to the Israelites as they left Egypt. God dedicated the workers for building the various parts of the tabernacle, filling them with his Spirit and then giving the skills and abilities they needed. God gave everything needed for the construction of the tabernacle. Between the detailed instructions, the materials provided by the Egyptians and the skills of the craftsmen, the tabernacle would be a beautiful work of art. Although the Israelites were told not to make graven images to worship as idols, that obviously did not mean that they couldn’t create works of art to be used to enable worship.

Sacrifice and Love

The amount of killing conducted in the tabernacle to fulfill the necessary sacrifices would be a constant, grisly reminder of the cost of our sin. There were sacrifices for many types of occasions: burnt (or ascension) offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings and others. There was much bloodletting from the many animals sacrificed on the altar, a constant reminder of the cost of our sins.

In addition to the rules of the tabernacle, God also gave other rules that covered other areas of life. Most of us are familiar with the moral code we know as the ten Commandments, but there were many other laws that covered other situations as well. The 613 rules in the Old Testament can all be summarized in the commands: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; Love your neighbor as yourself. Whether in the ten commandments or in the 613 rules, all the rules are predicated on love, thankfulness and pleasing one another. All the instructions point to practical ways for us to love God and one another.

God also gave detailed instructions about how and when to conduct the rituals surrounding the tabernacle. In the case of all the offerings, something had to die. The cost of sin was death, and it takes death to restore one’s relation with God. Moreover, the animals presented for sacrifice for the burnt offerings needed to be pure and without blemish or defect.

These “perfect” sacrifices were pointing to our ultimate need for a truly perfect sacrifice made on our behalf. The sacrifice would have to more than an animal with no visible blemishes. The sacrifice would have to be a perfect human whose identity would only be gradually prophetically revealed … by a new “Adam” who would succeed where the first Adam failed.

Sacrificial death, though, can take a different form than we expect. In Psalm 51, David declares,

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17 ESV)

and Micah declares.

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8, ESV)

and later, the apostle Paul declares,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2, ESV)

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)

These passages indicate a sacrifice of dying to oneself, of laying one’s own interests aside for the sake of another … for the sake of Christ. A sacrifice not to “make things right” with God but because things are right.

The Calendar and liturgy

What does it mean to for us be created in the image of a holy God? What do we mean when we say, “God is holy?” We first encounter the term in Genesis 2:3 when God indicates that the seventh day was made holy, the seventh day was to be set apart from the other days. When Moses encountered God’s presence in a burning bush, God told Moses to remove his sandals because the ground was holy. It was also God’s intention to make Israel a holy nation, set apart from other nations and through which He would bless all the nations on earth.

The nation of Israel established a couple of practices which distinguished them from the nations around them: the food, and the calendar. There were some restrictions of the food they could eat such as certain meats, fish, birds, and insects, but the calendar provides the most distinguishing difference. While some cultures had recognized a 7-day calendar, it was the Israelites who set aside the seventh day of the week as a Sabbath on which no work was supposed be done. But that is not the only distinguishing characteristic of the calendar.

In the present day we have a universal calendar, and we have a priority for journalistic chronology. That is, we remember historical events on the actual day that the events happened according to our calendar. It is important for us to track events in the chronological order in which they happened. However, there are a few exceptions that we should note. Sometimes we set our remembrance day according to our convenience – for instance, we always celebrate days such as Martin Luther King’s birthday, not on his actual birth date, but always on a Monday because of our priority for extended weekends.

For the Israelite calendar, the priority was not chronology but liturgy. The remembrance days for events were not set according to the actual historical date on which they occurred but were set according to the liturgical calendar. This practice become clear when you trace out the timing of events in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and compare them to the remembrance dates. It was more important to have events in the context of God’s activity rather than the contexts of the events themselves.

This concept provides the background for celebration of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was such an important concept for the Jews, that God used the account of creation in Genesis 1 to present the concept of Sabbath. When we think about God’s creating activities, God did not need six days to complete His creation, nor did he need to rest. So why do set up the remembrance of God’s creation in a 7-day timeframe? Once again, the crucial point is not the chronology but the liturgy.

The crucial point about the creation event was not the event itself, but what it was for. The purpose of creation was to create a “temple,” a place where God could “rest,” that is, “be” with his people. That’s the main point. There are tasks to do of course as we join God in his creative work in the universe, but the point of the tasks is to be with God. When you look at Genesis 1-2, you will notice that the first six days have a defined beginning and end, an evening, and a morning. The seventh day does not have a defined closing – that implies that we are in the seventh day. This day we are in, the age we are in, is the “day” that we “rest” with God. God has intended that all our activities should be done with, at rest with, God.

This brings us to a second distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish Biblical calendar: the first month was during the spring equinox, harvesting time, whereas in the surrounding cultures the first month of the calendar was set in the fall equinox, crop planting time. The difference in meaning was that since Israel’s year started with God’s work, the year begins God’s provision of the harvest which fed the nation and provided seed for the fall. This contrasted to the surrounding cultures which began their calendar with their work, so their year began with their work that provided for the next harvest.

What can be confusing is that in current practice, Jews do not use the biblical (or liturgical) calendar but the civil calendar which places the first month in the fall instead of the spring. Christians do have an equivalent practice: our civil calendar begins in January, which was set by the Roman government and coincided with Roman elections whereas some in the Christian community observe a liturgical calendar which begins in the fall with the season of Advent.

The liturgical focus of the calendar with its de-emphasis of the chronology of historical events helps explain some interesting discontinuities and apparent conflicts in the Biblical text. If we interpret the events described in Exodus liturgically instead of chronologically, we can make better sense of the flow of Exodus.

One of the “apparent conflicts” occurs in Exodus 19, as the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai. At the beginning of the chapter, Yahweh made a covenant like the one with Abraham and declared that they were to be a “kingdom of priests,” and that they were to prepare to go up the mountain after the sounding of the ram’s horn. And yet, at the end of the same chapter, Yahweh told Moses to not let the people, even the(people designated to be) priests, to go up the mountain. By noticing such apparent conflicts, we can better chronologically rearrange the events in Exodus so that they make better sense to chronologically minded folks such as we are.

A possible chronological arrangement of events looks like:

  • Covenant established – Exodus 19:1-25; 20:18-21
  • The initial, Abrahamic covenant was given followed by the Decalogue (10 Commandments) – Exodus 20:1-17; 20:22-23:33; 25:1-31:18
  • The golden calf incident – Exodus 32
  • A covenant renewal – Exodus 33-34
  • The code for priests – Exodus 35-Leviticus 16
  • An incident with goat idols – Leviticus 17:1-9
  • The Holiness code – Leviticus 17-25
  • Israel renews the covenant – Leviticus 26

While the rearrangement may help us make chronological sense of the text, in the end, the text in Exodus presents Israel as now being a nation with priests and the community centering its worship around a large tent called the Tabernacle. The liturgical intent of the text is to focus on the outcome, that Israel will be a nation with priests serving a holy God who may reside among them but who is not directly accessible.

Worship at the tabernacle was a community event. No one could do this by themselves. God assigned different people to do different tasks, which not only included direct involvement in worship but also in the care of the tabernacle and its furnishings. Even one’s individual sins required the use of priest to handle the sacrifice. Before the tabernacle, anyone could make offerings, but with the tabernacle, only designated priests could perform the sacrificial offerings.

The liturgical calendar also helps in understanding the creation account in Genesis 1. God did not need six chronological days to complete His creation. God established the six days for liturgical reasons: for establishing a week which consists of six workdays followed by a Sabbath as enunciated in Exodus 20:8-11. The Sabbath would be one of the markers that would set apart the Israelites from the other nations.

This arrangement continues the pattern of representing the holiness of God in creation. God’s image-bearing creatures are set aside from all other creatures; Sinful humans are separated from the Garden of Eden; Noah and his family are set aside in the ark from all other people; Abraham is set aside from all other people to usher in the blessing of all people; Moses is set apart from the other Israelites to see God face-to-face; the Levites are the tribe set apart from the other tribes to manage the care of the tabernacle; the priests are set apart from the other Levites to carry out the rituals in the tabernacle; the Sabbath from all the other days to remind us of God’s provision, in particular his provision for rest – and the list goes on.

Questions:

  1. Read Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 40:8; 58:12; Philippians 3:20-21. What should our attitude be as God fulfills his plans through us?
  2. Read Genesis 18:1-8; Hebrews 13:1-2. In the nomadic culture, hosts readily showed hospitality to any visitors because they were supposed to regard all visitors as being from God. What keeps us from exhibiting the same attitude?
  3. Read Genesis 24-25. We can never know how God will use the ordinary things in our lives to fulfill his purposes. How does that knowledge help you look at your own life?
  4. Read 1 Samuel 3-4; 1 Samuel 15-16. These passages illustrate how God continues to accomplish his will despite the messiness of our lives. How does that affect how you pray?
  5. Read Genesis 32:22-28. God would rename Jacob to Israel, which means “wrestles with God,” which would eventually become the name of the nation descended from Jacob, and the nation through which the Messiah would come. Can we be strong in our faith in God if we have not wrestled with God?
  6. Read Genesis 15:12-21; Exodus 1:1-22. We often don’t know the reasons for the difficult circumstances in life. How might Abram’s dream explain why God originally provided hospitality and refuge in Egypt but then allowed the Egyptians to enslave Israel?
  7. Read Exodus 8-10. In the narrative of the ten plagues, several times the Pharoah hardened his own heart, but then there came a time when Yahweh reinforced that trajectory and Yahweh hardened the Pharoah’s heart. What kind of warning might that be?
  8. Read Hebrews 8:5-6; 10:1-18, 1 Peter 2:9. God designed the Tabernacle to represent a greater reality. Our relationships among people also represent a greater reality. What is it?
  9. Read Psalm 51; Romans 12:1-2. We do not have a temple to make animal sacrifices. What we do have is the opportunity to offer ourselves as a daily sacrifice. What is meant by a broken spirit?
  10. Read Hebrews 10:19-39. The New Testament does not command Gentile believers to set aside people as priests nor to observe the Sabbath. However, we not to “neglect gathering together” so that we can “stir one another to love and good works,” and help each other persevere in our faith. How can we then help each other practice holiness by the setting aside of things in our life, to consecrate them to God?

Chapter 4 – The Rebellion

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 4 – The Rebellion

Confronting our freedom

To be creatures designed in the image of the transcendent creative, loving God, we needed the kind of independence that could allow us to choose who or what to love – or not love – and to be free to imagine and create wildly new and different things as proper for God’s image-bearing creatures. We were free to do this in a place where everything was very good and designed so that we could flourish. However, that very freedom which gave image bearers the possibilities of independent thoughts, also gave those image-bearers the opportunity to also confront temptation.

God made His image-bearers the opportunity to meet with Him and to walk with Him in a specially designed garden, and also gave us the opportunity for questions, even to question the motives of the God who made them: 

  • Was God withholding something good being from them?
  • Was God deprived them of some power?
  • What would be available to them if they violated the restriction?
  • Would they actually die?
  • What special knowledge was God depriving them of – particularly this knowledge of good and evil?
  • Everything they had encountered had been good, why would their thinking about violating this one restriction not be good?
  • Was the Creator so good anyway?”

Sin’s consequences

And so, it happened. The one thing that could create the ultimate catastrophe did happen. The good Creator, who only intended good things, allowed his image-bearers to give into their temptation, to put their own authority above His and violate the one restriction placed before them. This violation by the stewards of His creation broke everything: the relationship between themselves, the relation between them and Him, the relation between them and creation. Sin has affected all of creation which is even now waiting for God to make things right again.

God designed everything in creation to be good, to reflect the good character of the good God; to be a place where God and his image-bearers could keep on creating good things and bring increasing glory to God. But now, although the ultimate structure of creation was still good, it was headed in the wrong direction. The broken universe would now cause things to move away from God’s glory.

The brokenness started with the decision that would be continuously repeated. Even in a time like now, where we can get things so quickly and easily compared to times in the past, we want what we want, and we want it now. And the desire to get what we want now overwhelms our capacity to think of others, as we put ourselves at the center of our part of the universe, replacing God with ourselves. In the case of the first humans, they wanted to grab knowledge and wisdom for themselves instead of waiting to receive it from God.

After many generations, we would prove that we could not successfully resist the temptation to grab what we want instead of waiting to receive what we want from God. That would remain for Jesus, as our divinely ordained human representative, to do. So, until that time, the earth would remain separated from the Kingdom of God until Jesus began His restoration of the Kingdom. So, until that time the place of human habitation would be separate from the place where God’s good rule and reign is absolute. And it will not be until God fully reunites heaven and earth, that we will fully experience the overflowing shalom that God has intended for us. Until that time, the broken earth will stay separated from heaven and allowed to sink into disorder and chaos. Until that time, the overflowing goodness and shalom that God had provided will be masked by the brokenness of not just Creation but also by the brokenness of the co-creators. Look at what we have done!

We were meant to be in communion with each other and with God. We were meant to be “gardening” with God to make our place, a place of thriving and abundance in concord with the type of thriving and abundance with which God originally made the universe. God intended for us to live connected to Him and filled with His Spirit so that we would be fully enabled and prepared to be co-creators with Him of good works. But our rebellion has separated us from the one who is the source of goodness. In that sense, since the time of Adam, we are less human than we should be.

Hope in the brokenness

The rebellion broke everything. Spiritual death, the separation between God and his image-bearers, happened immediately. Physical death would mirror the spiritual death when the image-bearers would no longer have access to the Tree of Life. This was a great tragedy that we could not undo. But as we look around us, we can see that, despite the tragedy around us, things aren’t totally bad. Even though evil is very evident around us, goodness is also evident. It is in that observation that we can glimpse the possibility of hope.

God had ordained the penalty of death, spiritual and physical, to be the consequence of turning away from him. Spiritual death, the separation God’s image-bearers from God happened immediately, but physical death, the separation of soul and body, did not happen right away. What God did, was to apply discipline to his image-bearers. He also gave a hint of the solution to the problem created by sin, the first of many other hints that were to come.

There was also evidence for hope in the continued creation by God, as he continued to sustain the universe he created, and within that universe He continued to create new living things, plants, and animals alike. Related to that hope, was that the mandate given to the image-bearers was still in force, although there would now be suffering involved in the fulfillment of the mandate.

There was also hope hidden in God’s very name. The name given to us, and which Moses first revealed in Genesis 2, is “Yahweh” (Hebrew, יהוה). In the ancient Hebrew, the characters would have looked a little different and each character would represent an object or action. In Hebrew, the characters are read from right to left. The first character (י) represents a hand or arm and could also represent work or worship. The character (ה) represents a man with arms raised and could also represent displaying or revealing something. The (ו) character represents a nail or tent peg and could also represent fastening something together. So, embedded in the name יהוה is the message “hand revealed nail revealed” – a foretelling of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

The sacrifice of Jesus followed a life in which Jesus successfully waited to receive those things that His Father intended to give, resisting the temptation to grab those things for himself. In his life and death, Jesus successfully accomplished what Adam and all those who came after Adam had not.

In the beginning, we were eager to grasp for ourselves wisdom and the knowledge of good and evil on our own terms. What we didn’t plan on the consequences that would follow. Sometimes God gives us what we think we want even though it would bring us the suffering that God was trying to steer us from. It’s a continuing pattern we see from the beginning until now, that it is not always a good thing when we get what we think we want.

The plan to restore creation

The apparent penalty for sin, physical death, was more than that, it was also a blessing. Unlike the angels who rebelled against God, death provided the rebellious image-bearers a means of avoiding an eternity separated from the source of goodness and grace. But for the image-bearers, death would provide a means where God could rescue not only them, but all of creation from decay and death.

The plan of restoration would start to slowly unfold in ways that would sometimes be baffling and confusing and on a timetable that is beyond our comprehension. Over time though, God would gradually reveal how he intended to restore our relation to him, to end our pain and suffering, and to overcome the evil that seems to pervade everything.

The process of God’s revelation of hints of restoring creation started right at the beginning. God gave the initial clue in the curse given to the serpent, but the hint must have been a cryptic comment to His newly broken image-bearers. But since we have the privilege of looking back, we can see that God’s then cryptic reference was to the death and suffering of the character revealed in the Old Testament as the Messiah. As time went on, the Creator gradually revealed increasingly more clues about the plans He had to restore His creation. This gradual revelation was, and still is, a painfully slow time of waiting as we suffer the consequences of broken relations and a broken creation.

Fortunately, as we have waited in our broken universe, God’s grace has continued to intervene throughout history so that things are not as bad as they could possibly be. Our rebellion has not deterred God from providing for our everyday needs nor has he ceased to work on his plan to rejoin heaven and earth.

Meanwhile, God invites us to take part with him in the continued creation of the universe, bringing healing, health and hope directly into the midst of our now broken world, a task that he and we will continue until God fully restores his kingdom. Towards that end, he has provided spiritual gifts, gifts that we can share with one another, to build up one another and to bless the world as his ambassadors.

There are many things about the plans of God that we do not understand. God’s plans for us seem to stretch out over a long time in which there is much suffering and pain. But God can redeem even the suffering and pain we endure to help us become more like the Desire of our Hearts, the One who gave all Himself so that we all may become more like Him.

Turning from shalom

Although we try to cling to the hope of God and our final restoration, we, in our sin, face a world broken by sin. While waiting for the restoration of creation, we find ourselves continually turning from God and rather towards bringing further destruction into God’s good creation, constantly bending on turning from shalom and towards a substitute that gives us pain and despair. Evil and injustice flourish. The consequence of choosing to go our own way has put us on a path where we continue to separate ourselves from the source of goodness and shalom. Indeed, we find ourselves on a path of destruction despite God’s continual provision for us as he continuously and unrelenting pursues us and pours out his limitless grace. And so it is, that we find ourselves in a world where both good and evil abound, where the good things God created are corrupted continuing to turn us away from God.

Rampant evil

So that we can know what terrible direction we were headed without that intervening grace, God initially allowed his image-bearers to live long lifespans. The long lifespans seemed to postpone the penalty for sin such a long time by delaying the penalty of physical death, that the image-bearers behaved as if there were no consequences for their God-defiant behavior. The result was rampant unrestrained evil that infected nearly everyone, causing God to destroy all but one family. Sadly, even with that severe penalty, it would not be long before our God-defiant behavior would threaten to be our undoing again, but God would continue intervening with grace as He would gradually work out His plan to restore us to Himself beginning with the rainbow as a sign of hope.

Tower of Babel

Despite the catastrophic destruction that destroyed all people except Noah and his family, the image-bearers’ defiance would emerge again when, thinking themselves to be wiser than God, they refused to spread out over the earth as God had commanded and then proceeded to build a tower as a monument to themselves. God’s response was very measured. By causing them to speak different languages so that they could no longer communicate with each other, the image-bearers would no longer be able to come together to complete the tower, rather they were now forced to divide into seventy different groups and spread out across the earth as God had intended. This breakup would lead to the creation of different nations – and eventually lead to God’s working out His solution to our predicament by the calling out from one of the nations, one man through whom God would begin His work of restoration.

Questions:

  1. Read Genesis 3:1-7. What did the woman choose to trust when she chose to eat the forbidden fruit?
  2. Read Gen 3:14-15, 20-21; Psalm 4:1, 8. The world around us is filled with problems. What signs of hope do we have?
  3. Read Genesis 50:20. After Jacob’s death, Joseph spoke to his brothers about their selling him into slavery and said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” What can we learn from this?
  4. Read Gen 3:1. We often know in our mind what God’s instruction is when we are tempted to do our own thing apart from God’s instruction. We somehow find a way to justify our actions by questioning God’s authority. Does this give us a strategy for dealing with temptation?
  5. Read Genesis 11:4. The construction of the tower at Babel was not a positive development, but God’s plans won’t be thwarted. What confidence does that give us about the difficult situations we see around us today?

Chapter 3 – The Impossible Creatures – Part2

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

Reflecting God’s goodness

Generous and overflowing shalom

Goodness, generosity and shalom all fit together. We begin with the premise that we are representatives of the Prince of Peace. Scripture is full of encouragement for us to live in peace because it is through shalom that much else flows, including goodness and generosity. Goodness flows out of the shalom which is concerned with the overall well-being of others. It is goodness which governs justice, mercy, and humility – and does not allow us to be content with helping God to usher in only the minimal amounts of justice, mercy into the world but the fullness that stems from the overflowing goodness of God.

Our Creator and Temple-maker intended for us to enjoy his overflowing love and goodness. He provided us a place of abundance where he can meet all our needs, where He had a purpose for us as His stewards and His co-creators and where we could enjoy him and enjoy each other. This overflowing can be overwhelming when we consider the breadth, the beauty, the abundance, and the complexity of this temple he has provided. And we can marvel at the breadth, the beauty, the abundance and the complexity of the skills and abilities He has provided for us as his stewards and co-creators. Just look at what He has done and what we have done with what He has given us!

Trustworthy and Faithful

We can’t seem to avoid breaking promises; whether it’s the one’s others make to us or the ones that we make to others. We usually expect broken promises from some people because we know they lack sincerity. Then sometimes we experience broken promises because things happen beyond our control, circumstances change, priorities change, or other things happen. Yet, during all that, God calls us to be His ambassadors and to reflect his faithfulness to us. God calls us to faithfulness in all things, whether it’s in truth-telling, in love, in doing good, in prayer, in doing the work of the Lord, in confirming our calling, to mention a few. As we attempt to be faithful and trustworthy in all things and when we fall short – as we surely will – we can still point to the trustworthiness and faithfulness of the Lord. The point must always be to not point to ourselves but to the Lord – God calls us to trust Him, be dependent on Him, and to put our confidence in His faithfulness and His sacrifice on our behalf.

Self-Sacrificing and Forgiving

Our life in God does not begin with anything we have done but with the sacrifice made by Christ Jesus, the perfect sacrifice that He made on our behalf to reconcile us to God. When by baptism we join him in his death, He also unites us with him in his resurrection. It is that resurrection power that enables us to present ourselves as living sacrifices, to worship him by continually dying to our sinsand offering ourselves to the service of God and to others. And just as the mercies of God flow into our lives, so those mercies should flow over into the mercy we extend to others on God’s behalf.

Temple stewards

Although God’s first image-bearers had close, unhindered, intimate contact with their Creator, there was enough space given them to think freely, as if they were not being watched all the time. It was in this space that God gave us several mandates: procreation (be fruitful and multiply), stewardship (subdue the earth and have dominion over its creatures), and a cultural mandate (work it and take care of it). He gave us the assignment to be fruitful, to fill all the earth, discover its possibilities and care for the world in the same way that God would care for the world. Just as God continues to create more living things and sustain all that he has created, we as his co-regents, can join him in sustaining and creating those things entrusted to our care.

He also gave us the responsibility to subdue the earth and have dominion over its creatures. When there is resistance, we still have the responsibility to bring the rule of God to the world. Then He gave us the responsibility to work and take care of the earth, this will expand from taking care of the garden to taking care of all of God’s creations. Implied in all these things is that we should do everything in context of God’s love, to care for each other and to care for the earth and its creatures with the mind of the God who created us for love.

The work that He designed us to do was more than just tending the garden. In Genesis 2:15, God gave us a mandate to “work” and “take care of” the garden that He had created. These tasks within Ancient Near East culture, were more of a priestly nature, taking care of this temple where we reside with God.

We were to take care of this place which He designed to be a “very good” place for us to flourish in, creating whatever structures we needed to “increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.” This task, this mandate, meant that we would eventually go beyond the capacity of gardening and create not just a bigger garden but cities, a flourishing civilization as pictured in Revelation 21 and 22.

When examined closely, we can see the breadth of what was committed to Adam and Eve. Subduing the earth would entail many physical, social, and intellectual activities. In the gardening we can see cultivation and farming; in taking care of the animals, we can see shepherding and domestication; in the naming of the animals, we can see a cultural and scientific activity which required understanding the nature and attributes of the animals and establishing authority over them. We can see that God had created things to be beautiful and, as his image-bearers, He expects us to also create beautiful things.

There is a sense in which we, as members of the Kingdom of God, now seem to be living in a foreign land. This puts us in a similar position as when the Babylonians took the Israelites into exile in Babylon. During their stay in Babylonia, God’s instructions were to settle down, build houses, get married, have children and to seek the prosperity of the city God sent them to, for “if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

But above all these things we can do, we should not lose focus on who we are. We are creatures designed by God to be like God to be in relationship with Him, the God who is a community in Himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We should do everything in context of who we are. Remembering that God designed us to be human “beings,” not human “doings.” This viewpoint become clear when we compare the Biblical view of creation to the view of other Ancient Near East cultures. For the surrounding cultures, the gods created human beings to feed and serve them, whereas the Biblical viewpoint sees God being the provider for the people.

Originally, we see Creation designed as a temple, a place for us to “be” with God. Later, Jesus refers to himself as the temple, a human in whom God resides, then after that Paul declares that our own bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. So here again, we see the mystery of perichoresis, where we are distinct from the Holy Spirit, yet the Holy Spirit becomes a part of who we are. In this we see the mystery of perichoresis unifying the persons within God, unifying the body, soul and spirit within humans, and unifying God and humans.

Questions:

  1. What tasks did God provide for the humans?
  2. What kind of tensions did our rebellion create between humans and between the humans and God?
  3. Unlike other creatures whom God simply created as male and female, Genesis 2 gives a story of a man specifically made from the dust and a woman created from the side of the man. What do think was God’s purpose for describing the origin of his image-bearers?
  4. How can we, within the finiteness of our lives and our intelligence, see how beauty points to eternity?
  5. . While meditating on the limitations of life on earth, verse eleven slides in a reference to beauty and eternity. How does that verse impact the rest of the chapter?
  6. Think about how love relates both to sovereignty and service. What implications does that have for how we treat others?
  7. Think about how humility relates to both mercy and justice. What implications does that have for how we treat others?
  • Read Deuteronomy 12; 1 Corinthians 14. These chapters contain explicit instructions about how and how not to worship. Since we do not yet experience the fullness of the new Kingdom, how can our imagination help us more actively engage in worship?
  • Read Exodus 18:21; Luke 16:10-12. In what ways can we challenge ourselves to be more faithful?
  • Read Romans 12:1-21. Christ’s sacrifice for us included his death on the cross. What kind of sacrifice are we expected to make?

Chapter 3 – The impossible creatures – Part 1

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 3 – The Impossible Creatures

As God’s image-bears, we can reflect the image of the loving, interpenetrating, interacting, and dancing God as we participate in His work of taking care of His Creation and of one another. This dance which started before Creation, has been joined by God’s image-bearers since the beginning of humanity. It is now our turn. We just need to learn the moves and join the dance. Ultimately, God did not need to create us or the universe, He did it out of a desire to share his love and delight. God’s creation was more an act of play than of work and He desires that we actively play with him, if you will, to dance with him in His Kingdom. The Kingdom Dance is not meant to be a solo effort, we are to dance with God and with his people.

Reflecting God’s paradoxes

Understanding the character of God, can help us understand what he has intended for creatures that are made in his image. Image-bearing creatures are not gods or duplicates of God, but they are imbued with the character of the God that made them. In this chapter we will explore some of the ways God intends for us to reflect his image. In later chapters, we will expound on those characteristics in more detail.

It was into this good universe that God prepared beforehand that God created creatures to bear his image. Good creatures, image-bearers, who were given the task of taking care of the good creation that God blessed them with – and God declared it to be very good. The image-bearing creatures were created in the complex image of God – the one God who was a community within Himself, the God who was immensely creative, the God who was generous and loving beyond imagination, the God who is sovereign over the universe, the God who is above all things.

There was a danger in God creating image-bearers. To make creatures that were lovers – just as He was a lover – meant giving these image-bearers the freedom to choose whom or what to love. We are unable to choose to not love but only who or what to love. Because God’s image-bearers were the capstone of creation, the option to another love than God, risked an awful catastrophe, a catastrophe that could affect the entirety of creation itself. The good creation, all of it, would become not so good.

And so it was, after creation was prepared for God’s image-bearers, those creatures who were created in the image of the loving God were given instructions to be stewards of the world God had made. Everything was good, and the first human couple had free access to the provisions in garden prepared for them. Only one restriction was placed before them, a restriction not meant to deprive them of anything good but meant to provide the opportunity to test their love, by testing their obedience to the one who created them.

We all now know that those creatures failed their test, and we daily experience the consequences of that failure. We also daily experience our own incapacity to restore holiness on our own efforts, our inability to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and our inability to fully love God or to fully love our neighbors as ourselves.

The mystery of who we are has to worked out between all the goodness we are endowed with as creatures who bear the image of God and all the evil we are encumbered with as creatures who innately rebel against that same God. Traces of heaven and hell run through each of us and our manifested in our everyday lives. The tongues we praise God with also curse our neighbor. The selflessness we display to others is corrupted by the selfish desires that emerge from the same heart.

Body, Soul and Spirit

The mystery of perichoresis which tries to describe the one person God consisting of the relation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit may very well be the best approach to the mystery of God’s image-bearers. There are conflicting views on whether a person consists of a body and soul or body and spirit or body and soul and spirit. Are we two parts or three parts then which parts? A similar issue arises in the attempts to figure out the relation between the brain and consciousness. Although some researchers reductionistically think that consciousness is all biology and that we will be able to eventually build a computer with a conscious, it is likely that the mystery of perichoresis will prevail.

As image-bearers, being created as community of male and female points one way to the community of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but also points in another way to their unity as represented by becoming “one flesh.” There is an element of equality with a difference between male and female as represented by the woman being created from, what has been commonly translated, a “rib” from Adam’s side. The equality becomes more apparent however, when we understand the word that has been translated as “rib” is more usually translated as “side” – as if Eve were constructed from a full half Adam’s side.

The mystery deepens further when we consider the sexual union of husband and wife. Our male and femaleness show us our human incompleteness without each other. In the joining of the male and female bodies we manifest a completeness. Humans are unlike all other creatures in that we are made in God’s image with body, soul and spirit, and our spirit is joined to God’s Spirit. Therefore, the sexual union of husband and wife, unlike other creatures, is described as becoming “one flesh.” The combination of spiritual union and physical union creates a living metaphor of the union of Christ with the Church. The love, intensity and passion of two different but complementary bodies united both in spirit and in “one flesh” is an extension of the perichoresis of the Trinity as the bodies of the image-bearers united in spirit with Christ become the body of Christ on earth, joined in love, intensity and passion, enjoying the overflowing goodness and shalom that God has intended for us.

We are created body, soul and spirit with the intention that when heaven and earth are rejoined, we will be restored body, soul and spirit (although it will be in resurrected bodies) in the new heaven and earth. It is also through our bodies that we are restored to Christ. And when fellow Christ-bearers assemble together, they are together the Body of Christ, with each person bringing different gifts to support and strengthen the others in the Body.

Transcendent and Immanent

God has placed each one of us in a particular time and place and with particular people. Within that time and place and people he has plans for us. Each of us has a particular mind and body with which we need to discern God’s calling for us in our time and place. Such plans are revealed in many places in scripture.

And though we are called to particular times, places and people, there are ways in which God’s transcendent character spills over onto us. The mark of his transcendence is even placed in each of our hearts. The expressions of transcendence are impossible to avoid in our day and age: Although we were not born with the ability to fly, we can fly to the moon, although we were not born to live under water, we are able to spend months at a time under water even at incredible depths, although we were not born to run like a cheetah, we don’t even think about climbing into a vehicle and going more than 60 miles an hour for hours at a time, we can also create works of art that show places we have never been, we can use the resources of the earth to generate more power than we can imagine … and the list goes on.

With our gift of transcendence, God has shown that he has set us aside as his representatives, “to be holy as he is holy.” We are not to merely live as earthly creatures but as creatures who represent the living God. The challenge before us is to discern, as God’s image-bearers, to what end God can use our particular bodies, emotions and minds in the particular family and community into which we are placed, to fulfill the purpose he has intended for each of us.

In Time and In an Eternal Future

Although we have not existed from all eternity, God created us with more than a mortal body. We are also endowed with a soul and a spirit that can be joined to God’s Spirit. In the present moment, our mortal bodies are created from the stuff of the earth, and we are born into particular times and places so that we may serve and enjoy God in those particular times and places.

Our creatureliness which sets us in a particular place and time with a particular body is an opportunity to appreciate our finiteness and God’s infiniteness, to cultivate a sense of dependence on God’s provision and our dependence on each other and within the context of those relationships to truly learn how to love.

Our creatureliness also forces us to deal with God’s ordering Creation through process. Everything, whether physical, social, emotional, intellectual or spiritual, is controlled by processes. Sometimes we desire to bypass those processes: we want to be instantly knowledgeable and wise and experts at what we do … and not dependent on anyone else. But it was precisely that kind of desire that led to our rebellion at the beginning of humanity.

As God’s image-bearing creatures, we not only have relationships with each other but also with our Creator. With other of God’s image-bearing creatures, our love can be expressed in our opportunities to support, uplift and encourage one other. God has no need of such support from us, but He offers us such support. When we recognize our dependence on Him, He gives us the ability to pray, to acknowledge our needs and to recognize His provision for us when He supplies our needs.

As we pray in our mortal bodies, we remember that although our mortal bodies will return to the dust from which we are made, our bodies will be resurrected when heaven and earth are reunited so that we, with soul and spirit and new body, will be able to enjoy God forever into the future.

In the meantime, while we await for our resurrection and to gaze on the beauty of the Lord (Psalm 27:4), we have reminders of our connection with our transcendent God in the beauty of His Creation and in our capacity to make things of beauty. Whether the beautiful things are of our creation or the Lord’s, they are a reflection of God’s own beauty.

Co-Sovereigns and Servants

God is the master of all creation, yet he has given to us the responsibility to take care of the earth. It is out of that mastery that we have managed to use the resources of the earth to create all the technological advances that we have. Unfortunately, in many cases we have abused our abilities; abusing not just the resources of the earth but often abusing each other.

In our sinfulness, we typically appeal to our call to sovereignty while forgetting our call to service. This very issue Jesus took care to remind us of on many occasions. If we mistreat the earth that we are placed in or if we mistreat others, then we dishonor not only the one in whose image we are made but even the other image-bearers of God. In fact, it is out of our call to sovereignty and service that we are called to love, to willingly give of ourselves to the service of God just as God gave of himself to us.

It is under the constraint of God’s love that he tells us to “subdue” and “have dominion” over his creation. As God’s stewards, our sovereignty means we have the responsibility to maintain the good in God’s creation, to bring order to it and to help his creatures flourish and fill the earth.

There are two dimensions to our responsibility to subdue and have dominion.

When Genesis 1 was written, it was hard work to cultivate the rocky soil and people had little control of the elements; people were more powerless than powerful. In that context we see the forceful aspect of radah (ruling the earth) that is evident in other instances in the Bible when that word is used. That is one dimension of our responsibility.

But another dimension of our responsibility to have “dominion” is tempered by gentleness, such as when God spoke through Ezekiel’s to the “shepherds of Israel” and reprimanded them for using cruelty and violence and caring more about themselves than the people they were responsible for, serving themselves instead of the people.

In our service, we are dependent one another. We were not made to be self-sufficient; we not only need to have a relationship with God but also with each other. God allowed the first man to see that he needed another human before God presented the man with a woman to be his ‘ezer kegnedo. In Hebrew, ‘ezer is usually translated as “helper” or “deliverer” and is most often used to describe God delivering his people; kegnedo is usually translated as “in front of” or “opposite” or “parallel to”.

Later on, in scripture we see that we are called to be a nation of priests and a body where all the different parts have a purpose as they work together. We are called not just to a restored relationship with the one who made us but are called together as a people to serve each other and to serve the world around us.

Merciful and Just

There is much in this world that is not just or righteous. As God’s servants, we are called to seek both. But just like the servant in the parable of the unmerciful servant we can forget the mercies shown to us when we are dealing with each other. There is much that makes us yearn for justice in a world filled with cruelty, but we need to remember that as God acted on his own demands of justice, he yet found a way to bestow great mercy on us.

The prophets of Israel, and even Jesus, condemned those people who acted in self-righteousness and did not seek justice and mercy for those around them. In our own search for justice, we should remember the entreaty in Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

Playful and Orderly

There is much that is wrong in the world. People endure pain and suffering sometimes from natural happenings and sometimes from the actions of others. Evil seems persistent and never-ending. When we are called to serve God in this world, we can become overwhelmed by all the work that is to be done. Playfulness can seem out of place. Particularly, any playfulness that emerges from self-centeredness or obsessiveness.

Actually, that is the point we need to assert. Playfulness can be out of place in a world of sin and evil. But playfulness can also be a reminder that the reality in front of us is not the total reality. Our playfulness arises out of the relationship we have with God, the one who has overcome the evil in the world, who will end the suffering and who will restore us and world to be what he intended from the beginning. Playfulness arises out of the hope and joy we have in knowing that reality in front of us is not the whole reality.

Our imagination can be helpful in this play. As children, we can pretend there is another world and do something like taking a cardboard box and imagining it to be a spaceship and accepting the rules of living in that spaceship. Family traditions (or even community or national traditions) are a form of play, they do not serve a utilitarian purpose, but stem from the creative ways we wish to remember our unique heritage.

This same imaginative playfulness can be useful reminding us of the reality that lies behind our current reality. Our traditions of worship are a form of play, albeit a more serious play. Our worship traditions represent ways for us to remember our spiritual heritage or to provide imaginative ways to perform biblical sacraments about which we have sparse details on how to perform them. These traditions and liturgies help us point to that other reality, a new Kingdom that began breaking into this world with the incarnation of Jesus.

We hope to participate in the inbreaking of the new Kingdom by living according to its rules. When we pray or worship, we are participating in the rules of that new Kingdom. When we come to others and share with them the hope that we have, we are asking them to use their imagination to look beyond the current reality and envision the new Kingdom that is already here and is yet to come. When we accept contentment in all situations, when we trust in God, when we comfort others with the hope we have, we are living according to the rules of the new Kingdom.

It is also true, that In this present life there are endless encounters with grief. Although we acknowledge the pain and suffering of that grief, whether that grief is ours or others, we can encompass that grief with hope. Even amid grief we can choose to cling to God and to the hope He brings us. If we can live into the rules of the new Kingdom, we can have assurance that the current grief will pass and will be replaced by future joy and laughter and that every tear that we have cried and will cry and even now cry will be wiped away.

Our hope of the new Kingdom allows us to endure the current pain and suffering knowing that the hard experiences can be redeemed and to be used for good. God can take the pain and suffering we endure to transform us to be more like Christ, who himself suffered for us, transforming the very evil intended for him into the final victory that shall ultimately also make us victorious. This hopeful living then is also a form of play, accepting the rules of a reality we cannot see and choosing to live according to the rules of a Kingdom that we can only realize in part.

That playfulness also emerges in our creativity, which erupts early on in our lives as our desire as children to play and also in the desire we have as parents to play with our children. There is no doubt about how uniquely creative we are in the way we express ourselves, not only in all the various art forms we use but in the ways we can solve all sorts of problems – even to the creative ways we try to cover up our sins. No other creature can come close to expressing creativity the way we can.

Our ability to create and even detect order is also unmatched. Our ability to detect order is evident in the way we can detect patterns in sight or sound. The sense of order is evident in our ability to recognize faces, our ability to recognize the voices of our mothers or fathers as infants and even before we are born. Our sense of order is seen as we grow in our ability to recognize the patterns of letters and sounds and to recognize and respond to language – even languages.

Our sense of order becomes more evident in our ability to create order out of many abstract concepts such as math, science, philosophy and many other areas. It is our sense of order that allows us to create businesses, governments and civic organizations to make society productive. When we bring order to farmland, we increase the productivity of the farm.

The visible order within Creation inspired Christians in the past to study Creation. Order within Scripture helps the Bible to be meaningfully used as meditative literature. In the same way, order during worship also helps us to avoid confusion and to focus on God.

Chapter 2 – The Impossible God – Part 2

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 2 – The Impossible God

The Good and Overflowing God

Generous and Overflowing Shalom

When God created the universe, he was creating order out of disorder, assigning purposes for everything in the universe. When things functioned according to how he created them … they were “good.”  And when in the midst of all those good things he placed image-bearing creatures that also reflected his character, everything was “very good.”

However, when in the midst of that very good universe, those image-bearers rebelled, they and the world they inhabited suffered the consequences. Yet, despite that rebellion, God relentlessly pursued those image-bearers with the intent of restoring not only them but restoring all of creation as well to the good condition that He originally intended. The Bible is the story of how God’s original purposes will be carried out despite the constant rebellion of his image-bearing creatures – and how the good and very good, creation will endure the brokenness of the rebellion to be finally restored to the good and very good purpose that God had intended.

Within that story of creation and the relentless pursuit which followed, God’s character is revealed as he pours himself out even to the point of taking on the form of a man and the giving of himself to the humility and suffering of being tortured to death on a cross. Even though all of creation is now marred by the rebellion, it is possible to examine the character of God as it is revealed in this outpouring of himself into his creation and into his image-bearers.

Revisiting Genesis 1:1, we see God creating … everything in the heavens and the earth. The rest of that passage shows the orderliness in how the creation happened. We see that as God creates each set of creatures or things that God declares them to be good. Then after God creates humans, he declares “it was very good.” We will see later in Genesis those things got messed up, but at this point the core of everything in the universe, everything was good and beautiful and working as it should. Certainly, as we look around us now, it would be hard to say that everything is working as it should, but at the beginning, everything was good.

That goodness was further amplified when, despite the rebellion of his image-bearers, God tirelessly invited them over-and-over again to come back to him even though they would continue rebelling over-and-over again. The generous invitation and re-invitation would be highlighted by Jesus’ parable which has been commonly called the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) in reference to the wastefully spending son. But the parable could equally be called the “Prodigal God” in reference to the father who represents extravagant giving of God.

These continuous and generous offers from God are meant to draw us to himself so that he could restore to us the good and generous life that God has intended from the beginning, life free from suffering and pain, life full of joy and peace, wholeness and health, contentment and completeness, which is all captured by the Hebrew word, shalom.

Trustworthy and Faithful

God has continued to offer us lives of goodness, generosity and shalom despite our continued waywardness. Our opportunity to experience the faithfulness of God comes as we hold to his promises … even when we fail to hold to his promises. Scripture is full of passages of God’s commitment to faithfulness despite the lack of our own and those examples are helpful for us to hold onto as we experience our own trials and difficulties in life.

Self-sacrificing and Forgiving

God’s faithfulness to us is sealed in the love he showed to us by the ultimate sacrifice he made on our behalf. His commitment of love towards us could not be made any more clearly than through the excruciating death he suffered when he allowed us to put him on the cross in order that he should bear the penalties of our sins. And it is through His suffering and dying that he can offer us forgiveness for the rebelliousness of our spirits and the sins we have committed.

The Temple Maker

There has been much debate about how to interpret the creation account. There have been various attempts to understand creation as physical processes that had occurred (over shorter or longer periods, depending on your analysis) because in our current cultural context we default to thinking of creation in physical, scientific terms. But what if (surprise! surprise!) we consider the biblical text to be a theological text instead of a scientific one, about functional origins and not about material origins.

In the last few decades, research has uncovered much more about the culture in the Ancient Near East than ever before. It has been discovered that in Ancient Near East cultures, the Genesis account would not have interpreted the creation account in terms of physical processes but rather in terms of assigning purpose. So as we read the Creation account in Genesis 1, on the first three days the spaces of light and dark, waters above and below, and the land are being assigned a purpose. The next three days the populations of those spaces are assigned a purpose: the sun and the moon and stars, the birds and fish, the land animals.

In this perspective, the story of creation is seen more as a story about the dedication of a temple, where the universe and the world were dedicated as a sacred space, a space where God would dwell with his people. The seventh day indicates that the dedication is complete and so God is able to rest from the act of dedicating His temple, the earth, which would now be the place where He would now live with his image-bearers within that space. If you read Genesis 1-2, you will see that, unlike the other days, there is no “there was evening and there was morning.” That is because we are living in the seventh day.

The seventh day would be later remembered by the celebration of the Sabbath. It was by the seventh day that God had finished the dedication of the “temple” but it was not a time where he ceased to do everything. Rather, it was the time where the “home” was now ready for God to live in, and for us as co-regents, to begin the settling into our “home” and doing the things that our home was designed for. Jesus in John 5:1-7 clarified this idea where he explained, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” Living into this sacred space would entail us taking part with God in his continual acts of creating and sustaining the universe. That is the perspective of Eve, when she gave birth to Cain, she recognized that “I’ve created a man with Yahweh.”

In Genesis 2, the focus moves to the humans God created and how they were to function in that sacred space where the Garden of Eden is the center. Genesis 2 is also where God’s name, “Yahweh,” begins to be used. Genesis 1 introduces the God as the Creator of the universe whereas Genesis 2 introduces the God who in establishing a personal relationship with the people he created uses a personal name.

The cosmos that God created was intended to be the place where He would meet with his people. Therefore, the Creation, the Cosmos, was intended to be a temple. The temple/creation imagery permeates and unites all of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The temple/creation theme shows up in places like in the stories of Noah and Moses and Abraham, in the construction of the Tabernacle and the Temple, in Job’s dialog with Yahweh, in the poetry of Psalms, in prophecies of Isaiah, in the body Jesus and in us as his Body and finally in the depiction of reuniting of heaven and earth. Each instance shows its own unique aspect of the temple, so that when combined with each other, they show a more complete picture of how God meets with us and provides for us and what he has intended for us. We see a complex picture of the temple as a physical place in Creation and at the same time the temple is within us, inside the bodies of all of those who call on his name. In both those cases we can see the provision of God who 1) abundantly fills all of Creation in ways that exceed our imagination and exceed the capacity of any book to tell and, 2) abundantly fills us with His strength and His Spirit so that we can fulfill the desire He has for us to “cultivate and keep” the abundant place He has provided for us.

One of the benefits of considering only the theological aspects of the Creation accounts, or the why of creation, is that we don’t have to be as highly concerned about the how of creation, or the scientific/physical accounts of creation. When scientific creation accounts are proposed and are not perceived to be correct because they don’t seem to theologically fit, we don’t need to despair. It may be that the various proposed scientific explanations simply don’t theologically fit because either they just don’t fit or because we just don’t understand just how they could theologically fit. We know that the sciences are limited and that theories will change as more discoveries are made. Sometimes those theories may seem to move closer or further from our limited theological understandings, but our theology is not constrained by whatever the current science may indicate. In the meanwhile, we are free to explore the science and wonder in awe and marvel at just how God managed to do it all while humbly admitting that we don’t have the mind of God and how much higher his ways are than our ways.

Questions:

  1. Read Psalms 103 and 104 as a pair. How does the attitude expressed at the beginning and end of these Psalms challenge us to look beyond our current situation and beyond the things that we do not understand when we see God’s handiwork?
  2. Read Genesis 1:1-2; Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 48:14-16; Matthew 3:16-17.  How could you explain the Trinity to other people?
  3. Read Psalm 139:2-3; Jeremiah 23:23-24; Matthew 10:29-31; Acts 17:27. What does it mean to you that God is intimately concerned about your life?
  4. Read Psalm 102.  Reflect on how both anguish and hope are expressed. What speaks to you from that Psalm? How does God’s unchangeability provide hope in the midst of difficult circumstances?
  5. Read Isaiah 52:13-15; Philippians 2:5-11. If Jesus is our example of leadership, what should our leadership look like in practice?
  6. Read Deuteronomy 7:8; 2 Chronicles 2:11; Jeremiah 31:3. The Hebrew word for “love” in these passages is the same as used in the Song of Solomon describing marital love. How does that affect the way you perceive God’s mercy, grace, righteousness and wrath?
  7. Read 2 Corinthians 3:18. Discipleship is a process of “being transformed”. Ultimately it is something that happens to us – but it is something we can co-operate with by engaging is spiritual disciplines. What kinds of changes need to happen in our lives that would make it natural to invite someone else into discipleship?
  8. Read Zechariah 8. Zechariah’s prophecies were written it the nation of Israel many years after the nation had been taken in exile. How do you think these promises of God would have had on the exiles?
  9. Read Acts 2. Picture yourself as a witness in the setting of this passage as one of the travelers from out of town. How would you respond?
  10. Read Genesis 1-2, Psalms 8 and 104, Proverbs 8.  Read the creation story as a temple dedication story, where a temple is a place for people to meet with God, a place for religious or spiritual rituals and activities as people engage with God. If the universe was designed as a temple, how should we respond?

Chapter 2 – The Impossible God, Part 1

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 2 – The Impossible God

The Impossible God

In Genesis 1:2, most translations will read that the Spirit “hovered” over the face of the waters, but that word can also mean “brooded,” as in a bird sitting on her eggs to keep the eggs warm until they hatch. So here we can read that the Spirit hovered and brooded, over the earth ready to bring forth life of all sorts, but particularly creatures that would be like God, creatures that would reflect the character of God: transcendent, loving, wise, fruitful, etc. This is how the story begins, full of anticipation and hope for what must be a grand and wonderful future.

But even before the story begins, we may contemplate another mystery, the mystery of the one person God also being the three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The early church struggled with this concept and eventually, in the second century, a Christian apologist, Tertullian, coined the term “Trinity” to describe this 3-persons in 1-person concept.

However, that tidy little term can mask over the impossible to understand idea of God being one person and three persons at the same time. There is Greek word available to us that addresses the complexity of this three-in-oneness, “perichoresis” which comes from two Greek words which mean “interpenetrate” or “mutually indwell.” This is meant to describe the interpenetration or mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

While this term may be partly helpful in understanding this impossible to understand concept, there is another word that is very similar to perichoresis which means “to dance around,” which gives us a word picture of our living and complex God in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not only interpenetrate but interact with one another, in a freewheeling, synchronized dance. There is no way for us to fully understand this one-person who is a community. So as we try to understand God, there will naturally be some paradoxes and mysteries.

Paradoxes and Mysteries

When we look at a work of art, what can we tell about the artist? What can we find from the skill in using materials, the subject matter, the emotional content, the values? We may be able to figure out a few things, but all-in-all we can discern very little. To learn much more we need the artist to reveal not just more about the artwork but also about him or herself.

So, as we begin to explore what we can know about the Creator, we also begin by looking at his artwork (that is, the creation) but then we need to hear what the Creator has revealed about himself to us (that is, through the Holy Bible).

So, let us begin by looking at the living things God created. Sometimes, we think we can look around us and figure out what is living and what is not; but when look at the spectrum of living things, especially through the eyes of the scientists who specialize in it, it becomes more difficult to try to come up with a definition for life. In fact, one organization catalogued over 100 definitions … and none of those definitions satisfy everybody. What does that say about the one who created those living things?

If we get so confused about what was created, it is likely that we will get confused about the Creator. When Job challenged God, Yahweh responded, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In Isaiah, God explicitly says, “My ways are higher than your ways.” There simply are things about God that are beyond our comprehension, mysteries, which should give us a spirit of humility.

Because much about God is mysterious and beyond understanding, we naturally find that the Creator is full of paradoxes: with characteristics that seem to oppose each other. When we do encounter apparently conflicting statements about God, we must hold those qualities in tension with each other. Sometimes we might not totally understand how these characteristics can all be true together, but that is what we should expect. If we cannot fully comprehend the creation, why should we think that we can fully comprehend the Creator. We should also consider that if we ever think that we totally understand the Creator of the universe then we probably are not understanding things correctly – we are probably creating a god in our own image rather than the other way around.

This inability to totally understand God forces us to make speculations as we try to find a way to reason things about God. We do have to be careful though, for we will create all sorts of arguments with each other if we insist on certain speculations as the defined truth of God. It might be that if we study those revelations of God that we can draw some conclusions, but we need to be careful about making dogma out of something that we don’t fully understand. Unfortunately, we will see in future chapters that various theologians and congregations have sometimes split up over some of those very issues which no one can fully understand.

A Person and a Community

It is sometimes said that a picture is worth a thousand words, as it would take many words to describe the colors, shapes and expressions detailed in a picture. But sometimes, it can also be said that a word is worth a thousand pictures, as it is possible that one word in one document can be linked to many other documents where that same word is used with the meaning in each instance add to the meanings in the other instances. For example, the first sentence in the Bible says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Let’s consider the word “God.” In the Hebrew language that was used in the original writing of the first part of the Bible, that word is “Elohim.” The curious thing is that “Elohim” is a plural noun which could be, and often is, translated as “gods” while the verb “created” (“bara” in Hebrew) is singular. This combination of “Elohim” with a singular verb happens throughout the Old Testament part of the Bible and in all those cases, “Elohim” is translated as the singular noun, “God”. So, what’s the story with this?

On the one hand, the Bible is very strident in insisting that there is only one God. One of the central doctrines taught to the Jews is, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” In the time frame that the Bible was written, this statement strongly contrasted with all the other cultures which had multiple gods. On the other hand, the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments, talks about God as Father and also God as Son and also God as Holy Spirit. This phenomenon shows up even as we look at Genesis 1, where we can see that God created and that the Spirit was hovering over the water. We continue to see this concept of one God, but three persons referred to as God develop throughout scripture, both in the Old Testament as the New Testament.

So how do we make sense out of the insistence on there being one God while also revealing that there are multiple personalities associated with “God.” This is certainly a tough question that has created problems in the church and is but one thing among many that God seems to have revealed to us without explaining it. The church has referred to this complexity as the “Trinity.” It is from the outflowing of love between the members of the Trinity that God created us, desiring us to join each other in community and together join the community of love that is present in the Trinity.

Transcendent and Immanent

Genesis tells us there was a time when the universe, the heavens and the earth, began to exist. Before that moment of time, they did not exist – but before that beginning there was God and then God created the universe. From that starting point, we can see the transcendent nature of God. He was not part of the universe but apart from the universe. No matter what happens in the universe or to the universe, those things do not affect God who is separate from all that. Fortunately, we are not simply left with a God who is unreachably “out there” leaving us to fend for ourselves. In some incomprehensible fashion, while God is “out there” existing outside of Creation, He is simultaneously inside Creation … everywhere at once.

This paradox of God’s transcendence (existing outside of Creation) and imminence (existing everywhere within Creation) has sometimes bewildered many who try to examine it through sheer logic. As we unwrap the significance of this paradox, we discover many interesting attributes of God. Here are a few:

  • Regarding God’s Transcendence
    • God’s existence apart from creation, and apart from the brokenness of the world is described as his holiness. This holiness is so profound that mortal, sinful people (as we all are) could not stand to be his presence.
    • God’s omnipotence is seen in his ability to not only create the universe, but in his ability to sustain it.
    • God’s omniscience is seen in his knowledge about the hairs on our head, our everyday actions and even in our destiny
    • God is omnipresent
  • Regarding God’s Immanence
    • Although God is apart from the universe, He is the one who holds the universe together
    • God is present throughout the earth and available to all who call for him and even to those who are not calling for him

Timeless and in Time

Closely related to the paradox of how God is both transcendent and immanent is how God is both timeless and in time. Many scholars in philosophy and science have trouble trying to resolve questions such as: How can God even have both attributes? Did God create time or is God himself confined by time? Is time static such that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously and God sees them all at once, or is time dynamic such that the future does not yet exist – and therefore God does not yet know it?  

It is not practical to try to summarize all the arguments with all their nuances here. For our purposes, we will not try to resolve the many difficult theological/philosophical issues but, as Psalm 102 does, accept the finite mortality of our life on earth and the fact that God is both with us in the midst of our distress yet also exists outside of that.

Sovereign and Servant

There is a contemporary name for this juxtaposition of attributes: servant leadership. The one who is the creator and sustainer of all things does not wield that power in a self-centered way but uses that power to serve the needs of the very beings he created – even though they defied his authority and it cost him much anguish.

When the Creator decided to make creatures in his image, creatures that had the ability to love (and therefore the ability to choose whom to love or whom to not love), he imbued these creatures with the ability to make independent decisions. Doing that required releasing some control and then providing enough space be given so that those creatures would be free to make choices.

However, those creatures violated that love and incurred an awful penalty. Fortunately, the Creator did not just mete out the penalty, but with compassion, and at great cost to himself, put in place a plan that would restore his relationship with his image-bearers. This costly plan would highlight an attribute that already had been revealed, the attribute of servanthood in which the Creator acts on behalf of his creatures.

The ability to create and sustain the universe needs tremendous knowledge and wisdom as does the ability to create creatures in his image and then to guide them amid their missteps and varied circumstances. Were God to simply control each and every action in the universe, that would be difficult enough, but although God can control things directly through his sovereign will, there are actions which he desires but he gives us the option to obey or not. We cannot even begin to understand the vast knowledge and wisdom that God needs. In fact, wisdom is so pervasive, not only in creation but as part of the many ways God interacts with us, that Wisdom is metaphorically portrayed to us in Proverbs as a person.

Gracious, Merciful and Just

There is a common misunderstanding of how God is seen in the Old Testament vs. how God is seen in the New Testament. The perceived contrast has caused reactions such as thinking that there are two different gods or ignoring the Old Testament while focusing exclusively on the New Testament. It is easy to see how these misperceptions happen while looking cursorily at the Bible, but this misperception can be resolved by looking more carefully into the text. We can see that God’s love, mercy and grace is found not just in the New but also the Old Testament. We can also see that God’s wrath and justice is found not just in the Old but also in the New Testament.

God’s love, mercy and grace can be seen in the Old Testament right near the beginning. There is grace in the placing the image of God on creatures that did nothing to earn it. There is mercy in the judgements meted onto Adam and Eve after their sin and grace in the provision of covering for their nakedness. While we could look at more other instances of mercy and grace in the Old Testament, let’s just consider the meanings of the Hebrew words that have been translated as “mercy.”  One Hebrew word could be translated as compassion and another word as steadfast loyalty. These characteristics can be seen in God’s steadfast compassion and loyalty to Israel even after repeated rejections from his image-bearers.

But even beyond mercy and grace, God’s compares his love with his chosen people with the love of a husband to a wife. This Hebrew word often used for love refers to a giving type of love, which indeed was the way God showed his love to his chosen ones; even though time after time his people rejected him, God patiently worked through it all giving us a chance to see ourselves as we really are and the chance to put our trust in his unfailing love.

Wrath and justice in the New Testament can be seen in God’s strong desire expressed as zeal or jealousy concerning the welfare of his image bearers. In both the Old and New Testaments, God is clear about his desire for justice and righteousness. God expresses his anger very clearly when we try to cover-up our lack of justice with religious exercises or pretentiousness.

God’s response to injustice is his wrath. Although God’s wrath has been long covered by his patience and his desire that all people would come to him, his wrath will eventually be revealed when he comes back to earth to fully restore his kingdom on earth. While he cautions us to allow him to carry out vengeance, that does not mean we should not be concerned by the injustice that we see. The Greek term which is usually translated as “righteousness” can also be translated as “justice.”  Jesus exemplified justice throughout his ministry, and he encourages us to practice justice as well.

That concern for justice and desire to eliminate sin is explicitly expressed in Jesus’ statements in Matthew 10:34 (“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”) and Luke 12:49 (“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”). Then later in Revelation 19:11-21, however real or metaphoric this passage may seem to be, the passage clearly expresses in very warlike terms, Jesus’ concern to eliminate evil.

God’s often responds to the injustice in the world with love, patience, and mercy – even passionately pleading with us to turn back to him in repentance and receive His forgiveness. But when we don’t respond with repentance, God will ultimately invoke His righteousness, justice and wrath.

Playful and Orderly

Many experts disagree on how to define play, we may think of play as activity which is typically not productive and is done only because one wants to do it and is usually a fun activity involving other people and will typically help people bond together. When it comes to the Creation, God did not have to create anything. God did not need the universe or anything in it – not the planets, nor the stars, nor the creatures. God created the heavens and the earth for the delight of it, and He did it because He wanted to share heaven and earth with his image-bearers. This spirit of playfulness is reflected in many of God’s creatures including Leviathan and humans. God’s playfulness also shows up in other interesting places in the Bible.

When Job complains about the difficulties he is going through, God seems to admonish him by “putting Job in his place” and citing all the ways in which God’s ways are higher than Job’s ways. But God does not follow through with any discipline of Job but rather begins the process of restoring Job’s fortunes. In response, Job confesses, “I spoke of things I did not understand … I retract my words and I repent in dust and ashes.” … And yet, Job changes an interesting behavior – he no longer rose early in the morning to offer burnt offerings for all of his children, worrying that “perhaps they have sinned.” Shams-ud-din Muhammed in his work “Tripping Over Joy” may have captured what Job was thinking when he wrote “the difference between our life and a saint’s is that the saint knows that the spiritual path is like a chess game with God and that God has made such a fantastic move that the saint trips over joy in surrender whereas we think we have a thousand serious moves.”

Another instance of playing occurs in Mark 6, when Jesus takes a late-night walk on a very windy lake, walking as if to go by his disciples. Of course, they were initially terrified, thinking they were seeing a ghost. But he got in the boat and the waters calmed down. He could have calmed the waters down before the disciples started to go on the lake. He could have chosen another way to make his point … but he decided to do it that way.

God’s creativity can be seen within the created world in the extremely diverse types of plants and animals: differences in colors and shapes; different ways of digesting food; different ways of moving and observing the environment to name a few. The creativity we see is awesome. From out of nothingness, from no previous model, God created a whole system of particles and energy fields that interact with each other to form the building blocks of subatomic particles which are used to form atoms, which are used to form molecules of all sorts of complexity, which are then used to form planets and stars (actually, the fusion reaction in stars is used to create larger molecules from smaller ones). And at least one planet was used to create living things like plants and animals in all their complexity and then those living things were used to create communities (ecosystems) that allowed living things to thrive and flourish.

Yet, within the overwhelming creativity displayed within all the diversity of living things there is an order that is controlled by a set of ordered processes, some of which we call scientific (natural) laws. Christians, like Francis Bacon, pursued these laws as an extension of God’s moral laws in the universe, which then led to the development of modern science. It is within science that we examine orderly processes at work that we call the natural laws which describe how all physical things behave: like the forces of gravity, electrical forces, etc.

There is no disobeying these natural laws. If you think that you can try to violate them, you’d be wrong. For instance, if you are on earth and stand on the top of a table and then jump off with the assumption that you will not be subject to gravity but rather float around without falling to the floor, you’d be wrong. You can’t violate gravity. You can try to set up circumstances that will cause other forces to come into play – such as airplanes do when they use aerodynamic forces that counteract gravity – but you simply can’t violate gravity, and there will be consequences if you try.

By observing the laws of the created order, we can ascertain some aspects of the character of God. The natural laws that govern how things are supposed to behave reveals a God who expects things to behave, and that violations are not tolerated. But when image-bearers were brought into the world there was a new level of complexity added to this physical model constrained by natural, physical laws.

On the one hand, we image-bearers are physical creatures and are therefore subject to the natural laws, but on the other hand we image-bearers were created to reflect God’s transcendence and were even given dominion over the creation into which God had placed us. Within that capacity, we image-bearers were given a moral freedom, the freedom to choose between good and evil. This freedom could not be given without some risk, because in order for image-bearers to be able to reflect God’s character of being good and choosing to do good there must be the possibility for the image-bearers to be able to choose to not be good.

And just as there are natural, physical laws that govern how physical things behave with consequences for trying to violate those laws, God has also imposed spiritual, moral laws to govern how the image-bearers ought to behave in the good universe He created with consequences for violating those moral laws. Sometimes the sin of one generation is passed down to the next. But regardless of whether a particular sin is passed to from one generation to another, the penalty for sin is physical and spiritual death.

Dynamic Tension

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 1 – Mystery and Confusion

Throughout the Bible there are statements that seem to conflict with each other. Since one of the principles of biblical interpretation is to examine any statement in the light of all scripture, the best option for understanding the tension between apparently conflicting statements would be to simply accept the tensions between those paradoxical statements rather than to resolve every issue to an understanding to a particular point.

The study of biology may provide good analogues in dealing with those tensions. For instance, in biological life, it seems that there are no simple formulas, no simple rules. Although, on the one hand, there are underlying precisely defined processes like the laws of chemistry and physics, on the other hand, there are overlying complex and variable biological processes that are adaptable to circumstances around them.

Even more, living organisms by themselves are noted by intricately balanced but unstable processes that, if the balance between processes fails, there is a most certain death. One of the standard definitions of life is that living things must evade the decay to equilibrium while at the same time maintaining internal order and organization.  One example that we live with all the time is with our skin – every day our skin is shedding cells and creating new ones such that, on average, every 27 days an entire layer of skin is being replaced. Our skin seems “stable” and seems to stay the same even though entire layers of skin are constantly being replaced.

That type of process holds true for all the processes happening in all the cells of living organisms; The internal structures seem to be stable, while matter and energy are constantly flowing through them and the materials within the internal structures are being constantly refreshed. More remarkably, if we examine all of this activity, we discover that this activity is sustained by an array of complex sets of interdependent processes where one set of processes feeds off the by-products of other processes and visa-versa. All this activity is delicate in one sense, if some processes fail at one point the result can be death. In another sense, the processes are flexible, allowing an organism to live in a wide variety of circumstances (environments). Thus, we have a paradox of systems that are simultaneously fragile and robust.

This dynamic tension can be seen on another level with the interactions of bone and muscle. In a given skeletal muscle, some fibers are attached to one bone in one direction and some fibers are attached to another bone in another direction. For instance, in your bicep muscles, some fibers attach to the shoulder and the other fibers attach to the elbow. As the fibers within a muscle pull against one another the bones they are attached to move. You can see this activity when you “make a muscle.” As you draw your forearm towards your shoulder, you see the biceps start to bulge in the middle as the opposing fibers pull into each other.

Exactly which way the bones move is determined by the creature that controls the muscles, as the creature interacts with the environment, determining what direction to go or what task to do. While it seems at one level that in a given muscle the fibers are working against one another and seem to work opposite to one another, they are in fact on a larger scale working with each other to accomplish particular tasks.

All of this seems to reflect what we see in spiritual life. On one level, the attributes we see in the living God, His holiness, grace, etc. never change although they are constantly interacting with different circumstances. As circumstances change, although it may seem that God’s responses may change, it is not because God has changed, only that God’s dynamic response to different circumstances, whether globally or locally, has changed.

So, as we consider this, it may seem that some of God’s characteristics conflict with each other or are pulling against one another. For instance, how is God’s perfect desire for justice able to be reconciled with God’s grace? Or how is it that He can be the Lord of all and able to also be the Servant of all? In fact, God is interacting with the world, determining what He wants to do and then coordinating His attributes to do what He desires. For example, although God’s authority and servanthood seem to be in tension with one another, He is coordinating them to deal with our individual circumstances.  At some point He sees the need to demonstrate more authority and at other times, more servanthood.

I call this interaction, Dynamic Tension; a process controlled by a person or an organism in which the attributes seem to be pulling in different directions but are in fact working in concert with one another to accomplish particular goals. These tensions carry over into many areas of theology. We see that as different congregations wrestle with apparently conflicting issues they make decisions based on their particular situations. Different congregations in different situations will come to different resolutions.

We are blessed to have both God’s creation itself and God’s revelation available to us as we try to try to learn about the living Creator. Fortunately, it is to our blessing that we don’t have to know everything about God for us to know or understand him, because we can at best only know Him in part. But meanwhile we have some paradoxes about God for us to examine and we will start exploring some of those paradoxes now.

Just as there are tensions within the attributes of the living God that actively interact with each other, so also God’s image-bearers have to deal with similar tensions. But in addition to those good and healthy tensions, we also impose another tension due to our rebellion against God. Our rebellion has created tensions not only within us, but between us and also between us and God.

Conflicts are Clues

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 1 – Mystery and Confusion

The purpose of this book is to not only show the unity of both Testaments and how they help make one cohesive story, but also a story into which the Church has tried, and we can try, to fit. Because the Bible is a complex collection of literature, using many literary styles and techniques and it can be difficult to understand some parts, particularly when one part seems to contradict another part. I have found a useful principal in studying the Bible which I call “Conflicts are Clues” which says that any apparent conflict or confusion in Scripture should be handled as clues to look further instead of thinking that the conflicts create contradictions which reduce the integrity of the Bible.

The Impossible Story

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 1 – Mystery and Confusion

A few thousand years ago, someone began writing a story, a different story than the others in circulation at the time. Those other stories were about gods who, except for being immortal, acted just like the humans with all their faults and shortcomings. And those stories headed nowhere. Nothing got better. But this new story was not about many gods but one God. This new story explained that even though things were originally good, there is a mess now, but there is a plan to make it better.

Intriguingly, although this story was begun by one human author, the story would continue to be written by many other human authors, different authors who spoke different languages and who lived at different times over the course of 1500 years. What held it all together was the divine author whose Spirit was breathed into each human author. What began as a set of writings by one human author, eventually became a book, a literary masterpiece with common themes, but also with complex literary devices, inter-textual references, poetry and songs, and different kinds of narratives about events before the writers lived, or about events witnessed by the different writers, or prophetic narratives about God’s judgments and His plans in either the immediate or far-off future.

This long, complex story told in these many texts revealed a God who has remained faithful despite our distracted and discontented ways.  These texts were compiled into the book we now call the Bible, divided into sections we call the Old Testament and New Testament. Sadly, for many people, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible can seem disconnected. Some have even proposed that the God described in the Old Testament portion is different from the God in the New Testament. The apparent disconnection is partly due to the issue of the cultural barriers between us and the Bible, particularly, the Old Testament.

Unfortunately, there is a further disconnect we also need to address.  Between us and the biblical writings is the long and messy history of the Church. The Church seems very divided on how to interpret those writings and how to live into them. It is downright confusing to sort out all the various interpretations and practices that seem to contradict one another.

Another area of tension for many is what is perceived to be a conflict between science and theology. In years past, however, the issue was not about conflict but about which discipline rules over or undergirds all the other disciplines. These ideas were expressed in ways such as “theology is the queen of all sciences,” “math is the queen of all sciences,” “philosophy is the queen of all sciences,” “philosophy is the handmaid of all sciences.” Regardless of whether we seek truth through science and/or theology, God is the author of both Creation and the Bible, God speaks to us both through both books. Theology’s main goal is to understand spiritual reality and science’s main goal is to understand physical reality, but both fields can inform the other about the nature of God.

Understanding the impossible

The Impossible Dance – Table of Contents

The Impossible Dance – Chapter 1 – Mystery and Confusion

We hear different stories, but no one really knows. Not for sure. How it all began. How it will all end. It is just simply and merely impossible. When it comes down to it, we don’t even really understand today, nor ourselves, never mind the rest of the world.

But we still insist on one impossible thing. We want to make sense of it all … well, at least, make sense of what we need to do today … or maybe just the next moment. On top of that, in spite of the mystery of the past, present and future, many of us want to have hope that sometime in the next moment or next day or sometime in the future things will be better than right now.  We want to make enough sense of now so that we can figure out what to do next and we want to have some sense of hope so that we are motivated to do that next thing.