Monthly Archives: March 2008

I Samuel 8:

 Like all the Other NationsThe Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 30, 2008 

Introduction:              Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this first Sunday after Easter. As you may have heard, Easter was the earliest it has been in 95 years and will not be this early again for over a century. This means that the sunrise service was about as late in the morning as it could be. It was a beautiful service. Easter is a time to celebrate birth and life. I want to give a shout out to my Mom who turned 78 over the Easter holidays and to Kirk and Ashley who are now parents. Kirk plays in the band, and you may know that we Moravians have a tradition of sending the band around town to awaken people early on Easter morning. This is not always understood by newcomers to Winston-Salem. One year there was a new pastor in town who believed strongly that Jesus would appear at any moment with a shout and the trumpet of God. When he heard the trumpets and trombones blaring outside his window in the wee hours one Easter he rushed out to greet the Messiah, only to see a group of cold Moravians. Talk about disappointment.

            I received very sad news on the day before Easter this year. An old friend and seminary classmate named Merle Alderfer died in Pennsylvania. Merle had suffered for many years and had lost both legs, so his death was in many ways a blessing. The news that he had been called home brought back many memories of Merle. He was a large, robust man with flaming red hair. All of his many children had red hair as well. Before entering seminary, Merle had driven in demolition derbies and nearly died. He was gruff and straightforward but was surprisingly gentle. He told me that he got sent home from school in kindergarten once because of inappropriate use of crayons. He drew a picture of bears and colored them green. The teacher told him that bears are only brown, black, and white. Merle insisted that the bears he was coloring were green, and so he was sent home for disobedience. That was a defining moment in his life. It was his insistence that bears could be green even when the wise and prudent insisted otherwise that led him on the quixotic adventure of ministry. Faith involves seeing the world as it could be and should be rather than simply as it has always been. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to be friends with a burly, red-bearded man who drew green bears and offered his life in service to Christ. Merle’s story applies to our lesson for today, which is a warning against faithless conformity.

Rejecting Samuel      In our last lesson, we ended with the sad reality that Samuel’s sons did not follow in his ways. They were corrupt, and the people rejected them. The elders of the nation come to Samuel and ask for a completely different political system. They have grown tired of judges, some of whom were effective and others who were not. They were tired of being harassed by the Philistines, Amalekites, and other hostile neighbors. The elders of Israel looked around at their enemies and saw that they were more powerful, sophisticated, and prosperous than the Israelites. In the great competition between nations, Israel seemed to be losing. The elders told Samuel that it was time for Israel to have a king like all the other nations. Samuel went to God for advice.

Read: I Samuel 8:6-18

Of Cabbages and Kings                     In just a few verses, the author of I Samuel captures beautifully the essence of a long and painful argument within Israel that probably took years to decide. The children of Israel had never had an earthly king. The ancient patriarchs were the leaders of wandering clans who worshiped the LORD God. They needed little government and relied on God to save them from their enemies. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, Pharaoh was their king; therefore, the ancient Israelites associated kings with oppression. Few of their ancestors had seen Pharaoh’s real face, but they knew his image from countless sculptures in Egypt. Moses was the great prophet, priest, judge, and liberator who rescued the people from the hand of Pharaoh, but Moses was not a king. He set up no dynasty or bureaucracy. Instead, Moses established a covenant with the LORD God, who was the true king of Israel.

Theocracy      For at least 200 years after the Exodus, the tribes of Israel governed themselves without an earthly king. God was their king, and God spoke through prophets and judges. From time to time, the Israelites were defeated and oppressed by powerful enemies, and then God would send a judge to rescue them. From time to time, the Israelites would renew the covenant with the LORD, and he strengthened them. They were free as long as they were obedient to the Law of God. But the elders of Israel had grown weary of this type of theocracy in the days of Samuel.  They were tired of the volatility of theocracy and wanted a more predictable pattern to their political and economic life.

            In my Moravian theology class, we’ve been discussing the old Moravian practice of using the Lot to help make important decisions. In those days, Moravians called their form of government a theocracy because Christ as the Chief Elder had veto power over all major decisions. Those Moravians were attempting to recreate the old Israelite theocracy when God governed through selected individuals who judged the nation and guided its decisions. In those days priests and judges used a form of the Lot to help divine God’s will. Over time, the Moravians, like the ancient Israelites lost confidence in theocracy. They wanted a more predictable and “rational” approach to their economic and political life. They hoped that by abolishing the lot, they would make better decisions about building and trade and marriages. Ironically, after the Moravians gave up the theocracy and adopted “rational” decision-making, they were never able to build another community like Salem. In class we’ve been talking about how the Moravians increasingly conformed to American society, which included adopting racist and sexist attitudes that are contrary to the teachings of the Moravian Church and to Scripture.

            The Israelites were also tired of being different from the other nations. They were tired of this tribal confederacy that was always threatened by outsiders, and so the elders asked Samuel to appoint a king for them. This upset Samuel, but it is not entirely clear why. Was it because he recognized this change in Israelite society might lead them to abandon God? Was it because he had hoped his sons would succeed him? It was easy for Samuel to see this as a personal rejection. The Israelites wanted a king because the last judge had failed them. So, Samuel prayed to the LORD, pouring out his grief and fear. God assured Samuel that the people were not rejecting Samuel; they were rejecting God as their king.

The Voice of the People        God tells Samuel that he needs to listen to the voice of the people even though he disagrees with them. This is something that is easily overlooked in a study of Scripture. God tells the leader to listen to the people. This not modern democracy since the whole story is about establishing a monarchy, but our Founding Fathers and Mothers took this statement from God seriously. Leaders should not lock themselves in a bubble and govern without listening to the people they lead. This applies for kings and presidents; pastors and CEOs. Those affected by your decisions have a right to participate in those decisions. The people may be wrong and the leader may be right, but the leader still needs to pay attention to the voice of the people. You cannot lead if people do not follow. At a minimum, leaders should be willing to explain their decisions to the people they lead. Otherwise you have tyranny which breeds apathy or revolution. According to the OT, even God listens to the people.

Cost of Monarchy      So, with God’s urging Samuel agrees to appoint a king for the nation. Before doing so, though, he wants to make sure the people understand what they will get. Yes, they want a king who has the authority to build an army to defend the nation, but that quest for security comes at a high cost. Be aware, Samuel said, that it will be your sons that the king will conscript to fight in his army. It will be your sons who will be taken from the fertile fields and forced to learn how to kill. It will be your sons who will die on the field of battle instead of raising crops to feed your family. Sons who survive the king’s wars will return to you changed. They will carry with them the memories of violence and bloodshed. They will have empty places in their hearts and souls. We today know all too well the effects that war has on the men and women we ask to fight for us. Samuel warns the Israelites that a king’s army does not just defend hearth and home; the king will invade other nations and make other people slaves.

            That is not all. The king will conscript others to work for him. The king will be well fed without having to labor in his own fields. He will have the best land and the largest house. He will build up his personal estate to awe and impress you, and you will forget that the land was once yours. If you don’t believe Samuel, go visit Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Samuel was telling people the truth, and he was not exaggerating. He will force parents to give some of their children to be his slaves working his land. He will convince free people that they should be proud to have a wealthy and powerful leader. No longer will the people give their best gifts to God; the king will take his tithe of produce.

            Samuel tells the people that the king will bring new technologies to the nation, especially iron. But he will use those technologies to make implements of war. Rather than making better plows and shovels, the king will want more swords, spears, and shields. The military budget is limitless. If necessary, the king will use those weapons to wage war on Israelites who oppose him or resist him. Be aware, Samuel, says. If you want a king who will make the nation strong, you will become his servants. Even your daughters will not be safe. He will take them into his retinue and make them work for him and his household. Wake up, Samuel, says. Look around you at these other nations you are so impressed by. Those larges armies and beautiful palaces, those harems and bureaucracies are filled with slaves forced to do the king’s bidding. You think that a king will save you from oppression by the Philistines, but be aware that you are giving up your freedom voluntary to a king.

Rights of Kings          Samuel’s description of the king is very consistent with what we know of the rights of kings in the ancient world. It was not just the great kings, like Pharaoh who did these things. Petty kings acted this way as well. Commentators often say that Samuel is describing the abuses of the king, but it is more accurate to say that he is describing the actions of all kings. This is what goes with the office, Samuel is saying.

            A king who cannot conscript soldiers, cooks, and laborers, is not really a king. A king who does not have the right to tax the people is not really a king. Even the best king will do these things, Samuel is saying. Tom Petty says in a song that “its good to be king; to get your own way; to have a feeling of peace; at the end of the day.” Some scholars think that this section of the book was taken from a legal document outlining the rights of the king, but this speech in I Samuel is clearly presented as warning to the people. In setting forth the rights of the monarch, Samuel is warning the people that even a good king will be their master. A good king will exercise his authority with restraint and will listen to the people. A good king will follow the Law of God and restrain himself. But not all kings are good.

Oppressive Governments                 There will be kings that will exploit the people so mercilessly and exercise their dominion so harshly that the people will cry to the LORD. They will realize that the king has not saved them from oppression and slavery. He is the one who has oppressed and enslaved them. They were afraid that Philistines would conquer them, but is it really better to be enslaved by one of your own leaders instead of a foreigner? Slavery is slavery. Lies are lies. Oppression is oppression, not matter what fancy terms you use to describe it. Like the Ginger Bread man who begged the wolf to save him from his enemies and carry him across the stream, the people will be eaten by their savior. Samuel warns the people that if they voluntarily enslave themselves and their children, the LORD will not listen to their complaints.

            This speech in I Samuel 8 is one of the most devastating critiques of kingship in ancient literature, and it had an impact on American history. The Founding Fathers were not all Christian, but they did know their biblical history and they knew the history of Europe. They experienced the tyranny of King George, and they resisted the urge to make George Washington a king. The urge was strong. Many political theorists and pundits of the day argued that a nation must have a king with absolute executive power. Kings must be above the law and everyone in the realm must be subject to the king even when he is doing immoral things. Kings answer only to God, not to the people or to the law, the experts argued. But the authors of the Constitution rejected that view of government. They learned a lesson from Israel and refused to sacrifice freedom for security. American would have no king, and no leader would be above the law.

            We often fail to appreciate how important that decision was. The Constitutional Congress took Samuel’s warning seriously. If that is what kings do, then we will have no king. We elect ours president in a free and fair election in which the voice of the people is heard. From the beginning we rejected the notion that the president is not accountable to the law. Even though some presidents refused to acknowledge this, there are clear limits to the executive privilege of the President. We, the people, have set up safeguards to prevent the president from becoming a tyrant who does the things listed in I Samuel.

            But do not be deceived. The temptation for Presidents to do these things is very strong, especially in times of conflict. When people are afraid of foreign enemies, like the Israelites were in the days of Samuel, they are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the illusion of security. They will allow rulers to seize power and authority. In such times, we need priests and prophets like Samuel who will stand up and tell the truth about tyranny and oppression. We need priests, prophets, and pastors who will stand up and call the nation to return to God and demand that rulers respect the law.

Conclusion      I Samuel is all about national politics, and we will be touching on political issues all year. I will not tell you who to vote for, but I will encourage you to examine American politics from a biblical perspective. I hope you will use this passage in I Samuel as a guide to understanding the use and abuse of power. Do we really want to be like other nations, or can we do things more humanely and justly? Like the Israelites of old, we are tempted to ask for a king to govern us and “go out before us and fight our battles,” but if that is our highest goal we will abandon the quest to build the kingdom of God on earth.

            In the end, Samuel agreed to do what the people asked. Then he told them to return to their homes. They went back to their normal lives, wondering what would happen next. Would their hopes and dreams of national security and international respect be realized or would Samuel’s warnings come true? Like their ancestors, they were facing an uncertain future, but this time they had rejected the LORD and his prophet. How would it all turn out? Next week we’ll look at the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel.

Lessons from John, ch. 8

John 8:31-end  Sons of Abraham Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 25, 2007. 

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. I hope that it was a good week for you, and that you will take advantage of the spring weather to visit Bethabara Park. I had the privilege of talking to the guides there this week about the Moravian Church as a Peace Church. This is all part of our effort to bring theological reflection and scholarship to the public. I find it disheartening that Christians tend to fight about Scripture. The Bible is the authoritative text for the church, and it is the basis for our worship, doctrine, and practice. But the church has always taught that we need to read the Bible with eyes wide open and with hearts in tune with God. It is easy to make deadly mistakes in biblical interpretation.

You probably have heard the story of the depressed young man who opened his Bible looking for help. He put his finger on a random verse in the Gospel and took that as a message from God. It read “And Judas went and hanged himself.” Shaken up, he decided to try another verse and his finger landed on “Go and do likewise.” The major purpose of this Adult Bible Class is to help you read the Bible thoughtfully, faithfully, and lovingly. As Gail O’Day says, “The interpreter must work diligently and carefully to understand the text in its original social and historical context in order to avoid making simplistic and destructive extrapolations to contemporary church settings.” (O’Day, 647)

Anti-Semitism This is particularly important to remember today because our lesson is from John chapter 8, which has been used for many years to promote violent anti-Semitism. This chapter looms large in the history of genocide. When you find yourself criticizing other religions for their violence and exclusivity, remember that the Christian church has blood-stained hands, too. As I read from John 8, ponder how these words were used by theologians in the past to declare that Jews were the children of Satan and did not have human rights.

Before reading our text for today, let me remind you of some things we have talked about previously. The bitter irony is that the anti-Jewish statements in John are evidence that the gospel itself was written by a Jew for a Jewish Christian audience. The language used in ch. 8 is particularly harsh, but it has its parallels in other Jewish literature of the time. The Essenes, for example, were a Jewish sect that viewed other Jews as the children of darkness who would be destroyed by God. What we are reading in John is one side of an angry debate among Jews over who are truly the descendents of Abraham. It is a debate that still leads to violence.

The Gospel of John was most likely written in the 90s after the destruction of the Temple when the rabbis and other Jewish leaders were struggling to reunite the Jews in the Diaspora around the Torah. With the loss of the Temple and the Promised Land, there had to be ways to create an identity as the Chosen People. The synagogue leaders determined who was truly Jewish. The Gospel of John was written during this time of dramatic transition. The followers of the Beloved Disciple had been apparently been declared no longer Jewish, and so they rejected the term “Jew.” They had lost their identity, their support, and perhaps their families. John’s Gospel may be a mirror reflecting what the author had heard when he was expelled from the synagogue. Thus, it is unusually harsh. Even Paul did not say that the Jews were the children of the devil, but he was writing before the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue. So, in reading John’s Gospel, keep in mind that it was written for a minority group that had been declared heretical. It was not written for a church that held political power. It needs to be read with caution, but there are still important lessons to glean from this passage.

 Read 8:39-59 

Translation Issues                 Before delving into the meaning of this passage, we should note that there are some translation difficulties that different English versions of the Bible handle in different ways. Verse 38 is the most difficult. The NIV says: “you do what you have heard from your father,” which implies that the Jews have a different father than Jesus. In the NRSV it says that they should do what they have heard from the Father, which would be the same Father as Jesus. It is simply not clear from the Greek who the Father is. The answer depends in part on whether Jesus was addressing those who believed in him or those who wanted to kill him. Both groups are mentioned in this passage, which adds to the confusion.

Freedom and Slavery This passage presents an idea that was used repeatedly by Paul: those who believe in Christ are the true descendents of Abraham; those who do not are slaves who do not belong to the household of God. This idea appears in John’s gospel as a short parable about free-born children of a Lord. Since Paul, in his letters, preaches at length on a similar parable about Sarah and Hagar, it is likely that this idea had been part of Jesus’ teaching. Paul uses the parable, though, to argue that Jews are slaves to the Law, which presents a host of problems. John does not mention the law. Those who rejected Jesus were slaves to sin. Surprisingly, the anti-Semitic John does not reject the Jewish law the way Paul does.

This idea that people are slaves to sin is an important one. A slave is not free to disobey the will of the master. We tend to think of sin as a form of freedom or even daring. Since Freud, we have tried to liberate people from their moralistic inhibitions. But John says that people can be slaves to sin, which means that sin is a punishment in itself. One way to think about this is to view sin as a type of addiction. If you are truly addicted to a substance, such as heroine or morphine, then you are enslaved to it. The will is powerless to resist, and the addiction is a form of punishment worse than any prison. We could go through the list of similar addictions and forms of mental illness in which people are enslaved, but I’ll let you do that on your own. The important thing to remember is that enslavement is not pleasant. Most people hate what they are doing but they cannot stop doing it. So it is with sin.

John describes sin as enslavement and deception. If you have ever listened to the self-justification of child abusers or drug addicts or smokers or alcoholics or any number of forms of addiction, you know how deep self-deception goes. Hannah Arendt conducted long and tedious interviews with the war criminal Adolph Eichmann in which she pierced through clouds of self-justification and deception until she came to the truth that he was nothing but a boring, banal, and shallow little man trying to make himself feel important by killing others. John tells us that our enslavement to sin and destruction can only be overcome through the power of the truth.

Truth               It is not clear what John means by “truth,” but we can be sure that he did not mean lying about the world and calling that truth. The world is full of people claiming to speak the truth about their product, their candidate, their political ideology, their religion, their economics, their view of biology, and a thousand other things when in fact they are working hard to keep the truth from you. I agree with John Hus that God wants you to search for the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, and follow the truth. If one of the cardinal teachings of our religion is that the truth sets us free, as it says in this passage, then we should beware of substituting lies for truth. Christians must learn to be honest with God and each other and the world.

Abraham         As ch. 8 continues, the discussion in Jerusalem grows more heated and more dangerous. When the audience claims that they are children of Abraham, Jesus turns the table on them, much as he does in the synoptic gospels. He says that the children of Abraham are those who do the will of Abraham. This sounds anti-Semitic, but there are similar statements in the Jewish Talmud where the followers of Abraham are contrasted to the followers of Balaam the wicked. The difference is not biology; it is morality. “A good eye and a humble spirit and a lowly soul are of the disciples of Abraham our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a proud soul are of the disciples of Balaam the wicked.” (O’Day, 641).  According to the Talmud, the followers of Abraham will then inherit the world to come, but the followers of Balaam will inherit Gehenna and be destroyed. In other words, this contrast between the true descendents of Abraham and those who will be handed over for condemnation was not unique to John’s Gospel. It is perfectly plausible that Jesus or his disciples would have made a contrast between those who follow Abraham and those who merely claimed biological descent. This was a normal Jewish way to preach about good and evil, and we see it in the other gospels and in Paul’s writings.

Receptivity     What makes John a little different is that the litmus test of being a true descendent of Abraham is the response to Jesus. You may remember that in Genesis Abraham showed hospitality to three messengers sent by God. They arrived at his tent without any warning or any sign of that they had come from God, and yet Abraham fed them and listened to their teachings. John here contrasts that story with the reception that Jesus received in Jerusalem. He was also a messenger sent by the heavenly father, but the Judeans handed him over to the Roman to be ritually humiliated and destroyed.

This chapter is not an indictment of Judaism or the Jewish people; it is an indictment on all those who cannot recognize goodness when it appears. This is an indictment of all those who react to new ideas with ridicule and who respond to revelation with hatred. When Jesus says, “you belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” he was not saying that the Jewish race was Satan’s spawn. He was saying that those who prefer lies to truth are evil. The statement that the devil was a murderer from the beginning is probably a reference to the book of Genesis. Death entered the world when the serpent deceived Eve, and one of the fruits of that deception was Cain’s murder of Abel. This puts Jesus’ invective into a context far larger than the Jewish race. He was speaking of all people who are enslaved to self-deception

and murder.

Those who cannot endure the truth try to destroy the one who speaks the truth. We’ve got a lot a people in this world who worry too much about whether the devil exists or what the end of the world will be like. The biblical teaching on the devil is that he is the father of lies. It is not exorcists or inquisitors or crusaders who battle the devil, they are the ones who choose to do his will and call it defending the faith. It is scientists, ethicists, lawyers, teachers, police officers, psychologists, parents, pastors, and all who speak the truth, seek the truth, listen to the truth, and love the truth who fight the devil. Those who punish the innocent and praise the guilty are of the devil, according to John, even if they hold high office the church or government.

Conflict           Not surprisingly, the dialog grows more heated after Jesus has said that his opponents are children of the devil instead of children of Abraham. In response, they publicly accused him of not being Jewish. “You’re a Samaritan,” they cried, just as American politicians accuse an opponent of being a Communist, or un-American or Jihadist. In more polite society, we just say “he’s just not one of us, now is he?” A talk show host on radio or TV might respond to Jesus’ message by saying, “you’re just a liberal” or “you’re just a conservative.” In his day, they said that Jesus was one of those filthy, down-trodden, God-forsaken, heretical Samaritans that descent Jews would not even talk to or lift out of a ditch. Notice that Jesus does not protest and try to prove his racial lineage. He identified with the Galileans, Samaritans, and all of the oppressed races in a racist world. He still does.

Crazy?            It was not enough to say that he was racially inferior and socially outcast, of course. His opponents shouted that he was demon-possessed, which is another way of saying “you’re crazy.” Many Christians are shocked when they read the gospels and learn that Jesus was often called crazy. One of the best arguments for the authenticity and believability of the four gospels is that they all include the charge that Jesus was possessed by unclean spirits. His words and actions were so unexpected, so counter-cultural, that people thought he must be possessed. Indeed he was, but it was by the Logos, not Beelzebub.

This raises an interesting question for evangelism: Why do we think people today will respond to the message of Jesus when so many of the original hearers thought he was talking crazy? Perhaps it is because we have so domesticated and truncated Jesus’ message that we no longer see just how radical he and his teachings were. Go into the streets of Winston-Salem today and tell people to love their enemies and do good to those who harm them, and they will call you crazy. Go to any university in the country and tell people that they should give up their hopes for financial success in order to dedicate their lives to something meaningful, and see how people respond. Tell your lawyer that you do not want him or her to lie on your behalf. Tell your advertisers to tell the truth about your product. Tell your Senators and judges that you want courageous peace and compassionate justice. What will they say to you? Yes, true Christianity remains a crazy quixotic message of radical hope and self-sacrifice in a world bent on hatred, greed, and destruction.

Life     There is more to the story, of course. Jesus says that if we live in the truth, we can endure the persecution of those who try to kill all that is good and beautiful and true in this world. Those who follow the Logos will never see death. This has often been misinterpreted by Protestants and Catholics alike as saying that whoever professes belief in Jesus will not die, as if salvation depends on knowing the “Jesus” passcode as you try to access the security gates of heaven. Notice that John wrote that it is those who keep Jesus’ teaching who will not experience death. The focus is on obedience not a verbal profession of faith.

The audience immediately points out the apparent flaw in Jesus’ statement: those who were obedient to the heavenly Father died, including Abraham. We must assume that the phrase “never see death” meant something different than the death of the body. The concept of eternal life in John focuses on the spirit or the life-force rather than the body. Jesus himself will truly die in John’s Gospel. He sees physical death, but it does not have final victory over him.

Torah              Ch. 8 ends with a reaffirmation of one of the major themes of the prologue: the Logos existed before Abraham, and Abraham himself looked forward to the revelation of God in Jesus. Despite John’s hostility toward the Jews who had rejected Jesus, it is this gospel that most clearly makes the claim that Abraham himself would have recognized Jesus as the one sent by God. For John, Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise of the OT, the one who makes it possible to follow the essence of the Torah, which is to leave the enslavement of sin and embrace the entire creation in self-giving love. Once you give yourself in love and rest in the arms of God, then death has no sting and the grave will not be victorious.

Verse 58 is another “I Am” statement of Jesus. “Before Abraham was, I am.” Notice that it is not: Before Abraham, I was. Jesus speaks in the eternal present tense. He is identified with the one who spoke out of the burning bush and who dined with Abraham. Many scholars doubt that the historical Jesus ever said such a thing, especially not in the Temple to his opponents. All I can say is that John’s Gospel makes this claim more strongly than any other book of the NT. John make the bold claim that when Jesus spoke, healed, and taught, it was the Word of God speaking, acting, and teaching. The big question John asks is how will you respond?

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, Lesson 22

Genesis 18:16-19:29 – Sodom and Gomorrah 

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that you had a good week and enjoyed some of the pleasant weather. We observed Ash Wednesday this week and have entered into the season of Lent. Henry David Thoreau wrote that he wanted to give up all that is not life so that he could truly live. I think that is what Lent is really about it. It is not about token sacrifices; it is about self-examination and giving up whatever is keeping you from living fully in the joy of God. Once again the timing of our study in Genesis has been strangely appropriate. I did not plan to discuss the story of Sodom and Gomorrah on the first Sunday in Lent, but it fits with the themes of this season. It is a story of judgment and sacrifice, mercy and loss. Genesis 19 is one of the most controversial and disturbing chapters of Scripture, so I feel a need to give a bit of a warning to listeners. This is not pleasant material, but we should examine it carefully.

 Destruction:

Sodom and Gomorrah are part of our cultural literacy. Their destruction is referred several times in the OT and NT. Sodom has even been featured in comedy routines on Saturday Night Live. The funniest involved a meeting of the Sodom chamber of commerce seeking to improve the city’s image for tourism. They came up with a bumper sticker that said “I Heart Sodom.” Leaving humor aside, the most important point about these cities, though, is that they were destroyed because of their wickedness. They are presented as a smaller version of the Noah story. God destroys the wicked, but a chosen remnant is preserved.

Archaeologists are reasonably sure that the destruction of these cities in the Sittim Valley really did happen even though there is no trace of the cities today. Some think they may have been covered by the Dead Sea centuries ago. There are some literary and legendary hints about Sodom and Gomorrah that indicate that they were located near a hill called Jebel Usdum, which is Arabic for Mount of Sodom. In 1953, the Israeli government established a small settlement there and named it for the biblical Sodom. I’m not sure that was the best way to inspire civic pride, but it does reflect ancient tradition about the location of the original Sodom.

 Ecological Disaster:

That area of Israel was once a fertile plain, but it has two distinctive geographical features. One is petroleum. There are still asphalt pits and gas vents there. Accounts of the destruction of Sodom are consistent with a major petroleum explosion. Natural gas, flaming asphalt falling from the sky, and burning oil would have destroyed the city in a dramatic and rapid fashion. The other unusual feature of the land is that there are large, above ground salt deposits. In fact, Jebel Usdum is basically a salt mountain 700 feet high. It has eroded in many places, leaving strangely-shaped figures standing like pillars against the horizon. If you travel there today, a guide may point to one of those pillars and inform you that it is indeed Lot’s unnamed wife. The cities, of course, are gone.

  Modern Sodoms:

There are many historical accounts of cities that were destroyed in sudden disaster, such as Pompeii. Sometimes, humans play a major role in this destruction. In World War II, the British High Command gave the code-name Operation Gomorrah to their strategy of using incendiary bombs to completely destroy German cities. This was a massive retaliation for the German blitz on London at the beginning of the war. Dresden is merely the most famous of the cities that were consumed in unimaginably powerful firestorms. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were killed by Allied bombers in Operation Gomorrah. This strategy was adopted by the Americans in the war with Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled by single atomic bombs that mimicked the divine wrath of the angels in Sodom. Fire from the sky. Death of the innocent. And it continues, sometimes with machetes instead of fire.

There are many people in the world who long for such destruction; who hope that God will smite wicked cities. They viewed Hurricane Katrina as God’s wrath on an American Sodom. I was surprised to hear that a prominent evangelist agreed with Osama Bin Laden when he said that the destruction of the Twin Towers was punishment for New York City’s sexual permissiveness. The horror of Sodom and Gomorrah is too easy for us to imagine; too easy for us to imitate. The danger of these stories in Genesis is that we now appear to have the power of God, but do we have the wisdom. The death of the innocent in order to punish the guilty does not trouble the hearts of fanatics and ideologues, but did bother the biblical writers and us as well.

 Ten Righteous:

I mentioned Genesis 18 last week. In that chapter God invites Abraham into a discussion on the nature of justice and punishment. I will not read this discussion, but it can be summarized by saying that God agrees not to destroy Sodom if there are even ten righteous people. This is a bold passage of Scripture and it probably was one of the last parts of Genesis to be written. We see this debate in the book of Job, for instance. It reflects the discussions of Israel’s sages after the Babylonian Exile.

In many ways this is a debate between the wisdom tradition and the priests and prophets of ancient Israel. The priests and prophets claimed that God had punished Israel because of the sins of the Israelites. They were idolatrous and so the Temple was destroyed, but the wise men pointed out that the innocent had suffered with the wicked. Is this justice? This is what Abraham asks God. Is it just to kill 50 righteous along with the wicked? Is it just to bomb the homes of children to bring them democracy? The debate in Genesis ends when God decides that 10 righteous people are enough to save a whole guilty city from destruction.

 Hospitality in a Hostile World:

Unfortunately Sodom did not have even righteous people. The mysterious men who we met in the lesson last week traveled to Sodom after dinner. They arrived at nightfall and prepared to sleep in the city square. Abraham’s nephew saw them and urged them to spend the night in his house. We’ve met Lot before and aren’t surprised at this. If you remember, Lot chose to settle with his family in Sodom. This casts doubt on the righteousness of Lot, but he does remember the obligations of hospitality. He urges the strangers to sleep in his house rather than on the street where they will be vulnerable.

The streets remain dangerous in our day. Humans need shelter from the wind and rain, but we also need shelter from each other. You don’t want to sleep outside in most cities. Many people in America are afraid of the homeless, but it is the homeless themselves who are the most afraid. They are the ones who get abused on the streets, often by people with homes and jobs. The streets were dangerous in Lot’s day, too, so he makes the effort to bring the strangers into his own home and offer them his protection. Lot is righteousness. Righteousness and hospitality is more than politeness or simple kindness. It means protecting the vulnerable, caring for the outcast. It means hiding the slave fleeing on the underground railroad and assisting the Jew pursued by the Gestapo. Righteousness and hospitality is risky, but Lot took the risk and brought the strangers into his home. For this, he was saved. I’ll read from Chapter 19.

 Read The Men of Sodom:

This is a horror story. It appears to be based on an older story found in the Book of Judges (ch. 19). In that story a Levite priest stops for the night in a village. He is traveling with his concubine. Someone brings the priest and the woman into his home so they will be safe. But the men of the village surround the house and demand that the priest be given to them to gang rape. His protector offers the crowd his own daughter in exchange, but the priest will not allow that. Instead he throws his own lover to the crowd. They rape her so violently and for so long that she died in the morning.

In reading the story of Sodom or the story of the Levite’s concubine, we should keep in mind that this is still happening in our world. Think of the Korean women taken as sex slaves for the Japanese army; the Muslim women systematically raped during the Bosnia War; the peasant women raped by the Salvadoran death squads; the women gang raped in the Sudan each day; the girls sold into slavery around the world today. These are not pleasant things for a Sunday morning, but they are real, and they are part of the message of Genesis 19. The mob violence of Sodom has been repeated over and over in our day, but in most cases the victims suffer in silence and are forgotten. They do not have angels to blind the mob. They look to us to intervene.

 Homosexuality?:

We miss the horror of Sodom if we read this as a story about homosexuality. It is unfortunate that medieval monks coined the word sodomy to deal with the violations of celibacy that occurred in their single-sex communities. According to Genesis 19, Sodom was destroyed because the men of the village surrounded a home and demanded that a vulnerable stranger be given to them to rape, abuse, and murder. The story would have been no different if the crowd had demanded a woman for their pleasure. This is not a story about sex; it is a story about the complete and total degeneration of society. It is a story of injustice and violence, and this is confirmed elsewhere in Scripture. According to prophets, Sodom was destroyed because of the neglect of the poor, because of its lies, greed, luxury, abuse, and inhospitality. (Isa. 1:9-10, Jer. 23:14, Lam. 4:6, Ezek. 16:48-44; Zeph. 2:9).

 Lot:

And Lot’s response to this violence at his door is also horrifying. Lot offers his own virgin daughters to the crowd, just as the Levite offered his lover in Judges 19. Women and children were viewed more like property than people in the ancient world, and this is still true in many areas of the world today. In parts of Asia, women who been raped have then been killed by their own fathers for having shamed the family.

But it is hard to see such a story in the Bible. It shocks us that any man would do what Lot did, but it is doubly shocking since this is contrary to the message of the Bible. The first duty of parents is to protect their children and raise them to adulthood. This is a sacred obligation that cannot be trumped by customs of hospitality or fear of shame. Yes, it was right for Lot to protect the strangers, but not at the expense of the children. This shows us how corrupted Lot has become. He has also fallen into the chaos of Sodom and forgotten the most basic laws of justice, but the angels save Lot from this crime. They blind the mob, and it is the angels, not Lot, who take the daughters by the hand to lead them to safety. The angels do what Lot failed to do. It is society that treats women as property, not God. It is men who abuse women, not God. We will be discussing these issues in more detail Friday and Saturday at the conference on justice for women. I hope you will come.

 Lingering:

To return to our story: The angels tell Lot that Sodom is on the verge of destruction. He will have to flee with his family, but he doesn’t so immediately. He delays. For centuries commentators have seen Lot’s reluctance as further evidence that he has been corrupted by the injustice and depravity of Sodom. He seems strangely attracted to this city, even though he knows it is wicked. But Lot’s lingering may have also been a response to the reaction of his sons-in-law who were with him. They laughed when he said that the city was going to be destroyed.

As an aside, it is hard to make sense of who these sons-in-law were since they had not married Lot’s daughters but they were living in the house. Clearly the statement that every man in Sodom was part of the crowd is a little exaggerated. Personally, I think that the text may have suffered a bit through years of copying or else the storyteller got himself in a bind because he wanted virgin daughters for the sacrifice, but also needed faithless sons-in-law. Rather than getting too worried about all this, we should ask why the sons-in-law are part of this story. I think that it is to demonstrate that not everyone heeds the warning given by a prophet. They represent the blindness and deafness of the world. They did not believe that God judges the unrighteous, nor that greed and wanton destruction destroys us. They did recognize themselves as under judgment.

Even though they had witnessed the same horrifying scene of attempted violence, they were not horrified. Apparently, they weren’t even angry at Lot for offering their finances up to the crowd. They did not participate in the violence of the mob physically, but they were a part of that corrupted and depraved world. They represent the silent majority of people who are no longer shocked by pictures of torture, starvation, abuse, and cruelty. They ridiculed Lot just as people today ridicule scientists, scholars, and reformers who shout warnings about global warming, violence on TV, racism, advertising images, government surveillance, extremist religion, national debt, and pollution. We laugh and mock and accuse those who warn us because we don’t want to change. Like the sons-in-law in Sodom, we are willing to put up with a lot of evil so long as we can enjoy ourselves. Their jesting had an impact on Lot. He was affected by their ridicule. He lingered. Unwilling to be mocked, we linger, we dither, we delay making the changes we need to make.

 Rescue and Regret:

Finally the angels had to grab Lot by the hand and drag him and his family out of the doomed city. Three of them will find safety in a cave near the city of Zoar. Millions of refugees in our lifetime have faced this awful decision. Do I leave all that I know, all that I own, all of my friends? But there are times to flee. There are times to remember that your life and the lives of your children are more important than anything you own or possess. When that time comes, you discover what you value most. Your values are tested when you are a refugee, and Lot’s wife failed the test. Why did she turn back? This has been a popular text for preachers for centuries, but we aren’t told why she looked back or why she was turned to a pillar of salt.

She may have look back out of curiosity. Think of how we are glued to our TVs whenever there is a natural disaster. We are frightened and fascinated by the idea that a mountain can explode and disappear, that cities can be washed away, and that all that we have built can be destroyed in a few moments. Many preachers have said that Lot’s wife turned back because she really liked Sodom, despite its “image problems” as a wicked town. It certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of city a woman would like, but maybe there were some things that she enjoyed. Certainly we can understand why someone might the big city to exile in a cave. I think it is likely that she looked back for mixed reasons, including the desire to see if the angels were right about the destruction. Was Lot doing the right thing or would they be laughed at by their friends?

 Conclusion:

We can understand these feelings, but there are times when you have to commit to something without looking back, not even checking to see if you were right in your decision. Unlike Abraham, Lot’s wife could not leave her old life even when she has seen how corrupt it was; even when she knew that only death awaited her there. We do the same thing; we look back with regret, with longing, with nostalgia, with curiosity, and wonder what might have been. It is sometimes too painful to look to the future with its uncertainties and sacrifices. According to the story, Lot’s wife was frozen in her regret, forever looking out on a ruined land.

Next week we will continue with the story of Lot, Abraham, and Sarah.

I Samuel – Religion and Politics

I Samuel 7 – Judging IsraelAdult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 16, 2008 

Introduction               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Church. Today is Palm Sunday when we celebrate the triumphant entry of the true king into Jerusalem. The ACC tournament is this weekend, and today’s lesson is about idolatry and false gods. I’ll let you decide if there is a connection there. As you know, I am an alumnus of UNC and a fan of Tarheel basketball. It has been a good season for them, and I wish them well, but I think we all have to keep a sense of perspective about sports. It is important that we reclaim the old notion that athletic competition is a way to develop character and fairness. Sports does a lot of good things. For instance, athletics helped break down racial barriers and prejudice in this country, but universities should continually remind alumni that the purpose of a school is education and scholarship. It is sad that it is so much easier to raise money for a sports program than for classrooms. People claim that sports provide immortality for great athletes, but fame remains fleeting. Winning a national championship this year will mean nothing next year. Our true hope for immortality lies in God not in a sports hall of fame, and the most difficult contest is living morally in an immoral society.

Mourning for the Lord          Last week we left the Ark of the Covenant at Kiriath Jearim. Much of our discussion after class was about the ark and what happened to it. The truth is that no one knows when the ark disappeared for good. It was placed in the Temple by Solomon and was not mentioned again in Scripture. It may have been given in tribute to the Assyrians when all of the gold was stripped from the Temple or it may have taken by the Babylonians when the Temple was destroyed. Some legends claim that it was taken to Africa. It appears that once the Temple was built, the Ark of the Covenant lost its power as a religious symbol. Replicas of the ark have been built, but what made the ark the Ark of the Covenant was that it contained the Covenant, especially the Ten Commandments. It may have even served as a legal and religious archive for the Israelites in the days of the Judges.

            Chapter 7 opens with a statement about the return of the Ark and that Israel mourned after the LORD. The relationship between these statements is not clear, and there are some variations in the ancient manuscripts. Were the people mourning for the LORD because the Ark was in Kiriath Jearim instead of at Shiloh? Or was the mourning of the people inspired by the return of the Ark? Or was this a response to the victory of the Philistines that was discussed in the previous chapters? This is one of those situations where the Bible is almost too terse rather than too wordy.

            The key point of the story is clear, though. The people of Israel wanted to renew their covenantal relationship with God. They became aware that they had lost something by not remaining faithful to God. Samuel, the priest of Shiloh, assumes leadership in this moment of national malaise. He judges the people and convicts them of unfaithfulness. He tells them they need to stop mourning and start making the hard decisions that will restore them to God’s favor. They will have to repent and make sacrifices. They will have to put away their idols and serve only the LORD God. This is first mention of Baal and Ashtoreth in I Samuel, but they figure prominently throughout the Old Testament. They were the male and female fertility deities of the Canaanites. Baal, the god of storms and rain, was represented by a bull and Ashtoreth (or Astarte), the goddess of grain and fruit, was a pillar. Farmers in Palestine relied on the cultic practices of Baal and Ashtoreth throughout the agricultural year, much like American farmers used to use the Zodiac in the Almanac. The prevalence of Baal and Ashtoreth worship in ancient Israel is attested by the fact that so much of the OT is devoted to condemning these deities by name. It was the prophets in particular who were most opposed to this polytheism and idolatry, and they judged the rulers of Israel by how well idolatry was suppressed.

            One of the last kings of Judah was named Josiah, and during his reign a copy of the law of Moses was “discovered” in the Temple. It was probably an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, which means “Second Law.” The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes the idea that the LORD is the only God and Israel must worship the LORD alone. As long as Israel is faithful to the covenant with the LORD, she will be blessed. But if Israel breaks the covenant through idolatry or injustice, the LORD will leave her to the mercy of her enemies. During the exile, Jewish scholars assembled or wrote several books of Jewish history from this Deuteronomic perspective. In particularly, the Book of Judges follows a predictable pattern. The Israelites become idolatrous and “forgive” the LORD. God withdraws his protection and the people are oppressed by their enemies, usually the Philistines. The people cry to the Lord, just as they had in Egypt. He hears their cry and has mercy. He sends a Judge to be the deliver the people for their oppressors and to lead them back into observance of the covenant. After he dies, the people slip back into idolatry and wickedness and are oppressed again.

            The first part of Samuel follows that pattern, more of less, but this is the first mention of Baal and Ashteroth. In response to the great defeat at Ebenezer and the capture of the Ark, Samuel tells the people that they must change their lifestyle. They must sacrifice their Baals, Ashtoreth, and any other idols they may have collection. They need to return to the path of righteousness and start living according to God’s law rather than following their own instincts and appetites. It is this willingness to tell the people the truth that distinguishes biblical prophets from modern politicians. Samuel told the people that a safer and more secure future was going to cost them something, but our politicians pretend that we can confront crises like global warming without paying any kind of price.

Intercession                The people told Samuel they were willing to pay the price of obedience, and so he instructed that they gather at Mizpah where he would pray to God on their behalf. Protestants have a little trouble with this concept of a person acting as a go-between or intercessor with God. Theologically we deal with this by saying that such an intercessor was needed before the coming of Christ, but now we can pray directly to God through Christ our high priest. Clearly that was not the case in the days of Samuel, but I don’t think we should dismiss the idea of an intercessor too quickly. Samuel was not acting as an intercessor for each individual Israelite in their personal needs and concerns. He was the representative of the whole community to God. In many ways, he was assuming the role of a religious symbol by being a living representative of God among the people. He is like the Ark itself in that he is a reminder of the covenant with the LORD. Unlike the Ark, Samuel could communicate directly to the people, tell them what they needed to do, and act on their behalf.

            Pastors and priests still serve as intercessors in churches. One of the primary pastoral functions is to lead the prayers of the people, present the offerings of the people, and to be a living representative of God among the people. One aspect of intercession that has fallen out of favor in recent decades, though, has been the role of the pastor in leading the people into genuine repentance and confession. The call for repentance was so abused by evangelists over the years that people became suspicious of preachers attacking sin. It is rare that a pastor today would do as Samuel did, and help a community of faith recognize that it had strayed from the covenant of grace and lead it in a ritual of genuine repentance and renewal of obedience. We do have prayers of confession and intercessions in times of crisis, but they tend to be so generic as to be worthless. They are written by committee instead of being written by people confronting the fruits of their unrighteousness. We should take a cue from the Israelites of old. They recognized their sinfulness and idolatry when they confronted a national crisis. We will find guidance for how we need to repent in reading our newspapers and watching television, but will our churches and synagogues help us to repent and make the sacrifices we need to make? Or will we continue to justify the idolatry of autonomy and consumerism and selfish ambition?

            Samuel judged the people at Mizpah, which basically means “watchtower” or look-out. It was an important city between Judah and the northern tribes of Israel, and it may have been a early capital city for Israel. We should not picture all of the Israelites gathering at Mizpah any more than we should picture the whole Republican Party gathering in a convention. Not doubt it was the tribal and clan leaders and their families who had come to the great ceremony of renewing the covenant with the LORD. But the Philistines assumed that this was a massing of the Israelite tribal army, and so they sent a force to attack Mizpah. This would be the great test to see if the covenant would endure. Would the people trust in the LORD and would the LORD protect his people?

            Samuel turned to the LORD for help and offered a sacrifice. In a scene worthy of the Iliad, the LORD responded vocally to the sacrifice. As the Philistines prepared to slaughter the people at Mizpah, the heavens and earth shook with thunder. The Israelites discovered that it was not Baal who was the god of storms; it was the LORD who could shake the earth with the sound of his voice. No doubt there was also lightening, rain, and hail. The Philistines panicked. Fear is one of the best weapons in war, and the fear of the LORD came upon the Philistines. The Israelites responded by attacking their enemies and slaughtering them as they ran. Historians and military tacticians might point out that a severe thunderstorm would be more helpful to the type of guerrilla warriors that a tribal society would use against as superior force. Even in our day, it is guerrilla armies that know the terrain can score victors against a superior mechanized army that cannot fight during sandstorms or floods. Theologians will direct our attention away from such mundane matters and praise God for giving victory to those who had renewed their covenant with him.

Ebenezer                    After the great slaughter of the Philistines, Samuel erected a sacred stone near Mizpah and he named it Ebenezer, which means stone of help. You may recall that the earlier defeat of the Israelites had been at a place called Ebenezer. Most scholars think these were two different places, but it is not entirely clear why there would be two Ebenezers. There may be some confusion in the chronology here, but this is a reminder that the Bible does not give us a complete history of Israel. It is interested in the story of Israel and the covenant with the LORD, not with the whole geographical and political history of the region. Whether there was one Ebenezer or two, it is probably intentional that the storyteller included two stories related to the stone of help. Ebenezer was not a stone of help to people who were not obedient to the covenant with the LORD. As long as the priests were corrupt and the people were idolatrous, neither the stone of help or the Ark of the Covenant could bring victory. It was only after they had renewed their dedication to God and chose to serve the LORD alone that the nation was secure. Samuel raised a stone to as a reminder of how the LORD helped Israel that day. It was also a reminder to the people that they have an obligation to serve the LORD and follow his commandments.

After the Victory                   After these events at Mizpah, Samuel was the leader of the nation, and they were saved from the threat of the Philistines. There is some exaggeration in the text in its praise of Samuel, though. As we shall see in the following chapters, the Philistines continued to threaten and attack Israel while Samuel was still alive. Some scholars think that the verses about Samuel’s victory over the Philistines have been relocated in the text. They may have originally referred to David rather than Samuel. What was more important for the story of Samuel is the statement that he judged Israel for the rest of his life. This is said not to praise Samuel, but to praise the people for looking to Samuel as their judge.

            The idea of a judge in ancient Israel is a little hard for modern people to grasp since we have well-established court systems and government offices. The judge was not a king or chieftan, but he was the leader of the tribes. It appears that judges were recognized as wise persons who apply the tribal laws in a just matter without being biased toward one tribe or the next. Judges were also responsible for raising the armies of the tribes to defend the nation. It is not clear how judges were chosen, but they were recognized by the different tribes as men chosen by God to rule. Some of the judges were charismatic figures who assumed the office of judge in times of crisis. Others were military leaders who led the troops into battle. Some of the most famous judges were messianic figures who rescued the people from oppression. At least two of the judges were women. Samuel appears to have been a particularly diligent judge who traveled a circuit to bring justice to the countryside, but the area covered was relatively small. Most of the story of I Samuel takes place in the area of Benjamin and Judah.

            It is interesting that Samuel always returned to his home town of Ramah and that he built an altar there rather than serving at Shiloh where he had been Eli’s servant. Perhaps that was because Shiloh had been destroyed. Or perhaps it is because Samuel now had the freedom to go where he wanted and serve as he thought best. Having been removed from his family and home as a child, he returned to Ramah as a man. This may be taken as a sign that his family ties had not been broken, merely stretched. We don’t know, but perhaps Hannah was still living when Samuel returned and she could see how much good her sacrifice had brought to her nation.

Chapter 8                   Since we have a little time, let’s go ahead and take a look at the beginning of chapter. We are not told a lot about Samuel’s career as a judge. That’s the way it often is in life. So much of our day to day living remains unreported. So much of the work we do is forgotten to history. We aren’t even told about Samuel’s wife, but we assume he had one since he had children. There were two boys, but we don’t know if he had any daughters. Samuel’s sons grew up and lived at Beersheba where they served as judges for the local community. All we know about Abijah and Joel is that they were not like their father. They took bribes and perverted justice. In other words, they were the worst kind of judge. An incompetent judge who cannot separate fact from opinion or truth from lies is bad, but a judge who takes money and rules in favor of the rich against the poor is worse. The only hope the poor have in this world is that an impartial judge will force the powerful to do what is right. Samuel’s sons violated the covenant with the LORD worse than if they had been idolaters. They pretended to be servants of the LORD while serving Mammon.

            One of the overlooked lessons in I Samuel is that righteousness is not a genetic trait, nor is it simply a matter of how one was raised. Samuel became a priest and judge because the sons of Eli turned out to be corrupt and abusive. He, in turn, lived long enough to see that his own sons did not follow his path of righteousness. Each generation, each individual must decide for themselves whether to follow the LORD or give in to selfishness and deceit. The struggle of good and evil is not resolved with a single dramatic victory, such as that at Mizpah, nor through a religious mediator praying for you. Ultimately you and your children must choose a path.

            As for the people of Israel, when they saw the corruption of their leaders, they called for a change in government. They asked Samuel to give them a king, like the other nations. That will be our topic in two weeks.

Lessons from John

John 8 Who Are You?The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 18, 2007. 

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and that you enjoyed the spring weather. Yesterday, as you no doubt know, was St. Patrick’s Day. Patrick is one of my favorite saints, and it is a shame that the day of his death is generally observed with drunkenness and other bad behavior. One of my favorite bits of trivia is that the patron saint of Ireland was actually British. As a boy he was captured by raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland. His job was to watch the sheep, and during those endless days and nights of boredom, Patrick learned to pray. One day, during his prayers, God showed him a way to escape. He seized the opportunity of sailing away to France. Since he had learned some Latin from his father, who was of Roman descent, Patrick studied the Bible in a monastery in France. There he felt a call to return to his as a priest. So he traveled to Rome and was commissioned by the pope to be the first bishop of Ireland. In those days bishops were missionaries, not bureaucrats. Thus it was that Patrick returned to bring the good news of Christ to those who had enslaved him. He was a living parable of forgiveness and the unsearchable richness of the grace of God. None of the legends of Patrick compare to the reality of his simple courage and devotion. In Patrick we glimpse the possibility of the Gospel to bring healing to the nations, to reconcile warring tribes, and to bring release to all held in bondage.

John 8             This week we are continuing in our reading of John’s Gospel, but we are going to save the story of the woman caught in adultery until after Easter. Dr. Diane Lipsett of Wake Forest will bring the lesson on April 15 and will discuss that important story. The oldest manuscripts of John’s Gospel do not have the story of the woman caught in adultery, and so the lesson for this week was originally connected directly to chapter 7. Last week we talked about how Jesus used the festival of Tabernacles as the occasion to preach about the water of life and that those who are thirsty should come to him. We had a lively discussion over the differences in translation as to whether it was Jesus or the believers who were the fountains of living water. Those who are connected to Jesus become conduits for the life-giving spirit.

            One of the nice things about water as a metaphor for the Spirit is that water flows of its own accord and is hard to contain. Water seeks a way even when humans try to damn it up. Water is frustrating to those who like a world they can control and manipulate, just as John’s Gospel is frustrating to those who like their theology in a nice package. John’s Gospel itself is like water. We can drink from it, but as soon as we try to hold it in our hands and clearly define it, it pours out through our fingers and our definitions.

            In 8:12-30, Jesus uses a different metaphor from the feast of Tabernacles. “I am the light of the world,” he says. The feast of Tabernacles is held near the time of the autumn equinox, when it is evident that the light is fading. Naturally, light played a role in the festivities. Four large lampstands were lit in the Court of Women in the Temple and worshipers danced before them with torches in their hands. Observers claimed that all of Jerusalem was lit by the flames at Tabernacles. You have probably already realized that this recalled the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites in the desert when they fled Egypt. This was the context of Jesus’ sermon on being the light of the world. He was claiming to be like the pillar of fire guiding the chosen people through the dangers of the desert. He was also the light that illuminated the Temple during one of the most joyous celebrations of Judaism.

Read 8:12-30  .

Compilation of Sayings:                     Ch. 8 is not the most interesting section of John’s Gospel for many readers. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that many of the verses in this chapter repeat almost verbatim sayings of Jesus that we have previously read, especially from ch. 5. It seems quite likely that ch. 8 is a collection of sayings of Jesus that have been compiled into a dialog with his opponents. It is also possible that Jesus repeated himself on occasion, especially when he was talking to different groups. If you have ever gone to hear the same famous speaker on multiple occasions, you will notice that he or she uses many of the same phrases, ideas, and even paragraphs repeatedly. We should not be surprised that Jesus did the same thing even though such repetition gets a little boring for modern readers.

            The second reason that this chapter is not so exciting for us is that it is written like a judicial trial. The whole form of the discourse is that of a legal proceeding with the typical squabbles over whether certain statements are admissible as evidence. There is drama here, but not the kind of drama that inspires most readers to stay up late to see how the controversy turns out. Therefore, we will not go into the depth of interpretation for ch. 8 that we have for some other chapters.

Testimony       The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ testimony about himself as the light of the world. John depicts them like the bloggers of the ancient world eagerly pouncing on an apparent contradiction in Jesus’ stump speech. They played the game of “gotcha” so well because that was the source of their authority. Rather than engaging in the hard work of improving the lives of the “people of the land” or challenging the oppression and injustice of the Empire, they liked to lie back and make snarky comments about those who were trying to effect change. When confronted by a charismatic prophet like Jesus, all they could do was undermine his authority. “You’re testifying on your own behalf,” they shouted in triumph. Jesus offers himself as the light of the world and they cannot see it because they are focused on the letter of the law.

            In ch. 5 it was Jesus who raised the issue of testimonies. You may remember that he had said that he was not testifying on his own behalf: John the Baptist, the signs, the Scriptures, Moses, and especially the heavenly Father testified on his behalf. It is a bit surprising, then, that in this controversy in the Temple, he does not point to the same witnesses. He appears to contradict his earlier statement by agreeing with the Pharisees here. He admits that he is testifying on his own behalf and that the only other witness is the Father who sent him. In other words, we see Jesus challenging the Pharisees on their own terms. He points out to the lawyers that the law they follow claims that two witnesses are sufficient. He has two: the Logos and the Father. The Pharisees naturally ask him where this Father is who testifies on his behalf. They probably knew that Joseph had been buried in Nazareth long ago. They wanted humans to testify to the claim that Jesus was the light of the water and the source of living water.

            Personally, I think this is a very weak portion of John’s Gospel. It reads like a high-school debate team argument in which cleverness has replaced solid reasoning, but there is more to Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees. Jesus turns the tables on them by showing the inadequacy of the Law when dealing with a new revelation of God. The very fact that they were looking for human confirmation for Jesus’ divine mission was evidence that they did not really know who the Father in heaven is. There was no proof of Jesus’ messianic status that lawyers and religious authorities could accept as valid; there was only the evidence of faith. As long as they kept looking at Jesus on the surface level, all they would see was a Galilean preacher making trouble during the festival. They could not hear his words; they could not even see the signs. They were like those who turn away from the light because it hurts their eyes and reveals things they would rather not see.

            We may gain some insight into this confusing discussion with the Pharisees if we make an analogy to less exalted things. I have written many recommendations for former students as they have tried to get jobs or go to graduate school. I testify to what I know about their abilities and work ethic. But I have not really told anyone at the real person who is applying for a job or as a student. I know what I have experienced of the person, not the inner nature of the person. We use all kinds of diagnostic tools to help us understand ourselves or others. Some of you know what I mean when I say I am an INTP or an intuitive-creative type. Over the weekend we were supposed to bring 5 things that could describe us to the others, these things were witnesses to testify to who we are, but what can they really say? Just think if you had to find three witnesses to your character to report to your spouse about who you really are! We spend a life-time on a process of self-discovery, and, hopefully, we include those we love in the process, but the truth is that we only get to know a person after we have learned to trust that person’s self-testimony.

            This was part of what Jesus was trying to tell his opponents who were looking for evidence that he was who he claimed to be. This was what the Beloved Disciple told his congregation nearly 2000 years ago and what the author of this gospel continues to tell us. The only way to know for sure who Jesus was, and who he is, is to trust in him and let him teach you. This Gospel according to John plays with language and imagery and even teases the Pharisees in an attempt to invite the reader into genuine contemplation and encounter with the living Jesus. The light is its own witness. Those who cannot see the light will not be convinced by any other testimonies that there is a light. This debate with the keepers of the Law in ch. 8 is the prelude to the great miracle story we will read in ch. 9 when Jesus restores sight to Bartimaeus.  

Going Away               There is a rather sudden shift from verse 20 to 21. Verse 20 gives the rather mundane information that Jesus was speaking near the treasury of the temple, but doesn’t tell us why that was important. It is interesting that this was the setting for his discussion of the widow’s mite in Luke’s gospel. It would appear that Jesus liked to preach in front of the storehouse of the Temple where the priests collected their tithes. This would have been very disturbing to the authorities. Have you noticed that even in America, where we have freedom of speech, we get more nervous when protesters show up at meetings of economic summits than at other times? The big news of the day is news that affects the Stock Market, not news about how our civil liberties are being diminished. Jesus became more of a threat when the authorities became afraid that his preaching would reduce the amount of money collected in the Temple.

            But then the narration shifts and Jesus tells the audience that he is going away. They will search but will not find him. Taken on its surface, this appears to be a statement that Jesus is going to flee from those who are planning to arrest him. He will go into hiding someplace where they will not find him. Those of us who have read ahead and know the end of the story can figure out that he was speaking of his ascension into heaven, but that would not have occurred to those listening in the Temple. The religious authorities come to the surprising conclusion that Jesus is going to kill himself. Certainly death is the unexplored territory from which no one returns, as Hamlet says, but it is odd that the authorities would think Jesus is planning suicide. Since suicide was one of the worst sins in Judaism, this statement was used to discredit Jesus and add to the charges that he was insane. It is possible that this statement reflects the efforts of Jewish opponents of Christianity after the crucifixion to dismiss the crucifixion as a form of suicide.

            Once again, Jesus responds by telling his opponents that they have missed the point entirely because they view things entirely from an earthly, materialistic perspective. They will look at the cross as evidence of the defeat of Jesus rather than his victory. They will see his dead body and think that his words and works have died. They cannot recognize that it is the Father in heaven who has sent Jesus to be the light of the world. Because they cannot see the light; they cannot follow the light.

Sin                   At this point, the discourse turns to the sin of unbelief. Jesus states bluntly that his opponents will die in their sins because they do not believe in him. Verses 24-25 present a host of difficulties for translators, by the way, and you will find quite different interpretations given in the NIV and the NRSV. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but I will point out that many scholars are convinced that this is a place where something was lost in transmission from the original manuscript because the Greek here is not really a sentence. Modern translators tend to supply words that aren’t there, but this sometimes obscures the meaning.

            The literal translation reads, “Unless you come to believe that I AM,” but translators like to add what they think Jesus is. This is one of those places in John, though, where the phrase “I am,” or ego eimi, was intended to identify Jesus with God. Jesus here claims to be the one who spoke out of the burning bush to Moses. When he says this is what I’ve been telling you since the beginning, it probably means from the beginning of Creation, not the beginning of the Gospel. This part of ch. 8 is repeating the themes of the prologue to the Gospel. Jesus is the Logos who brings light to the world, but his opponents preferred darkness to light.

            When Jesus says that they will surely die in their sin, he is equating sin with walking in darkness. This is not a statement that people will be punished because they did not believe in Jesus as if profession of faith is a moral obligation. It was a statement that those who rejected Jesus had rejected the light that would illuminate their lives and sinfulness. The fact that they could not see that Jesus was bringing healing and life into the world was evidence that they had closed their eyes to the life of God. They had chosen the dark side; therefore they could no longer recognize goodness and truth. The Law of Moses and the Scripture were no longer life-giving to them because they used them to justify their oppression and self-righteousness.

            Think a moment about this image of darkness as a metaphor for sinfulness. Few of us have experienced true darkness. In our world there are always stars, or street lamps, or candles, or night lights to give some light in the middle of the night, but even then we have trouble doing things in partial darkness. When I was a teen-ager, my Dad and I visit Mammoth Cave Kentucky. On one of the tours, our only light was our headlamps on our helmets. At one point, when we were in a safe room, we all turned out lights off. We were in absolute darkness. It was almost like a tangible thing pressing down on us. There was no way to orient oneself other than by the feeling of the ground. If we had continued on our journey through the cave, we could have fallen into oblivion and been lost forever. That is the darkness Jesus is talking about, and his statement about dying in sin was intended as a statement of fact, not punishment. Those who turn from the light of God have nothing to illuminate their path, no way of avoiding the pitfalls of life. They will die in their sins without even knowing that there was a better way.

            The bitter irony of this dialog with the Pharisees is that they were the ones who studied Scripture and who rejoiced in the Word of God as “a light to their path and a lamp for their feet.” Much of the OT is devoted to the idea that Scripture was God’s gift of light and a source of wisdom, but John’s Gospel says that even those who knew the Law failed to recognize that Jesus was sent by God to bring healing to the world. Those who should have seen Jesus as the manifestation of the great I AM who spoke to Moses were the ones who handed him over to be crucified. Because they could not see who Jesus truly was, they killed him unjustly. Rather than experiencing eternal life that begins in this life; their earthly existing was a slow death in sin and separation from God.

Lifted Up        This idea of dying in sin leads naturally to a discussion of the crucifixion. In verse 28 Jesus says that they will raise up the Son of Man. In John, this phrase about raising up the Son of Man refers to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. There are three predictions of the crucifixion in John that parallel the three predictions of the passion in the Synoptic Gospels. John’s approach is more metaphorical than the synoptics, though. He speaks paradoxically of Jesus’ being exalted in the crucifixion rather than humiliated. Here, the Gospel also reports that at the moment of the crucifixion the religious authorities themselves will recognize that Jesus was doing the will of the Father. We have already seen the emphasis John’s Gospel places on the idea that Jesus was doing the will of the Father rather than pursuing his own agenda.

            We should not pass too quickly over these verses. It is curious that Jesus is speaking in the future tense when he says “you will realize that I AM”. This could mean that when Jesus was on the cross those who crucified him would recognize their error or it could mean that the revelation of Jesus as the divine Logos would continue after the crucifixion. It could mean that the lifting up of Jesus on the cross begins the age of the Holy Spirit and even those who rejected him will come to believe in him. The statement that “you will realize that I AM” could be a prophetic promise of redemption even for the opponents of Jesus or it could be a word of judgment that those opponents would realize that they had killed God’s lamb. We cannot be sure what John intended here, but he does note that many believed in Jesus because of his teaching.

Conclusion                  In many ways, this section of ch. 8 is a transition from the controversy during the feast of tabernacles and the healing of the blind man. It reiterates many of the themes we have already seen in the Gospel, but it places them in the context of increasing hostility to Jesus from those who claimed religious authority. Next week, we will see that this controversy will continue with a long debate about Abraham. It is easy to get so wrapped up in this narrative of the controversy between Christians and Jews after the destruction of the Temple that we miss the most important aspects of these verses. Jesus is the light of the world, and in that light we can see our shortcomings and our injustice. Jesus brings life and healing to a violent world, but too often we are the ones who turn away from his light and life and truth. Too often, it is we who profess belief in Jesus as the Son of God who are walking in the darkness of prejudice and self-righteousness. Rather than debating about the possible salvation of those who do not profess faith in Jesus, perhaps we should profess our faith in Jesus by walking in his light and being fountains of living water for those who are thirsty.  

I Samuel 5-6: The Ark Returns

 

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 9, 2008 

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week for you and those closest to you. I’m afraid I’ve been seeing various doctors about problems in my right shoulder. It looks like surgery in the near future. I’ve found that pain and lack of sleep has diminished my sense of humor a bit. I tried, but I couldn’t think of a single funny story to tell this morning, even though it is daylight savings day. It is a busy time of year in the Atwood household because we have lots of birthdays in the spring. Yesterday was my daughter Allyson’s 25th birthday. She was born the year I graduated from Carolina. Speaking of UNC, our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and classmates of Eve Marie Carson who was murdered this week. Her death reminds us that every murder is tragic, but this one was doubly so because Ms. Carson had the potential to save countless lives through medicine. She was one of the many people whose lives are ended by guns each year in our country.   

The Ark in Philistia                This morning we are continuing our discussion of the Ark narrative in I Samuel. We’ll try to cover chapters 5 and 6 today, but I will not read every verse on the air. You will remember from last week that the Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle and captured the ark of the covenant. Based on archaeology findings some biblical scholars assert that Shiloh was probably destroyed at the same time. What is interesting about this is that the Bible does not tell us about the destruction of one of the most important shrines of old Israel. What was important to the biblical storyteller is God, not the war with the Philistines. The focus of this story is on the ark, not Israelite politics or even their army. The ark was captured and the glory was gone from Israel. We saw last week that this was a devastating crisis of faith for the Israelites. The first child born after the defeat was named Ichabod – the glory is gone.

            The ark narrative tells us that God is not a slave to humankind; nor is he bound to human expectations. Eli and the army assumed that since they controlled the ark, they controlled God. They confused the symbol of God’s presence with God himself, and they assumed that when they manipulated sacred symbols, they were manipulating God. They hoped to bless their war against the Philistines by invoking the name of God, just like people do today. Just because you call on Allah or sing God Bless America before killing innocent people, it does not mean that God approves of your violence. God taught an important message by remaining silent and letting his ark be taken into Philistia. In today’s lesson we learn that God can work even when there are no priests and generals to do his will.

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Dagon goes down       I remember being fascinated by this story as a boy in Sunday School because it is such a spooky tale. It begins with the ark being placed as a trophy of war in the Temple of Dagon in Ashdod. The name Dagon is associated with grain, and he was a fertility god. We don’t know for sure what he looked like, but a misunderstanding of Hebrew led to the widespread belief that he was a fish-god. In the 20th century, the science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft made Dagon the fish-god a monster, but his vision of Dagon has nothing to do with our story for today. Sorry to disappoint the Lovecraft fans in the audience.

            The ark was placed before the idol, but the next day the priests of Dagon found their god on the ground paying homage to the ark. That must have been quite a surprise, but they did what any government bureaucrat would do. They set Dagon upright and pretended that nothing had happened. No doubt they had to suppress rumors that there had been an incident in the Temple and resisted calls for an official inquiry into the falling of Dagon. Their attempt to pretend that all was normal was doomed to fail, though. Things just got worse.

            The next day when they went into the temple, they probably brought along ropes and pulleys just in case he had fallen again, but this time they found that Dagon’s head and hands had been removed from his body. This was a dramatic statement of anti-Dagonism. By removing the hands and head of the idol, the perpetrator had made the statement that the idol could neither act nor think. Dagon, the lord of the harvest and fruitfulness in Philistia was nothing more than a statue made by human beings. This is very similar to the story of Samson who was captured by the Philistines and still managed to bring down the temple. We should not miss the humor in either story. We tend to read with deep and pious voices, like James Earl Jones, but the original storyteller probably used a voice more like Robin Williams or Ellen Degeneres. I can picture generations of Israelites laughing when Dagon lost his head over the ark. Even when you think you’ve beaten the Israelites, they beat you!

The Plague     What comes next is clearly identified as the work of a God who was angry that his ark was being kept in a pagan temple. The hand of the Lord was heavy on the Philistines, and plague stalked the land. Along with the plague there may have been an infestation of rats that ravaged the crops. Dagon, the Lord of the harvest was powerless to stop the rats. He had no hands or head. There are some variations in copies of the Hebrew text, and it is not clear exactly what kind of plague struck the Philistines. The people had tumors or boils of some type. Some versions of the story specify that the boils were in a particularly painful and embarrassing area of the body, which one translator rendered as the “hinder parts.”

            Many historians suspect that the plague was actually the bubonic plague. The fact that the plague was accompanied by an infestation of rats supports that theory. Also, the statement that the plague spread from Philistine city to city from the coast to the inland as the ark was relocated is consistent with bubonic plague. All types of plague are terrible, but the bubonic plague is one of the worst. Called the Black Death in the Middle Ages, it wiped out nearly 1/3 of the population of Europe in just two years (1348-1350). Throughout history it has ravaged cities along trading routes, often in the midst of great prosperity. Plague was this mysterious force that struck like the Grim Reaper, cutting down rich and poor, good and evil without pity. It was only in modern times that scientists identified that the plague was spread by the fleas on the rats, and that it is caused by a microcosmic organism.

            The Philistines called together the best minds in the country to deal with this health-care crisis. Drawing upon the best medical knowledge of the day, the Philistine brain trust determined that the proper cure for the malady was to quarantine the victims, kill the rats, improve public hygiene, and develop antibiotics. No, wait. That comes later in history. The priest figured that since the problem started when the ark had been captured and Dagon had been decapitated, it made sense that the ark was the cause of the plague. By taking the ark into their temple, they had opened themselves up to the power of a god they did not worship or serve. Instead of being blessed by this symbol of God, they were cursed by it. There is a warning here for all people who call invoke the name of God and symbols of religion. Do not expect a blessing from a God you do not worship and obey.

            The priests advised that the best remedy would be to make five golden “tumors” and several golden rats, and put them in the ark. The golden tumors must have looked very odd, but this is what we called sympathetic magic. By making an image of something, you can control it. Making an image of the illness allows you to remove it. This appears to be a universal human phenomena and is still sometimes used in psychological therapy, but in this story it highlights a important theological point. What the Philistines were doing with their gold was what the Israelites had done with the golden ark. They had tried to control God, but had failed to do so. As the children learned in the Chronicles of Narnia, God is not a tame lion. He is untamed but good.

Returning the Ark                  It a way, the story of the ark’s return is a micro-version of the story of the Exodus. God sends a plague and the enemies of Israel are forced to let the ark return to Canaan. The Israelites did not send in an assault time to bring the ark out of Ekron nor did they keep killing civilians until the Philistines relented. It was God who acted, and the Philistines wisely consented. The Philistines in I Samuel make a connection between their plague and the story of the Exodus. It is not clear how they would have known that the LORD God had sent ten plagues on Egypt, but the Philistine priests told the rulers that they should learn from history. Don’t harden your hearts they way Pharaoh did. Don’t play around with fire. Give the ark back as fast as you can, but they were not going to call the Israelites to come get their ark because that would be admitting defeat.

            Like modern businesses, they had to find a way to manage the crisis without admitting that their leaders had made an error in judgment. With great caution and limited fanfare, the ark is prepared for the return to Israel. New milk cows would return the ark for them. The tension in the story involves what the cows will do. The cows had just calved. If they turned back to their calves, then the ark was not the problem. If they went straight down the road, then the ark was the cause of the plague. This adds to the supernatural aspect of the story. Unguided, the cows unnaturally turn away from their mooing calves and journeyed down the road out of Philistia all the way to Bethshemesh.

Sacrifice          The people of Bethshemesh were harvesting their crops when the ark appeared. This was a subtle reminder that Dagon was not really the Lord of the harvest. The Israelites had a harvest without Dagon. The people left their crops and followed the ark to see where it would stop. It came to a large stone in the middle of a field. Clearly, this was one of the sacred stones in Canaan, like those we read about in Genesis. The people used the wood of the cart to make a fire and then sacrificed the cows on the altar stone in the field. The priests of Israel also placed the golden offerings on the stone for God. The five lords of the Philistines watched all this and reported it back in Ekron where they probably sacrificed the calves. With a little humility, these leaders had saved their cities.

            There are a couple of points of interest in verses 13-18. We are told that the stone in the field is there “to this day,” which is an indication that I Samuel was written long after the events it describes. This phrase helps connect later generations to the story. The stone stood as a type of witness that these events really took place. More curious is the mention of the Levites here. They are only mentioned in one other place in I and II Samuel. In Exodus, the Levites were identified as the priestly tribe, but we hear very little about Levites as priests until much later when they served in the Temple in Jerusalem. By mentioning the Levites here, the storyteller further connects the return of the ark to the story of the Exodus and the original construction of the ark.

Propaganda                As I said last week, the ark narrative is an old story that the author of I Samuel incorporated into the story of Samuel, Saul, and David. It tells about the death of Eli, which is important because Samuel will be the next priest and judge instead of Eli’s sons. It also introduces the reader to the brutal struggle between the Israelites and Philistines. And it establishes the importance of David’s decision to bring the ark into Jerusalem after he became king. But this story was also good political propaganda that communicates two messages.

            It tells outsiders to be careful about fighting with Israel. Even though you have superior technology and a larger army, you will not win in the end. You may win the battle and take the people and their treasures into captivity, but you will ultimately lose. Pharaoh could not keep the Israelites slaves. Samson in captivity brought down the Philistine’s temple. The Philistines could not hold on to the ark. Watch out Assyria, Babylon, Rome!

            The other message was to the Israelites themselves, especially during the long years of the Babylonian Captivity. I Samuel was probably written during that time, and you can imagine how important this story of the ark’s return was to the writer. He wanted to tell the people that in the long run it did not matter that the Temple had been destroyed and they were in captivity. God is not bound by the laws of physics and politics. God was not defeated by the Babylonian deities. Babylon would be forced to return God’s people to the land of Israel, just as the ark was returned. This is a theology that has helped the Jews endure many periods of persecution and exile through the centuries. It is a message that can inspire hope in dark times today.

Ambiguous Ending                 It is so tempting to end the story of the ark with verse 18 and the rejoicing of the people in the field of Joshua, but the story continues to an uncomfortable ending. Some of the people did not join in the festivities. They may have even desecrated the ark by looking inside it. The texts are ambiguous. Whatever their offense was, the LORD killed seventy of them, or perhaps as many as 50,000 according to some texts. In other words, the plague was carried into Israel itself and there was great grief. The return of the ark was not a universally good thing, and the people of that region wanted to be relieved of the burden of caring for such a dangerous item. They sent word to another village that the ark had been returned and they should get it. Oddly enough, they failed to mention that people were dropping like flies – or fleas.

            So, the ark finally came to rest in the home of Abinadab on a hill, and the plague finally ran its course. No explanation is given for why the ark was not sent to one of the shrines of Israel. Perhaps none of the other priests wanted to take the chance, but Abinadab was willing. His son, Eleazar, was consecrated to care for the ark, which was a task that Samuel once had. Samuel will now be free to travel around Israel as the spokesman for God while another watches over the Ark of the Covenant.

            What can we make of this grim and somber ending of the story of the ark? This is one of those stories that make many of us uncomfortable with the Old Testament. There is so much death and violence, some of it senseless. The death of those who did not rejoice seems like a random act of violence, like the shootings on a college campus. Whether it was 70 or 50,000 does not lessen the problem. One way to deal with this is to explain it away scientifically and point out that plague rats probably followed the ark. Like all epidemics, this one ended eventually on its own.

            Another way is to deal with the story theologically. It is a stark reminder that God is not Santa Claus. Though we try to domesticate God, he is beyond our categories of good and evil, kind or cruel. The experience of God as holy is to experience God as dangerous as well as good. The third way to deal with this story is the most popular. We simply keep it out of the lectionary so we don’t have to preach about it on Sunday mornings.

Conclusion                  We’ve come to the end of the ark narrative and will return to the story of Samuel next week. This is a strange and compelling story about the sovereignty and power of God. The Bible does not interpret this story for us, but it leaves us to make sense of it if we can. I think that the most important point that people of faith can take from this story today is that God is not our property. We cannot build a gilded chest in which we lock up his power to bless and curse. We cannot carry God into battle to slay or enemies or set him up a Temple as a trophy. We need to respect the mystery of God, and pray that we are doing his will. God can fight his own battles; we do not have to engage in holy wars.

I Samuel 4

The Glory is Gone

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 2, 2008 

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this first Sunday in March. I hope it was a good week for and those closest to you. At the Div. School this week we have our Trible Lecture series. This year the focus is on feminism and inter-religious dialog. The lectures are free and open to the public. Our Adult Bible Class lesson this week has been pre-recorded because all of the adult Sunday School classes at Home Church are meeting together with Dr. Chris Thomforde, President of Moravian College and Theological Seminary. Dr. Thomforde will also be preaching this morning. We welcome him to Home Church.

The Ark Narrative     This week we are turning our attention to a special unit within I Samuel. Chapters 4-7 are a long narrative about the capture of the ark by the Philistines in the days of Eli. The evidence is pretty convincing that this was an old story that was incorporated into the story of the kings but was originally independent. It could have just as easily been included in the Book of Judges and may have been so originally. It even says that Eli judged Israel for 40 years instead of saying that he was a priest of the Lord. It is odd that Samuel is not mentioned in these chapters even though he was the focus of attention in the first three chapters. Clearly this was not originally part of the story of Samuel. Also, even though the sons of Eli die in this story there is no indication that this was because of their wickedness or that it was a fulfillment of prophecy. The story was probably included in I Samuel simply because it tells about the death of Eli and his sons. It is not integral to the book.

            The basic story in ch. 4-7 is that the ark of the Lord was captured by the Philistines, but when they place the ark in their Temple bad things happen. Finally they are forced to return the ark to the Israelites. For centuries biblical scholars thought this was a unique story about the power of God, but in the 20th century archaeologists found many ancient texts from other societies that tell similar stories. It was a common practice for a conquering army to take the idols of the gods of their enemies and bring them back as trophies of war. There is a famous arch in Rome that shows the Romans taking the Menorah out of the Temple. By taking the gods of the defeated nation, the victors demonstrated that their gods were superior. In most cases, the idols would eventually be returned, and there are texts that tell the story of the return of the idols from the perspective of the defeated people. They typically interpreted the return of their gods as a sign of the superiority of their gods. In other words, this story of the ark in I Samuel was not unusual, but it does have features that make it distinctive and informative for people of faith.

            It would be good to do the whole story at once, but it is a little too long for that, so we’ll take it in stages over the next three weeks. This week we’ll discuss the initial capture of the ark and its effect on the Israelites. I’ll read chapter 4.

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The Philistines            The Philistines were the enemies of Israel in the days of the Judges. Students sometimes misunderstand teachers, and more than one student has had the mistaken impression that the Israelites were fighting with a woman named Phyllis Stein. The Philistines are portrayed in such bad terms in the Bible that the word Philistine in the English language came to mean a brutish, stupid, uneducated, knuckle-dragging, wife-beating, foul mouthed, lower-class bore. In other words, it is not a compliment to be called a Philistine, especially by someone with a Harvard accent at a New York art gallery. This is unfair to the Philistines who were more technologically and politically advanced than the Israelites. The image of the barbaric Philistine is based primarily on the figure of Goliath, the Philistine giant.

            It appears that the Philistines were one of the People of the Sea that attacked Egypt in ancient times. The Egyptians recorded their eventual victory over the Philistines and noted that they settled in the southern coastal plains of Canaan, which became known as Philistia. Eventually that whole area became known as Palestine, despite the fact much of the region became the kingdom of Israel. As you are well aware, in our day there is still a dispute over whether that region should be known as Israel or Palestine or by both names. Thus, the stories in I Samuel about the war with the Philistines continue to resonate in modern Israel.

            The Philistines were not as cultured or prosperous as the Phoenicians who lived in the north. Much of what we know about them comes from the Bible. The Philistines lived in five main cities, which they may have conquered about 1200 BC. They were named Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. Their two most important gods were Dagon and Baalzebub, which became one of the names for Satan in Jewish tradition. Dagon figures in the story of the capture of the ark.

            In the time of the Judges, the Philistines had one great technological advantage over the Israelites. They could smelt iron and make iron tools and weapons. The Israelites were still living in the Bronze Age, but the Philistines were already in the Iron Age. I and II Samuel give us a unique look at the transition of a society from a Bronze Age culture to the Iron Age. This makes these stories particularly interesting to anthropologists. One thing we see is that Iron production goes along with the development of a government bureaucracy and standing army. Several times in the period of the Judges, most notably in the time of Samuel, the Philistines scored victories over some of the Israelite tribes and expanded their control over the region.

Defeat             In our lesson for today, the Israelites went to battle against the Philistines at Aphek and Ebenezer, which were several miles east of Shiloh. We are not told why the Israelites attacked the Philistines or what led up to this skirmish. We don’t even know which tribes were involved in the battle. All we know is that the Israelites were humiliated in battle. Most translations say that 4000 Israelites were killed that day, which would have been a major loss of life even in the American Civil War. Many scholars are convinced that the Hebrew word translated as “thousands” actually meant something like “company” or “military unit”. In other word, four companies of soldiers were killed, which was probably several hundred men.

            It was not a decisive victory since the survivors were able to return to their camp at Ebenezer. The big question the men had, though, was why had the LORD let them be defeated. If you have ever read the Iliad, you know that ancient peoples believed that their gods fought with them or sometimes against them. The gods gave heroes courage, tripped people as they ran, sent plagues, and did all sorts of tricks. The Israelites assumed that the same was true of their god, the LORD. Ancient soldiers did things to try to appease the gods before battles.

            The Israelite army assumed that the reason that the LORD had not brought them victory was because they had left his ark back in Shiloh. Rather than repenting of bad behavior or seeking peaceful ways to settle their conflict, the Israelites decided to bring God directly into the battle against the Philistines. They ordered that the Ark of the Covenant be carried from its resting place in Shiloh to Ebenezer.  

            As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the Ark was a chest of wood that was covered in gold leaf. The top was like a seat decorated with cherubim whose wings touched. Two poles were used to carry the ark. There are number references to the ark in the Old Testament, but it goes by several names: Ark of YHWH, Ark of the Covenant, Ark of the Testament, etc. According to tradition, it was Moses who had the Ark built, and he placed the fragments of the original Ten Commandments in it. It was believed that the Ark functioned as the throne of God or his footstool, and sometimes the Ark was addressed as if it were God. Without a doubt, this was one of the most sacred relics of ancient Israel. From the days when Israel wandered in the wilderness, the ark was a visible symbol of the invisible God of Israel. God was never depicted in visible form, but they believed that the priests could encounter the invisible God who revealed his presence through the Ark.

            There were times when the ark was carried into battle. It is not clear if people believed that the ark itself was harming their enemies or if the ark was primarily a symbol that united the people and encouraged them in their fighting. The Ark was part of Joshua’s famous crossing of the Jordan River, and it may have figured in an annual event in which the leaders of the tribes gathered to express their mutual devotion to God and unity with each other.

            It is not clear how the ark came to rest in Shiloh or why the family of Eli wasselected to care for it. We’ve already meet Eli at the shrine in Shiloh. According to I Samuel, he was so old and blind that his sons had to accompany the ark to Ebenezer. There is nothing in this text to indicate that the boys were sinful or unworthy to do this task, but by adding the story about the sinfulness of the boys, the storyteller provided an explanation for the disaster to come. He turned it from a story of tragedy to a morality tale in which sin is punished.

Ark Brought into War                        When the sons of Eli brought the Ark into the Israelite camp, the Israelites let out a loud was cry that shook the ground the way the floor of Cameron stadium shakes during basketball games at Duke. This was more than taking a particular flag into battle. It was a symbol of God’s presence that united the Israelites and assured them that God was on their side. The flagging zeal of the Israelites was restored, and they rejoiced because they knew that God would bring them victory the next day. They went into battle confident they would win. Even in our day, politicians try to convince their soldiers and their nations that God is fighting for them.

            Fear is a major weapon in times of war. People do not fight well when they are frightened, especially if they are convinced they are going to die. That’s why athletes talk smack before a game, and why modern nations use political propaganda to try to convince the enemy that resistance is futile. When the Philistines heard the shouting of the Israelites they were afraid. “A God fights with them,” they cried because they knew the significance of the ark. They had heard the legends about the God of the Israelites sending plagues on the Egyptians. The Philistines heard the shouts and were afraid. It is interesting that the Philistine captains had to rally the troops with the warning that if they lost the battle, they would be subject to the Israelites. Apparently in the time of Samuel, the Israelites were strong enough to enslave Philistines. It does not appear that the Israelites were the only victims of oppression.

Defeat             Despite carrying the ark into battle, the Israelites were defeated. Thousands of men were dead, the army was scattered, and the Ark of the LORD was taken captive. This was a terrible blow to the Israelites. Some of you know what it was like when America had to admit that it could not win the Vietnam War. Our national mythology was that America always wins its wars, but there was no victory in Vietnam. The communists won that struggle, and Americans had to find some explanation for the defeat. Different answers were offered, none of them satisfying. The Israelites had lost a battle even though they carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle. God had promised never to desert the Israelites, but they had lost this great battle against the uncircumcised Philistines. Could it be that the Philistines and their gods were stronger than Yahweh? Or was there a deeper meaning? One explanation offered in I Samuel was that this had been predicted by God when he said he would destroy the house of Eli. The two boys died in the battle and could not be saved. Thus the defeat was interpreted as a punishment by God for the failure of the priests. This attitude would continue through the books of Samuel. God punishes sinners and rewards the righteousness. The death of the priests was symbolic of the subjugation of the whole nation.

Eli                    The news of the disaster was brought to Eli by a soldier who traveled nearly 20 miles in a day to bring the news of the defeat. When Eli heard that his sons were dead and the Ark was captured, it was more than he could bear. He had submitted to the prophecy of God stoically in the previous chapter, but this was even worse news than he had expected. Not only was his line ended in a single day, but the most sacred object in Israel had been captured by unclean men. The Ark that his ancestors had carried through the desert and into the promised land was gone. The Ark that he had tended day and night in the Temple was gone. The throne of the invisible god had been taken by the worst sort of infidel. Disaster upon disaster. How could he live? He had judged Israel for 40 years, but the end of his 98 years came suddenly.

Ichabod           Eli was not the only one affected by this news. His daughter-in-law was pregnant, and the news of these disasters upset her so much that she went into labor too early. Like many women before the invention of modern medicines, she suffered terribly in childbirth and died while giving life to a son. What should have been a sign of hope for the future merely added to her sense of defeat and despair. How could she bring a child into the world knowing that the God of Israel had been defeated? What joy is there in having a son who would be a slave to the Philistines rather than a priest of the LORD?

            As she was dying, she named her son Ichabod, which means the Glory is Gone or the Glory is in exile. She was using one of the names for the Ark, which was the Glory of God. The Ark was captured by the Gentiles, and so the glory of God had left Israel. It is not clear if she wanted her son to always remember this defeat so he could avenge it, or if the name was symbolic of her despair. Having a son could not erase the fact that God had gone. This is one of the saddest scenes in Scripture that contrasts dramatically with the birth of Samuel. Whenever you meet a character named Ichabod, you can expect the story to be tragic, like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod – the glory is gone. It is a hard name for a child.

Conclusion                  We have to end with this image of despair. We know that the story turns out well, but it is going to take awhile. Before there is redemption, the Israelites have to face the silence of God. This story is a powerful reminder to all people of faith that God’s people are not always victorious. Many churches preach the message that if you have faith, you will always be victorious. The glory of God will shine on you and protect you, but that is not always the case. There are times when God is silent; when the glory is gone. Our religion does not provide us with magic amulets that bring good fortune regardless of our actions. Keep in mind that this is not just a story about the Ark. The author of I Samuel had experienced the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians and had probably been taken into exile. He understood the quiet despair that could overtake a people when God fails to protect them. This story was written to remind people that even when God appears silent, he is working out his plans.

            Next week we will see that Israel may have been defeated by the Philistines, but God had not been defeated. The Ark itself would have to defend itself. The glory had not truly gone out of Israel, but it sure looked that way.