Who Is the Exodus Generation?

The Old Testament gives a surprising answer.

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The Israelites crossing the Red Sea. A fresco found in the ruins of the Jewish synagogue of Dura Europos, 3rd century C.E.

The Book of Exodus reports that when the Israelites left Egypt, they numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exodus 12:37). This figure is repeated in Numbers 11:21 and Numbers 26:51. When you count in those uncounted women and children, scholars conservatively estimate that the total figure was somewhere in the range of 2 million.

This is an enormous figure. Exodus scholar Nahum Sarna says that a safe estimate of the population of ancient Egypt would come in at around four or five million.* So the Exodus migration would have represented a catastrophic loss of population for ancient Egypt.

This has led most Biblical scholars to discount the Biblical figure given. Clearly it is an exaggeration. If the authors have fabricated this figure, they argue, what other aspects of the Exodus story have they also fabricated? This argument figures in many scholars denying the Exodus ever happened.

So how do we account for this hyperbole in the Exodus account?

Sarna offers an intriguing answer to this puzzle. He says that the figure of 2 million represents the approximate population of the kingdom of Israel at the time of Kings David and Solomon. So the author/editor is counting the whole population of Israel at this time among those who escaped into freedom under Moses.

How could the author or editors of the Biblical text take such a viewpoint? Sarna suggests that they do because they do not see the Exodus era as ending with Israel’s crossing the Jordan River and occupying the land of Canaan under Joshua.

Instead they view the Exodus migration ending only when David captures the city of Jerusalem and Solomon builds a stationary temple to replace the portable tabernacle. The building of that temple is in fact the culmination of God’s act of redemption begun under Moses.**

Says Sarna, “It is as though all those living at the time of the building of the Temple themselves experienced the events of the Exodus.”***

I find that fascinating. It is saying that the Exodus generation is not just the immediate generation of those who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership. The Exodus generation includes all subsequent generations following the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, plus the nearly two centuries of Israelite settlement during the period of the judges and the early reigns of Saul and David.

The Biblical Mindset Takes an Unexpected Turn

This leads me to think that there may be an even more astonishing conception going on in the Biblical mindset. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, we find guidance on how parents are to instruct their children in the Torah. The text begins, When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?…. This wording is clearly addressing the situation of generations beyond those who wandered in the wilderness under Moses.

And how does the text instruct parents to answer? …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….’ Note carefully the wording. The parents are not instructed to say, Our ancestors were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought THEM out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Instead they are to say,WE were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought US out of Egypt with a mighty hand.****

 The viewpoint here is that all Israelites for generations to come participated in the Exodus. They were all a part of the Lord’s mighty redemption. So in an amazing way all generations of Jews constitute a portion of the Exodus generation.

What this conception does is make the Passover feast more than just a historical commemoration. It makes the annual celebration of Passover an experience in which each new generation of Jews participate in the Exodus. The Exodus continues as more than a repeated event. It becomes an ever present experience for faithful Jews throughout their lives.

A Parallel in the Christian Tradition

Now how might this have significance for Christians? It is the historic Christian tradition that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus enact a new Exodus-like redemption. Easter becomes the Christian Passover. This tradition is embedded in New Testament in the conception that Christ’s death is the sacrifice of our paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). It is also embedded in the ancient name for Easter, Pascha, which is the Greek transliteration for the Hebrew word for Passover.

Christians likewise celebrate their redemption with a celebratory feast, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper looks back to that final meal that Jesus had with his disciples on the night before his betrayal and death.

When Christians participate in the Eucharist, we are invited to do more than just remember the Last Supper. We are invited to join Jesus’ original disciples at that same table as Jesus the host distributes the bread and the wine. In a sense the table of the Lord expands from its original 12 guests to include all the millions of other invited guests that have joined in in the generations since.

All this excites me because it suggests that the great acts of God’s redemption on our part, whether in the Exodus or in the events of Holy Week, do not remain events in the past. They continue to be events in the present for faithful believers. Time past and time future merge into an eternal present.

Now that blows my mind. Does it yours?

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* Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1996. Page 97.

** That viewpoint seems in fact to be presaged in one of the oldest bits of poetry in the Old Testament, the Song of the Moses in Exodus 15:1-18. This song celebrates the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. In the narrative the song is sung at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, yet it ends on a puzzling note. It looks into the future, when the Lord will plant his sanctuary on the mountain which God will choose. The editors who put the Torah together may also have seen the establishment of the Jerusalem temple as the fulfillment of this enigmatic hope.

*** Sarna, page 101.

**** We find this same use of the first person plural in the famous Israelite creed recorded in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. It, too, describes the Exodus event as something that WE experienced, not just our ancestors.

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Jesus on Paying Taxes

Jesus eludes an entrapment by turning the tables on his opponents.

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A Roman denarius with the image of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

In Mark 12:13-17, the evangelist Mark tells the story of an attempt by the Jewish temple authorities to entrap Jesus. They seek to lead him into saying something that will put him in jeopardy. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.

It seems a perfect trap. If Jesus says it is lawful, then they can charge him with compromising his obligation to honor God. They can use that to damage his reputation with the people who hang on his every word. If Jesus says it is not lawful, they have grounds to report him to the Roman authorities, with dire consequences for Jesus. It seems a perfect question for their purposes. Jesus cannot dodge the question. He must make a choice.

Yet Jesus proves cleverer. He recognizes their question is not a legitimate search for insight, but an effort to entrap him. Holding up a Roman coin, he gives an answer they did not anticipate: Render to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  

Many Christians have regarded this answer as a nugget of wisdom for the ages. In a sense it is. We might say that it delineates the proper relation between religion and the state.

But we also easily overlook something important about Jesus’ answer. He does not define exactly what are those things that belong to Caesar, and what are the things that belong to God. He throws that task back to his opponents…and in a sense, to each of us.

They/we have to decide what it is that belongs to Caesar and what things belong to God. And we run the risk if our answers offend the authorities in our lives. In trying to entrap Jesus, his opponents put themselves in jeopardy…if they attempt to clarify Jesus’ answer. Jesus has turned the tables on his opponents. Clever Jesus indeed!

Jesus lays down the fundamental principle that should govern the relations between church and state. But as we see, this principle remains inherently fluid. And so Christians have answered the question of what things belong to Caesar and what things belong to God in various ways. Sometimes their answers have had corrupting influences on the church. Sometimes their answers have instead had grave consequences.

Jesus lays down the timeless principle. Its implementation, however, rests on us. Jesus will not relieve us of our own proper responsibility to think for ourselves.

Fruitless as the Fig Tree

Approaching a troubling story as metaphor opens it up.

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Leaves and maturing fruit of a fig tree

One of the more troubling stories told about Jesus in the gospels is an incident (Mark 11:11-20) that the Gospel of Mark recounts after Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. After riding into the city on a donkey, Jesus looks around at everything, then leaves again for Bethany.

The next morning Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus is hungry. He comes to a fig tree by the road and finds it has no figs. Mark says it is not the season for fig trees to bear. Jesus curses the fig tree. On the second morning when Jesus and the disciples pass by, the disciples note that the fig tree has withered overnight.

It is a troubling story because it seems to picture a peevish Jesus. Frustrated that the tree has no fruit, Jesus curses it. But, of course, it had no fruit. It was not the proper season for fruit. The fact that the tree had no fruit is not its fault. Come on, Jesus, let’s be a bit more understanding.

Why does Mark tell this seemingly unflattering story of Jesus? I’ve thought about this a lot. And in searching for an answer, I turn to a tool I use all the time in interpreting Scripture: Read within context. When we do, we find Mark doing a very subtle thing.

Mark presents Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as a royal entrance. Israel’s true king is coming into his capital. And when Mark says Jesus looks around the city, I don’t think he thinks of this as Jesus as a tourist site-seeing. No, this looking around is Jesus doing a royal inspection. He is assessing the state of his capital.

Also, after the cursing of the fig tree the next day, Jesus enters into the temple. There he finds the situation alarming. Instead of being a place for quiet prayer, the premises of the temple are being used for commerce. Merchants are selling bleating sheep, mooing cattle and birds for sacrifice in the temple. Money-changers are changing Roman currency into the temple’s currency so pilgrims can pay the temple tax. The scene must have been a cacophonous bazaar.

This so upsets Jesus that Jesus picks up a whip and drives all the traders out and overturns the money-changers’ tables. He quotes two Old Testament prophets as rationale. Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves.* Clearly what Jesus the king has found in the temple is not acceptable. It is after this visit that Mark remarks on the fact that the fig tree Jesus has cursed has withered.

An Enacted Parable

What I propose is that we must read the cursing of the fig tree as an enacted metaphor or parable. It is revealing what Jesus has discovered during his royal inspection. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and its magnificent temple and found both spiritually fruitless. They are not fulfilling God’s intention. And so they will pass from the scene. This they both do when in 70 A.D. the Romans conquered the rebellious city and destroy it.

As an enacted parable, the story of the fig tree then makes sense in its context. It may still be troubling to us, as many of Jesus’ parables are. They often contain details that challenge our normal expectations. But the story becomes a way Mark makes a sobering comment on the world into which Jesus enters.**

It is not the only time Mark uses an odd narrative detail to make a theological comment on the actions he has just described. Another example is the odd comment that Mark makes about a naked lad running away from the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51). What is this stray detail doing in the narrative? I propose it too is an enacted metaphor. If you wish to explore what it may be saying about the disciples, turn to my previous posting Naked Lad on the Run.

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* Jesus is quoting both Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. It should be noted that all this commerce was taking place in the portion of the temple known as the Court of the Gentiles. It was the only part of the temple that Gentiles might enter. But if they did, they would not have found it a plaza conducive to prayer.

** The gospel of Luke in fact seems to have turned Mark’s incident into a literal parable (see Luke 13:6-9). Was Luke, too, troubled by the story as an event?

Why Does the Torah End with Deuteronomy?

Shouldn’t the book of Joshua be included?

A Torah scroll in the old Glockengasse Synagogue of Koln, Germany. Photo by Willy Horsch. Used under Creative Commons license.

Many peoples of the world have what scholars call a foundation myth. This is the story which recounts their origins as a distinct ethnic/cultural group. It may also express what they view as their purpose and destiny.

A sophisticated example is Virgil’s epic The Aeneid. In this monumental poem Virgil narrates the origins of the Romans as refugees from a burning Troy. It also foresees their destiny to rule the world.

On a first read, one might be inclined to see the Torah as Israel’s foundation myth. The Torah (I am using its most limited meaning) is the name given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are also known as the Books of Moses or as the Pentateuch.

The Torah is a mixture of both narrative and legal material. In its narrative sections, it tells the story of Israel’s origins, beginning with Abraham’s journeys and culminating in the great national journey of the Exodus.

In the Torah’s telling of that Exodus journey, Israel as a people leave their bondage in Egypt under Moses’ leadership and wander through the Sinai desert for 40 years. As a narrative it can hold its own with Aeneas’ wanderings from Troy to Italy in terms of its engaging story telling.

The Torah, however, is more than a narrative. It also prescribes the laws and worship practices that will give Israel its distinctive identity and will regulate its communal and worship life. In that respect, it’s like a constitution for the nation of Israel. Because of its story and its laws, the Torah has always been central to Jewish life. It holds a pre-eminent place in the Hebrew Bible.

The Torah breaks with the mold

But there is one odd feature about the Torah as a foundation myth. As a collection, it ends with the book of Deuteronomy. At the end of Deuteronomy, Israel stands poised to cross over the Jordan River and take possession of the land of Canaan. This is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis. But–­and this is the surprising but­–Israel has not yet done so. Torah ends on a note of incompletion.

I say it’s odd because the fuller Exodus narrative does have a completion. Israel does cross over the Jordan and takes up possession of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. That is the story recounted in the Book of Joshua.

But the odd thing is that the compilers who put together the canon of the Hebrew Bible excluded the Book of Joshua from the Torah proper. We don’t expect that in a normal foundation myth, where the completion of the journey of origin and the possession of a land identified with the story’s particular ethnic group is an essential part of the myth. The story gives the rationale for why a particular people occupies the land they do.

So why does Israel’s foundation story not conform to the pattern? That’s the question I find myself asking. Why did the editors of the Torah decide to end Torah with Deuteronomy instead of Joshua?

I find the most illuminating answer to that question in a book I read many years ago. It is James A. Sanders’ Torah and Canon. In it he discusses the development of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. He points out that the canon as it came finally and definitively to be set includes this odd fact that the Torah ends with Deuteronomy.

He finds scattered evidence in the Old Testament that that may not have been the case in earlier eras of Israel’s history. Before the Babylonian exile, early versions of the Torah seem to have included the Book of Joshua. Other early versions may also have posited that the Exodus journey did not really end until David captured the city of Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple. Either ending would have given the Exodus story its triumphant ending.

But the canon of the Hebrew Bible rejects such a triumphalist conclusion. It ends the Torah with Deuteronomy. In the last chapters of Deuteronomy Israel is poised to complete its journey but has actually not yet done so.

Sanders believes the canonical version of the Torah received its final formation during the Babylonian exile or in the years afterwards. One decisive thing had changed in that period of Israel’s life. Israel had been dispossessed of its land, its capital, and its temple. Jews were living in a dispersion around the Near East and in the Mediterranean. The diaspora had begun. It has largely continued to be the reality of Jewish life from that point on, although the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 has launched a major reversal of that reality.

Establishing the perennial relevance of the Torah

 How could the foundation myth of Israel that ended with the conquest of the land speak to Jews in diaspora? Had it not been discredited by the facts of history? Could not therefore its laws also be discarded as irrelevant to the life that Jews lived in diaspora? That seems the logical conclusion.

But what if the Torah ends with Deuteronomy? In a case, Torah ends with Israel still outside its land, still on its journey. The laws and the stories of the Torah still apply to a people who have not yet arrived at their destination.

They are something that a people in diaspora can relate to. The provisions of the Torah are then not historically limited. They gain a perennial relevance to generations upon generations of Israelites into the future.* Says Sanders: Through the Torah, Israel passed from a nation in destitution to a religious community in dispersion that could never be destroyed.**

Through the constitution of the Torah, the stories and the laws of ancient Israel continue to shape the identity of Jews and govern their behavior. Continues Sanders commenting on Ezekiel 33:10:

In Babylonia after the news had arrived in 587 B.C. that Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple been destroyed, some elders came to the prophet Ezekiel and asked him the pertinent question: “ ‘ Ek nihyeh?’ How shall we live?” In now what does our existence obtain? What now is our identity?

 The answer finally came in the form of the Pentateuch and the laws which JEDP had inserted within it. And that was when we knew that our true identity, the Torah par excellence, included the conquest neither of Canaan (Joshua) nor of Jerusalem (David) but that Sinai, which we never possessed, was that which we would never lose.***

The Christian inheritance from the Jewish Torah

This understanding of the boundaries of Torah is part of the heritage that Christians have inherited from our Jewish origins. For this understanding of Jewish life as an uncompleted pilgrimage is transformed by Christian spiritual writers into an understanding of the Christian life as an uncompleted pilgrimage in this life. This is one of the themes of the book of 1 Peter in the New Testament.

The Christian journey does not end until we too pass over the spiritual Jordan of death to enter into the true promised land, the Kingdom of God that lies in the future. And so, gathered as a people around the Bible, our Christian Torah book, we sing:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through the barren land;

I am weak, but Thou are mighty;

Hold me with Thy powerful hand;

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,

Feed me till I want no more,

Feed me till I want no more.****

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* They do, however, need to be adapted to the changing circumstances of Jewish life. That is the task of the oral Torah that culminates in the Talmud.

** James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. Page 51.

*** Sanders, Page 53.

**** Welsh revival hymn by William Williams, 1745

Jesus and Divorce

How do we come to terms with one of Jesus’ difficult teachings?

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Dispute between Jesus and Pharisees, by French artist Gustav Doré, 19th century

 Every now and then I read a gospel passage where I wish Jesus had kept his mouth shut. His words are hard to take. They’re even harder to explain if you are a preacher.

A prime example is Jesus’ teaching on divorce, as recorded in Mark 10:2-11 (with a parallel in Matthew 19:3-9). On a superficial reading, Jesus comes across as stern, even legalistic like so many of his opponents. Certainly many Christians through the centuries have taken Jesus’ words as sanction for being stern and legalistic in their own attitudes, causing great pastoral harm.

So when faced with a tough passage like that, I turn to my primary tool in interpreting Scripture: a close reading of the text. Here I focus on exactly what is said, not what I presume it says. When I do this with the Mark passage, a couple of details pop out that seem to point me to how to understand and apply what Jesus is saying.

An Effort to Entrap Jesus

The first detail is what Mark says provoked the whole discussion. He says the Pharisees came to him in order to test him. In Mark the word test usually has a negative association. It is the same word in the Greek that Mark uses when he says the devil came to tempt (test) Jesus in the desert after his baptism.

In this case, the motivation of the Pharisees is to entrap Jesus. They want to entrap him into saying something that will get him into hot water. A current polarizing debate in the Jewish community on the proper grounds for divorce offered just the right pretext.

Mosaic law permitted divorce. The key text was Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There Moses says: If a man marries a wife, and then she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her, he may give her a bill of divorce and send her out of his house.

The grounds for divorce are that the husband has found some uncleanness in his wife. But what does the word uncleanness refer to? That was the focus of the debate.

The Jewish rabbi Shammai and his school said it meant adultery. Only adultery was a legitimate reason for divorce. The Jewish rabbi Hillel and his school said that uncleanness could refer to any reason why a wife lost favor with her husband. It could be her cantankerous temper, the fact that she talked to a stranger in the street, or that she burned his bread.

The Pharisees may have wanted to put Jesus right in the middle of this debate when they asked their question? Whichever side he took on the issue of the legality of divorce or the grounds for divorce, he would make new enemies.

The question was not an invitation to an honest theological discussion. It was a game of gotcha. We are terribly familiar with such games as we listen to a lot of political rhetoric today.

Jesus avoids the horns of this dilemma by avoiding the whole question of whether divorce was permissible or not. The law of Moses said that it was. On that question, I hear Jesus accepting the law of Moses.

Refocusing the Discussion

What he does instead is address the deeper pastoral issue raised by divorce. And here a close reading of the text proves fruitful. Jesus says that the law of Moses permits divorce because of your hardness of heart. Now that is not what I anticipate coming out of Jesus’ mouth. But I think the words are critical in how we come to apply the words of Jesus in pastoral situations.

Hardness of heart is a Biblical phrase that refers to a stubbornness of our will, a callousness of feeling, a stone-like fixation on our own self-concern at the expense of God and the other person. It is the prime feature of Pharaoh’s character in his struggle with Moses over release of the Israelite slaves.

Hard-heartedness stands in contrast to warm-heartedness, expressed in gentleness, humility, compassion, openness and flexibility. A warm-hearted person feels with other people, feels their joy and their hurts, instead of closing them out of his or her emotions.

Here, it seems to me, Jesus pinpoints the real reason why many marriages end in divorce. The deep emotional reason is the inflexibility, the intransigence, the insistence of having things one’s own way in the relationship that leads ultimately to irreconcilable conflict. The two partners in the marriage become so entrenched in their own hurts, anger, and demands that they find it impossible to work out their problems in a way that keeps them together.

Every marriage will have its problems and conflicts. The question is: How do we handle them? How do we negotiate through them to a resolution? Can we reach a resolution that both partners can live with? Sometimes one partner wants to work out the problem, but the other partner refuses. Sometimes both partners are locked into combativeness and inflexibility. Both say to the other: It’s my way or no way.

If a resolution proves impossible, then the marriage will split apart. Or one partner will cave in and the marriage becomes lopsided in its power arrangements. Love drains away through the emotional cracks.

Jesus Plays One Scripture Off Against Another

As a pastor, Jesus directs attention away from the legality of divorce to the deeper question: What is God’s intention for marriage. Here he plays Scripture off against Scripture.

In response to Deuteronomy, Jesus directs the Pharisees’ attention back to the story of creation in Genesis, chapter 2, where God creates Adam and Eve. In that story, when Adam meets Eve for the first time, he cries out in ecstasy This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. And then the Biblical author comments: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Jesus reads this passage as expressing God’s intention for marriage. That intention is first and foremost to create a union so deep between the spouses that the couple becomes as one living being. This is talking about the creation of a deep, loving intimacy—a sexual, an emotional, a spiritual intimacy—between the two partners.

For Jesus, the pastoral issue in marriage is the quality of the intimacy between the two spouses that God intends their marriage relationship to foster.

In a healthy relationship as God intends it, giving and receiving are mutual. Both partners become more fully alive, more fully themselves within their marriage. Marriage is meant to nurture life, not smother it. This is the divine call and ideal.

None of our marriages fulfill this ideal perfectly. We fulfill it to various degrees. Some marriages achieve such a depth of love and intimacy that when one partner dies, the other feels as if his or her life has been ripped apart.

In other marriages the partners may be sexually faithful to each other, but maintain an emotional and spiritual distance between them. They live parallel lives that only reach out to each other occasionally.

And in others alienation replaces love and intimacy. This alienation may result from a one-time act of betrayal. Or it may result from the corrosive acids of small, repeated negativities like constant nagging, fault-finding, and petty obsessions. The alienation results in a marriage that feels like a zombie existence. One or both partners live as if they are the walking dead.

In that last situation divorce may become the healthier alternative to continuing to live together. But even so, the divorce can create an immense pain as the union is separated apart.

When we marry, we vow to be faithful to our spouse until death do us part. When we divorce, we break that promise by the sheer act of separation. And when we remarry we carry that broken promise with us.

That is what I think Jesus is getting at when he says that when a divorced person remarries, he or she commits adultery against the first spouse. We enter the second marriage with the broken promise in the first.

Second Chances in Marriage?

So is Jesus closing the door on second chances in marriage? I don’t think so. If Jesus were, he would be out of step with the rest of Scripture. For the Bible is full of stories of God giving people second chances, whether it be Israel returning from exile in Babylon or the apostle Peter after his denial of Jesus.

If Jesus is denying the opportunity for second chances in life, then we are all doomed, not only in our married life, but in our family, business, and community relationships.

I hear the good news of the gospel as a message that God gives us second chances over and over again. But we always enter into our second chances as flawed human beings. Repentance acknowledges that fact.

As I listen to this passage, I hear Jesus’ chief concern not being over the issue of whether divorce is permissible or not. This is largely a legal question. Nowhere in the gospels do we find the spirit of Jesus to be legalistic.

His focus is a pastoral one. When it comes to marriage, his chief pastoral concern is the quality of intimacy that a husband and wife are nurturing in their relationship. That, I contend, should be our chief concern too when we seek to apply this passage to contemporary marriages.

Author’s Note:

I write this posting in an effort to make some pastoral sense out of a difficult passage. But I also write from the perspective of a married man who has never undergone a divorce. Those of you who have may want to challenge what I say. I welcome your feedback.

 

King David the Odd

The Bible’s story of King David has unexpected surprises.

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A medieval Greek image of King David in the robes of a Byzantine emperor.

In the Biblical tradition, King David is a pre-eminent hero. He is presented as Israel’s greatest king. As expected with such a hero, the Bible tells many tales of David’s prowess as a warrior, conqueror, and political leader. It lauds him as a great poet. And it celebrates his magnanimity, as in his compassion to Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth.

I say “expected” about these tales because they fall into the genre for royal propaganda in the ancient world. Kings regularly expected their scribes to trumpet their exploits to the world. Pharaohs carved them in hieroglyphics on temple walls. Assyrian kings engraved them into the sculptured walls of their palaces. King Darius of Persia surpassed them all. He had an account of his accomplishments inscribed on the towering side of a mountain.

One thing is usually missing in all these ancient annals of the kings. We rarely find any acknowledgement of a king’s flaws, defeats, and abuses of power. If we find them at all, we find them in the insults hurled at them by their enemies.

Acknowledging an Abuse of Power

So that is what is so odd about the Biblical accounts of King David. Amid all the wonderful tales of his exploits, we find the scribes including 2 Samuel 11-12–a shocking account of David’s abuse of power.

This segment of David’s story tells of how he seduced and committed adultery with Bathsheba while her husband is off fighting David’s war. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. To cover up the scandal, David arranges that her husband gets killed in battle. Though the death is meant to appear accidental, it is really arranged murder.

Here is an account of sexual abuse that could hold its own in any news accounts coming out of the #MeToo movement. David has used his superior power not only to seduce a woman, but also to murder one of his own loyal troops. If we had accurate accounts of life in other royal courts throughout the ancient Near East, such behavior might be excused as the normal risks of living within royal circles. David would not be unique.

But the cover-up does not work. The prophet Nathan confronts the king with his abuse of his power and pronounces God’s judgment on his behavior. This is the first thing that is odd about the Biblical story. In ancient courts, prophets were expected to provide divine blessing on royal desires, not condemnation. Nathan is clearly outside the boundaries.*

The Marvel of a Repentant King

When confronted with his sin, David does the next odd thing. He acknowledges the wrong he has done and expresses deep remorse. We would expect any ancient king to do otherwise. It would have entailed a serious loss of face.

He might have expelled Nathan from court for lèse majesty or even executed him. He might have denied he did any wrong, singled out others for blame, or created a diversion to deflect attention away from his sin. Or he might have asserted that as king he is above the moral law.

Instead he admits his sin. How extraordinary of a king! He shows real humility in the face of the wrong he has done. And when Nathan announces that the child conceived with Bathsheba will die, David beseeches God in fervent prayer and fasting to spare the life of the innocent child.

Yet, despite David’s remorse, the child does die. David does not escape the consequences of his sin. This death is just the beginning of his troubles. Nathan also announces that David’s abusive behavior will unleash further devastation in his family, including rape, murder, and rebellion.**

Audacious Scribes

This leaves us the readers in awe of the authors/editors who composed the account of King David. They, most likely royal scribes, are fully aware of his greatness–and of their duty to magnify that greatness. Yet great as King David is, he remains in their tale a human being, with his own share of serious flaws, character defects, and atrocious moral lapses.

The same can be said of the stories they tell about the magnificent Solomon and all the other kings that follow him both in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Grand as the trappings of monarchy may be, the Biblical authors never let themselves be blinded by that grandeur. Kings remain human beings accountable to God just as does any laborer in the fields or beggar in the city streets.

That’s why the Bible remains a double-sided resource when we turn to it for guidance about our dealing with political power. On the one hand, we have the apostle Paul admonishing Christians to submit to the authorities in power because the existing institutions of state are ordained by God (see Romans 13:1-6).

And yet on the other hand, we have the whole Old Testament witness with its deep suspicion of power, especially as exercised by kings.*** That witness models for us how to challenge abuses of power.

Maybe this is why the Bible can never provide us a simple and unvarying blueprint for dealing with power. The pages of the Bible are as mixed and complicated as the political situations each of us deals with every day.

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* For more on Nathan the prophet, see my previous blog posting Prophets and Power.

** In this respect the literary work that comes closest to the pathos of the Biblical story is the cycle of stories about King Oedipus in the tradition of Greek tragedy.

*** That suspicion of royal power begins early in the Old Testament with the great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

 

What Is Eternal Life?

Beware of defining it quantitatively.

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If we believe that eternal life means solely living on forever without an end, then the curmudgeonly Jonathan Swift pops our balloon.

In his novel Gulliver’s Travels, Swift recounts how Gulliver visits an island kingdom named Luggnagg. There among his adventures, he meets a resident who tells him about a special category of people on the island, named Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs are born with the rare gift of immortality.  But as Gulliver hears more about their story, we come to question whether it can rightly be called a blessing.

It is true that the Struldbrugs cannot die, but with the gift of immortality they are not given the gift of perpetual youth.  Instead each year they grow older and older … becoming ever more wrinkled, feeble, and disagreeable with each passing year. In the end their lives become so miserable that families on Luggnagg regard the birth of a Struldbrug as a curse on the family.

I think we need to recall this story whenever we are inclined … thoughtlessly … to define eternal life quantitatively … as everlasting longevity. Swift is saying to us, “If that is what you hope for, beware of what you ask.”

Eternal Life in the Gospel of John

This is not eternal life as the author of the Gospel of John proclaims it. Eternal life is an important concept for John, but it is certainly something more than longevity.

We get at John’s understanding in the prayer that Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples at the end of the Last Supper. In that prayer Jesus says:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. [John 17:3]

That statement by Jesus has always stopped me in my tracks. Jesus says nothing about the longevity of eternal life. Rather he focuses entirely on its purpose.

There is a peculiar twist in the syntax of that verse in the original Greek. The first part of the verse sounds as if Jesus is going to give us a standard definition—This is eternal life…

 But immediately after this phrase in Greek comes the word hina. Hina is a conjunction that points to purpose. The NRSV translates it that. It would be more accurate to translate it so that, or for the purpose of.

This strange twist in the grammar suggests that Jesus (and John) knows that eternal life does involve immortality, but he does not want the accent to be on that quality. He wants to emphasize that what most constitutes eternal life is not longevity and agelessness but its purpose. And that purpose is that we may know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

The Semitic Understanding of Knowing

To understand the significance of this knowing, we must read the verb know in a Semitic way, not in a Greek way. For the ancient Greeks, to know meant to perceive intellectually. They wanted to understand the world and human beings factually. Their goal was to express their perceptions in abstract, philosophical principles.

In this Greek usage, if you knew a person, you could recount facts about his or her life. You could tell something about who they are or what they do.

The Semitic understanding of knowing, however, was very different. For the Hebrew used in the Old Testament, knowing was more practical, experiential, and emotional. To know a person did not mean you could talk about a person, but that you had some kind of relationship with that person. It had a connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.

The Hebrew understanding of knowing a person is captured in several different places in Genesis where to know is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The classic text is Genesis 4:1, where Adam is said to know his wife Eve and she conceives a son. Knowing is an experience that leads to a form of union in relationship.

British Biblical scholar E.C. Blackman captured this special Semitic flavor when he said that for the Old Testament, …knowledge of God meant not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world.*

American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown agreed with Blackman. He commented on the use of know in this verse: For John, of course, knowing God is not a purely intellectual matter but involves a life of obedience to God’s commandments and of loving communion with fellow Christians…This is in agreement with Hebrew use of the verb ‘to know’ with its connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.**

The apostle Paul also holds to this experiential dimension of knowing. We see that caught in Philippians 3:10: …that I may know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…. Paul is clearly implying that he seeks to know by experience, rather than by abstract thought.

Although the verb to know would mean something to both a Greek and a Jew, I think it is absolutely essential that we understand that Jesus–and the gospel writer–are thinking like Jews, not like Greeks. The Semitic understanding of knowing can issue in intellectual understanding. But intellectual understanding is its fruit, not its defining characteristic.

Semitic Knowing and Christian Faith Today

I think this Semitic understanding of knowing is essential as we try to present the Christian faith to both believers and unbelievers today. There is a prevalent idea out there in our churches and in the broader culture that Christian faith is all about believing certain intellectual doctrines. Such faith turns into something dry and unemotional.

I suspect we owe that understanding of the Christian faith to the scholastic theologians in the late 16th and the 17th centuries who followed in the wake of the Reformation.  For the Reformers like Luther and Calvin the experiential dimension of the Christian faith was preeminent. It was what fired their preaching and writing. But their scholastic heirs turned the Reformers’ ardent faith into an intellectual affair. Faith was believing the doctrines, not a personal trust in God.

Intellectual knowing, however, seldom transforms a person. Rather it tends to make a person, especially scholars, arrogant and conceited. It is the personal relationship –with God and with other Christians–that changes minds and behavior. That has been proven time after time in the stories of the great conversions in Christian history.***

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* Entry on “Know, Knowledge” in Alan Richardson, editor. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950. Page 121.

** Raymond E. Brown, S.S. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (xiii-xxi). New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970. Page 752.

*** As a great resource for reading about these conversions, I recommend John M. Mulder, editor, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.