The Setting-Things-Right God

The gospel releases divine power to set the world right.

I have led many adult Bible study classes. I have never, however, taught the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I have two good reasons.

First, the theology of Romans is dense. Paul manages to pack so much into the letter’s text. When I try to unpack it into easily digestible segments for an audience that has little or no knowledge of the Bible, it resists such a breakdown.

Second, many of the words Paul uses have a different emphasis in the Greek and Hebrew from their equivalent translations into English. The English words in our translations can therefore mislead, confuse, or even distort what Paul is saying.

One example is the word righteousnessas used in Romans 1:16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

The words righteous and righteousness are not common words in daily English conversation, at least not outside of church circles. When we do use them, we usually understand them to refer to something that is morally upright or virtuous.

For that reason, the words in English do not have an appealing emotional association. The most common use of the word righteous is in combination with the word self, creating the hyphen word self-righteous. Self-righteousness has the flavor of an alienating hypocrisy. Most often we hear it used in describing grim, buttoned-up religious folk.

If we have this idea of righteous in mind when we hear Paul talk about the righteousness of God, we are likely to be confused. It’s going to convey an idea of God in the negative sense of self-righteousness. This in turn feeds the common conception of God as a severe and demanding judge.

Exploring the Biblical Meaning of Righteousness

If we are going to understand these two crucial sentences of Paul, we must do some work exploring the meaning of righteousness in the wider context of the Bible. For we can be sure Paul is using it with its Biblical meaning front and center.

The Greek word that Paul uses that English translators translate as righteousness is the Greek word dikaiosune. It, too, is a translation for the Hebrew word tsedaqah. This Hebrew word can sometimes mean something that conforms to the moral character of God.

But with the Hebrew prophets it gains an extended meaning. When used of God, it refers to the work of God to establish justice in the land, especially on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged (summarized by the stock phrase the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien). In the intertestamental period, it also becomes associated with alms giving.

So the word righteousness comes to take on the meaning of God’s compassionate efforts to set things right in the world against all that fractures and corrupts God’s creation. It is, in short, a synonym for salvation. Salvation is also understood in the sense of restoring things as they should be, but presently are not.*

In Paul, this divine setting of things right is not limited to human individuals. It extends out to include society and the whole cosmos. God’s righteousness is God rescuing the whole creation from evil, corruption, and disintegration, and particularly rescuing humans from sin and death.**

Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel

With this understanding of the righteousness of God in mind, we can then begin to realize the astounding claim that Paul makes in Romans 1:16-17. In the gospel message about Jesus Christ, especially the message of his death and resurrection, we have revealed how God is at work to set things right in his troubled and corrupted creation. This is God coming to creation’s rescue or, to use a synonym, to creation’s salvation.

What Paul seems to be saying is that every time we preach the gospel, we are releasing God’s power into the world to continue that rescue mission–first in the lives of believing individuals and ultimately within the whole cosmos. It opens our eyes to see what we have always hoped for, but could not see: God compassionately coming to our rescue. In the words of the gospel hymn: I once was blind, but now I see.

That healing of our spiritual vision then allows us to begin to realign our own lives with the often hidden and seemingly humble work that God is performing in the world. We can begin to behave in ways that are consistent with how God is working to rescue us from the unseen powers and forces that keep human beings in bondage.

When we read Romans 1:16-17 in this light, we realize the immense confidence Paul has in the sheer preaching of the gospel. It is charged with power to change lives and even social settings.

But it seems to me that it only exercises this great power when the gospel we preach is not a message about God’s stringent demands for our strict ethical uprightness. This false preaching leads to a vision of God as an angry, vindictive judge whose goodwill we can never really count on. Rather if we would release the power of the gospel, it must be a gospel about God’s compassionate love for the world, a compassionate love that will go to the ultimate extreme to restore a corrupted world to health, wholeness, harmony, and abounding life.***

This gospel gives us a God whom we can love, adore, and trust because this is a God who is truly for us, not against us. Thanks be to God!

________________

* For the Biblical understanding of righteousness, I am particularly indebted to the entry on “righteousness” by N.H. Snaith in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1950. Pages 202-204.

** The particular wording that I use in this sentence comes from N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. Page 399.

*** For my understanding of what constitutes the good news of the gospel, see my previous posting from February 14, 2016 titled Can You Summarize the Gospel in One Sentence?

 

 

 

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The Exodus as a Creation Story

The crossing of the Red Sea carries echoes of ancient creation stories.

Destruction_of_Leviathan

The destruction of Leviathan by the French artist Gustave Doré, 19th century.

 Ancient creation myths, whether Mesopotamian or Egyptian, often shared a common feature. They assumed that the structured order of the world as we know it arose out of an aboriginal watery chaos.

That chaos was formless and often depicted as malevolent. It needed to be tamed before the created world could emerge. That taming occurred through a titanic battle between divine forces.

A representative example is the ancient Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish. In that myth, the watery chaos is personified in a female divine figure named Tiamat. Her opponent is the male head of the Babylonian pantheon, the sky god Marduk.

In a ferocious battle the two gods fight to the death. Marduk prevails. He kills Tiamat, carves up her body, and out of the pieces creates the world in which we live. Creation emerges out of an act of supreme violence. (Also don’t miss the misogynist tones to the story.)

Biblical imagery echoing ancient myths

Echoes of this widespread understanding of the creation of the world are to be found in the Bible. The ancient Israelites probably picked them up from the common cultural environment which they shared with other ancient societies.

Genesis does not duplicate the theme of battle as the prelude to creation. But we should not miss the detail that when God begins to create the world in Genesis 1, God begins not by creating out of nothing. Instead he speaks to a vast formless, watery and dark void. The taming of this void begins with the divine words, Let there be light (Genesis 1:3).1

Creation continues the next two days with the division of the waters into the sky dome and ocean. Then emerges the dry land out of the oceanic waters, with its proliferation of vegetation. The land becomes the platform for the advanced creative work of God as God calls into being animal life, and ultimately human beings.

We also find echoes of the ancient theme of the chaos monster in the Old Testament figure of the great sea monster Leviathan (also known as Rahab). A number of poetic passages in the Old Testament celebrate God’s victory of this monster.2

One example is Psalm 74:12-14:

Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as foo
d for the creatures of the wilderness.

 Another example appears in Isaiah 27:1. Here the author uses the imagery of the chaos monster to symbolize the forces of chaos that God will subdue in the future. What lies ahead in the future is a new creative act that echoes the old story.

On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

 The Israelites were not sailors like the Phoenicians. For this reason they tended to regard the ocean as something fearful, if not terrifying, especially when the ocean rose up in ferocious storms. The imagery of the Leviathan resonated with them, and it came to be the symbol of all the forces of chaos that might threaten their lives, whether foreign invasions, natural disasters like earthquakes, or the breakdown of social order.

The Red Sea crossing as a new creative act

What I had not come to recognize until recently is how imagery from these old creation myths as well as from Genesis 1 echo through the account of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea (see Exodus 14-15).That crossing is the climax of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

When the Israelites encamp on the shores of the Red Sea, it appears that the old forces of chaos are about to engulf them. At their rear waits Pharaoh’s armies, poised to attack. If Pharaoh cannot enslave them, he will at least slaughter them. Chaos will reign on the battle field.

Ahead of them lie the waters of the Red Sea. These waters block any escape. The Israelites’ fate, if they move forward, is to drown in the oceanic waters.

The threat of chaos lies behind them. The threat of chaos lies before them. They seemed to be doomed.

But they have not counted upon the creative power of God, the God who has tamed Leviathan in the past and will do so again in the future. Instructing Moses to stretch his rod out over the sea, God summons mighty east winds (note again the echo of the mighty wind/Spirit that blows over the watery void in Genesis 1:1) to divide the waters. Out of that division emerges dry land over which the Israelites cross into freedom. Land has emerged out of the waters, as in the creation story of Genesis 1.

When God ceases the winds blowing, the chaos waters return, drowning the Egyptian army. Chaos has engulfed its own, as the song of Moses in Exodus 15 celebrates.

The crossing of the Red Sea then can be seen as a new creative act of God, an act that creates the new people of Israel. Their new life as the people of God begins. There will be much more to do before Israel grows up into a mature nation. This echoes how the creation of the world progresses by more and more advanced stages in Genesis 1. But it all begins with a divine act of taming the waters of chaos.

Christian resonances

This imagery should resonate with Christians as we think about the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is the act when God chooses each one of us to become a part of his people, the people who form the church. That act of initiation begins with a ritual of water.

In an extended sense baptism is the Christian crossing of the Red Sea.We symbolically drown and then are raised up to new life.5 It is also an act of new creation, a rebirth. Out of the waters of chaos all of us are lifted up onto the dry land of the Kingdom of God.

______________________

  1. Genesis 1 may in fact be conducting a polemic against the Babylonian myth. God tames the chaos not by an act of violence, but by his sovereign word.
  2. Several examples: Job 26:12, Job 41:1-11, Psalm 74:12-14, Psalm 89:10, Isaiah 27.1, Isaiah 51:9.
  3. I want to acknowledge that I received this insight from an essay written by Dr. George Athas of Moore Theological College. The essay The Creation of Israel: The Cosmic Proportions of the Exodus Eventcan be accessed on Academia.edu.
  4. This connection between baptism and the exodus event is very explicit in some early Christian baptismal liturgies. The language of the liturgies is filled with allusions and imagery drawn from the Israelites’ exodus.
  5. This symbolism is most vivid when baptism is performed by immersion.

 

When Faith Doesn’t Stick

Transmitting one faith to the next generation is always a chancy endeavor.

The Bible gives us precious few details about the family of Moses. We know his wife’s name is Zipporah. She is the daughter of a priest of Midian that Moses meets in the Sinai desert. They have two sons. Their names are Gershom and Eliezer.

We know they did not succeed their father as leader of the people of Israel. That fell to a family outsider, Joshua. Also in a short genealogical reference in 1 Chronicles 23:15-17, we learn that Gershom had a son named Shebuel, and Eliezer a son named Rehabiah. But that is the last we hear anything about Moses’ descendants, with one exception.

In the Book of Judges we encounter one more mention of another grandson of Moses. His name is Jonathan. The brief mention is a curious one.

Unsettled life in Israel during the era of the judges

The era of the judges in Israel was an unsettled one. The Israelites had entered the land of Canaan after their 40-year trek through the wilderness. They begin to take possession of the land. That process, however, comes across as a fluid and unsettled. Tribal boundaries were not yet fully delineated.

The religious life of Israel was also fluid and unsettled. The Biblical text suggests that adherence to the aniconic (prohibiting images) monotheism of the Sinai covenant was not yet firmly established everywhere. Israelites frequently adopted religious practices as well as the gods of the Canaanites. Syncretism was more properly the order of the day.

The migration of the tribe of Dan

Chapter 18 gives us a window into both of these realities. We read there an account of the migration of the Hebrew tribe of Dan, which seeks out a new patrimony on the northern border of Canaan. There they attack a peaceful people living in a town named Laish. They slaughter the residents, burn the city, and rebuild it as their own. They rename it Dan.

Storm god on bull

Image of a Canaanite storm god aside a bull.

It’s a rather grim story. The Danites come across as murderous bullies. This witnesses to the widespread violence of this era in Israelite history.

On the route to their raid, the Danites invade the homestead of a man named Micah. There they rob him of a cast-metal idol along with some other religious objects. They also give the free-lance Levite priest who serves as Micah’s chaplain an offer he can’t refuse. They carry both to their new city, where they set up the idol in a shrine for themselves and appoint the Levite as priest.

In verses 30-31 we learn that Micah’s chaplain is Jonathan, Moses’ grandson. The text then says that Jonathan and his descendants continue as priests at Dan for several hundred years.

This stray mention startles us. Moses’ grandson and his descendants have been set up as priests to serve a graven image.* One wonders how the Danites justified their action. It is possible that they did not see this idol as a rejection of the worship of the God of Israel. They may have just been following in the same mindset as the Israelites did in the exodus story when they set up the golden calf at Mount Sinai and worship it as a material representation of God. But were they not falling into the same deviance that those earlier Israelites had fallen into?

They also co-opt a member of the family of Moses in the process, just as the earlier Israelites had co-opted Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make the image for them.

One also wonders how the Moses of the Torah would have reacted if he had lived to see this development. We read in Exodus 32 the rage that Moses showed when the Israelites under Aaron had erected a golden calf at Mount Sinai and made it the object of their worship. It was a serious breach of the covenant, for it violated the very first two commandments of the Ten Commandments. Surely Moses would not have been tolerant of this violation of the covenant by his grandson.**

How do we account for Jonathan’s deviance from his grandfather’s way?

I call it a curious story because a reader of the Bible does not expect to find that a grandson of Moses would be skirting on the edge of his grandfather’s strict monotheism. How do we account for this?

One answer might be that the historical reality of early Israel was different from the picture we get in the Torah. Israel’s monotheism may not have been as settled in the beginning as the Torah suggests. Judges may give a more accurate picture.

But the story of Jonathan may also reflect a common reality in the life of faith. Transmitting one’s faith to future generations is never a sure thing. Even the spiritual stature of Moses could not guarantee that his descendants would continue to walk in the pathway of his faith.

This can be a consoling thought to all parents and grandparents who have watched their children or grandchildren abandon the faith in which they were raised or choose to walk a religious path far different from that they were taught. History offers many examples of when the process of faith transmission fails.

_______________

* We get the sense that the author recounts this fact because the shrine at Dan later became a shrine/temple that rivaled the temple in Jerusalem. As a result the Danite shrine has a reputation in the Old Testament as a site of illegitimate worship.

** That a member of Moses’ family should have been connected with this deviant worship center at Dan may have caused something of a scandal for those who wrote and compiled the Old Testament. Maybe that is why in the ancient manuscripts, Jonathan is sometimes said to be a grandson of Moses and sometimes a grandson of Manasseh. Also when we read the mention of Gershom and his sons in 1 Chronicles 23:15-16, we do not find Jonathan listed. Was Jonathan omitted from the genealogical reference deliberately?

 

Revealing Verbs

The verbs in a Biblical story disclose the character of the actors.

Rape_of_Tamar_-_Le_Seur

The Rape of Tamar, by the French artist Eustache Le Sueur, ca. 1640

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I put great value on a close reading of the Biblical text. I like to pay attention to the words that writers use to tell their story. Their choice opens up new perspectives on a familiar story.

One of the most brutal stories in the Bible is the story of the rape of Tamar, the daughter of King David (2 Samuel 13). She is raped by her half-brother Ammon. The rape unleashes catastrophic consequences on the house of David. In the process David almost loses his throne.

Christian Century magazine has recently published an article by Anna Carter Florence, in which she focuses on the verbs used in the story to disclose the power dynamics at work in the rape. It is a brilliant example of a close reading of the Biblical text. I want to commend it to you for your reading. It will be worth your while.

Jesus Comes to His Hometown

When Jesus visits Nazareth, his neighbors don’t know what to make of him. 

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The gospels (Matthew 13:53-58, Mark 6:1-6, Luke 4:14-30) tell us that after his baptism, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. Here everyone must have known Jesus. He after all had grown up among them. He had probably played with the other Nazareth children as a child. He had undoubtedly provided his carpentry services to the village residents.

But the visit does not end in any celebration of a hometown boy who has done good. Instead the villagers drive him out of town and even try to kill him. It is a grim story of rejection.

Father Eric Hollas, a monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, takes up this gospel story and extracts from it a very thoughtful sermon. I want to commend it to you for your reading. He titles it Are We Citizens of Nazareth? It gives a very contemporary and practical take upon the Biblical story.

Father Hollas writes a blog called A Monk’s Chronicle. I find it nourishing reading. You may want to check it out.

He is also a talented photographer. So every blog posting comes with a selection of his photographs, taken during his frequent travels. If you delight in stunning views of ecclesiastical architecture or of landscapes and gardens or of close-ups of flowers and paintings, you might find them as much of a delight as I do.

Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

IMG_0864

Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.

 

A Biblical Response to Jeff Sessions

Be careful when you quote the Bible in the public sphere. The Bible may bite back.

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

This past week we heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeal to Romans 13 as Biblical warrant for the administration’s no-tolerance policy on illegal immigration. I had to smile. He appealed to the one passage in Scripture that autocrats and divine-right kings have always claimed as their own. Sessions placed the administration right in their company.

But it is always dangerous to quote the Bible as isolated prooftexts. The Bible is not one simplistic message. It embraces many voices. When we quote one passage in isolation, we run the risk of one of those other voices rising up to challenge our single-minded viewpoint.

This is certainly the case when we look at what the Bible has to say about immigrants. For it has a lot to say. To be fair to the Bible, we must hear these alternate voices as well.

The Old Testament’s Vulnerable Ones

A striking feature of the Old Testament is the partiality that God shows for the vulnerable in Israelite society. In particular three classes of society are singled out as a focus of God’s concern. They are:

  • The widow, especially the childless widow
  • The orphan
  • The resident alien (Hebrew: ger)–a foreigner who is living permanently, not temporarily on Israelite soil. They are analogous to the green card immigrant in the United States.

All three were especially vulnerable in ancient Israelite society as they did not fit securely into the structure of the patriarchal family and clan. All three were, therefore, subject to being taken advantage of, abused, or oppressed.

The phrase–the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien–becomes therefore a stock phrase in the Old Testament for referring to the most vulnerable and marginalized members of Israelite society.

The Vulnerable Ones in the Torah

What is striking about the Old Testament is how this divine concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien enters into the text both early and late. The Book of Exodus, for example, includes commands from God about this vulnerable people in its very earliest statement of torah law, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23).

There we find God instructing the Israelites:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:21-24)

God’s concern for the immigrant gets repeated just a few verses later:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

What is striking about these commands is the rationale they give for treating the resident alien benevolently. Israelites are to do so remembering that they too were once aliens living in a foreign land. They know the precarious lot of a resident alien, who lives and works in a land but is not a citizen.*

When we get to Leviticus, we find the focus on the resident alien rising to an even high level of intensity. Leviticus 19:18 lays down the command that Israelites are to love their neighbor as themselves. In the context, the neighbor is clearly a fellow Israelite. But just a few verses later we find this striking extension of the rule:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Here the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is extended to loving the immigrant as we love ourselves. We are to treat him or her like a citizen.

In Deuteronomy, we find God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien moves beyond just words to concrete actions that the Israelites are to take on behalf of these three vulnerable classes of society.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. 

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

(Deuteronomy 24:19-22)

Concern for the widow, the orphan, and resident alien means taking action to see that their physical needs, their very livelihood, is being taken care of. This is a vision of a generous society, not a parsimonious one. Welfare for the poor is built into the very way the Israelites are to do their daily business.

The Prophetic Contribution

Concern with the life needs of the widow, orphan, and resident alien are not confined to the Pentateuch. We find references to them in the psalms (see, for example, Psalm 94:1-7 and Psalm 146:5-10) and in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:12-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, and Zechariah 7:8-10).

I find the most striking prophetic passage in Jeremiah. It reads:

Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.(Jeremiah 22:1-5)

The Jeremiah passage makes clear that the security and well-being of the kingdom itself is dependent upon the way it cares for its most vulnerable members. If the kingdom chooses to oppress and abuse them, then the very stability of the country is placed into jeopardy. Without using the stock slogan of the widow, orphan, and resident alien, the prophets Hoses and Amos declare a similar message.**

Absorbed into the Spiritual DNA of the Early Church

The New Testament writers do not use the stock phrase—the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien—but we find a concern with these categories appearing all through the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic church. The message of the Old Testament has been so absorbed that it resides as part of the spiritual DNA of the early Christians. I wonder if it was not one of the reasons why the early Christian community found itself ultimately opening its ranks to include the Gentile believer—the spiritual outsider.

Jesus himself builds upon the warning of Jeremiah. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the last judgment when the Son of man comes in glory and sits in judgment. He separates the sheep from the goats.

What is striking in this account is the basis of judgment. It is not whether someone has placed saving faith in Jesus, but how someone has related to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner, and the stranger.

What is also striking in the account is that this judgment is not just a judgment of individuals. The text says explicitly that the ones gathered before the throne are all the nations. Here again we meet that note that the security and well-being of a society is contingent on how it treats its most vulnerable ones.

I recognize these Biblical passages are not dealing with the issue of society’s need to control its borders and balance the need of immigrants with the needs of the native society. But they clearly say that a society’s “me-first” approach to the challenges of immigration and population movements is not ultimately going to secure the long-term well-being that its citizens crave.

If we are going to take seriously the message of the Bible for America, then I believe we Americans are going to have to listen to the full message of the Bible and not just one sole prooftext.

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* When we read this rationale, we can’t help recognizing how it mirrors the American experience. Unless our ancestry is native American, every American today comes from immigrant stock.

** In the prophets two great sins ultimately bring God’s judgment onto the two Israelite kingdoms. They are religious apostasy and social injustice.