Friday, April 18, 2014

Atonement and the Cross

THOUGHTS FOR GOOD FRIDAY

In the early part of the 16th century, William Tyndale was translating the Bible into English (an act of civil disobedience for which he would pay with his life). He needed a word for the process by which human beings are reconciled to God, a noun to name means by which humans and God become at one. Since the English language didn't have such a word, Tyndale coined one: atonement, literally "at-one-ment."

Christians, probably all Christians, believe that the cross of Christ in some way effects our atonement. Probably the most common explanation for this, at least among American Christians, is the idea of penal substitution. This is the atonement theory that many of us carry around in our heads. In rough form it goes like this:

     God is holy and just.
     Human beings are sinners.
     God's justice demands that sin be punished.
     Human beings are, therefore, condemned to hell.
     But Jesus came and was crucified.
     On the cross he took the punishment we all deserve.
     Now, humans can go to heaven
       provided they have faith in Jesus.

This atonement theory has a few things going for it. It's simple. It's clear. It's easy to explain. It tells a compelling story. Some people even find it comforting. It can soothe the fears of people who have guilty consciences. I think it plays well among prison populations.

But there are also problems with this penal substitution theory.  For one, it portrays God as a kind of monster. God is all about punishment. God created people but now just wants to send them to hell. This sort of image of God led the young Martin Luther to not only fear God, but, by his own admission, to hate God, until he discovered God's grace.

The God portrayed in penal substitionary atonement is not "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." This atonement theory reduces God's justice to retribution and makes God's holiness something mechanical.

Another problem is that it makes atonement all about heaven and hell. It's focus is exclusively on the next life. It doesn't say much about this life.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Dorothy Sayres parodied penal substitutionary atonement like this:

God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don't follow Christ or who have never heard of Him.

Fortunately, there are other ways to understand the cross and its role in atonement. I prefer an atonement theory that doesn't make the cross about what God did to Jesus but about what we did to God.

I begin with the Christian proclamation that Jesus is God incarnate. In the person of Jesus Christ, God entered this world and reached out to his human creation in love. God did not come into the world with power or wealth or glory, but as a helpless infant, the swaddled son of a refugee family moved hither and yon by an uncaring Empire. Born with only a stable for shelter, Jesus never had much in the way of possessions. "Nowhere to lay his head" as the Gospel says.

As an adult Jesus was an itinerant. He healed the sick, thereby showing God's good will to the world. He gathered followers around himself and taught them to trust God and take care of one another, a message with profoundly political implications. His talk of the kingdom of God, a radical alternative to the power of the empire, God him crucified.

Jesus died as he was born, another helpless victim of an uncaring empire. Crucifixion was a form of punishment reserved for the lowest classes: slaves, non-citizens, rebels, the worst criminals.

On the cross, Jesus embraced our full humanity. On the cross, God was at one with the humblest, the lowest, and the least--with all of us.

Told this way, the cross is not the story of an angry God punishing an innocent victim. It's the story of a loving God taking on everything that makes us human.

I also think that this story of the cross has implications for how we live in this world. It exposes the cruel nature of Empire, the futility of might. It frees us from the thrall of power and wealth and glory to trust God and take care of one another.

This atonement theory is not immune to criticism but it provides an alternative to balance the uglier aspects of the theory of penal substitution.  No single way to understand the cross will ever be complete.

Martin Luther taught that on the cross, God put all of our sin on Jesus. (I take "sin" here to mean all of our human failings, frailties, weakness, and imperfection). And, on the cross God put all of Jesus' divine nature on us. By the cross, God made us holy.
 





Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Esther and Her Elusive God

A BOOK REVIEW

The book of Esther is a biblical curiosity. It tells a great story. It is the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim. But it does not make overt mention of God. Neither does it contain any explicit reference to religious practices with the possible exception of fasting.

Until recently I would not have qualified that last sentence with the word "possible."

The Septuagint version of Esther, considered canonical by Orthodox Christians, treated as Deutero-canonical by Roman Catholics, and relegated to the Apocrypha by Protestants, contains significant expansions on the Hebrew text. This ancient Greek version of Esther is replete with mentions of God and instances of prayer. The Septuagint translators apparently felt the understandable need to dress Esther up in more pious garb. Modern retellings of Esther's story in film and novelized form, also tend to explicit religious elements (and downplay the sexy parts).

I'm not sure where I saw it, but when I came across notice of a new book titled Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, by John Anthony Dunne, I was immediately intrigued. I called my local independent bookseller and ordered a copy.

The book is short, just 156 pages, 20 of which are devoted to end matter. The text comprises 5 chapters and an appendix. Though scholarly, it is written in an accessible style. I found it a quick and rewarding read.

The first part of the book (A Secular Story) is made up of three chapters:

   1. Esther & The Compromise
   2. Esther & The Covenant
   3. Esther & The Cover-Up

In this section of the book Dunne argues, persuasively, that Esther and her uncle Mordecai are not the faithful Jews that ancient versions such as the Septuagint, and more recent retellings of Esther's story in film and print, make them out to be. Ethnically Jewish, these characters are thoroughly assimilated to Babylonian culture and indifferent to Jewish religion. In fact, the gentile women in the book, queen Vashti and Zeresh, the wife of Haman, come off as more valorous and more devout than Esther herself.

Dunne's close reading of the text allows him to make this interpretive move. Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman is not based on religious scruples but on an ancient tribal feud. Esther's call for the Jews to fast on her behalf is a sign of mourning for her almost certain death and not an attempt to enlist the help of the Jewish God. Without rehashing Dunne's arguments, I will simply say that I find them convincing.

Perhaps the most contentious point of Dunne's interpretation is his argument that Esther 4:14a would, contrary to every English version I consulted, be better translated as a question. In the New International Version this verse reads:
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.
Dunne thinks "the text should be rendered as a rhetorical question expecting a negative answer, 'if you remain silent at this time, will relief and deliverance come from another source?'" (p. 46). In other words, the speaker, Mordecai, does not expect help from God.

The Second part of Esther and Her Elusive God, (Canonical and Theological Reflections on A Secular Story) is made up of two chapters:

   4. Esther & The Canon
   5. Esther & The Church

Here, Dunne focuses on Esther's place in the canon of Scripture and how its canonical placement affects interpretation. I find myself in agreement with his contention that Esther, by long usage, deserves to stand in biblical canon. On page 129, Dunne neatly sumamrizes his work:
The perspective of this book taken as a whole is that Esther is a story about how God was faithful to an unfaithful people. This is how a secular story functions as Scripture. Thus, when the church seeks to appropriate Esther for teaching and preaching, the urge to amplify the story of Esther by making the characters religious paragons, as seen in the ancient translations and modern popular versions, should be resisted. The Bible is full of stories with heroes and protagonists that the church should not seek to emulate, and Esther is no exception. Though as we have seen, the secularity of the characters should be distinguished from the perspective of the author, who has chosen to recall Israel's deliverance in a highly ironic and self-critical manner.

I did find a few small points of disagreement with Dunne. He nearly lost me when he cited a sermon series by Mark Driscoll (pp. 41-42). I am no fan of Driscoll but I have to admit that his work has status as a popular level interpretation of Esther. Dunne won me back, however, when I realized that he was critical of Driscoll's interpretation.

I also disagree with Dunne when he states that the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Ephesians. This point is secondary to Dunne's argument about Esther and in no way undermines his work.

Overall I give Dunne high marks for an engaging and intelligent reading of Esther. He has confirmed some of my own thinking of this strange, delightful book. He has also given me pause to reconsider some of my previous interpretation.

When I mentioned to some of my colleagues in ministry that I was reading this book, some of them responded with questions like "So what?" and "When's the last time you preached on Esther?" Granted, Esther does not come up often (if at all) in the lectionary. I have preached on the book in the past and may do so again. I have also had the opportunity to teach Esther in the context of Bible studies. That said, I tend not to be mercenary in my reading, especially in the field of Scriptural interpretation.

So, I recommend this book, highly, to anyone who might preach or teach about Esther but also to anyone who, like myself, is just plain interested in good biblical scholarship.



Dunne, John Anthony, Esther and her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2014.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Daniel 4:1-6:28

THE YEAR OF BLOGGING BIBLICALLY: DAY 259

Chapters 4-6 tell more stories of wise, faithful Daniel in the Babylonian royal court.

Chapter 4 begins, unexpectedly, as a first person account by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar addresses all the people of the world in a circular letter informing them of the greatness of the Hebrew God. The king tells ho the "magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners" of Babylon were unable to interpret a troubling dream that he had. Not surprisingly, Daniel got the job done. The dream, which featured a mighty tree that was cut down and a mysterious announcement by a heavenly being called a "watcher," meant that Nebuchadnezzar would lose his sanity and live like an animal for "seven times." Daniel encourages the king to repent and stop oppressing the poor. At verse 16 the narrative shifts to a third person account. One year later Nebuchadnezzar, full of pride at his power and possessions, is suddenly struck with madness and lives as an animal. At verse 31 the first person narrative resumes. Nebucahdnezzar tells how he recovered his senses and praises God.

A note in the New Interpreters Study Bible reads:

The story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness is originally derived from a tradition about Nabonidus (556–539 bce), the last king of the Neo- Babylonian Empire. This story may reflect, in a very distorted fashion, Nabonidus's self- imposed exile at Teima in the Arabian desert.

I mention this because chapter 5 is set in the court of Belshazzar. In the text Belshazzar is described as the son of Nebuchadnezzar when, in fact, he was the son of Nabonidus. He ruled as viceroy in Babylon briefly when his father was at Teima. Belshazzar has a banquet and serves his guests with the vessels taken from the Jerusalem temple. A hand appears and writes the mysterious word "MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN" on the wall. Once again the sages of Babylon are of no use but Daniel is able to interpret the message. I'll let Johnny Cash sing about it because, hey, he's Johnny Cash.



Belshazzar dies. Darius the Mede takes the throne.

Outside of the book of Daniel there is no independent source for a historical person called Darius the Mede. Various names have been put forward. None is entirely convincing. The critical consensus seems to be that Darius the Mede was inserted here to fit the books scheme of history. In chapter 2 we read about Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue, the parts of which represented a succession of kingdoms: the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks. Darius was inserted here because the author had a need...a need for Medes.

I'm sorry for that pun. I truly am.

At any rate, the historical discrepancies in the book of Daniel do not bother me because, as you should know by now, I don't take Daniel as a factual account of historical events.

In chapter 6 we have what is probably the most famous story from the book of Daniel. Darius makes our boy an adminstrator over some regional satraps. Not surprisingly, Daniel distinguishes himself above the other administrators and is due to become top man in the kingdom. Knowing that Daniel is a faithful Jew, the other administrators and the satraps conspire to destroy him by means of his faith. They convince Darius that it would be a good idea if he passed an edict making it a capital offense to pray to anyone other than Darius himself for a period of 30 days. Those who disobey are to be thrown to the lions. Daniel, naturally, prays to his God. In an echo of the story of Esther, the king's edict cannot be countermanded. So, against Darius's wishes, Daniel is tossed into a pit full of hungry lions. God preserves Daniel through the night. Darius happily frees him in the morning. Daniel's enemies, along with there wives and children, are thrown to lions instead. Those lions, no doubt hungrier than ever since they were denied a meal the night before, make short work of them.

We're told that Daniel prospered under Darius and Cyrus the Persian. It was Cyrus, of course, who allowed the deportees to return to Judea.

The moral to the stories in chapters 1-6: Be faithful and God will watch out for you.



The image of Robert Weaver's painting of Daniel in the Lions' Den came from this website. Next: Daniel 7-9

Monday, April 7, 2014

Daniel 1:1-3:30

THE YEAR OF BLOGGING BIBLICALLY: DAY 258

The book of Daniel calls the king of Babylon by his Babylonian name: Nebuchanezzar. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible this same king is called "Nebuchadrezzar."

The situation of the book of Daniel is established in Chapter 1. In the third year of Jehoiakim's reign (601 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and taken captives some of the Temple treasures to Babylon. This doesn't quite jive with the account in 2 Kings 23-24 in which the first of the Temple treasures and deportees are taken in 597, during Jehoiachin's reign. Not taking Daniel as a literal recounting of historical events, I don't let this bother me.

Among the people exiled at this time are four young men with good Hebrew names: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The -el and -iah suffixes in their names give them away. They are references to the Hebrew God (Elohim), the Lord (YHWH). They are impressed into service as courtiers to Nebuchadnezzar who renames them in honor of his own gods, Bel, Marduk, and Nabu. They are, in order, Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel and company keep kosher. Insisting upon eating only vegetables, they nevertheless flourish physically. God is with them. They are wiser than the sages of Babylon.

Daniel 2 is set in the second year of king Nebuchanezzar's reign, that is, 603 BCE. This is two years before Daniel is supposed to have been taken to Babylon. Again, not taking Daniel as as a literal recounting of historical events, I don't let this bother me.

In this chapter Nebuchadnezzar has a dream. He makes the absurdly impossible request that his wise men not only interpret the dream, but also tell him what it was. When the "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers" (NIV) demur, the king threatens to have them all killed. Daniel comes to the rescue. God enables him to describe the king's dream. The dream involves a statue made, from the top down, of materials that decrease in value. The head is gold. By the time we reach the feet, they are made of iron mixed with clay. The various parts represent a succession of kingdoms. Babylon is the head. The NIV Study Bible (which I referenced in my previous post) says that the feet are "unmistakably Rome."

Color me skeptical.

It seems much more likely that the feet represent the empire of Alexander of Macedon which, after Alexander's death, was divided between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies who held control over Judea at different times. This interpretation, which dates back to at least the fourth century CE, is favored by the Harper Collins Study Bible, the Jewish Study Bible, and others.

Because he interprets Nebuchadnezzar's dream, Daniel is elevated to a high position. He brings his buddies, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego along. If you miss the echoes of the story of faithful Joseph interpreting dreams in the court of Pharaoh (Genesis 41), you haven't been paying attention.

In chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar builds an impossibly tall statue. Literally, it is impossible to build a statue 60 cubits high and only 6 cubits wide. It simply wouldn't stand. Do I have to say it? Not taking Daniel as a literal recounting of historical events, I don't let this bother me.

Nebuchadnezzar orders that all of the "satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the other provincial officials come to the statue's dedication. When they hear the sound of "the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music" (NIV)  the people of every nation and language are to prostrate themselves in worship before the statue. The lists of officials and musical instruments are repeated several times through this chapter, I believe for comic effect. The New Living Translation, a highly readable version of the Bible undercuts the effect by listing all of the instruments once and then simply referring to "the musical instruments." Pity, that.

The penalty for failure to worship is death by immolation in a "blazing furnace." Shadrach, Meshach, and Abnego, pious Jews that they are, refuse to worship an image. Daniel is mysteriously absent from this chapter. Nebuchadnezzar has the furnace super-heated, 7 times hotter than usual. This is, I believe, more comic exaggeration. The Jewish men are tossed into the furnace, the heat of which kills their captors. The young men, however, are seen wandering around, alive and unharmed, in the flames. There is a fourth, divine, figure with them. Nebuchadnezzar calls for the Jewish men to come out of the furnace and worships the Hebrew God.

These stories are fun. They are funny. They were told, I think, to entertain and to encourage Jews living in the diaspora to be faithful, to keep kosher, and to avoid syncretism.



The image of the catacomb painting of Shadrach and pals came from wiki. I can't read this story without thinking of my seminary roommate, a preacher's kid, who said his father would signal bedtime by referring to "Shadrach, Meshach and To-Bed-We-Go!" 

Next Daniel 4-6

Friday, April 4, 2014

Standing on the Cusp of Daniel

The book of Daniel contains a collection of stories (chapters 1-6) about the wise, faithful, and virtuous young Jewish man, and his companions, living in exile, serving as courtiers to a succession of Babylonian kings. The second half of the book is a series of apocalyptic visions. The book was written in two languages; Daniel 2:4b-7:28 in Aramaic, rest in Hebrew.

There are two basic approaches to the book of Daniel. The first is more biblicistic and credulous. This approach treats the stories as factual historical accounts and the visions as predictions of future events. Future, that is, from the author's perspective. The book, according to this perspective, was written or compiled shortly after the events that it narrates, around 530 BCE. The introduction to Daniel in the NIV Study Bible (p. 1319) is a good example of this school:

The widely held view that the book of Daniel is largely fictional rests mainly on the modern philosophical assumption that long-range predictive prophecy is impossible. Therefore all fulfilled predictions in Daniel, it is claimed, had to have been composed no earlier than the Maccabean period (second century B.C.) after the fulfillments had taken place.
The NIV Study Bible identifies the 4 kingdoms referenced in chapters 2 and 7 as Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman. It states flatly that the symbolism of the 4th empire is "unmistakably Rome." It also argues that the language in which Daniel is written is characteristic of the 6th century BCE.

The second approach is more historical-critical and skeptical. This approach sees the stories of chapters 1-6 as folk tales and treats the visions of chapters 7-12 as recitations of history. The Jewish Study Bible (pp. 1641-2) is representative:

Because of the detailed nature of apocalyptic timetables, the dating of at least the last chs of Daniel can be established precisely. Scholars consider the predictions in this book, as in other apocalypses, to be prophecies after the fact, purportedly written down centuries earlier and kept secret in order to give credence to other predictions about the end of history. The recounting of history, then, though symbolic, can be matched quite easily with the history of the ancient Near East in the Greek period. The predictions are detailed and accurate until the end of the Maccabean revolt in 164. At that point, however, they veer dramatically from what we know of the actions of the Seleucid king...and scholars assume that the author lived and wrote at the precise time when the predictions become inaccurate.

In this view the 4 kingdoms are Babylon, Medea, Persia, and the Seleucids.

Personally I find the arguments for later composition convincing. I don't believe that the truth of Daniel depends upon its facticity.

Interestingly Christians were debating over essentially these same views as early as the 4th century CE.

The stories of chapters 1-6 dealing, as they do, with Jews living in the court of foreign royalty, are related thematically to the Joseph saga in Genesis 37-50 and the book of Esther. The visions are the clearest example of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Bible. Like other apocalypses, Daniel was written pseudonymously in the name of a revered historic person.

Christian Bibles place Daniel after Ezekiel as the fourth "Major Prophet." Jewish Bibles put the book of Daniel among the "Writings."

The Septuagint version of Daniel includes some significant additions: The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna. These can be found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. If they are included in Protestant Bibles at all it is under the heading of Apocrypha. The stories of  Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon, may be the oldest known examples of detective fiction.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ezekiel 46:1-48:35

THE YEAR OF BLOGGING BIBLICALLY: DAY 257

Today we put a wrap on Ezekiel.

In chapter 45 we read about the king's ("prince's") participation in the Passover rituals in Ezekiel's ideal vision of a restored Jerusalem. Ezekiel 46:1-15 describes the other annual festivals, as well as the Sabbaths and New Moons. Much attention is given to how and where people enter and exit the Temple.

I wonder if Ezekiel's preference for the term "prince" when referring to kings reflects a theological bias. YHWH is king. Everyone else, no matter how powerful, is subordinate.

Verses 16-18 are concerned with how and to whom the princes may give inheritance. By no means should the king take away an inheritance from the poeple.

In chapter 47 water flows from the restored Temple nourishing the land and making even the Dead Sea fresh. The River of Life in Revelation 16 owes much to this image. I don't know if the connection to Psalm 46:4 is deliberate:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
   the holy habitation of the Most High.
      (NRSV)





Verses 13-23 describe the boundaries of the restored Israel. A note in the Jewish Study Bible says:



The boundaries of the land are an idealized portrayal of the greatest extent of the Davidic kingdom and Jeroboam II.


In chapter 48 the land is apportioned equally to the 12 tribes of Israel. A portion is set aside for the Levites. The prince also receives a portion which brackets the Levitical portion.

Ezekiel describes the restored Jerusalem as having 12 gates. In Revelation, John of Patmos sees the heavenly New Jerusalem having 12 similar gates, each made of pearl.

Ezekiel ends with a note that the restored Jerusalem will be called "YHWH is there."





Next: Daniel 1-3