Matthew’s Question

I remember the first time I heard the gospel.  I don’t remember the sermon that followed. I remember the reading.  I can’t have been more than 9 or 10 years old. It was the Sunday before Nativity, probably the first Christmas after my mom’s parents had passed away. Taking my place in the gospel’s honor guard, I strained to hear the long list of Hebrew names as the priest rattled through Matthew’s genealogy. (Matthew 1:1-25) Against all odds, I had embraced my dad’s Near Eastern mindset, so I intuitively understood patriarchy and lineage, even at that age. It was never explained to me. I just picked it up from my dad. So I was puzzled–even shocked–by the genealogy’s ending. “How,” I thought, “could they call Jesus the son of David?”  It was Joseph who was David’s son and he was not the father of Jesus.  Even if Mary were a daughter of the same family, “Mary,” I puzzled, “cannot not carry the line.”  Ignoring the questions of the adults around me, I had stumbled upon the right question–Matthew’s question.  Posed to a child without adult intervention and weathered by time and study, this nagging question continues to drive my “asking” and “knocking” on Scripture’s door, as I “seek” the wisdom in its pages. (Matthew 7:7)  Taken from a personal example, this experience embodies the mission and purpose of the Ephesus School. It also explains why, with unbridled enthusiasm, I sat down this week to read Nahum to a room full of kindergartners.

This was not the first time I had read Scripture to little children in a classroom setting, and I know why adults in church resist doing so.  Adults today do not respect children, and modern education does not respect knowledge. C.S. Lewis famously anticipated this problem in his work, The Abolition of Man:

The difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds— making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.” 1

Instead of knowledge, we focus on method theory. Instead of grappling with wisdom, we embrace narrow synthesis. We speak of “learning how to think” as though a child can learn to swim without jumping into water. Why? Because synthesis is convenient, easy, and facilitates control. We tell our story in lieu of God’s story. We make ourselves a god. Reading Nahum to children does not require synthesis. On the contrary, it precludes it. When an adult simply reads, using examples to explain–not a contrived moral–but the actual meaning of written words, it may take an hour to get through Nahum 1:1-3, but in that precious hour, the children are given a fighting chance to become, not ours, but God’s children.

If someone tells you it is impossible to teach Nahum to children, or insists on a curriculum; or simplicity; or synthesis; or the need to make learning fun; or a children’s bible; or on anything outside of the text itself: Ask them if it is possible to explain the words “avenging” (1:2) or “whirlwind” (1:3) to a five year old. Ask them if a child can learn how to pronounce “Nahum” properly in Hebrew. If they persist in their denials, then they should not be allowed to teach. Mary cannot carry the line.

Annunciation

Notes:

  1. Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man, Chapter 1:Men Without Chests

The Lord: The storm and the shelter from the storm…(Nahum 1)

The Lord is a paradox with a nasty edge in Nahum.  After everyone read through the first chapter of Nahum, I asked what struck everyone about this chapter.  One person noticed that the Lord seemed malevolent with the narrative’s emphasis on “vengeance”; another noticed that the Lord’s promise here in the text to keep the people safe hereafter would soon be broken, as we know from history.  Someone else remarked that this chapter spends the first part focusing on nature before moving on to discussing the people.  The Lord spans the spectrum from destruction to shelter, from chaos to deliberation, from bearer of bad news to bearer of good news, and this description positions him as a unique, paradoxical force in the world for humans to try to grasp.

As we worked through the book, we saw that the observation of a focus on vengeance is correct; in the second verse the Hebrew repeats the words, “the Lord takes vengeance (noqem),” three times in three phrases, even though the JPS and RSV translations employ different words (v. 2).  The Hebrew emphasizes the vengeance even more than the English.  We should recognize that vengeance is not necessarily an act of destruction, but a settling of scores.  Once the Lord has let a situation go long enough, he comes in to settle the matter.  Yet the Lord is patient (lit. “long of nose”–taking a deep breath?) in his decision.  He does not strike on a whim or in the heat of the moment; he deliberates, which emphasizes that the decision arises from wisdom, not impulsivity.  This trait may make the Lord appear more wise, or more cold-blooded, but the Lord certainly acts decisively.

When the Lord acts deliberately, his actions paradoxically resemble a whirlwind and a storm (v. 2b).  This image represents chaotic, irresistible forces of nature, in tension with a god who is careful and purposeful.  The reader sees a deity who looks chaotic, yet thoughtful.  He is the greatest force of nature, making the sea dry; the stable hills unstable; the lush mountains languish (vv. 3-4).  The mountains fall down, and the earth and its creatures are lifted up (v. 5).  Once the Lord comes, the earth practically turns upside-down.  In the end, every force of nature–the greatest forces known to humans–is under the Lord’s control and none can stand against him (v. 6).

In front of an intelligent force of nature above all forces of nature, humans can only remain safe if this force chooses to avoid them.  Thus the only force that can keep them safe is the force itself–the Lord is the hurricane, as well as its eye.  The evil is the storm, and the good is the protection from the storm (v. 7); he is the flood, and he is protection from the flood–and the one who leads into darkness (v. 8).  The Lord is the entire mechanism, as he takes vengeance and he protects from his vengeance.  No plan can work around this force.  The one planning is as wise as a drunkard and as powerful as dry thorns (vv. 9-11).  Note that this is the first mention of humans–and they are foolish and impotent.

The Lord needs to impress further on the people that he is the only refuge from his power.  He will just as easily wipe away the Israelites’ immediate problem, their Assyrian overlords.  He afflicted Israel through the Assyrians; he will stop afflicting them by crushing the Assyrians (vv. 12-13).  The end of Assyria is coming: their name will not be “sown” any more, that is, they will no longer bear fruit or offspring, and their gods will be cut off (v. 14).  Judah will ultimately be able to live in peace by being set free from Assyria (v. 15).

Good news and bad news: both come from the Lord.  Because he is the “irresistible force” of nature, overturning all of creation, he is also the “immovable object,” offering protection.  Humans often fall into the trap of thinking that good news is the status quo, the way things “ought” to be, not recognizing that good news comes from the Lord.  In the wilderness, the Israelites worried about water or getting sick of manna, complaining to the Lord, forgetting that the very ability to worry about this “bad news” came from the freedom that the Exodus offered them.  The “problem of evil” that came from the Lord arose because the people forgot that the good they received came from the same Lord.

Moreover, no group or individual is safe.  While in Jonah Nineveh hoped for the Lord’s grace, and Jonah complained, in Micah Israel wouldn’t count on the Lord’s grace, and so built an army and alliances by themselves.  Now Nineveh is to be destroyed and the people built up.  The Lord can and will bring everyone into the realization that only the Lord tears down and only the Lord builds up.

Dust-storm-Texas-1935

God Will Crush You Anytime . . . and He Might Just Pick Up the Pieces

200px-Micah_prophetThis was the title the children of Ephesus School named their Micah play performed last week.  Actually, if it were up to them and I hadn’t interfered, they would have kept the tidy title God Will Crush You Anytime.  It was a matter of adding cherry flavor to the medicine . . . it’s a hard pill to swallow . . . apparently harder for adults than it is for children.

One of the children wrote the first scene, carefully using the text from the Bible.  The students were intrigued with the Micah reference to Balaam, his donkey, and Balak, so they decided to add this as its second scene–a bit of comic relief.  The third scene was the Biblical passage the youngest children memorized and recited.  The fourth scene was a narrated pantomime.  This was the scene for which the audience was touched by the heap of sinners, burdened by signs of sins on their backs (greedy, deceitful, faithless, etc.).  The Lord “pardoned the sin” and crumpled the paper record of sins and  “hurled the iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:18-19).

Below is a copy of the play, should other classes like to use one or more of the scenes.  Feel free to contact us for more clarification or your comments.

MICAH Play, Scene 1

Narrator – The children of St. Elizabeth present, The Micah Play, as we have renamed:

Everyone– God will crush you . . .  anytime.  And He might just pick up the pieces.

Narrator –  Micah was a prophet in the time of King Jotham, (steps out) King Ahaz, (steps out) and King Hezekiah.  (steps out)

Narrator:  God was mad at his people (the Israelites) because they had turned away from him.  Imagine that your own children decided they wanted to live in a different house because they could eat candy for dinner, play video games all day, and never finish their homework.  God knew how to care for his children and provide the best for them, but his children had turned from him.   They hated the good and loved the evil.  God had a lesson to teach them and bring them back under his care . . . . but it wasn’t going to be pretty.

Micah – Hear you people! The Lord is coming to judge you!  The mountains will melt under him, and the valleys will fill up, like wax before the fire.

Kings and youngest children– Where will we hide?!?

God – I will make Samaria a heap in the open country.

(Kings and youngest children pile into a heap)

Micah – There will be nowhere to hide!

God – I will wail and howl.  I will wail like the dragons, and mourn as the owls.  For her wound is incurable; right at the gate of my people.

Micah – Evil came down from the Lord, to the gates of Jerusalem.

God – Because of your transgressions I will hand you over to your enemies who will take you into captivity.

Narrator 2– It’s gonna be baaaaad! ! !

Micah– Hear, I pray you, is it not for you to know judgment,  who hate the good, and love the evil?

God– I will bring evil upon you to knock you to your senses.

Narrator 2– Now it’s gonna be real bad.

(everyone walks off stage)

MICAH Play, Scene 2

God– My people, what have I done to you?  How have I burdened you?  Answer me.  I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.  My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered.

Narrator-Balak and Balaam?  Do you remember this story?  Let me refresh your memory.

Balak –I am Balak, king of Moab.  I’m worried about these Israelites who have camped next to us.  I’ve heard their God easily defeats their enemies.  Quite frankly, I’m terrified.

Narrator-He’s shaking in his boots!

Balak to Messengers-Messengers and Princes, go to Balaam and ask him to put a curse on these Israelites because they are too powerful for me.

Messengers walk to Balaam and show him their money– Balaam, come with us and curse the Israelites.

Balaam turns away– What should I do, Lord?

God – Do not go with them.  You must not put a curse on my people because they are blessed.

Balaam turns to the messengers – Go back to your own country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.

Messenger 1-But King Balak will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say.

Messenger 2-Come on, pretty please with an olive on top.  Come curse the Israelites for Balak!

Balaam– Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.

God to Balaam-Since these messengers have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.

Narrator (while Balaam, messengers, donkey, and angel act out the scene) – Balaam saddled his donkey and went with the messengers of Moab.  But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him.  When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, the donkey turned off the road into a field.  Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.  Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead.  When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her.  Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth.

Donkey-  What have I done to deserve this?

Balaam– You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword, I would kill you! You are the donkey, not I!

Donkey– Open your eyes and see the angel of the Lord.

(Balaam bows down when he sees the angel)

Angel- Why have you beaten your donkey?  I have come to oppose you because your path is reckless.  The donkey saw me and turned away.  If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.

Donkey (thumbing to Balaam)- Who’s the donkey now?  Hee-haw!

God/Angel- Go with the men to Balak, but speak only what I tell you.

(Balak sees Balaam and runs to greet him) Balak – Why didn’t you come sooner?  You know I can reward you.

Balaam– Well, I have come now, but I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.  Build seven altars and prepare seven bulls and seven rams.  Perhaps the Lord will come to meet with me and I will tell you what he reveals.

Narrator– King Balak did exactly as Balaam told.  Three times Balak built seven altars and prepared a bull and ram for each.  But each time the Lord refused to curse Israel.

Balaam- God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox.  They devour hostile nations and break their bones in pieces; with their arrows they pierce them.  Like a lion they crouch and lie down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse them?  May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!

Balak (stomping and slapping his fists in anger)– I told you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!  Leave at once and go home!  The Lord has kept you from your reward.

Balaam-Did I not say even if you gave me your palace filled with silver and gold, I must say only what the Lord says?  I will warn you of what the Israelites will do to your people, the Moabites, in the days to come.  They will crush you!

Narrator pointing to Balak- He’s shaking in his boots!

Donkey– Who’s the donkey now?  Hee-haw!!!

MICAH Play, Scene 3

Stage clears and youngest children come to recite Micah 6:6-8

 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? 

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you

But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Scene 4

Narrator (speaking slowly so it may be acted in pantomime)- The voice of the Lord cries to the city, your rich men are full of violence;  (Rich person wearing paper sign of  “Greed and Violence” refuses and pushes aside beggar)

Your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth (one person wearing “Deceit” speaks to beggar with his fingers crossed behind his back.)

Therefore I have begun to smite you, making you desolate because of your sins.  You shall eat, but not be satisfied (the rich person tips an imaginary empty plate to his mouth and rubs his belly in hunger)

You shall put away, but not save (the deceitful person puts imaginary things in his pocket, then turns out empty pockets.)

You shall sow, but not reap (a person wearing “Faithless” takes an imaginary hoe to the ground, and wipes his brow)

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.  I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.

(All the pantomime actors above fall to a heap while a group of “enemies” laugh and another covers the heap with a dark blanket. The “Lord” stands by the covered heap with hand on hip, tapping his foot. )

He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance.

(The Lord lifts the blanket off the heap.)

Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?”  The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; they shall come trembling and turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall fear because of thee.

(The “enemies,” wearing “arrogant” “gossip” “envious” on their backs look afraid, covering their mouths, and trembling.   They join the others in the heap on the floor.)

Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgressions?  He does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in steadfast love.  He will again have compassion upon us.  He will tread our iniquities under foot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

(Both “Israel” in the original heap and the “Enemies” who joined them remain bowed to the Lord while the Lord removes each of the “sins.”  He shows the paper sign with the ascribed sin to the audience, crumples  it up, and throws it far away.  He pulls up each “sinner” to stand aright and hugs each with a hand of blessing on their head. As each one is raised from the heap, join hands across the stage.  Bow together at the end.)

Nahum and the Minor Prophets

This week I spoke to our adults and presented the book of Nahum in light of the other books we have been reading.  I presented how reading Nahum in the context of the other Minor Prophets enhances the message of the opposing faithfulness of the Lord and the fickleness of Israel.

In our Bible the book of Nahum existed as part of a bigger whole, and the ancient evidence we possess also reflects this structure.  We call these books the “Minor Prophets” because they are shorter than the other prophetic books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.  Scholars also refer to the Minor Prophets as the Book of the 12, because of the number of minor prophetic books.  This number immediately sounds significant because the number of times the number 12 appears with significance in the Bible (eg, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles).  The earliest copy we have of the Book of the 12 was found in the Judean desert.  We have never found any of these twelve books on their own.  As a result, I am choosing to read the Book of the 12 as a single narrative–twelve beads on a single string.

The Book of the 12 does not have meaning without the meaning of the individual prophetic books (chapters?), so a deep understanding of each book is important.  Often these books are boring: God gets angry, God smashes, people feel sorry.  It’s hard to see why this boring, sometimes depressing message has to be repeatedly told, let alone read.  This reaction makes sense; the story arcs of each of these books bear close resemblances to one another.  However, on deeper examination, one can ferret out the differences, which contain the overall movement of the Twelve.

So we quickly went through the book of Nahum.  (We’ll read it closely over the next few weeks.)  The Lord appears as a destructive force of nature, ready to destroy his enemies.  Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyrian empire, will be destroyed, but Israel will be restored (ch. 1).  Those who are righteous have a chance for salvation, though they will not avoid the catastrophe–an upcoming war (ch. 2).  The harlotries of Nineveh will become her shame, and as Nineveh defeated the world power of Egypt, so Nineveh will suffer humiliating defeat (ch. 3).  Nahum is a story of defeat, but instead of Israel being crushed by its enemies, Israel is lifted up as its enemies are crushed.

Because this book speaks in Israel’s favor and against Israel’s enemies, it resembles on the surface a propaganda piece for Israel.  While we have a typical story of God wreaking havoc, instead of against Israel, the Lord is working against Israel’s enemy.  The text creates an odd reality.  While it addresses the Ninevites, the text is in Hebrew; Assyrians couldn’t understand it.  This address speaks to Israelite ears in Hebrew.  This effect is as if Al Qaeda addressed the US for its rejection of God–but in Arabic.  Americans would not ever hear this invective against them; the message is for Arabic-speakers and no response from the US is expected.

The Lord is telling Israel that no kingdom is eternal.  As Israel was defeated, so is Nineveh, and for many of the same reasons.  The accusation of “harlotry” was used everywhere from the beginning of the Twelve, in Hosea 1, to the most recent, Micah.  No one is born safe; no one is born in danger.  Unfaithfulness is the unwavering criterion of righteousness, whether for the Lord’s chosen people or for the Gentiles.

In the broader context of what we have read, the Lord shows no favor, except on the faithful.  Jonah displayed a chosen prophet who could not live up to the faithful standard of the Ninevites, who were quickly and easily forgiven.  Micah described the consequences on Israel for their lack of faithfulness: Assyria, with the Lord’s help, would defeat Israel.  Now Nineveh must learn the same lesson.  Israel cannot complain about unfairness; Nineveh is seeing the same consequences as Israel.

To human beings, the Lord looks like a yo-yo.  Once he’s up, filling the cup of blessing; next he’s down, ready to crush his people.  Why does the Lord treat his people like this?  Habakkuk, the prophet following Nahum, begins with these very questions.  “How long?” the prophet asks in the beginning of the book, as the people have experienced defeat anew, this time at the hands of the Babylonians (Habakkuk 1:2).

Saving grace comes when one realizes that the Lord is constant, though humans may not be.  The Lord shows constant faithfulness to his people, offering blessings at times and correctives at others.  The people, though, might show their faithfulness, counting on the Lord for help; at other times, they count on their own armies or the armies of their allies–harlotry–rather than on the Lord’s help.  The Book of the 12 thus outlines the stalwart faithfulness of the Lord in opposition to the people’s mixed actions of faithfulness and treachery.

bookofthe12

Jude: Disagreeing to Agree

Falling in line with other epistles attributed to “the Pillars,” (Galatians 2:9) Jude, literally, Judas (Ἰούδας) is included in the canon as part of a larger narrative about Paul’s conflict with Peter and James. The obvious implications of the name Judas, the “brother of James” (1:1) and the adaptation of Jude’s phraseology by the letters of Peter 1 underscore its placement with Paul’s opponents. Written in the same vein as the letters of Peter and James, Jude is presented as a corrective for those who would twist Pauline liberty into an excuse for lawless behavior. Far from contradicting Paul’s teaching, Jude accentuates his message, warning of dire consequences for “ungodly persons” who rebel against the authority of the written word.

Emphasizing the “written” gospel’s dominion twice in the same verse (1:3) Jude stresses his “effort” and the “necessity” of “writing” (γράφειν/γράψαι) the faith “once for all handed down to the saints.”  Even Michael the archangel “did not dare” speak on God’s behalf, deferring instead to the coming judgement. (1:9; Galatians 1:8) Echoing a typical Pauline formula (Ex. Galatians 1:7) he goes on to explain that “certain persons” who “have crept in unnoticed” (1:4) are undermining this written teaching by twisting the “grace of God into licentiousness.”  In effect, Jude amplifies Paul’s corrective from 1 Corinthians: Freedom in Christ, like freedom from bondage in Egypt (1:5) is not “freedom” in a general sense.  In Exodus, the people are set free for the express purpose of serving God. (Exodus 8:1) This point is consolidated in Jude’s reference to the “rebellion of Korah” (1:11; Numbers 16) which resulted in the destruction of Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their entire households. (Numbers 16:31) The same point carries over in each biblical example cited.

Finally, Jude explains that the ungodly are easily recognized in the objective of their speech. Circumventing the inconvenient truth of the gospel, which undermines both teacher and student, the ungodly “speak arrogantly,” that is, on the authority of human wisdom, status, or affiliation, “flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage.” (1:15) Since a human word is always spoken in selfishness, it is easily discerned from the gospel, which does not seek to please human beings. (Galatians 1:10) “But you,” Jude explains, “ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:17) It is this teaching, consigned to the written gospel, which  is able to keep its adherents “from stumbling.” (1:24)  Not to any human beings, Jude warns, but to God alone be “dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever.” (1:25)

hey jude

Notes:

  1. Tarazi, Paul N., “Volume 65: Jude, Orthodox Audio Bible Commentary,” OCABS Press, 2004

Bearing the Indignation

I can’t say it’s been easy teaching Micah to young children, ages 3 to 6.  At this age children are trying to figure out how the world works–if this, then that–and they have a heightened sense of fairness, especially when they think they have been treated unfairly.  How can the victim be the perpetrator at the same time?  How does a teacher explain to young children, “I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance. Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the LORD your God?” My eyes will gloat over her; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets.” (Micah 7:9-10) In many children’s stories and fairy tales, there is usually a clear hero–innocent and benevolent–and a clear villain–evil and selfish–and justice is executed in the end.  Can anyone think of a children’s story where the hero has wronged another, suffers the shame of his punishment and is chided for it, and comes out the hero on the other end?  It may help in explaining Micah.

Imagine a child who pesters his siblings–cheating at their games, taking their toys, and jabbing his brothers and sisters with his sharp elbows.  As a punishment his mother scolds him harshly and sends him to stand with his nose in the corner.  While he endures his punishment, he begins to reflect on his wrongs and experiences a few moments of contrition.  It feels as though he’s been standing in the corner forever and he resolves to be more kind.  His siblings find him alone in the corner, and while mother is not around, they begin to taunt him, hurling insults and punches.  Knowing he can do nothing because his mother told him not to move his nose from the corner or say a word, he accepts the taunts of his siblings, knowing he probably deserves them.  His siblings continue to berate him, beating him with cruel words and sticks.  As he begins to cry from the pain of the beating, his siblings chide, “You think Mom is going to listen to you?!?”  Suddenly Mother appears and lashes out against all the other children, showing that their brother’s punishment should have deterred them from their greater cruelty.  Not only are they sent to the corner, but all their toys are thrown to the garbage heap, and then they are sent to bed without any supper.  The first naughty boy is told sternly he may eat at the table.  He sits and eats soberly, remembering his past wrongs and the plight of his brothers and sisters.  Poor mother with children who constantly try her patience!  But like the Lord, she does “not stay angry forever, but delights to show mercy.”

*****

Parents, here’s a summary of our Ephesus School memory work, if you’d like to review with your children at home:

Memory verses:  Micah 6:6-8

Hebrew words:

mercy:  chesed חסד

remnant:  she’erit שארית

hear:  shemah  שמע

mountain:  har הר

repent:  shuv שוב

appoint:  menah מנה

walk:  lechu  לכו

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

In every serious, lasting relationship, there comes a moment of truth in which at least one person must decide not to be the victim. Shunning the wisdom of Scripture, children supplant obedience with blame, squandering the due season of their adulthood with endless, poisonous rants about how others are responsible for their failures. Spouses wickedly nurture their “inner child” complaining of unmet emotional needs or of what their partner does or does not do for them. Neglecting “the weightier matters of the Torah,” such couples close their household to people with genuine problems, all the while condemning each other in pointless arguments about “mint and dill and cumin.” (Matthew 23:23) A patchwork of families broken–each concerned with their own needs–our communities become hollow shells. In Dr. King’s words, we build empty “neighborhoods” when what we need are “brotherhoods.” 1

Starved by Judah’s bareness (7:1) Micah laments just such a society, one devoid of the Lord’s wisdom. “Woe is me,” he cries, sent to harvest the fruit of the Torah from barren soil. (7:1) “The godly person has perished from the land. There is no upright person among men.” (7:2) “Each of them,” he explains, “hunts the other with a net,” as though neighbors were appointed for consumption, not communion. Warning of a judgment far worse than the Assyrian invasion, the prophet envisions a society in which each person’s enemies are of their own household:

5 Do not trust in a neighbor;
Do not have confidence in a friend.
From her who lies in your bosom
Guard your lips.
6 For son treats father contemptuously,
Daughter rises up against her mother,
Daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
A man’s enemies are the men of his own household.”
(Micah 7:5-6)

Isolated from neighbors and betrayed by friends, Judah’s victim mentality leads to a world characterized by self-righteous rebellion and broken trust, in which people share beds, but not intimacy.

Serving God in the struggle to save Zion from a self-inflicted Hell, Micah speaks of an alternative characterized by repentance (after a violent reboot) in which even the downtrodden remnant of Jerusalem comes to understand that its debt to God far outweighs any abuses suffered. (7:18) “As for me,” Micah exclaims, “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.” (7:9) If Jerusalem were to follow Micah’s lead, seeing itself not as victim, but as oppressor, God might again show compassion (7:19) as in the days of Moses and Aaron (7:15) in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. (7:20) All this and more is possible in the Kingdom of God, if only Jerusalem would repent, embracing her enemies. “No one,” the proverb goes, “can live in Paradise without others.” 2

Alas, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

horsewater

Notes:

  1. King, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Paul’s Letter to American Christians, November 4, 1956 (http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_pauls_letter_to_american_christians)
  2. Old Arabic Proverb

Israel learn their lesson–and enjoy victory: Micah 7

This chapter starts to bring events around to Israel’s side again. Much of the book of Micah describes the destruction caused by the Assyrians, and the wicked actions of Israel that brought it about. The book culminates in chapter 7 with the reversal of fortunes enjoyed by the people, as soon as the Lord relents, shows his forgiveness towards them, and brings Israel’s enemies down to the dirt.

I began this lesson by asking the students to review past chapters. What did the children remember? They remembered the motion of Israel: going out and coming back in again. The Assyrians were attacking the North, and the South was counting on Assyria rather than God. The people were overwhelmed by guilt rather than intent on following the will of the Lord. With prompting, they remembered the People Soup and the wicked kings who preyed on their people. War, destruction, and guilt were the overwhelming themes.

After reading the chapter, we began the first section (vv. 1-7) where we encountered an important agricultural metaphor that seemed to shift its meaning (vv. 1-4). The kids have gone berry- and apple-picking in their lives, and they knew what it looked like at the end of the season, when the bushes and trees were all picked-over. This was Israel at this moment; as one child said it, the people were just the “trash.” This metaphor displayed how the land was “picked over” as a result of the war. The land looked empty. Then the metaphor shifted as the people complained that no good people are left. The best “fruit” of the people, the pious and upright ones, were gone. The image shifted from what the people’s enemies had done to the people and what they had done to themselves. They had become so wicked that they were “prickly shrubs” that cannot produce fruit at all. We remembered the unjust leaders and judges from 3:9-11, how the judges unjustly favored the rich over the poor. Injustice among those in charge of justice proved too much for the Lord.

Furthermore, life had become impossible because no one could trust each other any more (vv. 5-7). Not only were the judges unfair, but you could not trust your wife, children, parents, or friends. The Lord stood out as the only good one remaining—and the narrator, the people, had no one left but the Lord to trust. The Assyrians had not taken the best fruit; the people lost its best fruit—their good and pious citizens—and could no longer grow fruit at all.

During the next section, a reversal of fortunes took place (vv. 8-13) and the Lord is called on to bring this reversal to pass (vv. 14-17). (The kids began humming “What Goes Around … Comes Around,” by Justin Timberlake at this point.) We imagined being smashed by a superior force, just as Israel was beaten by Assyria, as I acted like the Lord and towered over one of the students and taunted her. According the to text, the student had to say that she had to “bear the anger,” that the threat came not from the tall teacher (Assyria), but from the Lord as a result of her sin (v. 9). She will stay crushed until the Lord decides to stop crushing her—Assyria really isn’t the enemy but a tool of the Lord. After taunting the student/Israel—mocking her faith in the Lord—Assyria would eventually fall down so low that Assyria will be like the “mud in the streets” (v. 10). What has gone around will come back around; Assyria crushed Israel and taunted her, but Assyria would finally be crushed. The end of Assyria would come because of Assyria’s “fruit” of their deeds, just like Israel (v. 13). Finally, after kings constantly disappointed them, the people long for the Lord to be their shepherd (vv. 14-17) to lead them out into wonderful pastures and bringing their enemies down to the dust like a snake.

The end of the chapter—and the book—highlight the Lord’s unique patience and love (vv. 18-20). This description of the Lord contrasts with the wrath that we’ve seen up to this point. How is the God who sends war and famine and humiliation against his people one who claims love and graciousness towards the people? The book teaches the people how to recover from the war and loss of the war against Assyria. When Israel learns that the war and loss come as a result of their sin, and that when they learn to put the injustice and oppression that they have inflicted on their own people, the Lord will again make them victorious. Moreover, he will completely put away their sin—down to the bottom of the sea (v. 19). The Lord will not forget his people, but continue in fulfilling his promises made from the beginning (v. 20).

After six chapters of Micah explaining the war and affliction that Israel experienced, this final chapter brings hope to the fore. While this section highlights the devastation caused by Israel against the people, it also reverses their fortunes. Rather than an afflicted, guilty Israel, the people will enjoy victory and forgiveness from their God. Israel has the chance to learn a lesson, and this lesson brings hope in eventual victory.

Plato’s Wicked Scales

The most difficult rule of the biblical tradition–and the one most widely ignored–is Scripture’s insistence that its judgments can apply only to one’s self. In 2 Samuel, David quickly condemned the rich man for stealing a poor man’s ewe lamb, unwittingly accusing himself:

Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.” Nathan then said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:5-7)

It was David, wealthy and powerful, who had stolen a poor man’s wife, murdering the foreigner to satisfy his own wants.  David had co-opted the Torah as an “agent of sin” (Galatians 2:17) as though Scripture was given to set one sinner above another. Seeking a justifiable course for itself, the human mind builds “wicked scales” (6:11) using the weaker brother as a crutch for Plato’s imaginary “good person.” In opposition to human reason, the Bible asserts that no one is good. (Psalm 14:1-3)  Perpetuating the David-Nathan paradigm, Scripture coaxes the ego, inviting condemnation of the Pharisee in order to expose the reader’s pharisaism:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)

Echoing the same principles, Micah’s prophecy exposes Jerusalem, not the foreigner, as the unrepentant aggressor. Even if Jerusalem had done nothing wrong (Matthew 25:26; Luke 19:22) like David, they stood condemned by their debt to God:

Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! ” (2 Samuel 12:7-8)

Daring Judah to make a reasonable defense of itself, in Micah, God taunts his people, suggesting they plead their case to the mountains and foundations of the earth. (6:1-2) The metaphor calls to mind humanity’s insignificance compared to God’s creation 1 emphasizing the magnitude of their indebtedness. “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

“My people,” God cries, “what have I done to you?” (6:3) The gift of creation? (6:1) Deliverance from slavery? (6:4) The blessing of instruction? (6:4-5) These alone lay a burden at Judah’s feet to heavy to bear. The worst atrocities of Assyria’s king pale in comparison.

What does that say about you, the reader? Think before you answer. God cannot justify wicked scales. (6:11-12)

Notes:

  1. Tarazi, Paul Nadim, The Chrysostom Bible: Genesis as Commentary, OCABS Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2009.  In Genesis, the toledot (תּוֹלְדֹת) of creation supersedes that of Adam, playing down humanity’s importance.

Accused by the Offering

Parents get a little crazy about their kids’ messes.  They’ve got so much, they forget half of what they own.  Collections of Barbie dolls, Legos, Golden Books, American Girl dolls, Star Wars action figures, Polly Pockets, play kitchen plastics, Magnetics, Wii accessories, and lip gloss are strewn all over the house.  I’ve heard of more than one mom “secretly disposing” of forgotten toys.  But if kids see the discard pile, watch out.  The weeping and wailing and pleading for these “special” toys come on with full force.

Honestly, our kids’ toy closets don’t look so different from our own pantries, vanity drawers, third-car garages, and investment portfolios.  I think they come by it honestly . . . and far too early.

Our youngest children of Ephesus School talked about the treasures they store in their toy boxes.  It’s exciting for young children to talk about the things that are special to them; just like adults and how they talk about the great buy on spaghetti sauce (so buy 20), anti-wrinkle cream which peels back the years, their new RV with seat warmers, and their rising stocks in BP oil.  But kids this age also love telling stories about how they share toys with their friends, and how friends share with them.  I remember my own daughter at that age had no trouble giving away her most-prized toys.  Unfortunately, I think I stopped her when she was ready to give away an expensive doll Grandma had recently bought for her birthday.  Now that she’s older and has really learned from my example, she’s much more careful about that kind of heedless generosity.  I think the doll is now safely stored in a closet somewhere.

During these past six weeks in studying Micah, our youngest students have been memorizing 6:6-8.  “Thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil” reminds us of “thousands of toys and ten thousand stickers.”   What an impressive offering . . . any kid would want that!  And why shouldn’t God be pleased with it too?  But the offering itself accuses the giver.  It takes careful storing and calculation to produce an offering at this sum.  The ironic thing is that the rams and oil are God’s from the beginning anyway.  So the children are now beginning to see that their toys are really God’s toys, so why not share them or give them away like He shares them with us?