Sunday, February 23, 2020

Observing Lent: "Do not let your heart be troubled"

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. (John 14:1)

During Lent I usually observe some kind of self-reflection. For me, this year's focus will be addressing fear and worry. Lent may seem an odd time to address those things; it's at advent that we read about the Messiah's Angel announcing "Fear not!" Still, it was on the night in which he was betrayed that Jesus taught his disciples, "Do not let your hearts be troubled." 

There are a lot of troubling thing in the world. Besides the troubles that come to us naturally, there are those who amplify troubles, fears, and accusations for their own purposes. There are media outlets that produce mini horror shows -- complete with caricatured villains -- and market them as news, or who thrive on shock and outrage. It is too easy to get caught up in this one fear being reasonable, that one worry being justifiable, those particular threats being a real danger. 

Of course there are real dangers in the world. "Do not let your hearts be troubled" was spoken the same night as "Let this cup pass from me." Neither do I agree with those who see "Fear not" as a commandment of obligation and therefore see fear as a sin of commission. Still, fear may make us vulnerable to temptation. Doesn't it play a role in greed, or enmity, or spite, or fits of rage? Who is more dangerous than someone who is frightened, or possibly frightened-then-angry? 

So for Lent this year I will be looking at how God and his messengers address fear and worry. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sacrament: You keep using that word

It's been my experience that Christians who object to the idea of a sacrament have never heard it defined by someone who embraces the idea. I've heard suspicion of idolatry. And (especially in connection with sacraments of forgiveness), I've heard suspicion of another means of salvation. But I haven't heard a view that would be recognized by the people who hold it.

Consider Father Stephen's recent piece, The One Mediator and the Sacraments
The great flaw in anti-sacramental thinking is its abstracted notion of “spiritual.” It is presumed that for something to be “spiritual,” it must have nothing to do with the material world. That “talking to Jesus” only consists in words spoken in our heads. ... The Word did not become flesh only to get our attention so that we would no longer have anything to do with the material world. It is the Word who became flesh ...
Father Stephen there conveys the heart of the sacramental view of God's interaction with the world: the world itself has spiritual value, and earthly things have spiritual weight. (That's part of the point of morality, while we're on a nearby subject. The most profoundly "moral" leave their light shining as saints, where we can recognize the beauty and holiness in the earthly lives.) "The heavens declare the glory of God" may be poetic, but many Christians -- especially those with a sacramental view -- find it to be factually true. There is a kind of beauty which communicates holiness. We see God's presence in earthly things: not in a "dispersed disembodied God" kind of way, but in an intentional, communicative way.

One of the chief of these ways that God is present for us tangibly is through baptism, where God promises a cleansing, forgiving, renewing grace. God gives the down-to-earth sign of water to down-to-earth creatures such as ourselves. Even those who have never studied formal theology can understand God's promise to us through the use of water, with all the experience we have of cleansing and purifying through water. Again, with the Lord's Supper he seals a covenant of forgiveness of our sins. "Christ the victim, Christ the priest" blesses the earthly bread and wine -- not in some magical way, or some way that leaves us magical bread, but in a way that we can grasp we are welcome at God's table now, and our souls are fed on Christ. The bread and wine are all about Christ's body and blood; it is not at all a different salvation that we grasp as "his body, given for you; his blood, shed for you." It is the same salvation that we have always preached, the same message embodied in a way that does what the gospel always does: humbles us, forgives us, unites us with God and each other, strengthens us and feeds us.

There are enough misunderstandings out there; I'm not naive enough to think that if I simply explain what I mean, then the misunderstandings will clear away. Still, it's even less likely for someone to understand if I've never said what I mean.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Abraham, Moses, and Old Testament covenants

Continuing the practice of interacting more with the community of Christian bloggers, I'd like to take a look at a post at the blog He Lives, where the author writes on the topic of the covenants of Abraham and Moses. I should mention that the author writes to address concerns with how Moses is being employed in his own theological circle; since that is not my circle I have a different starting point.

The author seems to bring the assumption that the covenant at Sinai was given without any intention in curbing sin:
The purpose is not to teach us how avoid sinning, but to teach how we are sinning. The law doesn’t save, the point is rather the opposite: the purpose of the law is to point out that its own impotence: the law cannot save anyone. It is not in conflict with the Abrahamic covenant, because it does not offer an alternative route to life—it is a reminder of the fact that our only hope is the Abrahamic covenant. (from linked post)
I'd agree that the law does in fact make us aware of our sinfulness:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:22; there are also other places that remind us that the law makes us aware of our shortcomings)
I haven't heard quite enough from the author about how he sees Christ's new covenant, so I'll pass on responding to his comment that "our only hope is the Abrahamic covenant", in the hopes that he sees our hope in Christ's new covenant.

The question I wanted to interact with here is: Is that really all that Moses' covenant provides?

My first concern is whether that considers the covenant of Moses as understood by the community that received it. On its own terms, Moses' covenant did have a route to forgiveness through the Day of Atonement and the sacrifices that prefigure Christ. The general understanding among the Jews was that sins of ignorance were easily forgiven but intentional sins were not covered on the Day of Atonement. However, a change of heart and intent (repentance) would see those intentional sins considered to be sins of ignorance in the eyes of the law, and so even those grave sins could be forgiven. Because of the path to forgiveness through atonement, the only thing ultimately required through Moses' covenant is faith in the one who made the covenant: that is, trust in God's faithfulness. This is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, but is prefigured well enough through Moses. So there's general agreement that our works do not save us, and that only trust in God's faithfulness saves us. Still, Moses' covenant prefigures Christ more fully than we would notice if we focus solely on the truth that nobody will be declared righteous by observing the law.

My next concern -- and I'm not sure whether anyone else shares it -- is how much benefit there is in the various laws (e.g. the Ten Commandments) if they are taken as what they are: not as paths to earn salvation, but instruction in what is righteous and holy. The Psalms are, in places, eloquent about the wisdom to be gained by studying the law and the statutes of God. There are other passage that enjoin common celebrations and other actions that are community-building and identity-building, preserving a memory of both God's gracious acts towards Israel and of Israel's identity within that. I see those passages as a corrective to the idea that the law of Moses serves only to show us our sin.

Are the Ten Commandments "the codification of God's moral law" for us Gentiles? Far be it from me to criticize the Ten Commandments, though Jesus calls us to surpass them. Love certainly doesn't lie or steal or otherwise harm our neighbor. And it's love that calls us to go the extra mile or to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate. It's love that asks us to forgive our brother 70 x 7 times. Love is the first commandment (and the second), which is why mercy is at the root of God's interactions with us under the covenant, and our interactions with each other under it.

Jesus told some students of the Hebrew scriptures, "Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" I believe that all Scripture will, sooner or later, point us to mercy.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

JEDP and their friend Ezra

"Who wrote the books of Moses?" There are still some out there who hold that Moses wrote the Torah (or if not, that he was somehow involved in parts of it), people who believe in Mosaic authorship. And there was a long-running consensus for the documentary hypothesis with pieces known as J,E,D,P, cobbled together in what I would call mosaic authorship. (Ok, yes, I've been waiting for a long time to use that pun.) I gather that the documentary hypothesis is having its consensus challenged, with the scholarly community not quite sure whether there are really 4 separate strains there (JEDP) or whether some other scenario is more likely (supplements, fragments, etc). At any rate there's uncertainty and lack of agreement over where the Torah came from, which plays its own part in the conversations here lately on Genesis and the "page one" problem.

When I research a thing, I like to check what information is available. When it comes to researching history, I like to start at the oldest available sources. In my opinion, one of the most persistent areas of hubris for scholarship in our era is acting as though nobody before our era knew or said anything worth considering even when the question on the table involves ancient history. So with that in mind, I'd like to mention what the Jewish sages of the classical era had in their own awareness about the questions that puzzle us: changes in script or alphabet, changes in language / rewrites, what happened during the Babylonian era, was there any memory of a cuneiform script on baked bricks, all that. I'm not making any assertions about whether any current reader should take their comments at face value; I'm suggesting that if we're seeking answers to questions, it's at least worth considering what was reported among people who were closer to the source.

So I'd like to present some relevant excerpts from the Talmud without either vouching for them or disparaging them in their introduction. This excerpt discusses changing alphabet scripts and the role of Ezra around the time of the exile:
Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar ‘Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script*{footnote: Assyrian; modern Hebrew square writing} and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans.*{footnote:  ‘The Samaritans’, so called because they were brought by Sargon, king of Assyria, from Cuthea, to take the place of the exiled Israelites. (V. II Kings XVII, 24 ff.). The reason for the change from Hebrew to Assyrian characters, was to build a greater barrier between the Samaritans and the Jews. V. Weiss, Dor, v. I, 59.} And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna'ah script.*{footnote: Rashi: Large characters as employed in amulets. R. Tam, in Tosaf. s. v. c,f recognises in ‘libuna'ah’ an adjective from the name of some locality. (Lebanon, or Libya?) Another opinion is that libuna'ah is derived from ‘lebenah’, brick; hence writing found on clay-tablets. V. J.E. I, p. 445.} 
It has been taught: R. Jose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel. Of Moses it is written, And Moses went up unto God, and of Ezra it is written, He, Ezra, went up from Babylon. As the going up of the former refers to the [receiving of the] Law, so does the going up of the latter. Concerning Moses, it is stated: And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments; and concerning Ezra, it is stated: For Ezra had prepared his heart to expound the law of the Lord [his God] to do it and to teach Israel statutes and judgments. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its writing was changed through him, as it is written: 
| page break in Talmud |  
And the writing of the letter was written in the Aramaic character and interpreted into the Aramaic [tongue]. And again it is written, And they could not read the writing nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof. Further, it is written: And he shall write the copy [mishneh] of this law, — in writing which was destined to be changed. Why is it called Ashshurith? — Because it came with them from Assyria. It has been taught: Rabbi said: The Torah was originally given to Israel in this [Ashshurith] writing. When they sinned, it was changed into Ro'az. But when they repented, the [Assyrian characters] were re-introduced ... 
(San Hedrin 21b-22a)
I find it interesting that in the middle of a discussion of changing scripts and religious boundary-marking with changed scripts, there's an extended discussion of Ezra as parallel to Moses, re-establishing the Torah. It's not the only time a connection like that is made in the Talmud: 
For in ancient times when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and established it. [Some of] it was again forgotten and Hillel the Babylonian came up and established it. Yet again was [some of] it forgotten, and R. Hiyya and his sons came up and established it. (Sukkah 20a)
There are also some who assume that the ancient Israelites had never noticed that Moses died before the end of the Torah, and that his death had implications for who wrote the parts of the Torah after Moses' death. Give the ancients a little credit, folks: 
The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as it has been taught: [It is written], So Moses the servant of the Lord died there. Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, ‘Moses died there’?
(Baba Bathra 15a)
I don't think that the complete history of the documents is kept in their archives. But I think there is enough that sheds light on our questions to merit consideration. As they say: Test everything; hold on to that which is true.