Thursday, June 30, 2011

Absalom (part 11)

Everything was going well for Absalom.  He had taken the throne.  He has secured the support of one of his father’s chief advisors.  His efforts at fostering a sense of justice and peace through brotherhood with the people had been effectual, as Absalom had “won the loyalty of the citizens of Israel” (2 Samuel 15:6b).  The narrative of exile and exodus that he had been creating for himself had paid off, as “the people were starting to side with Absalom” (15:12b).  Even his father had been told that “The men of Israel are loyal to Absalom!” (15:13b). 

Due to this loyalty and support, Absalom entered Jerusalem peacefully (15:37b), apparently encountering no resistance.  To go with all of this, Hushai the Arkite, another one of his father’s servants, came to Absalom in Jerusalem and said “I will be loyal to the one whom the Lord, these people, and all the men of Israel have chosen.  Moreover, whom should I serve?  Should it not be his son?  Just as I served your father, so I will serve you” (16:18b).  Now, Absalom did not know that Hushai had attempted to go with David, and had gone back to Jerusalem at David’s request for the expressed purpose of countering the advice that Ahithophel would provide to Absalom (15:34).  So as far as Absalom would have been concerned, these words from Hushai, that were actually words of deception that were put in Hushai’s mouth by David, were simply further evidence that his plan had been successful, and that the God of Israel was favoring him in his efforts. 

As we read through this story (which seems to have a place of importance in the life of David and the history of Israel), even David himself seems to have been resigned to the possibility that Absalom’s exodus to kingship, and his own exile from the throne, was part of the Lord’s will, as again, the promise to David was that he would have a dynasty on the throne.  The rule of Absalom most certainly fit within that framework, and to go along with that, David would have been none too surprised that this was part of God’s judgment upon him for his failures as king (Uriah, Amnon).  He has taken only mild measures to retain his position, involving Zadok, Abiathar, and Hushai in that effort. 

Thinking about this for a moment, when David employs Zadok and Abiathar (along with their sons) as spies, it is a bit of a perversion of their role (as priests) to represent the people before God.  Nevertheless, this resignation is partly indicated (among other things that we have already explored) by the fact that David sends the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, and his saying, “If I find favor in the Lord’s sight He will bring me back and enable me to both see it and His dwelling place again” (15:25b).  That was said together with “However, if He should say, ‘I do not take pleasure in you,’ then He will deal with me in a way that He considers appropriate” (15:26).  Additionally, the words that David spoke in the wake of being cursed and assaulted (rocks thrown) by Shimei, only points to his understanding that all of this might very well have been the Lord’s will. 

So as was said, everything was going swimmingly for Absalom.  He had led his peaceful insurrection, and it has been accomplished by winning the hearts of the people.  In essence, according to the historic narrative of Israel, he was Moses, and he was leading Israel in a new exodus movement, with the Lord on his and their side.  Indeed, Absalom, if so inclined, could stand before the people and say “just as the Lord fought for Israel in Egypt, rescuing a people by the acts of His mighty hand, so He has again fought for Absalom and Israel, delivering me to the throne of His people, by the singular working of His powerful, saving might.”  Reinforcing such a thought, he has now even heard it said, by one of his father’s trusted servants, that he (Absalom) was anointed by both the Lord and the people.  To that point, any such mention of anointing (in the mold of Saul and David) had been completely absent from the narrative.  Upon this, his revolution was complete.  Absalom was king.  God was going to fulfill the promises to David through him.  Then, in the midst of this, the tide turned.  Everything changed.  Events began to unfold that would unravel Absalom’s victory.        

Absalom (part 10)

After Absalom entered Jerusalem, he sought the counsel of Ahithophel, saying “Give us your advice.  What should we do?” (2 Samuel 16:20b)  Ahithophel provides a two part answer.  The first part of his answer is “Have sex with your father’s concubines whom he left to care for the palace” (16:21a).  Absalom, quite pleased with this suggestion, seizes on the idea and follows through on it.  We read that “they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and Absalom had sex with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel” (16:22).  Why does Ahithophel suggest this?  Why does Absalom do it?  It is suggested and undertaken because of what it was that the prophet Nathan had said to David, after David’s taking of Uriah’s wife and life.  Through Nathan, God had said to David, “you have despised Me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own!” (12:10b) 

Though it does not provide a direct correlation, it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that this despising of God by David bears very little difference from Israel’s forsaking of God and worshiping of idols, by which they despised Him.  If this is correct, then it is only right that David experience what God promises to His people for idolatry, which is cursing (exile).  So Nathan continues, saying “This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to bring disaster on you from inside your household!’” (12:11a)  Certainly the Absalom situation, which has been created and fueled by the Tamar and Amnon situation and the resulting fall-out, could be described as disaster from inside the household.  Furthermore, God says, “Right before your eyes I will take your wives and hand them over to your companion.  He will have sexual relations with your wives in broad daylight!” (12:11b)  Why?  Because “Although you have acted in secret, I will do this thing before all Israel, and in broad daylight” (12:12).  This is obviously fulfilled.

In the Deuteronomic curses, Moses informs God’s people that one of the curses that will come upon them for their failure to obey God’s commands (of which David was certainly guilty) would be that “You will be engaged to a woman and another man will rape her” (Deuteronomy 28:30a).  This is not strictly analogous to what Nathan has told David, or to what it has been suggested that Absalom do, as neither God’s threat through Nathan nor Ahithophel’s suggestion to Absalom carries with it (at least on the surface) the connotation of violence or force, but it can probably be thought of as being connected closely enough to drive home the point to David that he has violated God’s commands.  Additionally, Ahithophel sees a close enough connection in that it will play well into Absalom’s ongoing effort to show himself as a true deliverer in the mold of Moses, thereby allowing him to continue co-opting the most powerful story of Israel’s history for his own purposes.  Furthermore, it adds to Absalom’s claim to be a just man and the one that is used by God to deliver justice to Israel.  This is especially and strikingly so if he is the means by which the prophecy related to cursing that had been delivered to David by Nathan is fulfilled.  This merely cements the notion that David is no longer fit to be king, while also pointing to the fact that the story of Bathsheba and David, and the oppression and injustice that the story entails, has been made known in Israel.  If it has not, then there is no real point in Absalom engaging in sexual relations with his father’s concubines, unless it is also being used to indicate that just as David has forsaken these wives of his, that he has also forsaken his care of the people of Israel as well. 

The second part of Ahithophel’s response to the request to provide advice to Absalom is to say that “All Israel will hear that you have made yourself repulsive to your father.  Then your followers will be motivated to support you” (16:21b).  Yes, Ahithophel suggests that this will be viewed by the people as Absalom being willing to be cursed by his very own father, if it indeed means justice for Israel.  Absalom will be seen to be willing to bear that pain and shame on behalf of the people.  In a society based upon honor and shame, this is a calculated move (though also prophetically fulfilling) to win further sympathy from the people.  Does this aid Absalom in his desire to be seen as Moses?  Absolutely!  Moses was willing to forsake his father’s (Pharoah’s) house, so as to identify himself with the people suffering under the oppression of the king.  Thinking beyond that, however, this might also be an attempt to entice David to retaliate against Absalom, who, up to this point, has not lifted up his hand (nor asked anybody else to lift up their hand) against his father.  David has left willfully.   He has abandoned his throne and fled from Jerusalem, and Absalom has peacefully entered to take that throne.  If David now turns and raises sword and spear against Absalom and his supporters, then David is to be likened to Pharaoh, who allowed Israel to depart from Egypt and from his oppression peacefully, but then had a change of heart, and set out to recover the Israelites (and his power) violently.             

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Absalom (part 9)

Furthermore, as we examine the potential of Absalom positioning himself as a new Moses and leading a new exodus, we remember that Israel’s Egyptian exodus was carried out with no bloodshed.  Moses had attempted such and failed, earning only a personal exile, which eventually resulted in his calling by God.  Israel did not rise up en masse to overthrow and defeat Egypt by means of violence.  They did not have to resort to war.  Rather, their God worked for them.  He brought Egypt low through plagues and the eventual death of the firstborn.  The only blood that was shed throughout the entirety of the time in which the plagues ran their course was that of the lambs that were shed on behalf of the households of Israel.  The only bloodshed that preceded deliverance and exodus was that of sacrifice.  What bloodshed do we see in the run-up to Absalom’s insurrection?  Only that of sacrifice, when Absalom offered sacrifices in Hebron (2 Samuel 15:12).  Quite rightly, if we desire to take a step here to make a connection to Jesus, Jesus could have spoken to a people that considered themselves to be a people in exile, under oppression, and reminded them that God delivered Israel and gave them exodus without the people having to rise up in rebellion in order to cast off that yoke.   

Following the death of the firstborn in Egypt, Pharaoh sent Israel out of the land.  Their exodus was begun through the intervention of God alone.  Israel did not have to resort to the force of arms for even a single moment.  Neither did Absalom.  David departed from Jerusalem, going into exile much like Pharaoh, his army, and the land of Egypt (which was soon to be over-run by the Amalekites), and Absalom entered into Jerusalem without having to physically raise his hand against his father (15:37).  Absalom could use this fact to point out that yes, God was showing favor upon him, and by extension, showing favor to Israel, delivering a kingdom into his hand.  This could have been used as evidence that he had, in fact, been raised up like Moses, and that David had been deposed from the position of power, much like Pharaoh.  Beyond that, Absalom could make it very clear that he did not lift up his hand against the Lord’s anointed, following the noble example that had been set by his previously non-oppressive father, who, when give the chance, had refrained from striking out against Saul. 

Back to David, and back to his exilic experience, we meet up with him as he “reached  Bahurim” (16:5).  “There a man from Saul’s extended family named Shimei son of Gera came out, yelling curses as he approached.  He threw stones at David and all of King David’s servants, as well as all the people and the soldiers who were on his right and left.  As he yelled curses, Shimei said, “Leave!  Leave!  You  man of bloodshed, you wicked man!  The Lord has punished you for all the spilled blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you rule.  Now the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom.  Disaster has overtaken you, for you are a man of bloodshed!’” (16:5b-8)  Those that were with David, understandably, did not appreciate being cursed at and having stones thrown at them.  One of them, Abishai, ever the loyal fellow, said “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?  Let me go over and cut off his head!” (16:9b)  Not only did David not allow him to do this, he said “If he curses because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David!’, who can say to him, ‘Why have you done this?’” (16:10b)  To that David added, “Leave him alone so that he can curse, for the Lord has spoken to him.  Perhaps the Lord will notice my affliction and this day grant me good in place of his curse” (16:11b-12).  With his final remark, and its mention of affliction, we get a small glimpse of David’s insight into this exile. 

Surely, the curses and stones being hurled at David from this man served as a vivid demonstration of the Deuteronomic curses and the exile in which those curses are enfolded.  Thus, this man, as David rightly surmised, was being used by God (at that point), to bring David’s failures to mind.  One could also think of Goliath uttering curses at David and Israel, along with David’s felling him with a stone from his slingshot.  Additionally, Abishai’s use of the term “dead dog,” which the author was sure to mention here in the telling of this story, had to have been a reminder to David of Mephibosheth’s response to David, when he was restored to his lands and given a place at the king’s table.  He referred to himself as a “dead dog,” undeserving of such treatment by the king.  That event, perhaps more so than any other in the life of David, saw him demonstrating the compassion of God, in a way that would most definitely have served to allow him to shine as a light to the nations and to reflect the glory of God into the world, as he lifted up the grandson of his enemy.  If that was a consideration, David could not then help but be reminded of the way he had honored his God and his kingship, before he began robbing (wives and lives and justice) from his people.  Yes, to return to an issue previously raised, which was that of David himself going into exile, in light of a later promise to Israel that the sign of their exile would be the eternal rule of a Davidic king, we know that David was eventually returned to Jerusalem and re-established as king.  If David himself could go into exile and be exodus-ed from that exile and restored to the kingship, then so too could Israel (Judah) be exiled to Babylon and subjected to a foreign nation, while trusting in their God’s promise to return them to their land.   

Monday, June 27, 2011

Absalom (part 8)

The book of Jeremiah informs a people that are nearing a time of exile and foreign subjugation to not lose heart or forget the covenant faithfulness of their God.  Their God has delivered a solemn promise, saying “When the time for them to be rescued comes… I will rescue you from foreign subjugation.  I will deliver you from captivity.  Foreigners will then no longer subjugate them.  But they will be subject to the Lord their God and to the Davidic ruler whom I will raise up as king over them” (30:8-9).  Ironically, it is King David---the very one to whom is made reference by the term “Davidic ruler”---is himself going into exile.  He is, in a way, going under foreign subjugation.  Why?  Because, like Israel itself, he had taken his eyes off of his God.  Because, like Israel itself, he had forgotten his purpose.  He had begun to treat the people of Israel as if they were there for him, rather than remembering his role and that he was there to be a servant to God’s people. 

How could he serve them best?  By being a testimony of what it looked like to be a light to the surrounding nations and so reflect the glory, into the world, of the God Who had anointed him and delivered him a kingdom.  How could he do that if he was oppressing his own people, taking their wives, and killing them?  How could he do that if he was showing favoritism to his own son and not executing what justice demanded?  How could he do that if he allowed the relationship with another son to deteriorate to the point that that son could feel the need to turn the people against his father and take the kingdom for himself?  David had become a king for himself and for his own glory, rather than for his people, for the world, and for the glory of Israel’s God.  This was David’s idolatry, and it had earned him an exile. 

This exile that David was experiencing had several of the marks of the curses promised in Deuteronomy.  We read that “As David was going up the Mount of Olives, he was weeping as he went; his head was covered and his feet were bare.  All the people who were with him also had their heads covered and were weeping as they went up” (2 Samuel 15:30).  Does this not sound like the way that slaves would be carried off by a conquering foe?  Do we find this paralleled in Deuteronomy?  There we read of “hunger, thirst, nakedness, and poverty” (28:48a).  David, with all of his riches, was fleeing Jerusalem with nothing.  In fact, this is evidenced by the fact that shortly thereafter, “Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth… had a couple of donkeys that were saddled, and on them were two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred raisin cakes, a hundred baskets of summer fruit, and a container of wine” (16:1b), so as to provide for the king and his people during their journey into exile. 

In the midst of the travel of his travail, David, having begun to recognize where his faults had been and what it was that had brought him to this horrible predicament, begins to strategize.  He has already sent the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, for good reason, and implores God to turn the advice of one of his chief advisers, Ahithophel, who was now supporting and advising Absalom, into foolishness.  In addition, he employed the priests, Zadok and Abiathar, to serve as his spies within Jerusalem.  As David begins to remember the God of Israel and His faithfulness, he also begins to be fully cognizant of the exilic nature of what is happening to him, and vice versa.  No doubt this experience is going to serve him well, if in fact God does restore him to the throne, which at this point, was certainly not a foregone conclusion.  Remember, even if David is removed from the throne, the promise is that God would make a dynasty of his house, which he could very well do through Absalom, who, at this point, has carried out a successful rebellion and insurrection without shedding any blood. 

In considering that, we once again make note of the strategy which might very well have been being employed by Absalom.  Absalom has, quite possibly, positioned himself as a new Moses, leading a new exodus for Israel, with a delivery from a new Pharaoh, that being David, who had become an oppressor in Israel.  Remember, Israel began to suffer oppression in Egypt when a Pharaoh came to power that did not know Joseph.  Naturally, it was not so much that he did not know Joseph, as that he had forgotten what had been wrought on behalf of Egypt, with Egypt gaining an empire, through the power and deliverance of the God of Joseph and Israel.  In making his case, Absalom could certainly point to David’s less than just actions and point out that David had forgotten the faithful, powerful, delivering, kingdom giving God of Israel---the very God that had delivered him from Saul and from his own time of exile and oppression.          

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Absalom (part 7)

“So the king and all the members of his royal court set out on foot” (2 Samuel 15:16a).  This is Israel’s exodus from Egypt, but applied in reverse.  It is the oppressive king that is fleeing, rather than the people.  This is the king of Israel, who represents the people, going into exile, rather than leaving them to and in their promised land.  David, whether directly or indirectly, through the situation that he created by not dealing with Amnon, and by not dealing with Absalom, is delivering the people that are loyal to him, into exile.  Their march is not one of exodus, in power and glory, but rather, one of fear and shame.  Not all of the members of the royal household left Jerusalem however, as “the king left behind ten concubines to attend to the palace” (15:16b).  This becomes significant later on, as this allows for the fulfillment of a prophecy that had previously been given to David. 

Like Israel, but again in reverse, “The king and all the people set out on foot, pausing at a spot some distance away” (15:17).  This should cause us to reflect upon Israel’s flight from Egypt, in that they paused at the Red Sea, and then again, at the mountain of God.  It should also serve as a contrast to what it is that is happening with the two events.  Drawing attention to the fact that he knew that he was going into exile, “the king said to Ittai the Gittie, ‘Why should you come with us?  Go back and stay with the new king, for you are a foreigner and an exile from your own country… Today should I make you wander around by going with us?’” (15:19,20b)  David asks Ittai, who already lives in a state of exile, why he wants to continue in exile, and then uses the language of wandering, which present thoughts of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness after their faithless response to the call to enter the land of promise.  Ittai, however, refused to leave David, saying “As surely as the Lord lives and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king is, whether dead or alive, there I will be as well!” (15:21)  Clearly, not all is lost for David.  This response from Ittai seems to boost David’s spirits a bit.  Perhaps he began to think that if this man would not forsake him, then perhaps the Lord had not completely forsaken him either. 

We must take note of a startling fact.  That fact is that the first mention of the Lord, related to David’s situation, in the midst of Absalom’s insurrection, comes from this foreigner Ittai, who is living in exile.  It seems that David had forgotten about the Lord.  To make the point, the author does not have David mentioning the Lord since the twenty-second verse of chapter twelve, in connection with the death of the first child that was born to he and Bathsheba.  As we can be sure that these books of Samuel are both historical and theological treatises, this mention of the Lord by Ittai is quite striking.  It seems to jar something within David. 

After this reminder of the Lord, we learn that “All the land was weeping loudly as all these people were leaving.  As the king was crossing over the Kidron valley, all the people were leaving on the road that leads to the desert” (15:23).  This is understandable.  Jerusalem, after all, is the capital of the country.  Many that lived there would have served the king in official government positions.  With David fleeing and a new king on the way, it would not be unreasonable for these people to believe themselves, at the least, as out of a job, and at the worst, as liable to be put to death by Absalom so that he can appoint his own people into government positions---people that he can trust to be loyal to him and to serve him well.  Along with that, “Zadok and all the Levites who were with him were carrying the Ark of the Covenant of God” (15:24a).  For some reason, they were taking the Ark of the Covenant with them, as if somehow it was only David that could legitimate its presence there in Jerusalem, rather than the other way around, with the Ark serving to legitimate the rule of God’s people by its presence near the throne. 

Does David get a sense of this?  Did he realize that the Ark was being treated as a talisman and an idol?  This had happened once before, during the time of the judges, when Hophni and Phinehas, the corrupt sons of Eli, brought the Ark into the presence of the Israelite army, as they were being threatened by and were fearful of the army of the Philistines.  What happened to the Ark in that instance?  It was captured by the Philistines.  Israel fell to the Philistines in battle, Hophni and Phinehas were killed, Eli fell over and broke his neck when he heard the news of the Ark’s capture, and Phinehas’ wife gave birth to a son and named him Ichabod, saying that “The glory has departed from Israel, because the Ark of God has been captured” (1 Samuel 4:22).  Understandably, David did not want to be on any side of that issue.  He did not want to treat the Ark as an idol.  He did not want to leave the people in a vulnerable position, without the presence of God, and thereby effectively in exile.  He did not want to be thought of as somebody who had captured the Ark, and therefore caused the glory of the Lord to depart from Israel, nor did he want to experience the exile-like curses that came upon the Philistines because they presumed to possess the Ark of the Covenant God.  So “the king said to Zadok, ‘Take the Ark of God back to the city.  If I find favor in the Lord’s sight He will bring me back and enable me to see both it and His dwelling place again.  However, if He should say, “I do not take pleasure in you,” then He will deal with me in a way that He considers appropriate’.” (15:25-26)  This represents a turning of the tide for David.  Once he actively recognizes the Lord’s hand in all of these things, matters begin to turn out better for him and worse for Absalom.         

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Absalom (part 6)

As we move forward to David’s response to Absalom’s proclamation as king at Hebron, it is interesting to look at it in the light which has been created for it by Absalom, while also looking at it from the perspective of the God that had anointed David as king over His people.  Immediately after learning that the people were siding with Absalom, we read that “a messenger came to David and reported, ‘The men of Israel are loyal to Absalom!” (2 Samuel 15:13)  What is David’s response?  Does he assert that he is king?  Does he attempt to derail the coup that is taking place?  Not at all.  Rather, “David said to all his servants who were with him in Jerusalem, ‘Come on!  Let’s escape!  Otherwise no one will be delivered from Absalom!’” (15:14a)  This would play nicely into the story that Absalom is attempting to create.  His father, when challenged, flees.  This would be a clear sign for Absalom’s supporters that the protective and supporting hand of Israel’s God had been removed from David and was being transferred to Absalom, though he, unlike Saul and David (and every other previous leader of Israel) had not been anointed to the position of king.  Absalom could point to this response and make the point that exile was coming to David.  This would have been poetic justice for Absalom, in that it was he who previously had to flee from Jerusalem.  At the same time, let us not forget that his being able to tell his story, which included fleeing, must have been quite important in his gaining influence and favor with the people. 

David is clearly fearful.  Perhaps he too feels that rule is being stripped from him, as the Bathsheba incident would certainly have never been far from his mind.  Indeed, if Saul had been rejected as king for not following out God’s orders and executing all of the Amalekites (along with their animals), then should David be surprised if he ultimately comes to be rejected as king because of his oppressive and high-handed actions against Uriah?  Yes, the prophet Nathan had informed David that God had forgiven him and that he would not die as a result of what he had done, but nothing had been said about his own kingship in that incident.  He had received the promise that the Lord would build him a dynastic house (7:11), but that was before he had Uriah murdered, and besides, Absalom was his very own son, so God could very well be faithful to His promise in that regard by showing favor to Absalom and removing David as king. 

Sometimes we have a tendency to forget that these stories in the Bible are being told about people that were very much flesh and blood individuals.  They had thoughts that are not recorded by the Biblical authors, insecurities, and doubts about their place and role in God’s mission in the world, right along with all of the problems and concerns of life lived in what would have to be described as less than comfortable conditions.  Though conditions change and mindsets change, human nature remains unchanged, and this fact is what allows us, along with a sensitivity and attunement to culture and custom, to enter these stories and to read them for all that they are worth. 

Getting back to the light in which Absalom might be hoping that these events are seen, as we remain aware of not only the narrative structure of the Bible that constantly points to themes of exile and exodus, but also that Israel was always especially cognizant of the story of the exodus under the leadership of Moses, we find David saying “Go immediately, or else he will quickly overtake us and bring disaster on us and kill the city’s residents with the sword” (15:14b).  If Absalom is indeed painting David as a new Pharaoh, and if the author is mindful of that, then David’s order is quite interesting.  It takes us back to chapter twelve of Exodus, following the plague which brought the death of the firstborn (remember, all of these events concerning Absalom are ultimately connected with the death of Amnon, David’s firstborn).  There, in fear of what might happen next, “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Get up, get out from among my people, both you and the Israelites!  Go, serve the Lord as you have requested!  Also, take your flocks and herds, just as you have requested, and leave.  But bless me also’.” (12:31-32)  In addition, we find that “The Egyptians were urging the people on, in order to send them out of the land quickly, for they were saying, ‘We are all dead!’” (12:33) 

Though they are not identical, the words of David have a strange affinity with the words of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  Regardless of the non-identical words, they share a nature and the point is clear.  What is going to follow is an exile and an exodus.  God will later promise His people that the curses that will fall upon them for violating His commandments would be similar to the plagues that He brought upon Egypt.  So Egypt, by retrojection, has already experienced something like exile (though they are not God’s people).  Furthermore, owing to what would take place at the sea, the plague of death (exile) would be further visited upon the Egyptians.  The exodus to follow, of course, would be that of Israel.  With David and Absalom, exile and exodus were also coming.  David was going to leave Jerusalem, in a self-imposed exile, as it seemed that his power over God’s people had been broken like that of Pharaoh.  Absalom, at the head of a loyal populace, was exodus-ing his long exile, and heading for the throne, which he saw as his promised land.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

Absalom (part 5)

It would not be difficult to imagine that, along with the telling of his own story of what he considered to be poor treatment at the hands of his father, that Absalom also “went public” with the Bathsheba incident, in order to continue the efforts towards painting his father as an oppressive ruler in the mold of a Pharaoh that needed to be defeated by God, through another Moses. 

After receiving the approval of his father to go to Hebron to offer the aforementioned sacrifice, “Absalom sent spies through all the tribes of Israel” (2 Samuel 15:10a).   Here again, we have another allusion to Moses and the exodus of Israel, in that Moses sent spies into the promised land.  Yes, Absalom wanted to be seen as a great deliverer within Israel, raised up by their God to liberate from oppression and servitude, and this sending of spies would play very well into the narrative that he was attempting to create.  Not only that, but this sending of spies might also very well cause the people to remember the other famous sending of spies, which would have been to Jericho, before that city was defeated.  This, of course, would invoke thoughts of Israel’s great general, Joshua, and the people’s actual entering into and conquering of the promised land under his leadership. 

Remember, Absalom has been quite patient.  It has been at least four years since his coming before the king, at least six years since his return to Jerusalem, at least nine years since his flight to Geshur, and at least eleven years since his brother raped his sister.  With such a patient demeanor on display, without a doubt we must also consider him to have been an astute observer of the people and of Israel’s history.  His time spent at the gates, as he was gaining the respect of the people, would have put him in a position to ascertain what types of symbols and symbolism would resonate with the people when the time came for him to lead another exodus of sorts.  If such was his mindset, then part of his interaction with the people---if he was indeed positioning himself as a Moses/Joshua type of leader, with his increasingly out-of-touch father as a new Pharaoh---would have been an insistence that, under David, Israel was in something of another exile (or at least heading that way), with all of the curses of exile that would be sure to follow if the people failed to rally around him and support his leadership, while encouraging others to do the same.  So the spies were sent through the land and instructed “When you hear the sound of the horn, you may assume that Absalom rules in Hebron” (15:10b).  The breadth of Absalom’s influence is further demonstrated in that he “sent for Ahithophel the Gileonite, David’s adviser, to come from his city, Giloh” (15:12b).  Ahithophel is a highly respected adviser to David, and if he has been convinced that Absalom is the one to follow, then we can well understand the words that followed, which inform us that “The conspiracy was gaining momentum, and the people were starting to side with Absalom” (15:12c). 

What was it about Absalom that attracted the people to him and away from David?  Was it because “in all Israel everyone acknowledged that there was no man as handsome as Absalom,” and that “From the sole of his feet to the top of his head he was perfect in appearance” (14:25)?  While this is an “attractive” option, it is unlikely.  David himself, when we first meet him, is said to have “attractive eyes and a handsome appearance” (1 Samuel 16:12b).  When Saul is introduced as king of Israel, he is described as standing “head and shoulders above them all” (1 Samuel 10:23b).  Further, Samuel says, “Do you see the one whom the Lord has chosen?  Indeed, there is no one like him among all the people!” (10:24b)  In the case of both Saul and David, the case could be made that both were attractive in appearance, but it was not their physical appearance that drew the people to them, but rather, their leadership.  We do the people of Israel in Absalom’s day a grave injustice by treating them as creatures of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, who are bombarded with images of beauty on a daily basis, and asked to follow the leadership (in various areas of concern) of those that are thought of as “the beautiful people”.  Absalom’s culture was not one of mass media.  Indeed, we can imagine that Absalom would have been unknown, by appearance, to the majority of the people over which he desired to rule. 

With that said, there must have been something far more substantial to Absalom’s position and to his claims, that would win the allegiance of so many within Israel.  An appeal to their history, set against the possibilities of sharing in either God’s blessing or cursing, and presented within the context of Israel’s great story of redemption from Egyptian bondage---if Absalom could successfully make the desired exile and exodus connections in the hearts and minds of the people---would have a powerful effect within the nation.  An additional benefit is that this would enable a revolution that could consist of very little bloodshed, with their God acting on behalf of them and their new leader, just as He had done against Egypt and Pharaoh.    

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Absalom (part 4)

Absalom continued his efforts at building the respect and loyalty of the people, doing so through both sharing with them his own complaints with the king, while commiserating with them in their complaints.  For the people, these complaints may not initially be against the king, but in the end, Absalom would be sure that such would be the case.  The increase in his support then, was due to the mutual sympathy of two aggrieved parties.  It is inescapable to notice that, contrary to all of the deliverers and judges and kings that came before him, Absalom is attempting to gain a leadership position within Israel without being anointed to that position.  He is trying, like Moses, to kill the Egyptian guard in order to “rally the troops” around him, and we’ll find that this only succeeded on a short-term basis. 

Absalom also made it a point that he did not act like David.  He thought that his father had been condescending towards him when he had had been summoned to the palace to finally appear before the king.  Absalom bowed before David, as a sign of humility and respect, and David had merely kissed him.  He was a prodigal of sorts, returned from a distant land, and that was all his father could muster.  We think of the New Testament parable, and a son that had gone so far as to wish his own father dead, and there we also see a son that was embraced, kissed, and re-seated in a position of honor, all at the hands of a loving and forgiving father.  David, of course, could not muster such feelings towards Absalom.  David was not this kind of father.  Absalom hoped he could be so.  “When someone approached to bow before him” (2 Samuel 15:5a), he did not treat that person as his own father had rather disdainfully treated him, without acknowledging the righteous behavior of his son that had prompted the exile that had now been brought to something like exodus.  Rather, “Absalom would extend his hand and embrace him and kiss him” (15:5b), no doubt recounting the tale of his appearance before the king, the lack of the extension of a loving and compassionate hand, and the absence of a loving embrace.  Without those things, the kiss could be positioned as little more than an insult---a customary and expected greeting that one might even offer to an enemy, if that enemy ever happened to reach the place of bowing. 

“Absalom acted this way toward everyone in Israel who came to the king for justice” (15:6a).  They were coming to the king for justice, and Absalom made sure that they received so much more.  He gave them himself.  “In this way Absalom won the loyalty of the citizens of Israel” (15:6b).  They were going over to the side of the son that had been exiled simply because he had attempted to defend his sister’s honor (within an honor and shame society) by punishing an evildoer.  Yes, Absalom was even willing to raise his hand against his own brother in the defense of righteousness and in response to shameful acts.  In the eyes of the people, that was probably to his credit.  Accordingly, he was going to be their Moses, who had been raised in the royal house of Egypt, but was willing to take an Egyptian life if necessary.  Just as Moses had killed for the sake of the honor of his countrymen, and was forced to flee to the wilderness, so too had Absalom acted, in the eyes of the people that were becomingly increasingly loyal to him. 

In his exile, Absalom had obviously met God, and the people experienced the obvious result of his meeting of God when they experienced his warmth, his handshake, his embrace, and his kiss.  His return to Jerusalem was a mirror of Moses’ return to Egypt, and accordingly, he was there to lead the people of God.  To this end, for Absalom and his supporters, David had become the new Pharaoh---oppressing the people of God, just as he had oppressed his very own son---and he was rightfully going to be removed from his place of authority. 

As before, Absalom was patient.  He had waited two years from the rape of his sister before acting on her behalf.  He spent three years living apart from his people, in Geshur.  He spent two years in Jerusalem, living apart from the face of the king.  “After four years” of winning the loyalty of the people “Absalom said to the king, ‘Let me go and repay my vow that I made to the Lord while I was in Hebron.  For I made this vow when I was living in Geshur in Aram: “If the Lord really does allow me to return to Jerusalem, I will serve the Lord”’” (15:7-8).  Notice the similarities to Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh.  Moses, upon his return to Egypt from a long time of exile (remembering that in the case of Absalom it has now been eleven years since Tamar was raped, which was the catalyst to all of these events) went to Pharaoh and spoke to him of letting Israel go into the wilderness to make a sacrifice to the Lord.  How does David respond to a similar plea from Absalom?  “The king replied to him, ‘Go in peace.’  So Absalom got up and went to Hebron” (15:9). 

Can we continue the Moses/Pharaoh analogy here?  Absolutely, we can, as it was when Pharaoh’s power had been completely broken that he eventually gave the command for Israel to go up out of the land to sacrifice.  Absalom, if he was indeed positioning himself as a new Moses, and casting his father in the position of Pharaoh (and ruling God’s people unjustly), would use this to further his ongoing campaign to cement the validity of his own leadership in the eyes of the people.  He had been enduring his father’s disdainful treatment long enough.  He had spent years gaining the hearts of the people.  This has all been well-calculated.  He had built his grassroots support, and his coup was effectively rooted in the grand story of Israel’s flight from Egypt and God’s conquering of those that had become enemies of the people of God.  Yes, Absalom was attempting to lead his own exodus, and with his departure to Hebron, the place where his father had initially been crowned and ruled, that effort had now begun.   

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Absalom (part 3)

Did Absalom feel as if his exodus was complete?  We can say that it was, but only in a sense.  We continue in our experience with Absalom as we now move into the story of his insurrection against David.  Clearly, we know why it is going to take place.  Absalom feels slighted by his father.  As far as he was concerned, his father, having never spoken out against nor condemned his son Amnon for his heinous crime against Absalom’s sister (the rape of Tamar), was by extension in a complicit agreement with the action.  Surely, Absalom felt, having waited two years, that his father was never going to take action in this matter, so he would have to take justice into his own hands.  The fact that he had been forced to flee from home when he carried out what he saw as just retribution against Amnon, with his father not reaching out to him for three years, was galling.  His self-imposed exile would come to be interpreted as a banishment, with Absalom never receiving the honor that he believed was due to him for avenging the shame that had been brought to his sister and his family.  His actions, as far as he was concerned, constituted a measured response.  He did not respond like Simeon and Levi of old, following the rape of their sister.  He did not slaughter an entire community of men because of the actions of just one individual.  No, he simply carried out that which should have been carried out by his father.  Absalom could have reasoned that his father should have thanked him for fulfilling the obligation that he was obviously refusing to carry out, but he did not.

Even when he was called out of exile, and invited to return to Jerusalem, his father still maintained the position of banishment, forcing him to remain separate from the king and not allowing him to see his father’s face.  When summoned from Geshur, surely, Absalom felt that his father had finally come to his senses, realizing that Absalom had acted justly, in dispatching Amnon with prejudice, with this dispatching taking place after a two year period of patient waiting.  When finally summoned to the throne room, it had been seven years since the rape of his sister had been perpetuated, five years since he had dealt Amnon death’s fatal blow, and two years since he had returned to Jerusalem.  Even then, the summon for Absalom had not been solely the desire of the king, but rather, had come at the request of Joab, who, having had his fields set ablaze by Absalom in order to gain his attention, reluctantly agreed to intercede to the king on behalf of his frustrated son, doing so because now the issue was of personal consequence.  So when Absalom comes before the king, it was only because of Joab’s influence over David (which was significant because of what Joab knew about the Bathsheba/Uriah incident), which meant that David was still not going to look favorably upon his son. 

While he must have been grateful to finally see him, as David kissed an Absalom that was bowed down before him with his face to the ground, based upon what follows, we can be confident that David’s response was not what Absalom had long desired.  At this point, because of all that had happened (or not happened) in regards to the situation of the rape, it probably became quite clear, at least in Absalom’s mind, that his father had forfeited the legitimate and moral right to rule God’s people.  Absalom would take matters in to his own hands in order to correct the prevailing issue of injustice as he saw it.  We do not know how much time elapsed following his obviously less than amicable reunion with his father, but “Some time later Absalom managed to acquire a chariot and horses, as well as fifty men to serve as his royal guard” (2 Samuel 15:1).  Slowly but surely, he was going to take up the mantle of kingship that he perceived to have been abandoned by his father.  After all, a man that will not serve justice within his own family to defend the honor of his own daughter and to punish an evil perpetrated by his son, certainly could not perform that task for an entire people. 

Much like we saw with Absalom’s patience with Amnon, having waited two full years between the rape of Tamar and the final delivery of the consequences for those actions, Absalom acted meticulously.  First, there were the royal trappings.  That would be the chariot and horses and a royal guard.  Next would be gaining the trust and respect of the people.  He probably did not imagine that such would be difficult, for if he saw the king as weak, then surely the people did as well.  To effect this, “Absalom used to get up early and stand beside the road that led to the city gate.  Whenever anyone came by who had a complaint to bring to the king for arbitration, Absalom would call out to him” (15:2a), determine his city of origin, listen to his complaint, and respond by saying “Look, your claims are legitimate and appropriate.  But there is no representative of the king who will listen to you” (15:3b).  The natural corollary to this would be for Absalom to say, “If only they would make me a judge in the land!  Then everyone who had a judicial complaint could come to me and I would make sure he receives a just settlement” (15:4).  Naturally, we would have to imagine that Absalom’s commiseration with the complainer would also include his own sharing of his story of injustice and exile because there was no one, and especially not the king, that was truly interested in promoting the cause of justice for the people.   

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Absalom (part 2)

Joab, the general of David’s army, sees the pain of his king, seems to understand the exile that both he and his son are experiencing, and makes an attempt at intercession.  He “realized that the king longed to see Absalom” (2 Samuel 14:1b).  He sends a widow with a story of pain and heartache to the king, which evokes the response that Joab desired to hear, as his plan seems to be coming to fruition.  The woman continues speaking to David, and speaking on behalf of Joab, who has knowledge of the king’s grieving over Absalom and his desire to see him because he has been consoled from the death of Amnon, she makes reference to the Absalom situation, inquiring why “the king has not brought back the one he has banished” (14:13b). 

Now, this is the first that we are hearing of this.  As far as we know to this point, Absalom has fled.  He was not banished by the king, but appeared to have fled willingly.  However, this use of “banished” actually points out David’s ability to take actions, and his lack of doing so, because the very fact that David desired to see Absalom, but did not make any moves to bring this to pass, was an ongoing act of banishment.  Again, this causes us to perform a thoughtful consideration of the Genesis narrative, in that God both banished humanity from that for which it had been created, but without prodding on the part of anybody else (like Joab), God moved to end the banishment and restore the relationship that has been broken.  With Joab’s influence, exerted through the woman that he has sent to speak to David and after calling Joab to see him, David eventually gets the point and tells his general to “bring back the young man Absalom” (14:21b).  With this, David makes a move to end Absalom’s exile, beginning to grant him exodus. 

“So Joab got up and went to Geshur and brought Absalom back to Jerusalem.  But the king said, ‘Let him go over to his own house.  He may not see my face.’  So Absalom went over to his own house; he did not see the king’s face” (14:23-24).  As we can see, this is the beginning of an exodus for Absalom.  His exodus is incomplete.  There is still a measure of exile in his return, as he is not allowed to see the face of the king.  The broken relationship is not fully mended.  This is similar to the experience of Israel as a whole.  Even after the Egyptian exodus, their exodus is incomplete.  First, they wander in the wilderness for forty years.  Then, when they finally do enter the promised land, they must begin the process of subduing the land as a whole by driving out the inhabitants that God said were defiling the land.  This proved to be a feat that, for them, could not be accomplished, as Israel never achieved a complete consolidation of both land and power.  In a sense, then, their exodus, though very much real, and though very much a sign of God’s blessing upon them (so that they could be a blessing) was never complete.  There was always one more battle to be fought, one more challenge to overcome, and one more temptation to resist. 

This is how we are able to consider our own exodus (salvation, redemption) as well.  Though we have been retrieved from exile, by an operation of grace and Divine favor, our exodus---though we have entered into the kingdom of God (just as Israel had entered into the place that God had for them)---will not be complete until that kingdom is finally consummated.  There will always be one more battle to fight, one more challenge to overcome, and one more temptation to resist.  More than that, there will always be evil that needs to be pushed back, which we do through one more act of the manifestation of Resurrection power and the Gospel at a time (caring for orphans and widows, giving up a cup of cold water or food or clothes to those in need).  We will have to continually work out our salvation (our exodus), with fear and trembling, here within this world, with a constant desire to see the face of our King and our God.  This brings us back to Absalom. 

“Absalom lived in Jerusalem for two years without seeing the king’s face” (14:28).  This was not good.  We can be sure that neither the king nor Absalom reveled in this situation.  Absalom sends for Joab, saying to him “Why have I come from Geshur?  It would be better for me if I were still there” (14:32b).  This does not sound at all unlike what Israel would say to Moses on numerous occasions during the time of their incomplete exile, with the regular refrain of “wouldn’t it have been better for us to have stayed in Egypt?”  Absalom continues and says, “Let me see now the face of the king.  If I am at fault, let him put me to death!” (14:32c)  In response to this, “The king summoned Absalom, and he came to the king.  Absalom bowed down before the king with his face toward the ground and the king kissed him” (14:33b).  Thus, having seen the face of the king and not being put to death, Absalom’s exile was concluded, and his exodus was consummated.  Those that live in this day as sons and daughters of the King, look forward to the same.  

Absalom (part 1)

Now David’s son Absalom… - 2 Samuel 13:1a  (NET)

In this way we are introduced to David’s son, Absalom.  The story of Absalom well embodies the ongoing story of Israel, founded in the exodus by which they were defined (a life and worldview practically centered upon a remembrance of the Passover) and almost always at risk of being exiled from their promised land, if they failed to uphold the covenant responsibilities that had been assigned to them.  We are introduced to him by way of the story of the rape of his sister, Tamar.  Chapter thirteen of second Samuel begins with “Now David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister named Tamar” (13:1a).  For some reason, Tamar is not presented as David’s daughter, but rather, as Absalom’s sister.  We are told that Amnon, another of David’s sons “fell madly in love with Tamar” (13:1b).  This “love” eventually resulted in her being raped by Amnon.  Obviously, Tamar is humiliated and disgraced.  A pall of exile is cast over her life.

Afterwards, “Tamar, devastated, lived in the house of her brother Absalom” (13:20b), and “Absalom hated Amnon because he had humiliated his sister Tamar” (13:22b).  Absalom understood that Amnon, through his actions, had brought the shame of exile to his sister.  She was suffering.  In due time, he planned on bringing her vindication, through killing Amnon.  Absalom held a grudge against Amnon for a considerable length of time, and we find that the story of Absalom’s revenge picks up “Two years later” (13:23a).  Absalom conceived a plan by which he could secure his revenge, and send Amnon into the exile of death.  We go on to learn that, after Amnon’s demise has been accomplished, “This is what Absalom has talked about from the day that Amnon humiliated his sister Tamar” (13:32b). 

With Amnon’s death, Absalom most likely feels as if he has brought vindication to his sister, somehow relieving her of the shame and disgrace that she has experienced.  However, in the process of doing what he believed would bring his sister’s suffering to an end, and thus providing her with something like exodus, Absalom brings exile upon himself.  Surely, Absalom calculated this as part of the risk of what he was undertaking, and would have imagined that something like this might be necessary.  We read that “Absalom fled and went to King Talmai son of Ammihud of Geshur” (13:37a).  Absalom’s exile brought a measure of exile to David himself, as part of him was bound up with his son, so “David grieved over his son every day” (13:37b).  Interestingly, Absalom’s self-imposed exile lasted longer than his grudge against Amnon.  While he plotted against Amnon for two full years, Absalom remained in Geshur for three years (13:38).  Throughout that time, “the king longed to go to Absalom, for he had since been consoled over the death of Amnon” (13:39). 

This correlates rather well with the broad narrative scheme of the Scriptures that begins with the first exile---an exile that was truly self-imposed---which was that of Adam and Eve.  Though obviously their exile began on a different basis from that of Absalom, in that they did not commit a vengeful murder, they did, in fact, bring death upon themselves and upon the whole of their progeny.  It is not surprising then, to find that vengeful murder is in the heart of one of their sons, as evidenced by Cain’s jealousy-fueled murder of his brother Abel.  Having brought death, Adam and Eve were exiled from the place of God’s presence, from the Garden of Eden, and from God’s good creation.  Like Absalom, fleeing from possible punishment, their exile began with their attempting to flee from God by hiding themselves in the garden. 

Adam, of course, represents all of humanity.  Though humanity was in exile, we can be assured that God longed to have a relationship with the beings that He had created in His own image, as God was, most assuredly, bound together with His creation.  We can be assured that the Creator God longed to see His creation, and longed to see humanity and the whole of His once good creation restored to goodness and right relationship with Him, because God would eventually summon Abraham so as to put in motion His project of putting things right in the world.  Yes, just as David longed to go to Absalom, so too did the God of creation yearn for a restoration.  David was consoled over the death of Amnon, however, he did not take action based upon this consolation, nor upon his desire to be with his son.  God, desirous of consolation over the death that entered into the world and which had come upon mankind, and desirous of mending that broken relationship so as to recover what had been lost, entered into history in order to do something about it.  God wanted to bring exodus to exile.     

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Inspired Scripture (part 3 of 3)

This brings us to Ezekiel, and to a passage of Scripture that must be taken to be extraordinarily important for a right understanding of that which is contained in the letter to Timothy.  That passage, of course, is the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel, and that which is referred to as the “valley of the dry bones.”  The words of Ezekiel were spoken to a people in exile, who were looking for a return to their promised land.  They were spoken to a people that were expecting another exodus from their world that was marked by chaos (much like we see when God speaks in the creation account of Genesis).  They were held out in hope, to a people in a hopeless situation, that God would act on behalf of His people and through His people to establish His kingdom.  They spoke of a man, a people, a being, that would be raised up from out of that chaos, and inspired (God-breathed) to carry out God’s purposes in and for His world. 

Ezekiel writes: “The hand of the Lord was on me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones” (37:1).  Bones, quite obviously, denote death---something apart from God’s obvious intentions for His creation.  When we look at the account of the creation of man from the second chapter of Genesis, which is the one in which God breathes the breath of life into His image-bearing creation, and see that it is man that is brought forth as the first order of creation, we can effectively compare it to this first verse from this chapter in Ezekiel.  If man, according to the second chapter of Genesis, was the first of God’s works (and we are not attempting to debate the order of creation, especially as we remember that the Genesis account is not a scientific or chronological account, but rather, that it was meant to show the supremacy of Israel’s God, as a narrative of origins that was in competition with other creation narratives in its own time), and if, according to the second verse of chapter one, the world was in a less than desirable state (though we do acknowledge the risk of setting up a dichotomy between the two accounts and then attempting to use them seamlessly), then we can see an echo of Genesis in the words of Ezekiel. 

Continuing, Ezekiel writes “He made me walk all around among them.  I realized there were a great many bones in the valley and they were very dry.  He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’  I said to Him, ‘Sovereign Lord, you know.’  Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and tell them: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  This is what the sovereign Lord says to these bones: Look, I am about to infuse breath into you and you will live… I will put breath in you and you will live.  Then you will know that I am the Lord.”’” (37:2-5,6b)  A bit later we read “He said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath---prophesy, son of man---and say to the breath: “This is what the sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.”’  So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army” (37:9-10).  Ezekiel, just like we saw with the rest of the examples that we used, drew from the Genesis account of God’s breathing the breath of life into a specific and purposefully designed part of His creation, re-packaging it for Israel in exile, the people that God has chosen out to represent Him within His creation. 

Now, we are not going to attempt to interpret these passages from Ezekiel so as to draw conclusions from them; we are merely acknowledging how the knowledge of God and the understanding of His character and purposes that are conveyed within, are terribly crucial for correctly considering the movement of God and the assessment of the purpose of Scripture that is conveyed in the Timothy letter.  The Scriptures, as the breath of God, are to be ingested and absorbed by His people so that they might understand Him and His purposes, and therefore His purposes for them.  They do indeed reprove and correct and train, infusing the Spirit of God into those that are shaped by them, who learn to inhabit the God-oriented narrative that they present, that those people might fulfill the purpose for which Adam was intended.  This is how we must hear this powerful statement from the letter to Timothy. 

Finally, we look to John.  Now, unless it was part of the oral tradition about Jesus known to Paul, what is written there would have no bearing on the letter to Timothy (if indeed second Timothy was composed by the Apostle Paul) as it was composed late in the first century.  The testimony from the Gospel of John draws these thoughts together to capture and convey what is subtly present in the words written to Timothy.  In the twentieth chapter of John, as Jesus meets with His gathered and fearful disciples following His Resurrection, He, the one that John presents as the living word and the incarnation of the Creator God, recapitulates God’s action towards Adam, saying “’Peace be with you.  Just as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’  And after He said this,” as we draw out all the appropriate implications that are surely intended by the Author of creation and the author of the text, while bearing in mind the inspiration of Scripture as communicated to Timothy, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (20:21-22)  Yes, God breathed and gave them a purpose, to carry out His work.  Certainly, in that light and along such lines, we declare that the Scriptures are inspired.    

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Inspired Scripture (part 2)

So as we consider the thought of the holy writings being “God-breathed” or “God-Spirited,” and without getting into a detailed language study, it can be said that it is the Spirit of God that is conveyed through the holy writings of Scripture.  Therefore, the idea that the Scriptures are designed to teach us about God and about how to be His divine image-bearers in His world does not trail too far behind this thought.  The Scriptures, being inspired, convey the nature and the essence of God, to those that have been created for His specific purposes. 

Is this taking things a bit too far?  Isn’t this a complication, or perhaps a distinction without a difference?  Would it not simply be easier to hear the verse as an affirmation that our Bible is inspired in every way and therefore reliable?  Of course that would be easier, but in doing so, and taking what is truly an easy route to a conclusion that falls short of what is intended, we leave ourselves relatively impoverished when it comes to attaining to the full richness of the language employed.  Indeed, if the Scriptures truly are inspired, should they not inspire us to find out what they are telling us about the God that inspires them?  If we want to apply that notion of inspiration to the New Testament writings, all of which were composed within a thoroughly Jewish mindset, and by people that were shaped and given their identity by the narrative of Scripture, then we need to hear the voice of the movement of Scripture, and the understanding of what God expects from His people as a result of His movement, that speaks from behind the text.

When we hear about Scripture being God-breathed, are we not forced to discern what it means to be God-breathed?  What would the recipient of this letter, immersed within a world of self-identification that was shaped by the Scriptural narrative to which the author refers, have understood when he read about the God-breathed nature of the divinely shaped writings that were set apart to be used by God for His purposes (holy)?  Answering this question drives us back to the beginning, to Genesis, and to the creation of man.  In the second chapter of Genesis we read that “The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (2:7).  Here, God breathed.  In the first chapter, we find that “God created humankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them.  God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply!  Fill the earth and subdue it” (1:27-28a).  Yes, the second chapter confirms that God breathed life into the being that He created to bear His image into the world---into the being that He intended to tend to His good creation, spreading the knowledge and glory of God as His representatives.  Has this mission gone unchanged?  Is this not a great work for which God trains us, doing so through that which is primarily designed to communicate knowledge of Him? 

Though this would be a more than sufficient basis upon which we could build a doctrinal foundation that should animate us in our representation of and service for the kingdom of God, this is not an isolated occurrence.  Though this study is certainly not designed to an exhaustive presentation of God’s breathing, there are other important instances of such things in Scripture, to which the author of the second letter to Timothy makes reference and most likely expects to be called to mind by this simple reference.  In the book that bears his name, Job makes reference to the general understanding of the creation narrative and of man’s place in it when he speaks and says “for while my spirit is still in me, and the breath from God is in my nostrils” (27:3).  Later on, Elihu will speak to Job and say “But it is a spirit in people, the breath of the Almighty, that makes them understand” (32:8).  He will continue on to say “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (33:8).  In Ecclesiastes, the “preacher” tells us that “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath returns to God who gave it” (12:7).  In Isaiah, as reference is made to God’s creation and His creative power, we find “This is what the true God, the Lord, says---the one who created the sky and stretched it out, the one who fashioned the earth and everything that lives on it, the one who gives breath to the people on it, and life to those who live on it” (42:5).  Jeremiah, and others, make the point that “There is no breath in any of those idols” (51:17b).  Idols, which are designed to represent a God, have no breath, whereas a human, a divine image-bearer, is animated by God’s very breath.  A stark contrast indeed. 

While we do not take the time to draw all of the possible conclusions that can be teased out from these passages, certainly, these passages from the book of Job, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, which well encapsulates the exile and exodus narrative that appears to be foundational within Scripture, gives us a tremendous perspective from which we can view the words on offer to Timothy.     

Inspired Scripture (part 1)

Every Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17  (NET)

A powerful statement indeed!  Too often, however, we get focused on the first part of the statement, that of Scripture being inspired by God, and though we always go on to quote the last part, we see it as something of an add-on, proving the fact of its inspiration, because it provides teaching, reproof, correction, and training.  In addition to that, we generally reference the verse in a post-Reformation context, using it as a proof text for the infallibility of Scripture, which was proposed in response to the doctrines of the infallibility of Pope and church.  This, of course, while certainly worth considering when we contemplate the value of our sacred text, is entirely anachronistic and not really worth pursuing if we desire to hear the letter speak on its own terms and within its own setting. 

There is a movement here in what is found in the text.  Naturally, there is a movement in the sense that this is not designed to be heard in isolation.  Prior to the sixteenth verse, we hear/read “You, however, must continue in the things you have learned and are confident about.  You know who taught you and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:14-15).  By this we are reminded that there is no reference being made here to anything that we would consider as part of the New Testament.  At the time at which this letter is written, if indeed composed by the Apostle Paul and forwarded on to Timothy during the Apostle’s lifetime, the only New Testament writings that can be safely and confidently presumed to exist would be the letters of Paul.  While it is possible, and indeed probable, that the letters of James and Peter are in existence at that point, it certainly cannot be said that Paul was referring to his own letters as “holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” 

By no means would Paul, based on what we know about his disposition through his letters, and though they were certainly meant to be impactful for their recipients, have considered his letters to the churches as being inspired Scripture on par with the writings of the law and the prophets.  We do see Paul offering words from the Lord in contrast to words that come from him, and we do see find Paul speaking confidently and tersely at times, but this does not allow us to presume that Paul thought extraordinarily highly of his own writings.  Any attempt to make this insistence on his part is only due to the preservation of the writings and the value of the teaching and instruction contained therein, as Christians have studied and preserved the writings for well nigh two thousand years, but that does not allow us to go well beyond that which is warranted.  It is undeniable, however, that God has most certainly worked through the New Testament writings, which actually goes towards proving the point of this study. 

On a wider scale, the movement contained here in the third chapter of the second letter to Timothy goes beyond the instructional movement of the letter, as encouragement is conveyed to the recipient.  The movement draws from a long-established understanding about God, the nature of God, the work of God, and yes, the movement of God.  In order to hear the words as part of the movement, we must address that word “inspired.”  The Greek word here translated “inspired” is “theopneustos.”  There are two parts to this word.  The first, “theo,” is “God.”  The second, is “pneustos,” or generally speaking, “breathed.”  The root word for “pneustos” is “pneuma,” which, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures primarily employed by the authors of the New Testament) and in the New Testament, while also used formally as a stand-in for the Spirit, is routinely translated as “breath.”  It is the suffix of the word that allows us to understand it as “breathed.”  An acceptable rendering of the word would then be “God-breathed.” 

With the equivalence that is created between breath and Spirit, it could be said that the word, and therefore the concept being communicated by the word, could be understood as “God-Spirited.”  This would seem to reinforce the common notion of “inspiration,” meaning that God placed His very Spirit in the words of Scripture, therefore forcing us to see the Scriptures themselves as that which have been inspired by God.  There is no need to dispute this assertion, but stopping there would cause us to fall short of grasping the bigger picture of what the author has in mind when these words are penned.  Stopping at that point, which only allows us to see as far as an assertion about the words of Scripture, would leave us short of the understanding about God conveyed throughout all of Scripture.  The Scriptures, first and foremost, are designed to teach us about God, so that we might effectively reflect His glory---as through them we are taught, reproved, corrected, trained, and equipped to serve God’s purposes.  To presume that Scripture teaches about itself as being Scripture takes us down an awkward and most likely unintended path towards idolatry.    

Thursday, June 16, 2011

No One Knows The Hour (part 26 of 26)

Tying off Jesus’ Temple-fall-and-coming-of-the-Son-of-Man related speech, and continuing a clearly pronounced connective theme, Matthew writes “When Jesus had finished saying all these things” (26:1a).  Based on what we have seen with the synoptic use of “these things,” and the fact that it appears in a related passage in Peter’s second letter, its usage here simply cannot escape our attention or be at all considered as a random placement.  Matthew wants to draw our attention to the fact that all that we have just heard from Jesus, from the fourth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter, through the final verse of the twenty-fifth chapter, was presented in relation to the fall of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days for the purpose of receiving His kingdom.

This, of course, includes Jesus’ insistence that “as for that day and hour no one knows it---not even the angels in heaven---except the Father alone” (24:36).  What Jesus is saying here could not be any more obvious.  In fact, by this point, it would take a willful refusal to acknowledge the point that is being made, or to hear Jesus talking about anything but the fall of the Temple when He makes this statement.  This probably does not even need to be said, but to somehow connect this to some kind of rapture or to the return of Jesus to earth, considering the incredibly obvious context that is on offer, strains credulity to the point of breaking. 

Throughout the whole of Matthew twenty-four, Jesus has never once wavered from answering the question that was posed by His disciples, and which was prompted by His statement about the Temple.  By way of one final review, we read “Now as Jesus was going out of the Temple courts and walking away, His disciples came to show Him the Temple buildings” (24:1).  In response to what He sees, Jesus says “Do you see all these things?  I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another.  All will be torn down!” (24:2)  His disciples, who did not imagine that He was talking about anything but the Temple being torn down, with not one stone being left on another, which would have been catastrophic and unimaginable to their way of thinking, say “Tell us, when will these things happen?” (24:3b)  To that is added, by Matthew, “And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3c)  We know that the question is based upon the quite popular seventh chapter of Daniel, and that the coming of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days, and the concordant receipt of His kingdom will mark the end of one age and the beginning of another.  Apart from that, we remember that Mark and Luke simply have the disciples adding, “And what will the sign that all these things are about to take place?”  Yes, the disciples know that Jesus is speaking about the fall of the Temple and want to know how they will know when it is that this singularly cataclysmic event will occur. 

In response, we find that “Jesus answered them” (24:4a).  Jesus did not set about answering an unasked question about the end of time.  No, He answered the question that He was asked.  No, we do not always expect this from Jesus, but then again, He is not answering a challenge from the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, or experts in the law.  He is answering His disciples, and as usual, when it comes to them, He is speaking plainly.  Yes, to the crowds He speaks in mysterious language, but He gives answers to His disciples.  So Jesus answers them.  His answer begins in verse five of chapter twenty-four, and it runs to the end of chapter twenty-five.  The entire time, the focus of the answer remains unchanged, though He does provide interesting information in the process---unexpected information (unexpected in terms of Mark and Luke’s presentation of the disciples’ question, but anticipated in the question from the disciples as presented by Matthew) about the connection of the fall of the Temple to the time of the Son of Man’s coming to the Ancient of Days.  He even reinforces the connection, speaking about the Son of Man beyond our thrust text, repeating the term three times in rapid succession, from verse thirty-seven to verse forty-four.  In all three cases, the Son of Man comes to receive His kingdom at an unexpected time---no one knows the hour. 

Throughout the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew (as well as Mark thirteen and Luke twenty-one), Jesus gives His disciples a great deal of information, clueing them in so that they will have a decent idea as to when the Temple is going to fall.  However, He could not be more clear that they will not know the exact moment that events will coalesce and conspire to bring down the Temple.  When it comes to that, “as for that day and hour, no one knows it---not even the angels,” the ones that will be sent out to gather His elect (24:31) and that accompany the Son of Man when He comes in His glory (25:31), “except the Father alone.” 

With the repeated mentions of the Son of Man, which seems to override the importance of fall of the Temple and truly becomes the point of the discourse, we get the sense that Jesus’ words, though initially prompted by the question about the Temple, becomes less about them knowing the exact time of the Temple’s collapse, and more about them knowing that when it happens, and when Jesus’ prediction comes true, that they can then know that He, the Son of Man, has had His universal dominion confirmed and that He indeed rules as King and Lord of all.  If we had been hearing Jesus speak, we may not have been able to know the hour that the Temple was going to come crashing down, but we could be certain that, according to His words, when it did, we could be supremely confident that He ruled as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Indeed, we can look to the place where the Temple once stood, see that it stands there no longer, and know that Jesus spoke truly, that He rules His kingdom, and that He demands our participation in that kingdom along the lines outlined in the narrative found in Matthew.  Is it not that knowledge that should animate our lives in this day?             

No One Knows The Hour (part 25)

Before we tackle the text that started us down this path and from which we have taken the title of our study, we’ll take the opportunity to bolster the conjecture in which we engaged concerning second Peter.  To get there, we first look to Matthew, as Jesus continues on with His discourse about the fall of the Temple, he says to “stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, He would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matthew 24:42-43).  Because of what we have determined, that the author of second Peter is referencing the prediction that the Temple would indeed fall, we are not at all surprised when we hear him say “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (3:10a), as the analogy is drafted into use. 

Along the same lines, if second Peter is being written with a knowledge of that which will eventually come to be communicated in Matthew twenty-four, then we are also quite unsurprised to hear the regular references to Noah and the judgment of the flood, especially considering what we hear Jesus saying: “For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be.  For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark” (24:37-38).  To that, Jesus adds “And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away.  It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man” (24:39).  If Jesus’ prediction is, in fact, in mind, and if questions concerning the legitimacy of His prediction and therefore His ministry and therefore the church and its proclamation concerning Him, then this provides an interesting avenue by which to approach something to be found in the first chapter of the letter, which is “Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing.  You do well to pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place” (1:19a). 

In the third chapter, after insisting that the day of the Lord will come like a thief, a question is proffered: “Since all these things are to melt away in this manner,” as we remember the three uses of “these things” in the synoptic recountings of Jesus’ discourse (while also remembering that, if this is indeed written before the Temple’s fall, that there is no access to Matthew, but rather, only the oral tradition and possibly Mark, if it was written before the fall, though this particular letter seems to make reference to that which would find its way into the Matthean tradition), “what sort of people must we be?” (3:11)  Jesus proposes an answer to this question about the sort of people that His people must be as they wait for the fall of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man to receive His kingdom.  He says “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time?  Blessed is that slave whom the master finds at work when he comes.  I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions” (24:45-47).  He then goes on to provide a contrast with an evil slave. 

Jesus continues, saying “At that time,” the time when the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days and the Temple falls, “the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (25:1), with a further contrast between those that were wise and foolish in their preparation in relation to the coming of the bridegroom (who clearly stands in for the Son of Man for purposes of this parable).  Following that, Jesus offers up that which is referred to as “the parable of the talents,” saying “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them” (25:14).  Like the previously mentioned slaves, these slaves were all given certain responsibilities.  Continuing, as we continue to seek the answer to “what sort of people must we be?”, we hear Jesus say “When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him” (another telling mention of angels---not even the angels in heaven know when the Son of Man is going to come to the ancient of days), “then He will sit on His glorious throne.  All the nations will be assembled before Him,” as Daniel seven indicates, “and He will separate people from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.  Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:31-34). 

To whom is Jesus referring when He speaks of sheep?  It is those to whom the Son of Man, the King, speaks and says “For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I was naked and you gave Me clothing, I was sick and you took care of Me, I was in prison and you visited Me” (25:35-36).  He, as the Son of Man, the King, goes on to add: “I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for Me” (25:40).  If we are looking for an answer as to what sort of people we must be, this is as good as any, especially when the goats are described as those that did not do these things.