Archive for February, 2010

What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

February 17, 2010

What does the adage "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first" have to do with the workers in the vineyard?

Reference: Matthew 20 Matthew 20:16

Question:

What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”  And what does it have to do with the parable of the vineyard workers?

Answer:

The meaning of Jesus’ curious statement about the first and last role reversal has everything to do with the parable that precedes it.  I have said in previous posts that parables should not be treated as strict allegories.  In other words, we should avoid assigning a specific meaning to every element of a parable.  However, there are some overwhelming first-century symbols that cannot be overlooked.  In this parable we find just such a symbol… the vineyard.  Remember, we need to hear this parable as the first century listeners would have heard it.  Considering that important interpretive note, the idea of the vineyard takes on a potent meaning that cannot be ignored.

The vineyard was an analogy for the people of Israel (see Isaiah 5 or Psalm 80). The vineyard was a symbol of Israel and its promised prosperity.  With this knowledge the message of the parable becomes much clearer.  Thus the workers who come late still get to take part in the reward of the vineyard and its owner. Jesus is communicating a radical message to the leaders and the people of Israel that says, ‘the Kingdom of God has been opened up to the Gentiles too’.  The nation of Israel may have been first, but that doesn’t mean that others cannot receive the blessing.

Thus, when Jesus says “those who are last now will be first, and those who are first will be last” we must interpret it in light of Jesus message about Jews and Gentiles.  This is more than just a comment on pride and humility.  Jesus is suggesting that the ones who show up later, the Gentiles, have just as prominent a place in the kingdom of God as the Jews.  The trouble is that this does not sit well with those who were already there.  In Verses 10 and 11 one can see the discontent of the workers who showed up first.  It is there that you get a sense of what it means for the first to be last.   For those who think they deserve more and they get less, it feels like losing.  But what Jesus is really saying is that there is no distinction between those who arrive early and those who arrive late (Jews and Gentiles respectively).

Today this message applies to the Church.  Sometimes the Church can be so closed off from the world.  The message for those of us who know Jesus already is that we should long for all people to partake in the same reward that we ourselves receive when we follow after Jesus.

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Subtle Contradictions in Scripture (How long did the Exodus plagues take?)

February 17, 2010

Do the plagues contradict each other?

Reference: Exodus 9

Question:

How long was the period of time of the different plagues? It seems that it must have been many years because in one plague God killed all the livestock and then later the livestock had boils.

Answer:

It is difficult to tell exactly how long the Exodus Plagues took.  Thankfully it’s not important at all.  Some students of the Bible might like to go through and count  days, weeks, tomorrows, etc. that are mentioned in Exodus 7 through 11 (e.g. Exodus 7:25).  This rough calculation ends up somewhere in the vicinity of 2 weeks to a month.  But this doesn’t account for larger (unmentioned) time spans that could have occurred between other plagues.  We cannot comment on things that scripture leaves unsaid.   The fact is that the author of Exodus does not tell us how long the process took.  Probably because it doesn’t matter.

But what do we do with the apparent contradiction in this chapter?

In chapter 9, it says that all the livestock of the Egyptians were killed (Exodus 9:6), but later in the same chapter we see that livestock of the Egyptians were subject to other plagues.  The following plague of the boils stuck the “animals” in the land.  It does not say “livestock”, in fact it is a completely different word in the original Hebrew.  Livestock refers to the animals raised for human use.  Animals is a broader term that encompasses all animals.  Thus, we don’t need to jump to the conclusion that livestock had repopulated Egypt in time to be struck with boils.  However, in the subsequent plague, the plague of hail, it alludes to the fact that the Egyptian livestock were subject to the horrible hail storm.  Also, in chapter 14 Pharaoh and his army chase after the Israelites on their horses, so clearly there were livestock still alive in Egypt.  How could there be livestock if they had all been killed in the fifth plague?  What explanation could there be for that?

Well, I could be a smart-alek and point out that God said back in verse 3 of chapter 9 that he would strike down the livestock ‘in the field’. Thus, those livestock that were not outside would not have been affected by the plague against the livestock.  That answer doesn’t sit well with me though.  We should never overlook words and details in scripture, but we should only give them the weight that their communicative intent warrants.   Proof-texting and word-for-word literalizing does the meaning of the text a disservice.  When interpreting scripture, we need to continually ask the question “what is this passage trying to communicate?”.   Exodus is not a historical document like we understand historical documents today.  Thus, even when we read in scripture what we would call contradictions, it does not diminish its truth or its weight for our lives.

This passage is not trying to communicate the subtleties of the plagues, it IS trying to communicate the power of God, the rescue of God, and the glory of God.  We also see the significance of what it means for the will of a man (Pharaoh) to contend with the will of God.  This is a significant theme throughout scripture, and here we see that although God gives us free will, ultimately God will not contend with our disobedience, and he will accomplish his perfect providential will.  In this case, part of that providential will was releasing his people from captivity.  The amount of time that the plagues took, or the appearance of what we might call a contradiction does not change what this passage was meant to say.

Were Pharaoh’s magicians able to perform real magic?

February 17, 2010

The Plague of Blood: Did the magicians really do these things too?

Reference: Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7

Question:

In Exodus 7:10+ how can that act of going ‘One On One’ with Moses’ miracles such as the staff turning into a serpent or the staff turning the water to blood, etc… be explained? This wasn’t just 3 Card Monte or slight of the hand tricks. These were huge events that took place.  Yet Pharaoh’s magicians were able to perform them as well.

2 Possible Answers:

Logically there are only two options concerning the magic.  Either these guys were the ancient Egyptian equivalent of David Blane or they had X-men powers.  Either way though, the message communicated stays the same.

Option 1. The magic was a trick:  It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that these men were simply performing amazing tricks.  They may have been students of nature who knew how to manipulate animal behavior for the sake of control or appearance.  Or perhaps they may have been very good at selling people on their tricks.  In the passages listed above it says that Moses performed the action first.  In the plague of blood, the entire Nile River turned to blood by the hand of God first.  So how could the magicians have turned the Nile to blood if it was already turned to blood.  It doesn’t say that they did, it only says that following the actions of Moses and Aaron the magicians turned some nondescript water into blood.  This certainly could have been a trick.  But turning the Nile into blood is nothing short of a horrific sign of God.  Likewise, Aaron and Moses first caused frogs to come up and cover the land.  How then could the magicians prove that they did anything if the land was already covered with frogs.   This again could have been a trick, or a manipulation of Pharaoh, who is the key antagonist in this contest.

Option 2. The magic was real: The only other option is that the Magic was indeed real.  We know from scripture that the world we live in is one in which there is a real spiritual battle going on all around us.  God is the great God of power, but his kingdom on earth was usurped by Satan back in Genesis 3.  That means there are spiritual forces, with unexplainable spiritual powers in this world.  Paul dealt with this in Acts, Jesus confronted it often in the Gospels.  Thus, it is also perfectly logical and within Biblical precedent to arrive at the conclusion that Pharaoh’s magicians, by some type of ancient divination had tapped into a source of power other than God (a practice explicitly forbidden by God Deuteronomy 18:10; Leviticus 19:26).  All this to say, some other spiritual power could have been allowing them to perform real magic.

One Possible Interpretation

Whichever option one ascribes to above, they must still arrive at the same conclusion, and the main point of these passages.  Namely, Pharaoh’s heart hardens and God wins the contest.  Whether this was real magic or well-disguised tricks, Pharaoh’s heart became hard because of them.  Or, as I conclude in a previous blog post, Pharaoh’s heart was already hard.  Thus, even if they were only tricks they still wouldn’t have had to be very impressive to make Pharaoh deny God’s request to “Let my people go!”  But the most important conclusion is that God wins.  Every time that the magicians of Pharaoh try to challenge the mighty hand of God they fall short until they themselves agree that this is “The finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).  But still Pharaoh would not believe until the most horrific plague of all, the death of the first-borns, in which Pharaoh lost his own son.  Awful as this was, it served as a potent sign of God’s power, and his mercy, for it was in this final plague that God would “passover” the Israelites and spare them from his wrath.  The Israelites shed the blood of lambs and marked their homes so that God would, pass them by.  This is one of the most powerful moments of mercy and of foreshadowing toward Jesus, who would be the Passover Lamb for all of us.  Again, we see a reminder of one of the most important truths of this passage and all of scripture, God wins!

Did God approve of slavery in the Old Testament?

February 5, 2010

Reference: Exodus 21:2-11

Question:

We simply can’t believe that God made the regulations for having slaves. Although we know that these regulations were a big deal at that time, it’s unbelievable for us that God literally said them. Wouldn’t God say that everybody belongs to him instead of to a person?

Could God really have condoned slavery?

Answer:

An entire volume could be dedicated toward the explanation of this topic, but this is a blog, so I will try to keep it brief.

For obvious reasons, it is very difficult for us to justify the issue of slavery as it is presented in several parts of scripture.  First of all, the idea of possessing or owning another person is detestable to us, as it should be.  The other reason that we find this so difficult is because the primary understanding that our westernized culture has of slavery comes from the history of African slaves and their experience in Europe and the Americas during the 16th through the 19th century.  Even today people of African decent still feel the effects of that racist system that was abolished a hundred and fifty years ago.  Perhaps the most intriguing issue with slavery in the book of Exodus is the fact that God just rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, so it seems that there is an inherent contradiction within the culture if there is any acceptance of slavery.

In an effort to answer the question above as it pertains specifically to God and slavery, I will approach the question with a mind toward faithful Biblical interpretation.  There are 3 angles from which we can better understand slavery in the Bible, cultural context, textual context, and theological context (the latter of which will give the most concise answer concerning God).  I will stay away from doing any in depth language or other exegetical work and I will keep this post focused on the Old Testament, as there will likely be future posts on slavery in the New Testament.

The Practice of Slavery in its Cultural Context

As with any difficult issue of interpretation in the bible we must not underestimate the importance of cultural context.  It is too complicated an issue to simply say “slavery was accepted in the ancient near east” and then brush it aside.  But it is important that we understand that the kind of slavery referred to in the Mosaic Law is a different kind of slavery than the African slavery in U.S. history or the sex slavery that is still so prevalent today.  Even when Exodus was written there were different kinds of slavery.  There was prisoner of war slavery, in which prisoners became the property of the nation or army that captured them in battle; there was the chattel slavery, in which slaves were captured, sold, and traded as the Israelites had experienced in Egypt (this can be likened to the capture and sale of Africans during the African diaspora).  Lastly, there was a kind of slavery called debt slavery, in which individuals or families would submit themselves to temporary or permanent slavery as a means of paying off a debt or taking care of their families.  It is the later kind of slavery, debt slavery, to which the laws in Exodus refer.

All forms of slavery are economic in nature.  Some though, are more socially balanced than others.  When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt there there was no social balance to speak of.  In other words, they were captured and forcefully put to work so that Egypt would have free labor for which the slaves received nothing but cruelty from their masters.  Debt slavery however, works much differently.  Debt slavery was a part of a social structure that allowed for the poor to care for themselves.  Sadly, this was the lot of the poor and destitute in ancient society.  For the poor there were few options for them to pay off their debts or earn a wage that would allow them to survive.  In such cases they could (by their own free will) submit themselves to a slave/master relationship in which they would work for a certain amount of years (depending on the size of they’re debt) in return for their debt being released or paid for.  While this is not an ideal situation, and led to many abuses, there is a clear difference between this kind of slavery and chattel slavery which was explicitly forbidden by God (Exodus 21:16).

In ancient near eastern culture the practice of debt slavery would have been common.  What would not have been common were laws designed to protect the slaves, as we see in Exodus 21 and elsewhere.  Thus, God was providing a means of protection for people who otherwise would not have had rights at all.

The Practice of Slavery in Its Broader Biblical Context

It is not enough though to acknowledge that slavery was an accepted part of the ancient social structure and then move on.  These laws are still difficult to swallow, so we need to understand them in their broader textual context.  As we read through the Law of Moses in Exodus through Deuteronomy we need to remember that the Law works much differently then our laws today.  Unlike our laws, the laws of Israel did not stand alone, they complemented each other, leaned on each other, and relied on each other.  There are 613 different laws from Exodus through Deuteronomy and none of them stands in isolation, they support and sustain the whole (Bruckner).

In other words, if you are going to fully understand the laws on Slavery, you need to understand ALL of the laws together.  They cannot stand on their own.  For example, we cannot simply read the first few verses of Exodus and assume that all slavery was okay, because later in the same chapter we see that the kidnapping of people and selling of slaves is forbidden (Exodus 21:16).  Furthermore, we cannot fully understand the social structure of debt Slavery within the Jewish faith without fully embracing the idea of ‘debt release’ as prescribed in the Law’s teaching on the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25).  The year of Jubilee was an unprecedented time of renewal, redemption, and forgiveness that God prescribed in his law.  It took place every fiftieth year.  In the verses below you see what represents a radical protection of the poor who otherwise would have been subject to harsh treatment as slaves.

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. 40 Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee… 42 The people of Israel are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, so they must never be sold as slaves. 43 Show your fear of God by not treating them harshly.” Leviticus 25:39-43

The astute observer would note that the next verses in Leviticus state that for the foreigner it is okay to purchase them as slaves and treat them as property (Leviticus 25:44-46).  These words seem hard, yes, but we must not forget the many laws that protect and advocate for the foreigner, as well as the foreign slave.  God reminds the Israelites often that they too, “were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

The Practice of Slavery in the Broader Theological Context

Ultimately, the question that we need to wrestle with here is ‘how could God allow for this within the community of his people?’  God is not advocating for slavery in these passages.  God abhors the inequality that exists in our world .  No human can belong to another because we all belong to God (Psalm 24:1).  But we must not forget that the laws that God provides in Exodus are for a broken society living in a broken world.  The system of slavery (be it debt slavery or chattel slavery) is a powerful reminder of that brokenness.  The Law does not bring redemption of that brokenness, only Jesus Christ can do that.  Thus, when God gave Law and regulations concerning slavery, that did not constitute an acceptance of that broken system, it was more like a bandage given to his people to help protect those who were marginalized in society.  At the end of the day though, salvation and redemption do not come through the Law, but through Christ (Galatians 2:16)

The Parable of the Wedding Feast. How do I interpret this parable?

February 3, 2010

Reference: Matthew 22:1-14

Original Question:

Could you please explain the end of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13. All the people who were coming to the feast  were wearing wedding clothes, except one. First, how did the guy without the clothes get into the feast? For us the feast means the feast in heaven and the wedding clothes are our new life in Christ. So can I get into heaven without putting on the new clothes?  Or was the reason to throw the man outside not for wearing the wrong clothes but because he couldn’t reply to the King’s question? He calls the man Friend, so he wasn’t mad at the beginning of the conversation.

Modified Question:

How do I interpret this parable (and others)?

A note on interpretation of parables:

The interpretation of parables is not an easy task, and this parable is considered by many to be THE MOST DIFFICULT to interpret.  Unfortunately parable interpretation is a difficult task that scholars have made even more difficult for centuries by ‘over interpreting’ the parables.  The tendency of most people (including historical smarties) is to apply allegory to the parable where it does not belong.  Allegory is a literary device that uses elements of a story to represent elements of real life.  The Wizard of Oz for example, is an allegory.  The Tin Man represents the industrial revolution, the Scarecrow represents the midwest farmer, etc.  Almost every character and setting in the story has some symbolic meaning.  Some parables have allegorical elements, but we must resist the temptation to allegorize the parables.  Usually they are simple stories that have a specific intent.  They are not all-encompassing allegories in which everything has some hidden meaning.  Jesus was not trying to speak in some hidden code.  Thus, in this parable, we should be slow to assign specific allegorical meanings to each element and instead ask the simple question, What is Jesus’ message here?

To do so though there are some things we need to know…

The Parable of the Feast in Matthew (an Explanation)

“Friend, where is your wedding garment” - 14th Century Russian icon of the 'Parable of the Feast'. Note the man on the right being bound and thrown out in the street.

First of all, we need to know WHO Jesus is talking to.  This will help a great deal with our understanding.  Remember, he’s not talking to us, though once we have come to an understanding of Jesus’ intent we can apply it to our lives.  For now though, Jesus is talking to some first century Palestinian audience.  Most likely he is addressing this parable to the religious leaders of Israel.  We can gather this given the context and tone of the previous parable, the immediate transition from the previous parable, and the opening of this parable “Jesus told them”, we can assume that “them” refers the religious leaders that he was already pissing off in chapter 21.

Secondly, we need to understand who this parable is about.  Like the previous parable in chapter 21, it is likely that this parable is also about the priests and Pharisees, though we might be able to apply this to the broader population of Israel.

Lastly, this parable is eschatological (see other posts dealing with eschatology).  It has to do with God’s coming kingdom.  We can gather this from the language of banquet and feast.  These terms would have been synonymous with the end times for first century listeners.  So also is the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” which would have been synonymous with judgment and the end.

Even with this little bit of knowledge we can begin to piece together the intent of this parable.  Essentially what Jesus is communicating to his listeners here is that it is often those who we may not expect who will be invited into the Kingdom.  Imagine what this would have been like for the Pharisees and teachers of the law to hear.  They think that they are a shoe-in for heaven, they think that they have lived there lives perfectly and all their ducks are in a row.  Jesus has other ideas though.  He sees a group of people who think that their merit and their Jewish-birth-status will earn them salvation.  They think that they are already there at the feast, but the reality is that they haven’t even responded to the invitation.

For us the message is simple. “The Kingdom is like a prepared banquet, and to refuse its invitation is to encounter judgment” (Snodgrass, 320).  It is a harsh message to be sure.  We would probably like it better if Jesus was more “nice guy” and just let everyone come without the whole destruction and killing part.  But remember that our God of grace and love is also a God of justice and judgment.

At the end of the parable we still need to deal with another part that can be a bit confusing.  The last 3 verses (Matt. 22:11-13) are thought by some to be part of another parable that was added on to this one.  Whether or not that is true, we still need to deal with the intent of what Jesus was trying to say, when he talks about a man who was at the feast without the proper clothes for the wedding feast.

Fortunately we have already dealt with who Jesus is addressing and to what the parable is referring.  In this apparent addendum to the parable we are dealing with a man who has shown up without proper wedding clothes.  Likely his clothes are his every day dirty clothes.  Some of us may be tempted to equate the wedding clothes of the other guests as “being clothed in the righteousness of Christ” or something similar, but that is the kind of allegorizing that we should avoid.  We need to deal with Jesus’ intent toward a first century Jewish audience, not our own external understanding and Christian imagery.  “What is important is that the man made no preparation to wear something fitting to the feast he chose to attend” (321).  Simply put, this man in his dirty clothes represents those unrighteous people who make no preparation for the coming Judgement of God.  Again, these are harsh themes, but they are important for us as we look toward the return of Christ and consider our own preparation and the pursuit of those who are far from God.

Because of the complexity, length, and two-part nature of this parable it has more than one theme.  It has three…

1. The refusal of Israel’s religious leaders to respond to the invitation to the banquet.

2. The gathering of the kingdom of God

3. The separation that takes place at Judgment.

There is no need to assign specific meaning to the man’s non-response at the end, or the king’s initial reference to him as ‘friend’.  The important thing is that he showed up for the banquet unprepared and he was Judged accordingly.  This is a hard teaching for us but the message for our lives should be very clear.  We need to be ready for the banquet.  Christ promised that he would come “and come quickly” (Revelation 22:12 NASB).  Our task is to ready our lives and the lives of others that we meet. Whether we like to hear about God’s Judgement or not does not make its reality any more or less real.  Fortunately, our salvation is based not on our merit but on Christ’s work on the cross.  Our readiness then, is the product of believing in him.  If we believe in him, our lives will reflect the kind of clothes we are supposed to be wearing to the banquet.

See Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass

Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

February 3, 2010

Reference: Exodus (Various Verses)

Moses (the guy with the white beard) and his brother Aaron (the guy talking to Pharaoh) after the final plague (death of the firstborns). Note that even then Pharaoh is depicted as having a proud look and a hard heart.

In Exodus 4-14 there are 20 occurrences in which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.  That wouldn’t seem like such a big deal except for the fact that in half of those occurrences it says that the LORD is the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  Why would God do that?  Doesn’t that seem like the God is manipulating Pharaoh’s will?  Doesn’t it seem like he is forcing Pharaoh to do evil, when perhaps he otherwise would have done good?  And in the end does God hold Pharaoh responsible for the actions that God himself forced him to do?

First of all, we need to remember who the bad guy is here.  This Pharaoh and his forefathers had subjected the Israelites to cruel slavery for generations.  The Egyptians had become one of the richest and most powerful empires of the ancient world.  The economic benefit of free labor is not something that Pharaoh would have given up easily (just look at our own country’s history, the emancipation of the Slaves led to the bloodiest war in American History and it was all about economics).  So it is safe to say that Pharaoh’s heart is already about as hard as it can get.  Furthermore, half of the instances of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened occurred with no mention of God doing the hardening.  In other words, this is a guy who had it out for Israel and was determined to defy God at every turn.

Concerning the trouble with the fact that God prophesies that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 14:4,17) we should keep in mind the nature of God’s prophesies, namely, that they are usually conditional.  In other words, God is saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart IF he does not do what I say” in which case the issue of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is already a mutt point, because if Pharaoh doesn’t do what Moses asks him to do (i.e. “Let my people go”) then his heart is hardened, not by God’s doing but by Pharaoh’s own greed, pride, and selfishness (see 1 Samuel 6:6).

In 2 Chronicles 36 there is another similar situation where it seems like God is pulling the strings of a leader who holds the fate of Israel in his hands.  Only in this instance the heart is not hardened, the heart is “stirred”.  It says  in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 that God “Stirred the heart of Cyrus” to let the people return to Israel after their 70-year exile.  This is a situation that we don’t usually call into question because it is much easier to swallow the idea that God would move a leader’s heart to do something good rather than the contrary.  So does that mean that in Pharaoh’s situation God pulled the evil string and in Cyrus’s situation God pulled the good string?   Not at all.  One of the tough things that we need to grapple with is that God is fully sovereign (in control) AND his people have complete free will.  If that seems like an impossible combination, then welcome to the bigness and complexity of our God.  Unfortunately there is no blog-ready answer for that conundrum.

Lastly, some people say that God made Pharaoh’s heart hard so that he would have more opportunity to show how great he is.  Exodus 9:16 makes it clear that God’s glory was definitely put on display because of the actions of Pharaoh.  But while it is true that God’s greatness had an opportunity to be put on display every time Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, that does not mean that God was pulling the strings to make the situation go that way.  Certainly God was glorified by his great rescue of his enslaved people from Egypt, but he would have been glorified as well if Pharaoh had let the people go right away, just as was the situation when the Exiled people of Israel returned to Jerusalem from Babylon several generations later.  This was a very similar situation, but God was still glorified in that situation just as he was glorified during the exodus from Egypt.  Pharaoh was making his own decisions, and even then God was glorified.

All this to say, Pharaoh had a free will and with that free will he made his heart very hard.  The only thing that God did to ‘harden’ Pharaoh’s heart was to say through Moses “Let my people go!”  An unwelcome command that made Pharaoh very grumpy.  Often times our hearts become hard when God asks us to do things that we don’t want to do, but that doesn’t mean that God is the one making our hearts heard.  That’s a bad decision that we make all by ourselves.

Why did God try to kill Moses?

February 2, 2010

God tries to kill Moses? Why wasn't this part in the movie?

Reference: Exodus 4:24-26

Question:

Why did God try to kill Moses?

Answer:

Holy Smoke!  This one is just too weird.  If for no other reason then the fact that it is so cryptically brief.  Out of the blue, God tries to kill Moses, his wife circumcises their son, she tells off her husband, and God spares Moses.  Wow!  There is little if any time to even figure out what is going on here.  But even if this was a whole chapter, it is hard to think of a good reason why God would want to kill the leader he had spent the past 40 years prepping to rescue his people.

From a literary perspective it is interesting to note that the preceding passages have a lot to do with firstborn sons.  God has told Moses to go and rescue God’s firstborn son Israel from Pharaoh.  To do so Moses will threaten Egypt with the death of Pharaoh’s first born son.  And here in these brief verses, Moses‘ son gets thrown into the mix.  I think that it is safe to say that the bizarre action of God in this passage has a lot to do with Moses’ son, more specifically the fact that Moses had not circumcised his son.  This may seem like a small thing to us, but consider that circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and his people Israel.  Moses was about to take leadership of God’s people, and he had neglected to circumcise his own son, one of the most important acts of their faith.

Given the brevity of the passage it is hard to discern why Moses’ son had not been circumcised.  It is likely though that there was some internal family argument about the issue given the disdain with which his wife Zapporah responded saying “Now you are a bridegroom of blood to me.”  Zapporah was a Midianite and may have been turned off by the practice of circumcision, or Moses himself may have been lax on the issue.  Her anger may have been because Moses had never taken care of such an important task, or her anger may have been because she never wanted to do it in the first place.  Whatever the situation was, in the time of crisis when Moses was in danger, she knew exactly what the problem was and what to do, so she didn’t waste any time.  I’ve been married for 6 years and I think I can picture the expression on her face and hear the tone in her voice.

As to the means by which the Lord was going to kill Moses, little is said here.  What we can extract from the short verses is that Moses was not the one who remedied the situation, Zapporah was.  This may indicated that Moses was incapacitated with illness, which would be consistent with the way that God works in a situation like that.  Remember, God is about to go into Egypt and bring all kinds of plagues to the Egyptians.  God may likely have been working in the same way here.  It is unlikely though that God confronted Moses in the form of a man with a weapon (as we might imagine).

Does Jesus show a preference to Jews over Gentiles?

February 2, 2010

Reference Verse: Matthew 15:22-28, Mark 7:24-30

Question:

Jesus’ reply is that he doesn’t help gentiles and only helps God’s people.  Why does he wait for her to beg and then reluctantly help her?

Answer:

Was Jesus rude to the Gentile woman?

As much as we would like to, we cannot remove Jesus from his culture.  He was a first century Palestinian man of the Jewish faith.  When we interpret Jesus we must interpret him through that lens.  Thus, we cannot come to scripture with our preconceived notions about how he is supposed to behave.  Ultimately such a thing almost is impossible to do, but as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle”.  And when we interpret scripture, we need to know that Jesus doesn’t usually fit our mold, as much as we’d like him to.

Jesus’ response to this Canaanite woman (Syrophoenician in Mark) is a tough one to swallow for obvious reasons.  We usually have a picture in our mind of a warm and loving Jesus who tells stories to little Children.  But here he seems downright rude.  He basically refers to non-Jews, and this woman in particular as ‘dogs’.  Certainly not a term of endearment!  One of the interpretive difficulties that we face here is that we only have the text from which to judge the conversation.  There is no way to discern the tone of what Jesus and the woman are saying.

What if, perhaps, Jesus said this seemingly harsh response with a hint of sarcasm and a twinkle in his eye?  He replied to the woman’s request, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  To which the woman, with keen understanding about the culture, bantered back with Jesus wit for wit by saying “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  If looked at in a different light the conversation can take on a whole new character.

We often take Jesus’ tone to be so serious that we have a hard time imagining that he could have wit, or a sense of humor.  But given the woman’s response, and what we know to be true of Jesus love and compassion for the marginalized in society, this scenario is perfectly legitimate, and perhaps most likely.

That said though, we still need to wrestle with the issue of Jesus and his call to serve the Children of Israel first.  Remember, that the nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all people (Genesis 12: 2-3; Galatians 3:8).  When Jesus came he was definitely not rejecting the Gentiles, on the contrary, he went out of his way to care for them (John 4) and they went out of their way to seek him for healing (Matthew 8:5-13).  Still though, Jesus was sent as a Jew, to the Jews.  He came urging the Children of Israel, and the leaders of Israel to remember their call to the nations.  In Mark 15 Jesus’ anger toward the teachers of the Law reached its limit when he overturned the tables in the temple.  This was not in response to the practice of selling things in the temple, it was in response to the fact that Gentiles were being excluded from Temple worship, even though the Temple was supposed to be “a house of worship for ALL nations.”  So clearly, Jesus was not exclusive in his teaching or healing, but still, his mission was to the Jews.  This was even reflected in his sending out of the 12 disciples in Matthew 10.  There he gave them explicit instructions only to go to the “lost sheep of Israel”.  Only later after Jesus death and resurrection would the message be sent to the rest of the world.  Jesus ministry was to the Jews, but the Holy Spirit and the Church would be given a mission to the whole world.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus says to his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But note that this was after his death and resurrection.  Through his blood, Jesus brought reconciliation to Jews and Gentiles.  So he could say to his disciples in Matthew 28, to “go into ALL the world”.

In the Gospel of John there is another strange interaction between Jesus and some Gentiles (John 12:20-23).  A group of ‘Greeks’ came seeking Jesus, but rather then speaking to them, Jesus speaks to His disciples and says “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory”.  Weird, right?   Something significant occurred when those Greeks showed up to see Jesus.  When these ‘unclean’ gentiles came to Jesus, it signified to him that something was about to happen, namely, his crucifixion.  Gentiles were coming to him, and it was time to make a way for them to receive the full blessing of Abraham.  Ultimately it would be Jesus death on the cross that would break down the barrier between the Jews and the rest of the world (See Galatians 3:26-29).

Jesus was a radical who did radical things.  And through him, dividing walls like those between Jews and Gentiles were torn down.  But we must be careful not to interpret Jesus inside the vacuum of our own limited understanding of culture and the world.