inspire the world
The scene is familiar: from the roller coaster car come loud screams and groans and piercing
shrieks and terrified faces. The track loops ‘round, the course winds fast and chaotic, long hair
flies everywhere. Then, as the car comes to a gradual stop, a two-syllable word that shocks you:
Faith is like that. Our first days in The Greatest Story Ever Told usher us through Genesis, Exodus,
Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and those books are really, ultimately about faith. Theirs is
not a faith that lists doctrines for the initiate’s consent. Rather, the characters of these books are
learning a faith that’s more like trust – a sometimes-wavering-but-always-hoping belief that God
will hold when everything else gives way.
A Wild Ride. That’s what we’ve called our study of the first five books of the Bible. The action takes
us from the Garden of Eden to a place just east of it, from Babylon to Palestine to Egypt, through
Red Sea waters, up Sinai and down, and finally to the east bank of the Jordan River. Sometimes
they blunder, sometimes they find their way, sometimes they triumph, but also they hold on with
white knuckles to the God who calls them always forward into a future God wants to build with
Fair warning: at first you may think the action is all “out there” – both vastly different than your
own life and happening on a stage far removed from your audience seat. But this story has a
way of drawing us in, and soon you will be saying with the Israelites, “my father was a wandering
Aramean.” Slowly, almost imperceptibly, their story becomes our story.
Join me in thanking God for Marnie Baehr, our brilliant graphic designer. Cami Farley, Lou Vlahos,
John Ross and the clergy team, Kathy Handy, and Liz Hilton have all helped make this book better
with their input. The mistakes, of course, are mine.
I hope the dramatic struggles and joys of God’s people will be yours, as you climb expectantly on
board for the Wild Ride.
Rev. Dr. Allen R. Hilton
Minister of Faith and Learning
Wayzata Community Church
hat is God really like? What am I really like? Is there any
chance I could have a relationship with God? What
would that kind of relationship look like? What would
be God’s part and what would be mine? Is God active in our lives and
in the big-picture world? These basic human questions are all raised in
the pages of the peculiar first book of the Bible.
Genesis. It’s an ‘80s pop-rock band that featured Phil Collins. It’s a
health system in the Quad Cities. It’s an Educational Services group
based in Jamesburg, New Jersey. But it’s all these things, because it is
first and foremost the English title of the Bible’s starting point. The word
comes from Greek for origin or beginning. For us, it means we’re on
our way.
Marc Chagall, Cain and Abel, 1911
Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and
Esau, Joseph and Pharaoh’s wife – these are characters we recognize
because they play on the stage built by Genesis. But as we read the
book we soon discover that our relationship with them is not quite
audience to character. We see ourselves in these people. We find in
our souls both the glory and the shame of Adam and Eve, the jealousy
of Cain and the faith of Noah, and so on. We see ourselves in their
triumphs and failures, and, as wild as their stories are, we find ourselves
hoping that the God who creates all things from scratch can break
through into our lives as He broke through into theirs.
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and
death, the most exalted object which
we are capable of conceiving, namely,
the production of the higher animals, directly follows...There is grandeur in this
view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few
forms or into one; and that, whiles this
planet has gone cycling on according to
the fixed law of gravity, from so simple
a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and
are being, evolved.
The Bible opens with two stories of creation. The first (chapter one)
is large and cosmic and describes the beginning of the entire ordered
universe; the second (chapter two) focuses the spotlight on humanity
and its beginnings with God and with other creatures. The purpose of
these two chapters has occupied American culture for a century and a
half. Do they describe what happened at the beginning in a scientific
and historical way? Or do they characterize God and creatures in a more
philosophical way?
When we hear about Genesis in the news, and we do from time to time,
it is because someone has complained about the way science is being
taught in our public schools. People who argue that Genesis should be
taught as a parallel theory of cosmic origins are called Creationists, not
because they believe God created heaven and earth – almost all Christians believe that – but because they argue that Genesis 1 and 2 contain
history and not just theology.
For just a minute, though, let’s lay aside the freight of twentieth-century
culture wars and simply read. So read… and enjoy!
Look at Genesis 1.1—2.4 first. What is God like in the story? What are
creatures like? How are the two related? Bring on the adjectives that the
brilliant creation story evokes in you. Write a few below.
Now read the creation story in 2.5-25. What is God like there? How about creatures?
The relationship? Take a second to describe.
Part of the debate about Genesis 1—2 surrounds the order of creation. On the left below, write
what was created in the six-day order of chapter one. On the right below, write the order of
events in chapter two.
How does the order of creation compare in the two stories? What
is the same? What is different? What does the tension between
the very first two stories of the whole Bible tell us about the kind of
book the editors* of Genesis and the Bible thought they were putting together? Since the Bible does not arrive with a self-description
or user’s guide, it’s worth letting the book speak for itself about
what is important.
Where in the Bible do we find proof
that Jehovah is into baseball?
It was “In the Big Inning” that God
created the heavens and the earth.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Editors?! That’s right, I said “editors” rather than authors. The
novels and nonfiction books you and I read almost always have
one author each, so it’s natural to assume that about the Bible. But
the Bible is different. Hundreds of authors contribute, so editors
become a big deal. They weave two stories of creation from different times in Israel’s history into the same book; they search the
archive record of the nation’s kings and add their editorial comment; they stitch together three stages in the prophet Isaiah’s career
and school into one book. These editors put the Bible in the form
it currently has.
Will we turn our backs
on science because it is
perceived as a threat to God,
abandoning all the promise of
advancing our understanding
of nature and applying that
to the alleviation of suffering
the betterment of
humankind? Alternatively, will
we turn our backs on faith,
concluding that science has
rendered the spiritual life no
longer necessary, and that
traditional religious symbols
can now be replaced by
engravings of the double
helix on our altars?
Both of these choices are
profoundly dangerous. Both
deny truth. Both will diminish
the nobility of humankind.
Both will be devastating to
our future. And both are
unnecessary. The God of
the Bible is also the God
of the genome. He can be
worshipped in the cathedral
or in the laboratory.
Francis S. Collins
The Language of God:
A Scientist Presents Evidence
for Belief
As for Genesis, in the late 1800s, a smart German scholar called Julian Wellhausen looked
at the first six books of the Bible and detected
four different main authors at work – one who
called God “Jehovah,” another who used the
Hebrew “Elohim” to name God, a third who
focused on the laws of Deuteronomy, and
a fourth later author/editor who made sure
the whole story fit the “priestly” view of Israel’s
faith life. Wellhausen’s theory had the sexy
name, “The Documentary Hypothesis,” and it
continues to impact Biblical studies 130 years
later. He wasn’t right about everything, but he
taught us that these books have a complex
composition history.
What does it mean for us? Not much most
of the time. But when we read Genesis 1—2,
Wellhausen and his buddies tell us that two
different writers have already dipped their
pens by the end of chapter two.
The earthy, hands-dirty God of Genesis 2 comes from a story told by tribes around
The chief quality of this God is
“immanence” – nearness to our lives.
The lofty, cosmic God of Genesis 1 comes from the priests who helped exiled Jews survive amid the strange religious voices of Babylon. This story gives us a “transcendent” God – above all the cosmos.
Two settings. Two very different aspects of the
same God. One Spirit revealing using two ancient Jewish story-tellers to give us the God
who is every time larger than our small stories.
How can God be both immanent and transcendent? My favorite “theologian” on this is
the great African-American poet, James Weldon Johnson. Listen to his “Creation” and hear
the voices of two creation stories brought into
one splendid poem.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
AND God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.”
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God himself stepped down -And the sun was on His right hand,
And the moon was on His left;
The stars were clustered about His head,
And the earth was under His feet.
And God walked, and where He trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Then He stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And He spat out the seven seas;
He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;
He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.
Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And He said, “Bring forth! Bring forth!”
And quicker than God could drop His hand.
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said, “That’s good!”
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”
Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river
He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.
From God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse,
by James Weldon Johnson.
Do we humans
naturally recoil against
limitation? Think of times
when you’ve experienced conflict with
God. Does your inner life ever feel this
way? What “ushers” you into conflict
with God? What consequences have
you faced?
Raphael, Adam and Eve from the Stanza della Segnatura, 1508
How free are you? Do your choices feel like they are really yours, or are
they determined by other agents or forces? What does God have to
do with your free choosing? In Genesis 3, we get our first window into
human freedom.
Humanity nudges to center stage in Genesis 2. From the cosmic span
of six explosive days in chapter one, the focus narrows now to God and
people. God plants a garden and creates animals to meet human needs.
Michelangelo captures the spirit in his “Creation of Adam,” where God
strains to reach Adam, who sits in repose. God exists almost wholly to
serve humans in Genesis 2.
Then the tune changes. For the first time, in Genesis 3, we encounter
human accountability to God. “Eat from any tree except this one,” God
says, and suddenly humans have a chance to do wrong by God. Like a
child who’s been told, “Don’t touch!” Adam and Eve become curious and
a serpent ushers them toward dalliance. The result is an all-new static on
the line between God and humans. Adam and Eve hide from God, then
blame each other and the serpent, then face the consequences of defying God’s way. Result: they have to relocate East of Eden.
Can you see yourself in this picture? The Apostle Paul sure could. He
reflects on his life before Christ in Romans 7, which becomes a searching
commentary on this scene from Eden. “I was once alive apart from the
law,” he says. “But when the law came in, Sin sprang to life, and I died.”
Consider these equations; “Law = God’s Tree Command, and “Sin = Serpent.”
nd the gods of the battle cried out for their weapons.
Then advanced Tiamat and Marduk, the counselor of the gods;
To the fight they came on, to the battle they drew nigh.
The lord spread out his net and caught her,
And the evil wind that was behind him he let loose in her face.
As Tiamat opened her mouth to its full extent,
He drove in the evil wind, while as yet she had not shut her lips.
The terrible winds filled her belly,
And her courage was taken from her, and her mouth she opened wide.
He seized the spear and burst her belly,
He severed her inward parts, he pierced her heart.
He overcame her and cut off her life.
He cast down her body and stood upon it…
Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the ... , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he established as a covering for heaven…
When Marduk heard the word of the gods,
His heart prompted him and he devised a cunning plan.
He opened his mouth and unto Ea he spake
That which he had conceived in his heart he imparted unto him:
“My blood will I take and bone will I fashion
I will make man, that man may
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth,
That the service of the gods may be established,
and that their shrines may be built.
From the Babylonian Creation Story, Enuma Elish, Tablets
Misappropriated fruit, nakedness, fig leaves, a family’s relocation
– these seem a bit quaint in the story. But you and I know that
our author has a wider scope than this. Nothing less than human
history is in play. “The Fall of Humanity” is the common title for this
section of Genesis, and human freedom is on trial.
In his chapter called “Rebellion” in The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor
Dostoevsky raises the question whether human freedom comes
with too high a price tag. A disappointed character called Ivan
chronicles all the inhumanity of adults toward children: abominable forms of abuse and torture against innocent kids. Ivan suffers the weight of human suffering, and especially the suffering
free adults inflict on them. “It’s too high a price!” he fumes to his
brother, the monk Alyosha. “And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back
as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t
accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”
According to Genesis 3, human freedom was God’s idea. Is it a
good idea? What are its costs to us? What are its costs to God?
Stephanie Rodriguez, Brothers Karamazov
Whew! Scene One is huge! The creation of everything, the highs
and lows of relationship between God and humanity, the problem of evil – that’s a lot for three chapters to handle! And the
hits keep coming. Chapter 4 plays out implications of the fall
through the rivalry of Cain and Abel. Chapters 6-8 give us more
about human tendencies and poor old Noah “totin’ his umbrella
when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.” It turns out that the Garden
of Eden story doesn’t end in chapter 3. It keeps playing its way
through the rest of the book. Our daily devotionals will walk us
Get ready for God’s most enduring rescue strategy as God calls
Abraham and Sarah and their family to bring his blessing to the
world (Gen 12—50). Hold on. It’s a wild ride!
SCENE TWO: Genesis 12-50
A Purposeful People
o you ever wonder why you are on earth? Are there days when life just
seems like an unconnected rush of experiences? Do you want a life that is
larger than watching out for yourself? What is your purpose for being?
The story of Abraham and Sarah’s family is all about purpose. Our wild ride of faith began
at creation and channeled its way through the ups and downs of Cain and Abel and Noah.
In Gen 12 that wild ride gets a definite direction and purpose. For the first time, God sets a
long-term strategy. Humanity has been scattered across the earth and separated by differences in culture and language. How will God reclaim humanity and creation? To answer
that, our attention turns to an aging couple who lived in an ancient land we now call Iraq.
One day, Abram was minding their normal everyday Mesopotamian
business, when Abe’s daddy decided to move the family hundreds of
miles northwest to Haran (Eastern Turkey). Then, on another everyday
afternoon, a voice came out of nowhere and said, “Time to move again.”
You and I are naturally and reasonably suspicious of people who say,
“God spoke to me yesterday.” Oh God and Bruce Almighty make good
fun of the concept, but audible contact with the divine may seem delusional to you. Is that what Abraham (and Noah and…) experienced?
Here’s the scene:
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred
and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of
you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so
that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one
who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall
be blessed.’ (Gen 12.1-3)
“Jehovah said to Abram…” Was there a voice or an intuition or just a
clear sense of things?
I don’t know what exactly happened to Abram here. But he came away
imagining that he had a choice to make. Would he climb on the wild
ride of faith? Or would he let this train go by? The next verse supplies
his response:
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was
seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai
and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the
persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of
Canaan. (Gen 12.4-5)
Now there’s a life change for you. It probably felt surreal, don’t you think? I can imagine Abram
on day three, traveling in the caravan, musing, “Interesting choice…”
To what had Abram and Sarai agreed? It’s a pretty sweet offer: move your house and I’ll bless
you. If we care to know the character of God, this moment gives us a window. God intends to
bless Abram and Sarai. In fact, God intends to bless all the families of the earth. This blessing has
four parts. Can you identify those four parts? Write the pieces of God’s promise below:
Would you have taken this deal? Would you have said “Yes!”?
What if Abram and Sarai had said “No!” instead? Would that have been the end of God’s plan?
Abram and Sarai’s “Yes!” not only puts them in relationship to the
promising God, but also involves them in something larger than
themselves: nothing less than God’s cosmic reclamation project.
You remember the fracture story in the Garden of Eden: Adam and
Eve defy God’s one command, and that puts static on the divinehuman line; then that static becomes confusion between people
– both as they blame one another and as their children, Cain and
Abel, experience strife. The drama of human distance from God and
from one another takes one more big step as humanity attempts to
storm heaven’s gates by building the tower of Babel. This collusion
prompts God to spread humanity out. But the ink has hardly dried
on that proclamation before he knocks on Abram and Sarai’s door
and says, “I will bless all the families of the earth through you.”
So with this invitation to an aging couple, God launches his strategic
attempt to bless all people – a project that will occupy God and a
host of God’s partners and us for the rest of the Bible. It will take
many forms over many centuries, but it will all share in this one moment when God shares His designs to reach to all humanity through
one family.
Abram and Sarai eventually become known by their more familiar
names: Abraham and Sarah. (God often changes people’s names
in scripture.)
So… what qualifies this family to be God’s partners?
Building the Tower of Babel, Bedford Book of Hours, c. 1423
What do these letters mean? You may think I started typing on the wrong
row of the keyboard. But this strange string of letters is code for a HUGE secret
about the way God works. Be patient, and the secret will be revealed to you.
Just know that the same secret will be a key to understanding the rest of the
Bible and your life and mine.
Jan Mostaert,
and Hagar
Have you noticed how many warts there are on these Bible people? It’s one of the surprising, beautiful
things about the Old Testament: this photo is not airbrushed. Adam and Eve defy God and blame one
another and a snake for it. Cain and Abel fight over who daddy loves best. Noah gets drunk one night
and shows a little more skin than would uphold the family’s honor. And now Abraham and Sarah. They
may be the ancestors of a great nation – the purveyors of blessing – but they sometimes look the very
opposite of saintly.
These two stumble along through life. Ten verses after being called to lead God’s campaign to redeem
the whole world, Abraham tells a brazen lie. Twice in Egypt Abraham gets scared that powerful men
might do away with him to procure his beautiful wife, so he tells a fib. “My wife? No. Sarah’s not my wife.
She’s my… sister. That’s right, my sister!” Twice he does this – a bold faced lie.
Then, when God takes His time sending offspring, Abraham and Sarah start to imagine that God must
need a little creative help. So they devise their own plan for jumpstarting the blessing, and they bed Abraham down with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Of course that works beautifully . . . not. Hagar bears a son named
Ishmael and immediately Sarah resents her for it. The strife leads Abraham to put Hagar and Ishmael out
on their own – an extremely dangerous position for an unmarried woman and a vulnerable kid.
Last, Sarah eventually catches wind of God’s reassurance that she will finally give birth…at age 90, and
she just laughs. There had to be some scorn in that chuckle – the kind you and I leak out every once in
a while to say, “Yeah, right!”
Biblical authors and
manuscript copyists did not
divide their works into
chapter and verse. They
wrote continuous script
­— most often trying to fit
as much as they could on
a page, because materials were expensive. Soon,
though, practical
considerations led to
divisions (e.g., the first 5
books of Moses were divided
into 154 sections in ancient
times so they could be read
in 3 years of Sabbaths). Our
current chapter division is
the work of Archbishop of
Canterbury Stephen
Langton in the early 1200s.
Abraham and Sarah seem the very opposite of central casting for sainthood. They
get more things wrong than right. So why in the world did God choose them
for such an important job? And how in the world is God going to work through
That brings us to the “Faith” part. God calls these two people to leave everything
they know in a time when people usually didn’t do that. Their world was not digital or telephonic or even telegraphic. Sarah could not call her mom from the road
or even write her a letter once they arrived in Canaan. Abraham couldn’t check in
with his brothers about how to build a family dwelling. They were on their own,
with nephew Lot, in a strange new land, without the extended family that usually
formed the foundation of ancient life.
In that new land, Abe and Sarah had to learn to trust God, and it wasn’t easy. Because the promises God had made took time. Do you remember them?
God will bless them
God will make their name great.
God will make a great nation of them.
God will bless all peoples through them.
Notice that the 3rd promise, and probably the fourth, require offspring. But three
chapters and a lot of time later, there is no pitter patter of little feet.
hat is the faithful thing to do in the face of such a disappointment? Is it most faithful to bite one’s lip and swallow hard and
bear up quietly? “God knows best,” may seem the most faithful
response. But Abraham didn’t think so. At the beginning of chapter 15, he fires off
a complaint to The Almighty:
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be
afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’
But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and
the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’* And Abram said, ‘You have given
me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ (Gen 15.1-2)
Doesn’t Abe sound a little uppity here? This is God, after all. He essentially channels Marissa Tomei’s character, Lisa, in “My Cousin Vinny.” Her fiancé, Vinny (Joe Pesci), is in over his head in the courtroom, and she knows it, but she can’t help herself:
You wanna know what I’m nervous about? I’ll tell you what I’m nervous about…
Alls I know is you’re screwing up, and I can’t help… I’m watching you go down in
flames and I can’t do anything about it… I hate to bring it up, ‘cause I know you
got enough pressure on you already, but, we agreed to get married as soon as
you won your first case. Meanwhile, ten years later my niece, the daughter of my
sister, is getting married. My biological clock is tickin’ like this, and the way this case
is goin’, I ain’t never gettin’ married!
When Vinny predictably explodes with all the 500 parts of the pressure he faces,
Lisa pauses, then says, “Maybe it was a bad time to bring it up.”
Abraham brings it up. “Your promises are fine, God, except Sarah’s belly’s not getting bigger! The way we’re going, I’ll die childless and my slave will get my stuff. Is
that what you call blessing?! Is it?!!”
Uppity indeed! I would expect the mighty God who made the universe and all that is in it to
reprimand him, wouldn’t you? But the scripture surprises us – and get used to that! “The word of
the Lord came to Abram, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall
be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you
are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ (Gen 15.4-5) God
doesn’t slap Abraham; instead he reassures him.
Have you ever protested to God? What emboldened you to it? Or what kept you from it?
Later in the Bible, the Apostle Paul is going to lift Abraham up as “our forefather in faith” – a veritable poster boy for the way God-connected people live – because of this very scene. And he
does that because of what comes next:
After the scrimmage, when Abraham has said
his piece, and God has reiterated the promise,
a question hangs in the air: How will Abraham
respond? He may just decide that God is not
who He seemed, take Sarah back to the ancestral home, and sell pharmaceuticals in Haran.
That’s an option for Abe. And that’s probably
how you feel sometimes. I know I do. In the
caldron of life, we ask for and expect God’s
help, and there’s nothing on the other end of
the line. That is an option.
But Abraham goes the other way. The narrator
summarizes Abraham’s response:
And he believed the Lord; and the Lord
reckoned it to him as righteousness.
And so we come to G.D.N.C.T.E.G.E.T.C. Here’s what it stands
for: God does not call the equipped; God equips the called. And
so Abraham and Sarah went to faith school, and teacher God
equipped them, and a bouncing baby Isaac came along, and
then a Jacob, and then a Joseph, and this family became a blessing to all the families of the earth.
We’ve already seen that Abraham is not perfect.
He loses patience too easily. He can be a bit,
shall we say, casual with the truth in Egypt, and
he even agrees to a plan that has him sleeping
with his wife’s servant to “help God out.” Abraham is no saint, except that he is. Whatever his
moral raw material may be, God teaches him
to trust God, and that is actually the main things that saints do. It doesn’t make them docile. (Abe
is certainly not that!) It does keep them in conversation. Faithful people “believe God,” and that’s
what God calls righteous.
And so we come to G.D.N.C.t.E.G.E.t.C. Here’s what it stands for: God does not call the equipped;
God equips the called. And so Abraham and Sarah went to faith school, and teacher God
equipped them, and a bouncing baby Isaac came along, and then a Jacob, and then a Joseph,
and this family became a blessing to all the families of the earth.
Do you feel called by God? To what?
Do you feel like God is equipping you? How?
Were Abraham and Sarah historical people or were they created later in Israel’s
history for the sake of national identity?
Historians have debated the historicity of
Abraham and his family. William Albright
who was a leading light in biblical archaeology at Harvard represents one side. In
the mid-20th century, Albright observed
in the stories of Abraham and his family
a reflection of the near-eastern context
in the period spanning 2,000-1,800 B.C.E.
Twenty-five years later, John Van Seters,
also of Harvard, located the ethos of these
stories in the time after 1,000 B.C.E. and
suggested that they arose as an attempt
to create a national history and identity.
In 1935, archaeologists discovered a
huge cache of ancient Mesopotamian
cuneiform tablets at Mari, Syria. The
gradual publication of these tablets over
eight decades has informed and revitalized the debate. Daniel E. Fleming of
NYU writes, “The Mari archives give us a
picture of how Bronze Age tribal people
lived, along with their herding communities, and the Genesis stories are entirely
appropriate to that portrayal.” (“History in
Genesis,” in the Westminster Theological
Journal 65, 2003, p. 250)
The archaeological debate will rage on.
Throughout our study of the Bible, we will
face the question whether the historicity
of its events is a condition of our trust in
its message.
How does this issue impact you? Would
the stories of Abraham and his family be
less true for you if they were not historically accurate? Or can you imagine God
inspiring legends to help faithful people
Hendrick Brugghen,
Esau Selling His Birthright, 1627
Good stories need conflicts or obstacles. My kids didn’t understand this
for a while. Suspense or anything like it in a movie made them nervous.
Now they get that. The authors of Genesis got that.
The Red Thread of Reconciliation
Strife in Abraham’s family did not end with Isaac and Ishmael. The last
half of Genesis is dominated by family dysfunction. Jacob and Esau
battle for their father’s blessing, and Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery – as you will know if you have seen Andrew Lloyd Weber’s brilliant
musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.”
Throughout these tales of enmity, God’s promise to Abraham stands
in the balance. As you read, you may wonder, “Will this family destroy
itself before it can become a blessing to the world?” But a red thread
of reconciliation is woven into the fabric of this family. Jacob flees Esau
to save his own skin after tricking him out of their father’s blessing and
inheritance. Then, after years away, when reunion with his brother becomes imminent, Jacob he fears for his life. Will Esau finally avenge
himself after all these years? Justice would dictate so.
The story surprises us, however. A terrified Jacob sends gifts ahead to
assuage Esau’s anger,
But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and
kissed him, and they wept. When Esau looked up and saw the women
and children, he said, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’ Then the maids
drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and
her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, ‘What do you mean
by all this company that I met?’ Jacob answered, ‘To find favor with my
lord.’ But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for
yourself.’ (Gen 36.4-9)
Again in the story of Joseph, revenge would be natural. His jealous brothers have sold
him into slavery, after all. When he rises to a powerful position in the Egyptian government, and they arrive hat in hand from a famine in the land, the stage is set for retaliation.
But as the brothers cower before him, Joseph says,
‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me,
God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.
So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured
them, speaking kindly to them. (Gen 50.19b-21)
At two crucial moments in this family’s history, then, reconciliation has rushed in to save
the day. When the curtain closes on Genesis, the family is at peace and the promise lives
on. But it lives on in Egypt.
When has reconciliation saved the day in your story?
The Pharaoh who knows Joseph does favors for his family. But as Genesis gives way to
Exodus, there will arise other Pharaohs, and the fortunes of Israel’s family will turn. Who
would have guessed that this family’s food-seeking foray to Egypt would become a fourcentury stay? Are you beginning to see why we are calling this a Wild Ride?
What In the World Is God Doing?
o you believe that God is active in the world? At what level does God’s act operate?
In human minds in spirits? Or beyond that in historical events? How can we imagine
God’s activity responsibly, without making God into either our waiter or our henchman? What do you imagine God mainly hopes to get done in the world?
These are questions that matter for our lives, and they are questions that the Book of Exodus raises
for us. Yes, our Wild Ride now turns to Egypt. “Exodus” comes from a Greek word that means “a
road out.” The biblical book summons screen images of Charlton Heston, hands raised, delivering
his muscular Moses in “The Ten Commandments” or the clever animated Moses who foils Pharaoh
in “Prince of Egypt.” It has evoked deeply beautiful music and poetry from oppressed people:
Go down, Moses!
Way down in Egypt land.
Tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go.
And in that tradition of the African-American spiritual, images gravitate to the Red Sea crossing.
Classic lyrics proclaim, “God is the way out of no way.”
Has your heart ever broken as you’ve observed oppression in the world? Do you mourn the
American institution of slavery? What did it make you want to do?
On a more psychological plane, have you ever felt enslaved – oppressed by someone or something that seems immoveable? Maybe your slavery has been internal or psychological, but you’ve
felt desperate nonetheless. Have you ever imagined there is no solution – no way out?
Slaves to any force long for freedom, and liberation is a brilliant reality that leads forward to freedom. That is true of peoples and persons who are liberated from oppression of all kinds. Some
are even liberated while bound. Richard Lovelace’s famous poem, “To Althea from Prison,” sings
of liberty amid incarceration:
Stone walls do not a prison make,
nor iron bars a cage,
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.
That’s why the Book of Exodus has supplied the core narrative for Nicaraguan peasants and Wall
Street Bankers alike. Oppression comes in all shapes and sizes, and so does liberation.
The Book of Exodus reaches across the ages to raise central questions about divine activity and
human liberation that matter for our lives. Let’s ride on!
When we left Abraham’s family, God had saved them from
famine and likely death through Joseph – friend of Pharaoh.
But then there arose a Pharaoh who, famously, “knew not
Joseph,” and Abraham and Sarah’s clan became slaves in
Egypt. The 400 years of their captivity receive one paragraph
in the Bible, so we do not know the ups and downs of it.
But as the curtain opens for the Exodus, Hebrew slaves are
making bricks under the harsh masters:
The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar
and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless
in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Ex 1.13-14)
Their taskmasters have even increased their suffering by providing them increasingly less straw for the mud they use to
make bricks. Add to this forced labor the ruler’s requirement
that Hebrew midwives to kill all the Hebrew boys – a command which the midwives cleverly sidestep because they “fear God” – and “oppression” may be an understatement for the predicament.
Things look bleak for Abraham’s family. The people are not dying off, but God’s promise to Abraham is in jeopardy, because the promised land lies hundreds of miles to the north and there is no
end in sight. In their grief, the people cry out to the heavens, to a God they know from tales told
by their grandparents around the evening fire.
When you cry out to the heavens does it seem that God hears you? Or does it just seem like so
many cloud formations and constellations? What would convince you that God hears?
In film and art, the famous tale of the burning bush is a pyrotechnic marvel. Our narrator has it that “the bush burned but was not
consumed.” Who knows what that looked like? I love the divine
special effect…as long as it doesn’t distract us from the center of
the bush, where God’s voice tells Moses and us, “Heaven hears!”
To which Egyptian Pharaoh did Moses shout, “Let
my people go!”? As with Abraham, scholars debate the historicity and historical origins of Moses’
story. Some suggest that Moses is a myth of Israelite making. Those who detect a remembrance of
actual history here, though, most often place the
action around 1200 B.C.E. This timing has given
rise to imaginative portrayals of the great Pharoah,
Ramesses II. Historical evidence of Ramesses II’s
reign is impressive. He conquered kingdoms, advanced Egyptian culture, and established himself
as perhaps the greatest of the Pharaohs.
Ramesses II has attracted, not only historians, but
scads of people looking for a good story. Here’s
how Wikipedia characterizes his role in contemporary popular culture:
“Ramesses II is one of the more popular candidates for the Pharaoh of the Exodus. He is cast
in this role in the 1944 novella Das Gesetz (“The
Law”) by Thomas Mann. Although not a major
character, Ramesses appears in Joan Grant’s So
Moses Was Born, a first person account from
Nebunefer, the brother of Ramoses, which paints
a picture of the life of Ramoses from the death
of Seti, replete with the power play, intrigue, and
assassination plots of the historical record, and
depicting the relationships with Bintanath, Queen
Tuya, Nefertari, and Moses. In film, Ramesses was
played by Yul Brynner in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic
The Ten Commandments (1956). Here Ramesses
was portrayed as a vengeful tyrant as well as the
main antagonist of the film, ever scornful of his
father’s preference for Moses over “the son of [his]
body”.[69] The animated film The Prince of Egypt
(1998), also featured a depiction of Ramesses
(voiced by Ralph Fiennes), portrayed as Moses’
adoptive brother, and ultimately as the film’s de
facto villain. The Ten Commandments: The Musical (2006) co-starred Kevin Earley as Ramesses. In
The Kane Chronicles Ramesses is an ancestor of
the main characters Sadie and Carter Kane.”
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people
who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down
to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of
that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and
honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites,
the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians
oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my
people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ (Ex 3.7-10)
What do we learn here about God’s character? For those scoring
at home, there are at least two things to notice about God here:
God hears and sees.
God acts.
I suppose a God who merely “feels our pain” would have sentimental value and get a few points for compassion. But the Israelites would still be in Egypt if not for #2: God acts. Remember
when James Weldon Johnson was singing out “The Creation”?
That God could have created and then fled – could have left us
to our own wiles and simply observed from a distance. But Genesis and Exodus do not paint that picture. Even in the creation,
God gets divine hands dirty sculpting humans. Then, in story
after story, God partners with people and acts in history with
and through them. This scene and the action that follows form
exhibit the next. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hears
and sees and acts, and that has been a mainstay of Jewish and
Christian theology through the ages.
Isn’t this beautiful?! The God who long ago promised Abraham
and Sarah’s family a land and a people and fame and blessing
has heard that family’s cries! Now we wait breathlessly to see
how God will pull this off.
Theists believe that God not only created the world but continues to act in it. That sounds reasonable enough, until we begin
to ask what God’s activity looks like. Because the “hands of God”
are invisible, so cause and effect is, at best, a discernment, and
at worst a superstitious or power-hungry co-opting of divine endorsement. This is true on trivial levels. E.g., If our football team
wins, it was an act of God; if their team wins, evil has triumphed.
It is also true of more significant events – like storms and wars
and diseases.
The book of Exodus features a lot of divine intervention, so it may help us sort through what we
believe about God’s activity in the world. God’s activity in Exodus takes three main forms in this
book: supernatural intervention, recruitment, and commandment.
The infamous plagues of Exodus and the Red Sea crossing mark the first time our
narrator has pictured God intervening miraculously to insure the future of
Abraham’s family. When Moses says, “Let my people go!” a recalcitrant Pharaoh
refuses Moses’ plea. Pharaoh holds all the cards, and Moses is apparently powerless,
but the plagues produce leverage. The plagues range from frogs to boils to blood in
the river, and after each one, Pharaoh initially relents, but then changes his mind. (The
story says, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart…” by which the narrator seems to mean
that God freeze-framed him in his desire.)
Finally, when the last plague kills the firstborn of every Egyptian family, Pharaoh relents and releases the Israelites. Of course, Pharaoh again has second thought, so soldiers chase Abraham’s
family out of town and traps them against the Red Sea. In one of the most famous rescue scenes
in history, God miraculously walls off the sea so Israel crosses on dry land, then closes the sea so
Pharaoh’s soldiers drown.
If your river turned to blood, or frogs infested your town, or your cattle started to die, or it hailed
mercilessly on your land, would you imagine God was angry with you? What if all that happened
to your worst enemy?
Belief in an active God is not uncomplicated. I wonder, for instance, what an Egyptian account of
these events would look like. When tracing the purposes of God and interpreting history, we are
tempted to see God on “our side.”
Sinking Of The Pharaoh In The Red Sea
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530
Medieval Christians in Europe thought God’s next move was to stamp out
other religions and heretical Christians so they launched the crusades and
the inquisition.
On 9/11/01, a small group of Moslem men thought they were partnering with Allah to judge American capitalism; and any number of television
preachers were sure that God had caused (or allowed) the disaster as judgment on promiscuous, gay New York…or unfaithful America.
On 8/23/05 the chorus rose again to explain that New Orleans’ debauchery had evoked divine wrath, and that explained Hurricane Katrina.
The belief that God
created the universe,
but does not act within it.
Active disbelief in the
existence of God.
Active belief in an active
Avowed uncertainty
(“not knowing”) about
whether there is a God or not.
Moving from the large stage of world history to our smaller one, why does
one cancer patient recover and another die? Some have judged that those
who die must not have been faithful enough. Or that “God needed them
in heaven.” Really?! The almighty throws a drunk driver or a stray bullet or
even a disease at an innocent bystander because “her time has come”?!
uch cold claims about God have defamed theism. Christopher
Hitchens’ atheist manifesto is entitled, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens and others understandably cannot fathom a God who acts through devastation or who sanctions devastation by His minions.
When some Christians or other theists claim that God has ordered or done
violence, the neo-atheist movement gives up believing in God. But there
are other options. A better answer to bad theology is good theology.
The problem for us as Bible people is that such claims begin in the Bible.
After the Exodus, as Abraham and Sarah’s family celebrate God’s rescue,
they look back at the drowned corpses of Egyptian soldiers and praise God
for rubbing them out.
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
In the Book of Joshua, the people will imagine that they hear God telling
them to kill all the people who precede them in the land of Canaan. What
should we do with claims like these, when they so differ from the loving
God we have pictured? Do they really tell truth about God? Or did somebody miss the point?
How might we track God’s activity? When we get to the New Testament,
we’ll see that the early Christians saw God’s activity most supremely in the
life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus – even that God’s character is
revealed in Jesus. One way of assessing how God is acting in the world is
to look for signs that “a Jesus thing” is breaking out.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There is a next way that God acts in
It is true that Exodus pictures many vivid and large “acts of God.” But God’s very first act in the
book is not throwing plagues or stopping Red Sea water. Instead, God begins by simply choosing a partner. In fact, the call of Moses at the burning bush is the signature event of the book.
Why Moses? He is a murderer, after all. (Did you realize that? Read Exodus 2!) As in Genesis
when God chooses Abraham and Sarah, so in Exodus, God defies the principles of central casting. Here God sends an Israelite criminal to address the Egyptian enforcers. (Is this God’s way of
watering down His own bricks?)
On the other hand, the choice has some logic to it. Moses’ homicidal anger was provoked by
Egyptian mistreatment of Israelites, so there is a certain divine logic to the choice. Moses may be
tending sheep out in Midian, but I can imagine scenes of Egyptian injustice coursed through his
head. He is, shall we say, motivated?
A criminal record is not the only thing that stands in Moses’ way. He argues with God because he
doesn’t think he is qualified for the job. “I don’t speak well!” he argues. Moses becomes the first
in a long line of biblical characters who argue with God when God calls them into partnership.
When God calls Isaiah to be his prophet, Isaiah will answer, “B-b-b-but I am a man of unclean lips!
And I live among a people of unclean lips.” “I can’t do this job!” becomes a standard reply of the
called. So if we learned in Genesis that “God Does Not Call the Equipped, He Equips the Called,”
now we learn that many of the called realize acutely their lack of innate equipment. There is a
tradition of humility about the people God chooses as partners.
I see this in churches all the time. Men and women who practically run the world in their work
lives feel inadequate to church tasks. At first, this baffled me. But when I reflected on Moses, I
started to see what might be happening: proper humility in the face of a divine call.
Reading Exodus 20 for the first time is a revelation to most of us. We know
the Ten Commandments. They are familiar, because they are displayed on
Sunday School room walls and courtroom walls. Maybe you memorized
them as a kid:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet.
You shall have no other
gods before me.
You shall not make for
yourself an idol.
You shall not make
wrongful use of the name
of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day,
and keep it holy.
Honor your father and
your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false
witness against your
You shall not covet.
Ten timeless commands, lowered down from heaven to govern humanity,
That’s what you thought before you read Exodus 20. But now you know
things you didn’t know then.
1. The Ten Commandments are in the 70th Chapter of the Bible
That’s startling, isn’t it?! God creates humanity in Genesis 1, but He doesn’t
tell anyone how to live until Exodus 20. Granted, he gives the occasional
specific instruction to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah; but
imagine walking into a Sunday School or courtroom and reading:
“Don’t eat from that tree.”
“Build an ark.”
“Move your house and family.”
They don’t exactly work as a universal law, do they? It’s no wonder we exalt
the Ten Commandments: they are God’s first broad picture of morality in the
Bible. For sixty-nine chapters, God builds relationship. The commands enter
2. God Doesn’t Start with “Thou Shalt (Not)”
The context of the Ten Commandments is crucial for our understanding of
the character of God and the origins of Judeo-Christian morality. Contrary to
popular opinion and mass-produced versions, the first words of Exodus 20
are not, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The Sunday School wall
and the courtroom wall omit the sentence that comes before that:
“I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery…”
The Ten Commandments don’t appear out of nowhere. They are given by a
God who has just rescued Israel from desperate suffering. In fact that rescue
is what God hopes will motivate Abraham’s family to obey these commands.
“Remember what I did for you? Now here’s how my partners live.” These
aren’t rules for rules’ sake. God’s rescue precedes human obedience. That
changes things, right?
3. There Are Reasons for the Rules
The mass-produced, stripped-down version of the Ten Commandments robs us in another way.
There are 80 words in the tablet list above. But there are 320 words in Exodus 20.1-9. So the
version you know is only 1/4 of the actual Ten Commandments. In the other 240 words, God
clarifies and explains why and talks of consequences. God favors those who put God first. Sabbath rest should be for everyone in the community, not just you, and you have it because it is a
part of God’s rhythm. Things will go better for all of you if you honor your parents. The Ten Commandments are God’s conversation with us about what kind of life works best and why. Had you
ever thought of them that way?
After the Ten Commandments will come a string of commands and ordinances that stretch
through the rest of Exodus and Leviticus. All of them appear in the context of that relationship
God struck through creation and the call of Abraham and the rescue from Egypt. Command
isn’t a pre-condition of God joining humans. Command is an expression of a relationship that is
already there. Obeying command is a way of joining God’s activity in the world.
How can you and I get in on God’s action? As dramatic as burning bushes and cataclysmic
plagues and a dry path through a sea sound, Exodus charts two ways for us.
First, we can, like Moses, accept God’s call
into partnership. Jim Elliot, 20th century missionary and martyr, once said, “A Christian is
a person whose heart is broken by the things
that break the heart of God.” What is breaking your heart? Where do you hear the cry of
the people? Finding a way into God’s loving
response to suffering is one way into God’s
activity – or so Moses discovered.
A second way opens, oddly enough, through
the Ten Commandments. We think of them
as Law – stern, demanding rules. But what
if the commandments are actually the shape
of God’s activity in the world?
Bono, of the Irish rock band U2, discovered
a way into God’s activity that joins partnership with obedience. In his 2005 speech at
the National Prayer Breakfast, he invited the
president, the congress, and all who would
listen, into God’s activity:
The reason I am here, and the reason I keep coming back to Washington, is because this is a
town that is proving it can come together on behalf of what the Scriptures call the least of these.
This is not a Republican idea. It is not a Democratic idea. It is not even, with all due respect, an
American idea. Nor it is unique to any one faith.
‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ (Luke 6:30) Jesus says that.
‘Righteousness is this: that one should… give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin
and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for the emancipation of
the captives.’ The Koran says that. (2.177)
The Public Soup Kitchen
Vincent Van Gogh, 1883
Thus sayeth the Lord: ‘Bring the homeless poor into the house, when
you see the naked, cover him, then your light will break out like the
dawn and your recovery will speedily spring fourth, then your Lord
will be your rear guard.’ The jewish scripture says that. Isaiah 58 again.
That is a powerful incentive: ‘The Lord will watch your back.’ Sounds
like a good deal to me, right now.
A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In
countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it… I have a
family, please look after them… I have this crazy idea…
And this wise man said: stop. He said, stop asking God to bless what
you’re doing. Get involved in what God is doing—because it’s already
Well, God, as I said, is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing. And that is what He’s calling us to do.
Where is God active in and around you? How will you recognize that?
How will you “get involved in what God is doing” near you?
“The reason I am here, and the reason I keep coming back to Washington, is because this is a town that is
proving it can come together on behalf of what the Scriptures call the
least of these.
This is not a Republican idea. It is not
a Democratic idea. It is not even, with
all due respect, an American idea.
Nor it is unique to any one faith.”
Leviticus and Numbers are two of the least read books in the Bible. If not for the occasional New Year’s Resolution to “read the whole Bible” and their position near the front, they’d
hardly be read at all. Next session, we will open them asking our usual questions: How is
this story my story? How can a list of laws and the story of 40 futile-seeming years in the
life of a family become life-giving for me? My prediction: You will be pleasantly surprised.
Scintillating Leviticus
ow can I get and stay close to God? What kinds of things put distance between God and
me? Why does the God of the Bible sometimes seem so picky about things that seem small
to me? And do those things tell me anything about the actual character of God?
These are questions you and I have, and, oddly enough, these are the questions with which the Books of
Leviticus and Numbers are almost obsessed. The psalmists sing out the hope in almost romantic terms:
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for you, O God!”
and, “My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord! (Psalm 42.1-2 and 84.2) Medieval mystics sometimes even used erotic language to profess their love for God. “The divine yearning brings ecstasy so that
the lover belongs not to self but to the beloved,” writes one medieval mystic (Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine
Names); and a contemporary Christian band called The Newsboys repeats the line “I want to feel your
presence!” in one song with an urgency that matches these Psalms.
Full disclosure: The Book of Leviticus is not scintillating reading. The first seven chapters read like a technical operator’s manual on sacrifice. Not many people take technical manuals to the beach for a “good
read,” of course. The language of Leviticus and its manual on sacrificial practices seems worlds away from
the psalmists’ yearning and romance. The language is matter-of-fact and even cold.
If your offering to the Lord is a burnt-offering of birds, you shall choose your offering from turtle-doves or
pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and
its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar. (Lev 1.14-15)
After a few chapters, this sort of thing can make a person reach for another book. But if we peer through
the bars of this book of rules, we may recognize behind them a similar purpose. These meticulous technical details about how to perform a sacrifice, about what constitutes an abomination before God, about an
array of “sins” that don’t always seem so sinful to us, reflects, in the book’s and the priest’s best moments,
an urgent desire to draw near to God.
Even the book of Numbers, which narrates the sometimes-gruesome experiences of Israel’s nomadic excursion through the wilderness sets out to describe the consequences of living distant
from God. When Israel drifts away from the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt,
bad things start to happen to them. These consequences can actually be pretty dramatic. (For
example, when a priest catches a man and a woman in the act of adultery and drives a tent pole
through them both.) The sheer gruesomeness can drive some away from reading Numbers. But
again, behind the brutal action lies the undercurrent of desire: Israel knows what it is to be in
the presence of God and knows what it is to leave the presence of God. These books use very
different methods to help Israel find its way back.
As foreign and ancient as these two books may seem to us, their authors share with us the desire
to know God well and sense God’s presence. So let’s ride with them for a while.
Animal sacrifice isn’t something you and I see every day in 21st-century American life. But animal
sacrifice is all over the book of Leviticus. The people of Israel were commanded to go to the tabernacle or Temple often, so the priests could burn grain or incense, or kill an animal on the altar
on their behalf in God’s presence.
Rituals of animal sacrifice are not extinct in our time – they are a
part of open contemporary religious practice in cultures from Latin
America to Africa, to Asia, and they are not absent from the back
streets of the first world. But, since you and I don’t run into this
often, it can seem primitive and even brutal. Leviticus offers us an
opportunity to love our ancient neighbors by putting ourselves in
their place as they experienced worship at the altar of sacrifice.
A couple facts will help us. First, almost all ancient meat was sacrificed to a deity before it was eaten. That may seem odd to us.
But even in Roman times, centuries after Leviticus, one scholar of
ancient history estimates that 99% of the meat consumed had first
been sacrificed to some God. (Stanley Stowers, Rereading Romans,
Yale University Press, 1994)
A second fact about the ancient world that will help us imagine the sacrificial act is recognition
of how near animals were to the lives of the people who sacrificed and ate them. The very contemporary Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles imagines with us the experience of an ancient
Jewish worshipper:
The first function of sacrifice is to heighten the consciousness of the one who brings the offering…
When Jews sacrificed in the Temple, they reminded themselves of the Source of all life. Sacrifice
induced awe. Nothing in God’s creation was mere commodity… The ancient Israelite knew what
he was offering; he had raised that animal, fed it, and was now participating in a fully conscious
decision to bring it to its death at the altar.
Some of us grew up on farms and remember a sense of loss and gratitude as an animal was
slaughtered. But most of us keep safe distance from that process. Rabbi Wolpe challenges our
contemporary remoteness from the act of killing our animals, as he continues: “At the Temple, the
priests presided and Psalms were sung. When we buy at the supermarket, we check the USDA
inspection sticker. Now, who is primitive?” (“In Defense of Animal Sacrifice,” The Huffington Post,
26 July 2012)
All of this matters before we even get to the religious significance of the sacrificial moment. The sacrifice system that Leviticus orders was designed to bring people of God
humbly into the presence of God to recognize that putting distance between ourselves
and God is a grave matter. Sin came between the worshipper and God. Sacrifice counted
the cost of that sin. I believe that people experienced the power of God’s presence in the
moment of sacrifice.
Consider the last time you felt that mysterious mix of emotions we call awe. What evoked
it? Was the presence of God mingled in that experience?
By now you may be asking, “Why all the sacrifice?!”
Sometimes, Israel sacrificed to express gratitude or praise or to celebrate in some way
(Chapters 2—3). But you don’t have to read far in Leviticus to recognize that most sacrifice
was designed to do something about human sin. The word “sin” is all over the place in
Leviticus. “If anyone sins unintentionally…If all of Israel sins unintentionally… If anyone sins
intentionally… If all of Israel sins intentionally…” That’s because, as we have already seen,
a main part of the priest’s job is to “atone” for people’s sins through sacrifice.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “sin”? Does the word evoke a sense
of serious concern? Or guilt and shame? Or some comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live
or in Monty Python that chastises “sinners”? Your answer to that question has probably
been determined by whether or where you go to church. Sin is a controversial word in
American Christianity. Some churches and Christians use the word commonly and often,
to name misdeeds that require forgiveness by God and people. But other churches
and Christians hardly use the word, partly because they believe that the word has been
overused by the first group to produce guilt and shame. This second group often finds it
inaccurate to characterize humanity as essentially evil.
However “sin” impacts you, Bible readers can’t avoid it. The word appears more than 400
times in the big book. You may remember its debut in the Cain and Abel story of Genesis
4, where, “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If
you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the
door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4.7) As in Genesis 4, the word
can describe a power or human tendency that drives us to do wrong things. In Leviticus,
it more often describes individual acts that violate God’s ways.
Put them all together, and “sin” is an act or attitude that separates people from God and
one another. A big part of the priest’s job was to help people reunite with God through
What do you know about Judaism? Just under two percent of America’s population is
Jewish. Mostly the rest of us are pretty clueless about Jewish beliefs and practices. We
know that Passover comes around Easter time (it shows up in the stories about Jesus’ last
supper), and Hanukkah is near Christmas (kids sing about dradles in school). And we may
notice that Yom Kippur happens sometime early in the Fall.
What some of us don’t know is that Yom Kippur is the Jewish “Day of Atonement.” (In
Hebrew, Yom = Day – Kippur = To Atone). And most of us don’t know that Yom Kippur is
the holiest of Jewish holy days. And almost none of us knew before this reading that the
most ancient guidebook for Yom Kippur is the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus. That is where
the Lord calls Moses’ brother Aaron to sacrifice in a way that makes atonement for himself,
then for the holy place, and then for all Israel. After telling Aaron the specifics, God says,
This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the
month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien
who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse
you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of complete rest
to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute forever. (Lev. 16.29-31)
Jews around the world observe the Day of Atonement as “the Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
Work ceases in favor of prayer and fasting from food and other pleasures. Yom Kippur is
an opportunity for Jews to examine themselves and do what it takes to make things right
with God and recommit themselves to minding their relationship with God. They seek
God’s forgiveness and recommit themselves to live in God’s company.
How do you remind yourself to seek God’s forgiveness? Does it happen for you through
Christian holidays? Would an annual “Yom Kippur” help you?
How would you design a day like that (e.g., what practices would you put in it?) so that it
helped you to re-orient yourself to God’s presence in your life?
In the context of American culture wars, the Book of Leviticus is most famous for two
verses that seem to forbid male homosexual acts.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Lev 18.22)
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Lev 20.13)
Over these two verses and three others like them in the Bible, churches and a nation have
been split in two.
The debate will rage on long after laws are settled. In that charged context, we ought to
look for ways to help us stop mistreating one another while we argue. In that interest…
Here’s my advice: Whatever their stance on this issue, all Americans
should read Leviticus 19. The fact is that a minute few of the people
who participate in this national debate have ever read any verses in
Leviticus outside these (in)famous two. These verses illustrate how little
we care about obeying the laws of Leviticus:
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.
You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not
sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment
made of two different materials…
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of
your beard.
You shall not… tattoo any marks upon you.
You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old.
I’ve never heard a sermon or read an editorial on any of these passages. No national
campaigns have arisen to enforce them, though they lie (ironically) right between the two
better-known ones.
Leviticus 19 also speaks a word to another national debate:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien
who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as
yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19.33-34)
The debate will rage, but, on whatever side we find ourselves on the issues, let’s be careful
not to pretend that our motivation is strict obedience of Leviticus. If it were, we’d be trimming our beards differently and treating the aged among us better.
Here’s an idea: Rather than throwing passages back and forth like weapons, we might do
well to treat Leviticus as a book that reminds us how significant it is to be in God’s presence, stay in God’s presence, and find a way back in when we stray.
Like Leviticus, the Book of Numbers begins unpromisingly.
The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting,
on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had
come out of the land of Egypt, saying: Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the
number of names… (Num 1.1-2)
This is why we call the book Numbers.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall
be apportioned among the several
States which may be included within
this Union, according to their respective
Numbers, which shall be determined by
adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service
for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other
Now we can understand the purpose of a census: Way back in Genesis
12 and 15 God promised Abraham that his descendants would multiply
to become as numerous as the stars. This book records that sheer size of
the clan. That’s undoubtedly an important thing to do; but, frankly, there’s a
reason CBS doesn’t televise census results in primetime. Ratings would fall
through the floor.
Here’s good news: although it starts with a census, the Book of Numbers is
mostly not one. In fact, a better title might be, “Israel’s Wild and Wearying
Wanderings.” After giving the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law
to His people at Sinai, God charges them to fulfill the next line of his promise to Abraham by going into the Promised Land. Sounds simple enough.
But barely fifteen minutes later, the Israelites begin to grumble – about their
food, about their neighbors, about Moses, about everything. Then, instead
of faithfully marching to the Jordan and taking their place in the land, the
people cower in fear. “Israel’s Faithless Faltering” could be another nominee as a title.
As the people grumble against God, their mission gets exponentially harder. If Exodus featured God’s harsh handling of Egyptians who oppressed
His people, in Numbers for the first time we see what it looks like when
God gets angry with his people…and it ain’t pretty. In one place, 14,700
are struck down for their insubordination (Num 16.49). In another, 24,000 for immorality
with the daughters of Moab. (Num 25.9) Ultimately, God bans the whole generation
(including Moses) from entering the Land because of their faithless ways. God does not
drown the whole lot of humanity as in the Noah story. Instead, to start with a clean slate,
God simply waits.
This picture of divine wrath and violence raises again questions of how attuned our authors actually are to the character of God. I believe that scripture was inspired by God (1
Timothy 3.16) but I don’t think that means that all of its claims are equally true. Did God
kill the thousands of people whose death is attributed to divine wrath in the Bible— nne
website counts all of God’s killings in scripture and adds them up to 2.3 million? (www.
godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/godkills.htm). Bible readers disagree about this. But it is a crucial question about the relationship between biblical claims and the true character of God.
Whatever else the Book of Numbers accomplishes, it most certainly illustrates again – in
a very different way than Leviticus does – the utter significance of connected relationship with God. Israel learns in the wilderness that trusting God is central to being God’s
people; that God will provide, but not always in the way we would order it; that there are
consequences to straying from the Way of life in faithful community for which we were
Leviticus and Numbers give way to a “Last Words of Moses” book called Deuteronomy. In
it, the great leader gets one last opportunity to shape the people Israel before they enter
the Promised Land. In those words, he helps us ask, “How would I get the way of God
into the inner workings of my life? In our next session, the Wild Ride continues to the
banks of the Jordan River.
Becoming God’s People
ow can God’s way become real in my life? How do I get this way in me – not just as
a set of rules in a book that I try to remember to keep, but as the way I live? What does
it look like to be faithful to this God?
These are questions Deuteronomy raises. In it, Moses gets his last chance to form Abraham and
Sarah’s family to be faithful. Some of its content may feel familiar to you (see below), but here it is
reframed for a new time and circumstance.
How do you remind yourself about important things?
In the classic Frank Capra film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Thomas Mitchell plays the forgetful Uncle Billy,
who ties a string around his finger every time he needs to remembers something important. In
fact the plot of the movie turns on the failure of his system, when he loses an important pile of cash
instead of depositing it and so sinks the Bailey Savings and Loan.
President Bill Clinton famously posted a sticky note over his computer screen that said simply, “It’s
the economy, stupid!”
Once when my golf buddy Jay Davis couldn’t get himself in the habit of a certain swing thought, he
wrote it on a scrap and taped it to the top of his driver.
Maybe you keep an old school paper to-do list, or perhaps you have turned to tech for help. As for
me, I somehow find a way to lose pieces of paper, so I rely a lot on my memory – a system which
sometimes fails me.
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses speaks the Shema – the central Jewish claim that there is one
God and that our proper response is whole-selved love.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with
all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
These words are utterly significant, because they epitomize the whole covenant between
God and Israel in a single sentence.
The Shema is memorable because it is beautiful. But people forget even memorable and
important things. So once he has spoken the most important thing, Moses offers his
practical plan to help Israel remember:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your
children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you
lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem
on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
(Deut 6.4-9)
Here, Moses exhorts Israel to…
• store the Law in their hearts (memorize it) and…
• talk about its commands a lot with their kids…
• at home and when they are out and…
• write them on the palm of their hand to remind themselves, and…
• put them on their foreheads to remind their neighbors, and…
• post put them like a sign on their doorposts so they see them when they come in and when they go out.
You get the picture. This is two belts and two suspenders to keep pants up. Moses knows
that being a faithful people is high-degree-of-difficulty work. This doesn’t happen casually.
Moses gives them every possible way to get this right.
The rabbis of Judaism take Moses’ retention
plan seriously. Here is a lovely custom that encourages young children to read Torah.
It is the custom of our ancestors that they bring
children to learn [for the first time] on [the Jewish holy day] Shavout, since the Torah was given
then…At sunrise on Shavout, they bring the
children, in keeping with the verse “as morning
dawned, there was thunder and lightning” (Exodus 19:16). And one covers the children with a
cloak from their house to the synagogue or to
the rabbi’s house, in keeping with the verse “and
they stood underneath the mountain” (ibid., v.
17). And they put him on the lap of the rabbi
who teaches them, in keeping with the verse
“as a nurse carries an infant” (Numbers 11:12).
The rabbis bring the slate upon which is written
“Moses commanded us the Torah” (Deut. 33:4),
“may the Torah be my occupation”, and “The
Lord called to Moses” (Lev. 1:1). And the rabbi
reads every letter of the alef-bet and the child
repeats after him, and [the rabbi reads all of the
above and the child repeats after him].
And the rabbi puts a little honey on the slate
and the child licks the honey from the letters
with his tongue. And then they bring the honey
cake upon which is inscribed “The Lord God
gave me a skilled tongue to know…” (Isaiah 50:
4-5), and the rabbi reads every word of these
verses and the child repeats after him. And
then they bring a peeled hard-boiled egg upon
which is written “Mortal, feed your stomach and
fill your belly with this scroll… and I ate it and it
tasted as sweet as honey to me” (Ezekiel 3:3).
And the rabbi reads every word and the child
repeats after him. And they feed the child the
cake and the egg, for they open the mind… (Sefer Harokeah, paragraph 296)
The name of this book raises a good question. It is a Greek
word that means “Second Law” (Deutero = Second – Nomos
= Law). Sure enough, most of the content looks like more Law,
which makes us ask whether and why we need this book, when
we already have Exodus 20-40. Chapter 5 even repeats the Ten
Commandments from Exodus 20. We also hear echoes of Leviticus. One scholar characterizes the contents as “the essentials of
Leviticus rewritten in such a manner as to make the more priestly
and esoteric material amenable to the populace…a popular version of the Levitical law…an Everyman’s Torah.” (R.K. Harrison,
Introduction to the Old Testament, Eerdmans, 1969, p. 636-37)
So… is this book a retread? Is it just an oldie but a goody sung
by a cover band? What value does Deuteronomy add?
On the Wild Ride, Deuteronomy moves the Law of Sinai toward
Israel’s future in the Land of Canaan. God has been grooming
Abraham and Sarah’s family since that first call to partnership
in Genesis 12 – revealing his character to them, providing them
with a purpose, showing them what it looks like when God is
active in their world, and teaching them how to connect and
reconnect with His presence. Now Israel is finally on the front
porch of the Promised Land, just East of the Jordan River. Moses
knows that he will not cross the river with them, so he takes this
last opportunity to help them pack the bags of their faith on the
way into the land.
That’s why throughout the book, Moses continues to remind the
people of the high stakes of obedience. Obey these commands,
he says, and it will go well with you. Forget or reject them, and
there will be consequences. An example:
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God
who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and
keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who
repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not
delay but repays in their own person those who reject him.
Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes
and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today. (Deut
For Moses, Israel’s future success or failure in the Promised Land
rests on the question whether they will remember God’s law
or not. We will see in a few weeks that leaders and kings will
be assessed on the criteria set by this book (Joshua, Judges, 1-2
Samuel, and 1-2 Kings), so that scholars call them the “Deuteronomistic History.” When Jesus and the early Christian authors
quote Moses, it is most often the words of Deuteronomy they
repeat. Deuteronomy leans forward.
So, how ‘bout lunch at Culver’s next Sunday?
Bible for Dummies at the Wayzata Bar and Grill
on Wednesday night? What would sweeten
the reading of Torah for you and yours?
If Deuteronomy is the old Law with a tilt toward the future, when and why was it written?
The “action” of this book is set just before Abraham and Sarah’s family moves into the land
of Canaan. But when historians look at this book, they notice content and style that fit a
much later period in the history of Abraham and Sarah’s family – after they have been in
the land for a few hundred years.
How can that be? It’s likely that the core of Deuteronomy (chapters 12—26) comes from
early times and was passed on for centuries. But then an editor or team much later
reshaped an earlier body of Law in a way that met the pressing needs of their own community.
But what period and what needs gave rise to Deuteronomy as we know it? One of the
dramatic episodes in Jewish history developed during the reign of King Josiah in the 600s
B.C.E. When the king’s men are cleaning the Temple basement, they find a cache of scrolls
they don’t recognize at first. But then they discover that they’ve stumbled on the Law of
Moses. You may think your family Bible has some dust on it. They had to dig this one out
from beneath the stack of things that were destined for Goodwill.
When King Josiah learned what had happen,
He tore his clothes…[and] went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the
people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the
people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the
covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. (2 Kings 22.11 and 23.2)
When Josiah learned what Moses had said, he immediately launched a series of reforms
to comply with God’s law.
King Josiah had to do all this because the people had forgotten Moses’ words. (Does
that ring a bell? His predecessor, King Manassah, had left the law aside during his 55-year
reign. Scholars identify this dramatic moment when Josiah renews the nation’s attention
to the Law as the likely origin of the Book of Deuteronomy you and I know.
The Testament and Death of Moses,
fresco circa 1481-1482,
Luca Signorelli in the Sistine Chapel
What is the lesson here for us? Maybe the same one Moses teaches Israel in Deuteronomy 6: Remember these words. Dwell in them. Recite them. Memorize them. Teach
them to your children. The Bible gives us access to God’s activity and a faithful way of life.
When we ignore it or forget it, we lose our way, too.
What would help you keep your eye on this biblical ball?
So, what does this Law say? We’ve learned how Moses counseled Israel to retain it, when
and why it may have been written, and a bit about how its broad message might help us.
But what does the Book of Deuteronomy say?
Blessings and Curses
The laws of Deuteronomy are framed by incentives. Because the heart of the Law is
Deut 12—26, the classic form of this incentive both introduce and cap it. Before the Law,
Moses says,
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the
commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse,
if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way
that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known. (Deut
Afterward, he says,
If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments
that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey
the Lord your God…But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing
all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these
curses shall come upon you and overtake you. (Deut 28.1-2 and 15)
These brackets make the Law more than a suggestion or a burden. Obedience to Moses’
words becomes a pathway to a good future for Abraham and Sarah’s family.
The Worship of One God
Deuteronomy emphasizes the first and second of the Ten Commandments. The very first
command in the core chapters cautions Israel against the lure of foreign gods:
You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to
dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy
tree. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew
down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. You shall not
worship the Lord your God in such ways. But you shall seek the place that the Lord your
God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. (Deut 12.2-4)
Then Moses describes what the proper worship of the One God looks like, including
sacrifices and other observances. This theme of “hav[ing] no other gods before me” and
“not mak[ing] for yourself an idol ” (Deut 5.7-8) will wind its way through the whole book.
The laws will also instruct Israel about the shape of their sacrifices to God.
The laws of Deut 12—26 govern everyday things you
and I might not normally count as moral or immoral,
like how Abraham and Sarah’s family should cut or not
cut their hair and what kind of food they should and
shouldn’t eat, how they loan and borrow money and
how they treat the people who borrow from them, and
how to treat the poorer people in their town. Here are
some examples:
You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead. For you are a people holy to the
Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all
the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured
possession. (14.1-2)
You shall not eat any abhorrent thing. These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the
sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope,
and the mountain-sheep. Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cloven in
two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the
cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rockbadger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you.
And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you.
You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses. (14.3-8)
Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the
remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting
it from a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has
been proclaimed. (15.1-2)
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns
within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending
enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. (15.7-8)
Some of these laws may seem irrelevant to us. The way I cut my hair matters to God?
But in nations surrounding Israel, people worshipped their gods by cutting their hair in a
certain way.
Can you think of a similarly mundane contemporary practice you might hear a preacher
forbid? How about the combo of a shaved head and a twisted-cross tattoo?
Does the way
you cut your hair
matter to God?
How will the people of Israel police themselves and and settle their
disputes in the Land? Throughout their travels from Mt. Sinai to the
Jordan River, Moses was God’s go-between, “governing” the people by direct command. But Moses will not continue into Canaan
with them, so these chapters of Deuteronomy also prescribe legal
practices and other parts of governing the tribes and (ultimately)
the nation.
You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in
all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall
render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice;
you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for
a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those
who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so
that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is
giving you. (Deut 16.18-20)
The code even anticipates the people’s desire for a king, someday.
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you
say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you may indeed set
over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you
may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not
of your own community. (Deut 18.14-15)
This very practical design moves God’s way into the governance of Israel – a realm that
modern democracies generally count as secular. In our own time and place, we debate
how much the way of God should enter the conversation about how the laws of the land
and civic life should be ordered.
What role do you think God’s Law ought to play in the way we govern ourselves in the
The United States is one of 21 countries in the world that carries out capital punishment.
Still, as we read through these early parts of the Bible, it can be chilling to see the harsh
punishments Israel had on the books. Here is a sample from Dueteronomy 17:
If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a
man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and transgresses
his covenant by going to serve other gods and worshipping them— whether the sun or
the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden— and if it is reported to
you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true
that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates
that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or
woman to death. (Deut 17.2-5)
In the code of Deuteronomy, idolatry gets you executed. In fact, a lot of things get you
executed in these books.
The strongly Christian identity of American culture, and the role of the whole Bible, has a
lot to do with the fact that the U.S. is the only Western nation among those 21. In fact, the
debate about capital punishment in the U.S. often features biblical quotations from each
side – one calling on passages like this one from Deuteronomy to argue for it, others
telling the story of Jesus halting those who would stone the adulterous woman to argue
against it.
There is a historical question here: exactly how often did Israel actually execute people?
We know that by the time of Jesus, executions in Israel were rare. Partly, that is because
the Roman Empire was the official legal power. When Jesus is sentenced, it is not the
Jewish court that determines it, but the Roman one overseen by Pontius Pilate that has
the last word.
In spite of Roman power, the rabbis continued to debate the Law robustly and realistically.
As the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish court) did with Jesus and the first Christians (Mark
14 and Acts 4), they tried their own people and even stated deserved sentences. One
famous discussion about capital punishment appears in the 2nd-century C.E. collection of
rabbinic sayings called Mishnah:
A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called
destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years.
Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none
would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel
says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel.” (Makkot
Of course, the laws of Deuteronomy appeared long centuries before
this conversation, when Israel still governed itself. It is nearly impossible
to know how often rulers actually carried out executions like the ones
prescribed in Deuteronomy 17. When the nation of Israel was formed in
1948, the debate re-emerged, and the nation finally decided to abolish
capital penalty, except in the case of military treason. (Rabbi Louis Jacobs,
“The Death Penalty in Jewish Tradition” at jewishlearning.com)
Many American Christians who have impacted the capital punishment
debate have gone the other way. It is important and responsible for
Christians to understand the continuing influence of these words from
Deuteronomy on our national debate and policies. Do you think it is
right to take a life as punishment for a crime? Which crimes warrant it?
What part does your Christian identity play in this? How do you hear this law from Deuteronomy 17 alongside Jesus’ “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” in John 8?
The last half of our Wild Ride through the first five books of the Bible has been very legal,
with Moses’ Law dominating half of Exodus and all of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Maybe
that’s not your idea of a thrill ride. Looking for a little levity and joy? These books of Law
can start to feel pretty heavy. But amid the thrum, thrum, thrumming of laws, a brilliant,
bright voice rings out to declare the year of Jubilee. This Super Sabbath concept first appears in Leviticus:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout
the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every
one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year
shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the after-growth, or harvest
the un-pruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only
what the field itself produces.
In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When
you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat
one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of
years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop-years. If the
years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish
the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not
cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God. (Lev 25.10-17)
This vision is amplified in Deuteronomy, where the Jubilee principle recurs every seven
years. “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner
of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not
exacting it from a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed.” (Deut 15.1-2)
Jubilee is a clean-slate celebration of each person’s worth before God. Notice that this law
originates with “the Lord’s remission” which human behavior is now called to emulate.
What do Jubilee laws tell us about the character of God? What would happen to the U.S.
economy if we canceled debt every seven years – if people claimed back family property
every fifty years? If the specific form of the Jubilee laws seem impractical, how can we
reflect this part of the character of God in our lives in other ways?
Our Wild Ride through the Bible’s first five books halts
just before the waters of Jordan, with the Promised
Land of Canaan in view on the other side. What will
happen next? Our next series is Homeland. We’ll
watch Abraham’s family live in tribes, then operate
under monarchs of various skill, and then endure
exiles, all in the span of seven centuries. So be sure
to join us as we cross the Jordan to taste life in the