Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Reading Torah Can Help You See More In The Jewish Pool of Images

 Christians have a history of neglecting to read the books of the law--Torah. We use the first eleven chapters of Genesis for debate over creation and anthropology, and then perhaps enjoy the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the exodus. Then we get bogged down in formulas and lists in the second half of Exodus through the end of Deuteronomy, leaving our Western minds to check out. However, the writers of the NT quote from and allude to the first five books of the Bible so often that we will be lost as to what is really being said if we are not familiar with them as well. We will be like children watching a Disney cartoon--we get something out of it to be sure, but the parents are getting so much more.

As I was listening to the Exodus story on CD this week (incidently the Word of Promise by Thomas Nelson Publishers makes this experience very enjoyable) I caught a phrase that reminded me of something Jesus said.

14 Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. 15 But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” 16 Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.  17 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. 18 If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 20 But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.   (Luke 11:14-20, emphasis mine)
As I listened to the story of Moses confronting Pharoah, I heard this:
16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become gnats.” 17 They did this, and when Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came on people and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats. 18 But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not.    Since the gnats were on people and animals everywhere, 19 the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said.  (Exodus 8:16-19)
Is Jesus pointing back to this story and comparing the sign demanding crowds to Pharoah's court? I have to admit that I am not finished studying this topic, but it is a good example of how this works. As we become familiar with the Bible, both Old and New testaments, we will begin to pick up on more of the interplay between them. But not only will we understand the NT better if we read and study the "Books of Moses", we will also understand more in Psalms or the prophets. For example you may be reading Psalm 67 which begins with:
1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
   and make his face shine on us—
2 so that your ways may be known on earth,
   your salvation among all nations.
If you are familiar with the book of Numbers, you may recognize that  the first line of this psalm is appropriating the Aaronic Blessing:
22 The LORD said to Moses, 23 “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:  24 “‘“The LORD bless you
   and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face shine on you
   and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD turn his face toward you
   and give you peace.”’
 27 “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
These are just two minor examples that come to mind. There are many rich images from Torah that are picked up again and again in the NT--the call of Abraham (Gen 12), the Covenant with Abraham (Gen 15, 17), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22), I AM (Exod. 3), the parting of the Red Sea (Exod 14), Mt. Sinai and the 10 Commandments (Exod 19 & 20), the golden calf incident and the new stone tablets (Exod 32-34), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), Holiness laws (Lev. 19), Jubilee (Lev. 25), the Nazirite Vow and Aaronic Blessing (Num. 6), water from a rock (Num. 20), Balaam (Num. 22-24), the Covenant (Deut. 27-30), and much, much more.

I would encourage you to go through Stephen's address to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 and trace the Biblical stories and quotations. If necessary, reread the stories and passages he cites. Then ask yourself why he uses these and what do they mean. It is a very rich experience.

Have you noticed any images or concepts from the Torah that clarified a NT passage? If so, please share what insights you have gleaned.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Won't God Go Away?

 Last night I finished reading a new book by Alister McGrath called Why God Won't Go Away. After watching several debates between Christians and atheists on line, I was ready to learn more on the subject of the "New Atheist Movement." First, McGrath introduces the reader to how the "new" atheist movement started and what it is, giving brief but informative introductions to each of the "four horsemen." Secondly, he tackles three major challenges that new atheists pose to theists (violence, reason, and science), showing the deficiencies in these arguments. Finally, he assesses the future for the new atheist movement...and not to spoil the surprise, but the future is not "Bright."

 How can a book of this nature be a "page-turner"? I'm not really sure how McGrath pulled it off, but I could not stop reading this book. As someone who is relatively new to understanding the "New Atheist" movement and philosophical debates, I found McGrath to be a capable and entertaining guide. His prose is easy yet thought provoking. He has an excellent command of the subject matter, equally at home in science or the history of philosophy. Most importantly, I feel better equipped to discuss these issues with atheist or agnostics after having read this short volume. I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to engage our culture.

So, why won't God go away? Read the book and find out.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What Is The Vine In The Jewish Pool of Images?

How do we go about examining the "images" in this pool? It's not as if there is one particular place in the Old Testament (OT) that has all the images in easy to recognize forms. Ideally, we would all be so saturated in the OT that, when the NT used such images, bells and whistles would go off in our minds. But, alas, we are too busy keeping up with our Facebook accounts, celebrity gossip, or running around with too many irons in the fire to slow down and read something as crusty and "irrelevant" as Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy...right? After all, we are a New Testament/New Covenant Church right? 

Writing to Timothy, Paul said, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16). When he wrote this there was no such thing as a New Testament. He was speaking about the Scriptures that he had grown up studying--Christians call it the Old Testament and Jews call it TaNaKh: Torah ("the Teaching" we know this as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), Nevi'im ("Prophets"--Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi), and Ketavim ("Writings"--Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes [this the Latin term while the Hebrew is Qohelet], Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles. So Paul is saying that the OT is useful and important.

So, back to the original question: How do we go about examining the "images" in this pool? The answer is that we have to go about it two ways simultaneously--we have to study the OT and we have look for possible OT images/references while reading the NT. The first of these we will have to do on our own ( short cuts here). The second one we can start to look at together by examining certain passages to see what images we may find and what they may signify.

 We will start with a passage many of us know well. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus says,
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned"  (Jn 15:1-6)
This image of the vine is just a standard parable right? Or could this be something more when we look at how the image of the vine is used throughout the OT?

Psalm 80: 8-16--

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
   you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
   it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
   the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its branches to the sea
   and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
   so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
 The boar from the forest ravages it,
   and all that move in the field feed on it.
 Turn again, O God of hosts!
    Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
 the stock that your right hand planted,
   and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
   may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
 [Here the psalmist is using the vine as a metaphor for Israel.]

The whole of Isaiah 5 depicts Israel as God's vineyard.

Jeremiah 2:20-22--

20"For long ago I broke your yoke

   and burst your bonds;
   but you said, 'I will not serve.'
Yes, on every high hill
   and under every green tree
   you bowed down like a whore.
 Yet I planted you a choice vine,
   wholly of pure seed.
 How then have you turned degenerate
   and become a wild vine?
Though you wash yourself with lye
   and use much soap,
    the stain of your guilt is still before me,

         declares the Lord GOD.

[Again the vine is being used as a symbol for the nation of Israel.]

Ezekiel 15 visualizes Jerusalem (the capital city of Israel) as a useless, dried up vine.

Though Ezekiel 17 is a parable that seems complicated and confusing, it too envisions Israel as a vine that wanders from where it's planted.

Ezekiel 19:10-14--

Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard

   planted by the water,
 fruitful and full of branches
    by reason of abundant water.
Its strong stems became
   rulers’ scepters;
it towered aloft
   among the thick boughs;
it was seen in its height
   with the mass of its branches.
But the vine was plucked up in fury,
   cast down to the ground;
 the east wind dried up its fruit;
   they were stripped off and withered.
As for its strong stem,
   fire consumed it.
 Now it is planted in the wilderness,
   in a dry and thirsty land.
 And fire has gone out from the stem of its shoots,
   has consumed its fruit,
 so that there remains in it no strong stem,
   no scepter for ruling.

[This lament is directed to the princes of Israel, which means that the mother/vine is Israel...see a theme here?]

Hosea 10:1--

Israel is a luxuriant vine

   that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased,
    the more altars he built;
as his country improved,
   he improved his pillars.
It is evident that throughout the OT the vine is used as a symbol for Israel. Now that we see this, we can understand that Jesus is claiming to be the one true Israel. If you are skeptical about this point, Matthew 2:15 cites "Out of Egypt I called my son" to refer to Jesus while the original context of the citation, Hosea 11:1, says, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son."

To understand the full implications of this we would have to examine Israel's calling and mission in the world, but we do not have time for that discussion here. N.T. Wright has provided an excellent treatment of this concept of Jesus as the true Israel in his works such as Simply Christian, The Challenge of Jesus, and The Climax of the Covenant.

If we begin to see Israel as the vine and Jesus as the one true Israel, then what new insights might this begin to yield for our study of John 15? Exactly what is Jesus saying to his disciples? And why might it matter for us today? I would love to hear your thoughts.