The Significance of Singleness

A BOOK REPORT

on

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SINGLENESS

(Baker Academic, 2018)

by

CHRISTINA S. HITCHCOCK

marriage mandate

A review by Brett Best

January, 2019

THE BOTTOM LINE

            According to the subtitle, Hitchcock’s book promises to be “A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church.”  It does not deliver on that promise.  Instead, it is an overreaction to the “marriage mandate movement” in evangelical Christianity.  The author is not content to set singleness and marriage on a level playing field but seeks to tip the balance to the assumption that singleness is an inherently more spiritual situation.  (Full disclosure: she is married with children.)

IN THE AUTHOR’S OWN WORDS – STATEMENTS OF THESIS

            Characterizing the usual evangelical position she wrote, “Thus marriage presents both an appealing lifestyle and a powerful picture of who God is and what he is doing while singleness does neither.” (p. 7)

“Singleness is a sign not of loneliness but of perfected community.” (p. 33)

“Although Protestants do not consider marriage to be a sacrament, many still treat it as if it were one.” (p. 78)

“The true ground of authority in the church is always God and the gifting of the Holy Spirit.  This direct link to Christ through the Holy Spirit is made clearer in single people than in married people because single people have fewer natural relations to whom we might attribute their authority.  The church needs single people to remind us that our own commissioner is God.” (p. 124)

BY THE BOOK – MY REACTIONS TO CHAPTERS

“INTRODUCTION”

            The introduction oversells the purpose of the book, devoting too much attention to the author’s personal life.  It’s better skipped, unless the reader has an interest in the author’s situation or curiosity about why the author feels this book “had to be written.”  As will be characteristic throughout the book, the author resorts to assertions of opinion as fact, stereotyping Evangelicalism, and unsubstantiated assertions of how the Church has “punted” on the subject of singleness.

1 = “WHY SINGLENESS?”

            Attempting to cure what the author identifies as a widespread, deep and long-standing bias against singleness, Hitchcock wields an uncritically assumed generalization as fact: that the Church (especially the Evangelical branch) has adopted the culture’s view of sexuality as a means of achieving maturity, even personhood.  This charge will be levied often in the book.  It’s ironic that liberal Christians consume and even champion our culture’s permissive view of sexuality but in these pages conservative Christians are accused of doing the same thing.

Hitchcock asserts that an exaltation of singleness as inherently more spiritual will open all kinds of doors, helping the Church better deal with all sexuality issues.  To Hitchcock this is apparently self-evident as nothing resembling proof or explaining the points of such a process is offered.

What she calls the Marriage Mandate is the bogeyman.  It serves the author as a handy straw dog that she knocks over repeatedly instead of substantiating exactly how sanctifying singleness is going put the Church in a better state.

I wonder if the author is not guilty of over-correcting.  If she sought balance instead of making the same error on the side of singleness as she alleges the Church has made on the side of marriage, the whole would be more palatable.  As it is, the author offers hand-wringing and complaint in excess and little vision or practicable action.

2 = “MACRINA (SINGLENESS AND COMMUNITY)”

            The life of St. Macrina serves the author as an excellent example of the principles she wants to will in to existence, but I wonder at the historicity of the accounts she cites.  Macrina’s story may be exemplary, but are the sources reliable enough to cite as proofs?

Hitchcock’s thinking is binary; either singleness or marriage must be exalted as “the” spiritual condition?  The more logical assumption would be that neither state is inherently more spiritual, they are simply different.  Each status carries advantages and disadvantages.  Why rely on  “either…or” thinking to prop up pedagogy exalting singleness?

The idea of “updating” the Creation Mandate to reflect all of biblical revelation is good, but it is only explored as it supports Hitchcock’s thesis.  That notion should be treated with the same skepticism that is needed when the Left talks about the US Constitution as a “living document,” which serves as an excuse for putting modern words in the mouths of the Founders.

3 = “PERPETUA (SINGLENESS AND IDENTITY)”

            This chapter starts with the bare facts of Perpetua as a first century martyr who had an infant child at the time of her death.  To that the author adds speculation that suits her thesis.  It becomes a tangential discourse on the practice of baptism in the early church.  The relevance of the baptism study is Hitchcock’s assertion that baptism establishes a new Christian identity.  Because the father of Perpetua’s child is unnamed, Perpetua’s assumed baptism cements her identity as a single person.  This is an example of the forced, tortured “logic” that pervades the book.  Repeatedly asserting things as true does not make them true.

The chapter has so little to do with the topic of singleness I wonder why the author worked so hard to shoehorn it in.  It is the most obvious example of bending evidence and rhetoric to prop up her thesis.  In each of the three “historical” chapters I see the usual postmodern assumption that narrative trumps rhetoric.   In this case, the narrative has been tweaked to make it better suit the thesis.

4 = “LOTTIE MOON (SINGLENESS AND AUTHORITY)”

            Hitchcock offers Lottie Moon and the success of her Chinese mission as proof that singleness is the preferred qualification for ministry.  Had Hitchcock ever offered her assertions with some qualification such as “in some situations,” one might find more agreement.  As it is, anecdotes are not evidence, narrative does not trump rhetoric (it merely illustrates it), and one does not achieve correction by offering the opposite in exactly the same position/proportion as the problem.

In this chapter, the author’s point about Miss Moon’s career is held until the last page.  This is a suspect practice, deferring scrutiny.

Lottie Moon is the most verifiable of the three narratives and Hitchcock does a good job of demonstrating that she was an exceptional person.  However, that cuts both ways; her exceptionality logically argues against making her experience the basis of the generalities Hitchcock endorses in this book.  Clearly, not every single person is going to duplicate Lottie Moon’s influence and success.

5 = “HOW SINGLENESS CAN SHAPE US INTO BETTER THEOLOGIANS”

            The final chapter is the weakest.  Hitchcock’s hand-wringing over Evangelical “idolizing” of marriage is offered as reason enough to swap the two-person idol for the single person idol the author proposes.  The empty promise that singleness is inherently more spiritual is not logical or biblical.  Hitchcock has not provided us with a vision – theological or otherwise.

CONCLUSION:  AVOIDABLE

            Apart from the shoehorned section on first century baptism practices, there is little of value here.  The book is a journal article that has been inflated to fill 100+ pages.  While there is much to criticize about the American Church’s treatment of the subject of marriage, there is nothing practical and little theological value in Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject.  A more nuanced view seeing marriage and singleness as both having potential and pitfalls would be more logical and more biblical, and therefore, more helpful.  We ought to seek ways to honor and support persons who seek God within their marital status, whatever it may be.  For what it’s worth, my advice is to avoid spending any time on The Significance of Singleness.

A Full View of the Father

God is a Spirit; He wants us to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.

OK, Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who is a mom and everyone who had one.  In honor of the day, we are going to look at the ways the Bible uses motherhood as an example of God’s love for His people.

We need to be careful, even more so than usual, of confusing the imagery with the reality.  On Mother’s Day, sentimental feelings abound, but as is the case with all things in this world, the reality is more complicated.  Let me give you a couple examples.

First, over a decade ago, an email story made the rounds, telling about a report published in National Geographic magazine about a mother bird killed in a forest fire.  When walking through the area after the fire was extinguished, rangers found a bird’s body “petrified in ashes.”  A little heart-sick by the sight, they attempted to break up the corpse by knocking it over with a stick.  When they did so, three little chicks scurried out from behind the body, unharmed.

This inspirational email drew a moral to this story about motherhood and the kind of loyalty mothers feel for their children, sometimes even defending them at the loss of the mother’s life.  It’s a great and inspiring tale, and it’s also not true.

National Geographic denies having printed such a story and officials at Yellowstone national park deny having had or publicized such an experience.  Worse still, one of their bird experts said that for a bird to sacrifice herself in such a way was contrary to all we know about bird behavior.

I offer this solely as a cautionary tale about how the world is more complicated than our symbols can hope to account for.  The best way to honor moms is with real memories of them in the fullness of who they are or were.  Sentiment can get in the way of truth more subtly than an outright lie.

Second, some of you may remember the furor started by a women’s conference held in 1993 in Minneapolis.  It was called a “Re-imaging Conference” in which the 2200 attendees were invited to “re-imagine” God as a woman.  It was hoped that this exercise of imagination might ultimately empower women to overcome bias and a culture that oppressed them because of their gender.

What made headlines about the conference was not anything it did to help women, but the flaky stuff that happened there in unbiblical and ill-advised attempts to be provocative and turn male-dominated culture and theology upside down.  One example is worship directed at Sophia, a goddess of worship.

Some may claim that the conference was well-intended, but got hijacked along the way by pagans and feminists.  The extremists got all the attention and the more orthodox elements were ignored.

Here we are 25 years later.  I think it’s fair to ask what difference this conference made.  I read a speech given by one of the participants trying to defend the conference.  It was thin stuff.  Personally, I think attempts to paint over centuries of Christian teaching and tradition were unwise and did little, if anything, to expand our faith or our public life.  Gender inequality still exists.  The Re-imaging Conference is a trivia question that only serves as an illustration of how divided we can become when the extremists are allowed to frame the discussion.

All of that to say this: the Bible declares God is our Father, but also uses motherly images to show the comforting and protective aspects of His character.  A full view of God acknowledges both.  Further, a full view of God acknowledges That He is a spiritual being, a higher form of personhood that is not limited to one gender.  When we say God is our Father, we are not saying He has a physical form like dear old dad.  We are not saying He has any gender.  We are saying that He has acted toward us in ways we understand as being typically masculine and in ways we understand as being typically feminine.  When doing theology, we need to be careful about mistaking our words for the reality.  God is greater than our words.  Otherwise, we fall into error akin to that seen at the Re-imaging Conf.

  1. There are Bible Verses that Compare God to a Human Mother.

For a long time I [God] have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. (Isaiah 42:14)  It is comforting to know that God has promised to save His people.  More than that, He is EAGER to do it.  His eagerness is similar to that experienced by a pregnant woman eager to have her baby.  Sometimes other people get eager for the day to arrive!

As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)  We have good biological and cultural reasons to associate comfort with mothers. The fact that God comforts His people in a way like a mother’s comfort of her child does not mean that God possesses a feminine gender; this is a figure of speech that is meant to have an emotional association.

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I [God] will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15) It’s comforting to know that even though He brings discipline and allows us to suffer trials, God has not forsaken His people.  Using this metaphor, Isaiah invoked the steadfast love a mother shows her children.

  1. There are Bible verses that compare God to a Mother Bird and a Mother Bear.

A common image of God is of a mother bird sheltering her chicks under her wings.  We can look at six examples.

May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.  (Ruth 2:12)  The word for WING can also be translated as “skirt” for a woman’s garment or “robe” for a man’s garment.  This imagery can be applied to avian and human moms.

Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)  In v. 7, David asked God to show THE WONDER OF YOUR GREAT LOVE.  Apparently God answered this prayer as in v. 8 he offered this image of a protective bird as an illustration of God’s wonderful love.

I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. (Psa. 57:1)  In this verse, the psalmist is calling out for God’s MERCY, not his love, but the analogy of a protective bird is used again.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge. (Psalm 91:4) In v. 3, the reader is promised to be saved from THE FOWLER’S SNARE, doubling down on the bird imagery.  The psalmist is the bird trying to elude the hunter and God is the parent bird giving him a safe shelter from the hunter.

Jesus renewed these images when he lamented over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)  Jesus expressed His grief over the people’s unwillingness to recognize Him as their Messiah.  In so doing, He drew from the Old Testament passages we’ve read and puts Himself in the role of the divine mother hen.  His heart’s desire was to save His people from their sin and the city from destruction, but they utterly refused the refuge He offered.

A variation of this image looks to mother eagles, which are known to teach their eaglets to fly by pushing them out of the nest but catching them before they plunge to their doom. “[God] guarded [Jacob] as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11)  This infers that though we have times in our lives that it feels like God has tossed us out to fly or die, He is watching over us to catch us before we truly hit bottom.

The other side of these biblical images of motherly warmth is the fierce protection momma gives when her young are threatened.  In another observation of nature but with a different animal, Hosea 13:8 reads, Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open,” says the Lord.

There are three wild animals mentioned in this chapter; lion, leopard, and bear.  All three were native to that land and were notorious for their relentless and ferocious natures in killing prey, especially in defense of their young.  The maternal instinct can produce wrath as well as warmth. Beware the fury of a mother whose cubs are threatened!  This is not a sentimental mother-image, but it is comforting to know that God will protect us and will make things right.

  1. But God is Never Called “Mother.”

We’ve seen how the Bible uses maternal images to describe the character and action of God.  However, the Bible never uses feminine gender for God and never called God “our heavenly mother”.

Some people will explain that by citing that the Bible writers lived in a patriarchal culture.  While I think you can argue that point, it still surprises no one that in such a culture, it would be expected to use masculine pronouns for God.

On his internet blog, Shiao Chong offers a better reason. It is his point that the Bible writers would never call God “Mother” because the pagan religions of the day had idols of a “Mother Nature” kind.  They made an idol in a female form, a Mother Goddess, because they hoped to create fertility by worshiping her.  This was not an attempt to glorify women, but to gain some control over nature by personifying it.  Unlike modern pagans, calling god “mother” was never about empowering women. It was about glorifying nature.  God inspired the Bible writers to use metaphors of the fatherly qualities of God with motherly qualities, as need be.

Fatherly qualities are not meant to suggest that God has a masculine gender, nor do the motherly qualities prove that God has a feminine gender.  Together, they prove that God is not limited to a gender as we are: He is greater than both.

God is a Spirit; He wants us to worship Him as Spirit and as Truth.

There are not many verses that present God in a female way but they are part of the Bible and they present a side of God we need to convey more often.  If we were to attempt something similar, we could say of God, “He is like a grandma who puts your coloring pages on her refrigerator.”

Using figures of speech like this does not change our belief about the person of God – He is a spiritual being, without gender – but they help us understand, by association, the characteristics we typically associate with fathers and mothers.  The figures of speech do not define the reality of God, they describe Him to us in symbolic terms that have personal and emotional terms.

We’ve seen that the love of God is protective, comforting, loving, and sheltering.  Those are qualities that some Bible writers used motherhood to illustrate. At this moment you may be wondering if this has anything to do with anything other than theology.

ON A THEOLOGICAL LEVEL: We need to understand what God is saying to us.  God has promised to love His people.  He has declared His love in His desire to comfort, nurture, and protect us. In this relatively short supply of verses, those qualities have been illustrated by examples of motherhood.  These are beautiful and sentimental images that deserve to be heard as such, not used as flimsy justification for re-imaging God.  God does not need a “hostile makeover!”  Let’s defend our theology on this point.

ON A RELATIONAL LEVEL: Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created human beings of both genders in His image.  This verse makes it clear that no one is “more like God” because of our gender.  So this discussion has ramifications for something utterly essential, like our gender and our identity as men and women.  The truth is; both genders together that most completely portray the image of God.

ON A PRACTICAL LEVEL: an application can be found for parents: mothers and fathers must follow God’s example to be the kind of parents He wants us to be.  He is our Father and we must refer to God as such, but He shows us love in forms that we might consider masculine and feminine.

RESOURCES

Shiao Chong’s Blog: “A Reformed Christian’s views on the Christian faith and its engagement with culture and all areas of life.”  https://3dchristianity.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/biblical-maternal-images-for-god/

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

 

A Book Review of “Jesus” by Marcus Borg

A review of JESUS: UNCONVERING THE LIFE, TEACHINGS, AND RELEVANCE OF A RELIGIOUS REVOLUTIONARY by Marcus J. Borg

 

borg

It turns out sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover.  One example is Marcus Borg’s 2006 book, Jesus.  On the cover of this book is a photograph of the massive statue, “Christ the Redeemer.”  (The one that was adored from all kinds of camera angles at last year’s summer Olympics in Rio.)  This time the statue is surrounded by scaffolding.

The photograph perfectly depicts Borg’s thesis: Jesus is a construct of the Church.  Beliefs about Jesus have determined by culture and historical circumstance, not recovered from inspired Scripture.  The Jesus you think you know is a construct of the last couple centuries, vastly removed from the actual, historical Jesus.

Borg’s thesis will not surprise anyone familiar with “The Jesus Seminar,” another incarnation of the tired quest for the “historical Jesus” begun a couple centuries back among European Bible scholars.  What purveyors of this heresy attempt to do is, ironically, what they accuse traditional scholars of having done: creating a Jesus that suits them.

It goes like this; exalt reason above revelation, deny anything that can’t be proven scientifically, and save what’s “left” of the biblical record that suits you, lending an air of authority to your preconceptions.  With this self-appointed largesse, you have latitude to keep what you like and discard the parts you don’t as “unhistorical.”  Traditional theological conclusions can then be discarded as “provincial,” “archaic,” or “not credible.”

As we’ve heard from too many Bible scholars, Borg asserts the Bible in general and the Gospel accounts in particular are “metaphor.”  They are not to be taken as historical accounts (which sets aside that pesky issue of historicity), but as metaphors, expressing spiritual truths that are “trans-historical.” There are at least two problems with this assumption.

One, the Bible writers never viewed themselves in this way.  As the beginning of Luke’s Gospel makes clear, their intent was to set forth orderly and factual accounts of the life of Jesus.  What use is “metaphor” in fighting heresies in the first century Church?  Can you picture Paul teaching that the Old Testament never intended to relate the truth about God’s great acts in history, but instead to pass along noble sentiments by way of metaphor?  Borg’s imaginative approach reduces Jesus to a figure who lived and died in a first century Roman province.  His followers were jazzed by “visions” they’d had of a resurrected Jesus and set about to form a religion based on these clever metaphors.

Two, “metaphor” is a far too elastic term.  It is too subjective, too prone to flights of fantasy and manipulation.  That is why, for centuries, Bible scholars have moved away from allegorical and metaphorical methods of interpretation.  It is, however, very suitable to “progressives” (Borg’s term of choice for his assumptions) and to the Emergent Church, who are keen to remake the Church into something that is a better fit with postmodern culture.

While our modern approach to historical writing is more strict (“scientific”) than the authors of the Bible, that does not condemn the Bible as unreliable.  With his imaginative reconstructions of New Testament formation, Borg moves away from the self-testimony of Scripture as inspired, to a man-made writing.  I suppose he takes exception to 2 Peter 1:20-21 which explains that no prophecy has its origin in the will of man, but inspired by the Holy Spirit.

His assumptions are that events covered by more of the Gospels are more likely to be historical, that Mark is older than Matthew and Luke, that events in John are more likely to be embellished, and that an ancient document that sourced material shared by Matthew and Luke is explained by an undiscovered document referred to as “Q.”  (It is only an argument from silence, but the fact is that “Q,” nor any document remotely like it, has been discovered.  When one considers the hundreds of surviving scraps of manuscript evidence for the real Gospels, one has to wonder how it is that nothing of “Q” survived.  Might it be because it is only a theory?  It is a moot point either way.)

At the risk of over simplifying or stereotyping, liberals like Borg assume that the biblical texts must serve logic, especially the contemporary fads in philosophy and culture.  Conservative scholars insist that logic serve the texts.  Borg attempts to reverse engineer the texts to make educated guesses about first century communities, while traditional scholars use historic information like detectives to discern the intended meaning of the passage.

Borg also resorts to a line of reasoning familiar to “progressives:” since there are similarities in cultures and religions contemporary to writers of Scripture, the Bible writers must have borrowed these to form their own writings.  This seems like a left-handed way of denying the inspiration of Scripture while at the same time authorizing the syncretism of the Church: our faith being re-formed in the image of our own culture.        As Borg is not critical of his own assumptions, the reader must be.  We must be careful to “test the spirits” as 1 John 4:1 commands.  When tested, Borg’s heresy is to deny the divinity of Jesus.  Here it is in his own words; “the pre-Easter Jesus was not God, but God was the central reality of his life.”  To make certain this artificial distinction of his is not lost on the reader, it is presented in italics and stated on p. 109 and again on p. 136.  If one accepts this premise, it is then up to Borg to decide which Gospel texts are “pre-Easter” and therefore more historically accurate, and which are “post-Easter” and therefore more prone to embellishment by the Gospel writers in order to justify the beliefs of the churches in which the Gospel writers lived.

One final concern is his frequent citation of “the majority of biblical scholars” (you’ll find an example on p. 73) as evidence that his positions are well-founded.  I find this kind of unsubstantiated, unqualified statement to be asides, toss-offs that do not contribute anything to rational discourse.  It’s the kind of thing people put in papers when they wish to pass themselves off as well-informed but haven’t got any research or actual numbers to back it up.  While Borg’s credentials as an academic are there for all to see, these kinds of statements detract from his writing, they do not support it.

In his epilogue Borg takes a jab at those who disagree with him using the usual broad brush of the stereotypical “religious right.”  While he claims to only want to add to the “conversation” about Jesus, what Borg wants us to clearly understand is that only those who adopt his “pre- and post-Easter” dialectic are capable of truly perceiving Jesus.  My advice to the reader is to take a look at the cover and pass on this book.  The cover will tell you all you need to know about its contents.

Right from the Beginning #1 – Rightly Created

(Please read Genesis 1:1-5 in your Bible.  I have used the NIV for my remarks.)

Here’s a headline that caught my eye: “Americans Love God and the Bible, Are Fuzzy on the Details.” Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine and he wrote the article that related the results of a new survey by the Southern Baptists’ Lifeway Research division. He wrote: “Americans don’t know much about theology. Most say God wrote the Bible. But they’re not sure everything in it is true.

Six in 10 say everyone eventually goes to heaven, but half say only those who believe in Jesus will be saved. And while 7 in 10 say there’s only one true God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—two-thirds say God accepts worship of all faiths.”

While most Americans still self-identify as Christians they are confused about the details of their faith.  In this post-modern age, most people accept this kind of ambiguity without questioning it.  I’ll spare you all the gruesome numbers and share only the highlights:

– Americans think God likes all religions.

– Evangelical believers say hell is for real. Other Americans aren’t so sure.

– Many evangelical believers say everybody goes to heaven. They also believe that only those who trust Jesus as their Savior are saved.

– Everybody sins but it’s no big deal.

– The resurrection really happened. But not everything else in the Bible did.

– Americans believe in the Trinity. But they’re fuzzy on the details.

– Americans disagree about sex, abortion, homosexuality and gender. – Personal salvation takes work. – Withholding communion is frowned upon. – Most Americans don’t buy the prosperity gospel—especially if they have money.

The article concludes: “Basic Christian theology is easy to find on a church’s beliefs webpage, yet most Americans don’t understand how the pieces are related.”

<Retrieved from http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/09/27/americans-love-god-and-the-bible-are-fuzzy-on-the-details/ on 09/30/16.>

  1. Before creation: Only God existed (1:1-2)

IN THE BEGINNING, or, “on the first occasion.”  This refers to a period of time more than a point in time.  This  opening statement affirms three truths that we get right from the beginning:

– God is our Creator; we owe ALL to Him.

– All that is came to be by His power.

– All time is in His hand; past, present & future.

GOD CREATED = The Hebrew word for “created” is used 48 times and in every case, it emphasizes organization, not manufacture.  This means that the writer was concerned about God using His power to bring order out of chaos.  “Chaos” is the appropriate descriptor: it fits with the words that describe THE EARTH prior to God’s commands to put it in order.

– FORMLESS. Think of a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel.  It has potential to be all kinds of things, but at the moment it has no useful form.  It is unorganized and essentially “formless,” awaiting the hand of the potter.

– EMPTY means that it was without life. Notice that on days three, five and six, God ADDED life to the earth.  It had not been there previously because the chaos had not yet been organized to make it hospitable to life.

– DARKNESS is often a biblical symbol of uninhabitable places. Jesus warned that people who refused to honor God would be CAST INTO THE OUTER DARKNESS, WHERE THERE IS WEEPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

– THE DEEP refers to the sea. For the Hebrews, the sea was the epitome of chaos.  They were not sailors and did not observe the regularity of the tides; they saw the waves rise and fall in random fashion and saw in that a symbol of chaos.

The Greek-influenced writers of the NT had a different purpose in their descriptions of creation: they added the answer to the question of the manufacture of the universe because it is a question important to Western-style thinking. They identified God as the origin of matter and said that he created all that is OUT OF NOTHING (see Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 11:3). They expressed God’s power in terms of the miraculous; none of us has the power to create something out of nothing.  God created EVERYTHING out of nothing!

The emphases of the Old Testament and New Testament authors are slightly different: How do we put the Hebrew and Greek points of view together?  By reading the text carefully, seeing the words on the page!  To review; the first line reads, IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH.  We normally take that in logical order, as a summary statement.  The author is introducing us to what will follow.  Why can’t it be taken in chronological order?  In this case, the author is telling us that God created everything first, then He organized it and gave it purpose.  This is where the four words that indicate chaos are appropriate.  Creation was a work in progress in verses one and two.  So the first statement answers the Greek question, “What is the origin of matter?”  The remainder of the chapter answers the Hebrew question, “What is God’s purpose in creation?”

THE SPIRIT OF GOD WAS HOVERING OVER THE WATERS.  In Hebrew and Greek, the word for SPIRIT also means “wind.”  This is aptly translated as Spirit, and the point is that the Spirit was ABOVE the chaos.  This statement comes at the end of verse two, at a time when the reader needed to be reassured that the four chaos words do not teach that God was not in control.  Just the opposite; God’s SPIRIT rose above the DEEP, hanging over the FORMLESS and EMPTY DARKNESS, poised to start organizing creation.  John H. Walton translated vs. 1+2: “The earth was nonfunctional; primordial, watery darkness prevailed, and a supernatural wind that was permeated with the power of God circulated over the surface of the waters.” (The New International Version Application Commentary, Genesis, p. 78)

Why is this at important? Three reasons:

First, this is the Bible answering two of the three important questions on which every worldview is based.  If we don’t get it right from the beginning, then all of what we do with the remainder is on a poor foundation.  The three questions are below.

– Where did we/I come from? The question of origin.

– Why are we/I here? The question of purpose.

– Where are we/I headed? The question of outcome.

The secular worldview of our time removes God and replaces Him with chance.  They say all that is comes from random combinations; that all this highly organized complexity came from plain doo-dah luck.  And they accuse us of blind faith!  If there is no Creator then creation has no purpose, and neither do you and I, except for the very temporary things we can achieve in our lives and our descendents.  That is a philosophy of loneliness and despair.

  1. Creation, Day One: Separating day and night (1:3-5)

Following a two-step process again, God first created LIGHT where none had previously existed; all creation was in DARKNESS, remember?  Then He organized the LIGHT by separating it into the two halves of every day: DAY and NIGHT.

Skeptics point out that the heavenly bodies, including the sun and moon, were not created until day four.  They argue that a “day” is measured by the sun, so this makes no sense to them.  Our answer to this objection is simple: God used another light source on day one, probably the radiance of His presence.  Think about it: why would our Creator have to depend on the sun to create LIGHT?  Obviously, He did not.

Their objection arises from looking at the account through the lens of their own reason and experience instead of through a theological lens, as the writer surely intended.  Their objection has no power to disprove because it simply does not apply.

Because LIGHT is the first step in organizing creation, the use of the word DAY at the end of each section makes perfect sense, even in the usual way we take that term; a “day” is a period of DARKNESS and a period of LIGHT.  Indeed, at the end of each section the writer is keen to consistently observe, THERE WAS EVENING, AND THERE WAS MORNING.  Why repeat this phrase except to emphasize the order God imposed on creation, bringing time itself into being!  Also, remember the Hebrew emphasis is on order, not on science.  His account of creation is more to form our theology than our science.  The first LIGHT was supernatural.

Why is EVENING listed first?  The Jews marked the beginning of a new day at sunset, not sunrise.  Their calendar was based on the moon, not the sun.  As the Jewish practice was likely based on this account, the two things make perfect sense.

Some well-meaning folks have tried to say that the Hebrew word for DAY can actually refer to an extended period of time.  They want to integrate the theory of evolution into the Bible by making the word DAY essentially meaningless.

– First, I would say that if the word DAY were meant to indicate any number of days, this would make the words EVENING AND MORNING absurd and puts the text at odds with itself.

– Second, a rule of Bible interpretation is that unless the Bible itself gives you good reason to do otherwise, always assume that you will take the words on the page literally.

– Third, interpreting the creation account from a scientific point of view will do violence to the text. God, not science, is the final authority.  These words were given to point to God, not to justify the current trends in science.

In fact, the words “GOD SAID” indicate the engine of creation; the word of God.  We have to observe from the beginning that He spoke and it came into being.  That is power, folks.

This emphasis on the WORD will be picked up again in the Gospel of John where Jesus is connected to this creation account: IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD, AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD, AND THE WORD WAS GOD.  HE WAS WITH GOD IN THE BEGINNING.  THROUGH HIM ALL THINGS WERE MADE; WITHOUT HIM NOTHING WAS MADE THAT HAS BEEN MADE.  IN HIM WAS LIFE, AND THAT LIFE WAS THE LIGHT OF MEN.  THE LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS, BUT THE DARKNESS HAS NOT UNDERSTOOD IT. (JHN 1:1-5)

Here’s another headline that caught my eye last week: “The wrong kind of throne: Toilet discovered at 2,800-year-old shrine reveals Biblical tale of desecration of religious sites by King Hezekiah.”  The article was published by Richard Gray for MailOnline on September 28, 2016.

“The city gate at Tel Lachish in Israel has been found to have once contained a sacred shrine with two altars. Raised corners once decorated the altars have been cut and a toilet was installed in the corner of the shrine.  Archaeologists believe this was a desecration as part of a religious crackdown on cults and idol worship.  King Hezekiah is said in the Bible to have ‘removed the high places’ and ‘smashed the sacred stones’

“It was one of the most zealous religious crackdowns in the history of Judaism and saw the numerous cults in ancient Judah smashed to pieces. Now evidence of the reforms implemented by King Hezekiah, which are described in the Old Testament, around 2,800 years ago have surfaced in a surprising form.

“Archaeologists digging at the site of an ancient gate to the ruined city of Tel Lachish in Israel have uncovered the remains of a shrine that was desecrated during the purges in the 8th century BC.

“The Lachish city gate, as it is known, consists of six chambers which contain signs of city life at the time.  In one of the chambers, however, is a shrine that once had walls covered with white plaster and two altars decorated with raised corners – known as horns.

“These, however, appear to have had their tops deliberately cut off, a sign that there had been an attempt to end the spread of religious cults and centralize worship in Jerusalem.

“But perhaps the greatest sign that the shrine had been the site of one of King Hezekiah’s crackdowns was the installation of the toilet within the inner sanctum of the shrine. This stone with a hole cut through the centre would have been the ultimate desecration of the Holy site.

“Tests at the site showed that while the toilet stone appears to have been installed to desecrate the shrine, it was never actually used.  Archaeologists instead believe it had been placed there symbolically and the inner sanctum of the shrine was sealed shut.”

“WHY INSTALL A TOILET?” you ask?

“Putting a latrine at a holy site was considered to be sacrilege as it soiled a religious location that was to be respected.  Evidence of abolishing cultic locations by installing a toilet in them is known in the Bible.

“In the case of Jehu destroying the cult of Baʽal in Samaria, the Bible states: “And they demolished the pillar of Baʽal, and demolished the house of Baʽal, and made it a latrine to this day” (II Kings 10:27).

“The discovery at Tel Lachish, however, is the first time that an archaeological find confirms this practice.”

<Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3811712/The-wrong-kind-throne-Toilet-discovered-2-800-year-old-shrine-reveals-Biblical-tale-desecration-religious-sites-King-Hezekiah.html on 09/30/16.>

So – here is yet another place where science proves the Bible to be true.  If God can use a latrine to prove His word truthful and trustworthy, then maybe He can use you and me!

(This message can be viewed on YouTube at “EBCSF.”)

From Trial to Testimony

(Please read Ruth 1:1-22.  The following remarks have been developed from study with the NIV.)

Message: One of the many reasons God allows suffering is so we can experience His salvation and be transformed to accomplish His purposes.

  1. Naomi’s destitution (1:1-14).

Naomi’s first experience of destitution was when famine “forced” her family to relocate (1:1-2).  I put the word “forced” in quotation marks because humans have always been prone to make excuses for themselves.  One way we do this is recast decisions we make as things we “had” to do; we can’t be assailed for making a wrong choice if we convince ourselves and others that we had no choice in the first place.  This observation is relevant to this passage when we note that not everyone left Bethlehem as Elimelech’s family did.  It’s clear the famine motivated their decision, but when Naomi returned to their ancestral home, people who’d lived there before were still there and they recognized her.  So – not everyone left and some survived the famine.  I’m merely emphasizing this was Elimelech’s choice.  This gives some substance to the traditional Jewish interpretation that Elimelech made a bad decision when he relocated his family.

Not to build too big a case on this one detail, but this is also good news.  It shows that one bad decision, even a catastrophically bad one, with deadly consequences, is not going to put us so far outside the will of God that we can’t be redeemed.  The book of Ruth is a story of redemption, a precursor to THE redemption story in the Gospels.  There is no sin that irredeemable or at least unusable in the redemptive plan of God.  GREAT STUFF!  OK, let’s carry on.

The last verse in Judges and the first verse in Ruth set the stage for this book: THE DAYS WHEN THE JUDGES RULED (1:1).  JUDGES were people God raised up to lead Israel out of periods of idolatry.  This period started with the death of Joshua (Moses’ successor) and lasted until the ministry of Samuel

Here’s how the Bible sums up that period of history; IN THOSE DAYS ISRAEL HAD NO KING; EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT (Judges 21:25).  Hint: that’s what Elimelech did when he decided Moab’s grass was greener.

Admittedly, this was not a decision made lightly.  After all, THERE WAS A FAMINE IN THE LAND.  Famines occurred as a result of raids conducted by neighboring nations or as the direct action of God in judgment for Israel’s sins.  The fact that Elimelech lead his entire family out of the country implies that the famine was not limited to Bethlehem and environs.  The text makes it clear that the scope of the famine was not just local, but it was not international either.  Of course famines do not respect political boundaries, but sometimes reflect neighboring nation’s different practices.  It should also be noted that Elimelech’s intent was not to resettle, only TO LIVE [there] FOR A WHILE.

In order to appreciate the depth of their decision, we can compare cultures.  In our very mobile modern culture, people move frequently.  With increasing globalization moving to other countries becomes increasingly commonplace.  But in this culture, here’s what this family gave up:

– Abandonment of ancestral lands; who else would tend to the house and fields?

– Severance from family and clan and all the relations within the tribe of Ephraim.

– Even leaving behind God.  At this time, the prevalent belief was “henotheism;” the belief that all gods were real and that they were most powerful in their own homelands.  This family was not just leaving the tabernacle and other tokens of faith, they were leaving their God’s domain and entering the lands where another god reigned.  (NOTE; this belief is not biblical –it is not accurate – but is occasionally noted in the Bible that people believed it.  Indeed, Naomi’s remarks in this first chapter seem very henotheistic when we reread them from this point of view.)

Naomi also suffered the devastation of grief and poverty when death took all the men from her family. (1:3-5)

The head of the household was named “Elimelech,” which means “God is king.”  We are not told how long the family lived in Moab before Elimelch died.  Jewish rabbis understood his death to be a sign of God’s judgment against him for leaving his homeland.

The names of the sons are a lot less positive. “Mahlon” means “to be sterile, weak, ill, pierce.”  (On the plus side, it could also be translated as “crown.”)  “Kilion” is based on a word that means “at an end, weakening, or pining.”  While you don’t want to read too much into this level of detail, perhaps the names of Ruth’s sons are offered as explanation for their dying young and childless.  We’re not told how far into their life in Moab Naomi’s sons married; only that after having been in Moab a total of ten years, her sons died.  In that culture, to die childless was a sign of destitution; especially after having been married for years.

The Law did not forbid marriage with Moabites (see Deuteronomy 7:1+3), but they were not considered part of the congregation of the Lord until the tenth generation after the marriage (see Deuteronomy 23:3 and Nehemiah 13:1-3).  In spite of this ambiguity, Jewish rabbis assumed that the deaths of Naomi’s sons were a sign of God’s judgment against them for marrying pagan women.

Regarding the daughters-in-law, here’s what we know about these Moabit maids. The meaning of the name “Orpah” is difficult to determine; It can be everything from “stiff-necked” to “perfume,” so there’s no help there.  “Ruth,” however, is easier to trace.  It means “friend or friendship, abundantly watered.”

One devastation lead Elimelech to decide to leave their homeland, then the devastating loss of her husband and sons lead Naomi to decide to return.  Her decision is a natural one; when you’re hurting and alone, going home sounds extra good.  Also, being without a male head of household was the same as being homeless.  Widows were just above slaves on the social ladder of Israel; who knows about Moab?  So, given the choice of being a “bag lady” in a foreign land or returning home to the charity of her kinfolk, Naomi chose the easier of the two.

  1. Naomi’s decisions (1:6-14, 19-21).

Her first decision to separate herself from her daughters-in-law. (1:6-14)  While there was certainly sentiment and emotion involved, the way Naomi handled this situation tends more toward a practical decision.

– ONE, she’d heard THAT THE LORD HAD [provided] FOOD FOR His people. So the green grass was now back in Israel.

– TWO, she realized that three mouths to feed would be harder for her kinfolk to support and probably harder for her to arrange.

– The girls might have a harder time being pagans living in Israel.

– If they returned to their fathers’ households, they would be cared for and the process of finding them new husbands would be initiated.  Their best chance was to return to their homes.

All three of them prepared to leave, perhaps with Orpah and Ruth assuming they would go with Naomi as she was now head of their household.  It seems from their reaction in the text that she surprised them (vs. 8+9).  In all, this was a sensible decision and probably the most loving thing Ruth could do for her daughters-in-law.  So when they stood at the head of the road, she formally released them from any obligation to her.  She offered a blessing on them (REST can be translated as “security”) and kissed them.

Their mutual tears reveal how traumatic this was for Ruth and Orpah, as does their initial refusal to leave Naomi (9+10).  This speaks well of these women and of Naomi.  Naomi shows her own tender heart in verse thirteen when she refers to them as “MY DAUGHTERS.”

In vs. 11-13, Naomi attempts to reason with them, showing how it was impossible for her to raise up sons to keep them in her household.  This assumes Naomi’s mind was on the Law of Moses, specifically the provision that a man would marry his brother’s widow and raise children in his place (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

Naomi’s second decision was theological: she decided God’s hand was against her. (1:13)  As Naomi attempted to reason with her daughters-in-law, Naomi explained that her lot in life was worse than that of her daughters-in-law; she had no hope for remarriage and the remainder of her days would be dependent wholly on the charity of others.  It should be easy for us to sympathize and see how Naomi would be bitter and angry with God for bringing this calamity on her.

Notice that the text neither commends nor condemns Naomi’s decision about the LORD’s intent.  The story simply is what it is.  As such, it’s more of a commentary on human nature than divine nature.  However, the Bible gives us evidence everywhere that God is in charge and that He is the hero of every story.

Naomi’s third decision was to be characterized as “bitter.”  We see this explicitly stated later, in verses 19-21, when Naomi wants to change her name.

Notice how this happens.  Her family greets her in a friendly way; THE WHOLE TOWN WAS STIRRED, AND THE WOMEN ASKED, “CAN THIS BE NAOMI?”  This may have just been a friendly, folksy kind of greeting.  But there may have been more to it than that; after at least 10 years away and after all the grief she suffered, Naomi’s appearance may have been altered.

Naomi reacted to this welcome negatively and strongly; she wanted her name changed to reflect her changed circumstances.  “Naomi” means “pleasant.” “Mara” means “bitter.”  What’s amusing about this is that nobody else buys it.  Nowhere in this book is Naomi ever called “Mara.”  This is her grief talking.

Even here faith is active; Naomi did not blame here trials on bad luck or the devil or other gods, she acknowledged that God was in control and He was making these things happen to her.  She may not understand or appreciate her trials, but they have not caused a crisis of faith for her.

Indeed, it is an immature faith that attributes pleasant things to God and unpleasant things to someone else.  If we say that anything happens outside the will of God then we do not believe in the Almighty God of the Bible.

  1. Naomi’s deliverance (1:14-18).

God used Ruth’s love to deliver Naomi from bitterness (1:14-18).  We’ll see this developed throughout the remainder of the book, but need to note it now.

Apparently Orpah was a practical person; she gave way to Naomi’s logic and reluctantly turned back to her father’s house (1:14).  Her virtue was obedience; nowhere in the Bible is she criticized for it.

But Ruth refused the easier path, the one more sensible if seen in worldly wisdom.  She chose the loving path instead and CLUNG to Naomi.  This reminds me of Jesus’ Resurrection when the women CLUNG to the feet of the resurrected Jesus, (see Matthew 28:9).  The word CLUNG is significant in the original languages; it is used to express the ideal of intimacy that can be achieved in any relationship, usually marriage (Genesis 2:24; 1 Kings 11:2).

Ruth’s response to Naomi’s logic is heart-strong; it stands as one of the most classic declarations of love in all of literature.  It is often used in weddings.  Most importantly, it demonstrates that Ruth’s commitment is total.   No commentary on those words is needed; they speak for themselves.  One thing to note: Ruth, though a Moabite, has clearly heard Naomi’s faith as she invokes the LORD as a witness and guarantee of her oath.  Part of the beauty of this statement is that it was a convincer.  After Ruth said all this, Naomi gave up on trying to argue with her.

Ruth is rightly praised for her commitment, but we must see Naomi’s influence behind it.  Think about it – she must have done something to inspire Ruth to this level of devotion.

The end of the story: RUTH WAS PART OF JESUS’ FAMILY TREE.  As we’ll see in the fourth sermon in this series, Ruth was one of the ancestors of Jesus.

I’ve been LABORING on a Book Report

 

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A BOOK REPORT on WORK: A KINGDOM PERSPECTIVE ON LABOR

Ben Witherington III, Eerdmans, 2011

 

            There’s a couple incidentals that stand out about Witherington’s book that I want to mention at the outset and then move on to the meat of the matter.  The first is that the reader should read the final section of the book (aptly named “Overtime”) both first and last.  That chapter is a very apt summary of the book and it would serve the reader as an overview before reading and a reminder after reading of what the central issues are.

            The second is that Witherington states more than once that we need to form a theology of work.  I want to ask, “Shouldn’t that be your job?  Why are you asking us to spend 166 pages with you if not to set forth a theology of work?” It seems that Witherington is more concerned about identifying the issues and surveying some of the answers others have given than creating a theology of work.  This is not to say that a theology of work does not present itself within the pages. Perhaps the author means to call us to the table, to do the work of deciding what God wants us to know about this essential but by no means all-important aspect of our lives.

            Personally, I found Witherington’s theology of play to be the most edifying part of the book.  He sets forth good reasoning for a call to balance between work, rest and play.  Of the three of these, play is the most neglected aspect of life in Christian theology and it is both instructive and refreshing to see Witherington ably support the need for play.  Balanced living knows that life consists of work, rest and play – not necessarily in that order.  Pathological lives are those that are imbalanced in any one direction.

            On a related note, Witherington ventures – in not so many words – that laughter may be part of the Image of God. I believe the “Image” is everything that distinguishes human life from the rest of creation – the aspects of humanity that are not found anywhere else in creation.  While animals play, none of them – even hyenas – can really be said to laugh.  It is a fascinating thought and certainly deserves more attention.

            A reviewer can and typically dose, insert themselves into the book to reflect on its comments.  I have already done some of that.  But it’s also important to let the author speak for himself.  To that end, I offer what I’ve identified as “key thoughts,” expressions of the core of the author’s teaching.

            “One of the major problems with the extant exercises in biblical theology on the subject of work is that they work forward through the Bible, rather than backward, and the end result is that in most cases they never get to an eschatological or Kingdom perspective on work, that is, work in light of the in-breaking Kingdom, which is the contribution of this particular study.” (p. xvi)

            “On closer inspection, it is perfectly clear that God’s good plan always included human beings working, or, more specifically, living in the constant cycle of work and rest.” (p. 2)

            “And since the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit enables persons to imitate the behavior of Christ in what they do, including their work.  This automatically eliminates certain jobs for Christians.” (p. 37)

            “In terms of vocation, every Christian has a primary obligation to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.  This is ‘job one.'” (P. 46, emphasis his.)

            “The making that we do, whether we call it work or not, is culture making, as it remakes our world – both the world out there, usually called ‘nature,’ and the world within my mind.” (p. 104)

            “Christianity, in order to be truly Christian, has to go public, has to become a shared public good, not merely a private self-help program for the already convinced.”

(THAT’S a zinger on p. 106.)

            “Ideas and worldviews alone don’t change the world; behavior and hard work do.  Cultural change happens when a new way of doing things displace the old way of doing things.” (p. 110)

            “This is why it is good to have personal discipline about how much one works, how much one rests, and also how much one plays.” (p. 143)

            “The question we should be asking ourselves honestly is this: Is my sense of identity so bound up in what I do that I have become a compulsive workaholic just to validate my existence and give myself a sense of importance, worth, and value? If we can plead guilty in this charge, then it is clear that what we need in our lives is not merely a more biblical sense and understanding of work, but a biblical understanding of self as well.” (pp. 155-156)

            “…an adequate amount of rest, play, and worship provides the boundaries for work and the reminders that work is not the be-all and end-all of our existence.” (p. 158)

            It is an aspect of the Fall, not Creation that we have goofy ideas about work.  Generally speaking, God has loftier ideas about work than we do.  Witherington surveys the literature on the subject but also introduces his own conclusions. At times the book seems like a stream of consciousness, with Witherington switching subjects and not doing us the courtesy of showing the reader how the parts sum up to the whole.

            While the chapter on callings versus vocations might be a tad esoteric for the average reader, I found Witherington’s book to be accessible and potentially useful in a classroom setting; if your aim is to produce a theology of labor.  It would be helpful in a church setting as a needed defense of the virtue of balance of rest, play, and work, but that’s just chapter seven.  The chapter on work as culture-making (chapter six) was also potentially useful as a lesson on the role of the believer in our culture.

            THE BOTTOM LINE – the strength of this book is in its last three sections.  I recommend it all as a study of the topic of labor, but the last of it is the most serviceable for a general audience.