Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Theology of Job's Friends--Right or Wrong?

I am reading Job right now. When I studied Job in school, the first thing that we learned was that Job's friends spit out bad theology. I am starting to wonder if that is the case.

Job starts out with a wager between God and Satan. God highlights Job as an example of a righteous man, and Satan accuses Job of only being righteous because God has made it worth his while. God gives Satan permission torment Job to see whether he will curse God.

In the middle of Job's suffering, his friends try to "console" him by encouraging him to repent. In Job's friends' view, God is just and unable to punish the righteous. Job's suffering is evidence of sin. The reader knows that Job has not sinned. He is suffering, not under the hand of God, but under the hand of Satan. Thus, as Job's friends wax eloquently about righteousness, justice, and repentance, the reader knows that they are full of it.

At the end of the book, God steps in, rebukes Job's friends, and vindicates Job. So, we know that Job's friends don't "get it." They were wrong all along.

But, what do we do with Job's friends' theology? It actually lines up with what we read elsewhere in the Old Testament. If we write it off as bad theology, we have to write off a number of other passages in the Old Testament as well. What if the role of Job's friends in the story is not to debunk their theology and point out that even the righteous can suffer, but to point out that we don't have God figured out? This seems to be God's point at the end of the book--"Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let the person who accuses God give him an answer!" (40:2 NET) God essentially says, "When you figure out how to keep the universe together, then you can question how I run things."

This isn't to say that theology isn't important or that we can't know certain things about who God is or how He acts. But, maybe Job is a reminder to us that God is God and He can't fit in our box.

I taught a class once in which we were discussing God's providence and His eternal decree. We looked at several passages in which God says, "I am not a man that I should change my mind." We also looked at passages in which God apparently changes His mind. What do we do with instances like this? Do we elevate one and try to explain the other away, or can we hold them in tension and admit we don't have it figured out? I prefer the latter approach, concluding, "God's decree is permanent. He doesn't change His mind . . . except when He does."

Is that unsettling or helpful (or both)? Is that approach to theology freeing or discouraging?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chaplain Mike on the Emerging Church

In response to Scot McKnight's recent CT article about the present and future of evangelicalism, Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk is discussing McKnight's three streams--the emerging church, the ancient-future movement, and the neo-reformed. First up for discussion is the emerging church--what it was, what it is, and where it is going. I posted my thoughts on at least two of the threads.

My journey with the emerging church began when I read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. It ended when I read Deep Church by Jim Belcher, A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren, and Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer.

I think Belcher, Spencer, and McKnight are pointing the way forward.

Joe Carter on Gimmicky Preaching

Joe Carter isn't impressed with the skateboarding Hungarian Catholic priest who has become a YouTube sensation. He shows why evangelicals are still the reigning champs of gimmicky preaching.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Don't We Ever Talk about Passages Like This?

So, I was reading in the Book of Esther today, and I came across chapter 9. Yikes!

We all know the story of Esther. The Persian king Ahasuerus parties for seven straight days, and then sends a messenger to his wife Vashti to get dressed up so that he show off how hot she is to all of his drunken friends. When she refuses, he decides that she will no longer be queen and that all of the beautiful virgins of the land should be brought to him, and whichever one "pleases" him the most will be the new queen.

Mordecai is an honorable Jew living in Susa and taking care of his younger cousin, Esther, who "had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at" (2:7 ESV). Esther is summoned to the harem, but she keeps her ethnicity a secret. Sure enough, she pleases the king more than any of the other women and she is made queen instead of Vashti. Mordecai hears of a plot to assassinate the king, he tells Esther of the plot, she warns the king, and the king is saved.

Haman is Ahasuerus's top official. He hates Mordecai because Mordecai won't bow down to him. So, he plots to exterminate all of the Jewish people, Mordecai and Esther included. When Mordecai learns of the plot, he tells Esther that she needs to step in and save her people, even though doing so would put her own life at risk. He warns her that if she doesn't step in, deliverance will come from elsewhere but that she and her father's house will perish. Esther agrees to the plan.

Esther plans a banquet for Ahasuerus and Haman, during which she plans to talk to her husband about her ethnicity and Haman's plot.

Haman decides to construct a gallows from which to hang Mordecai.

One night, when the king can't sleep, he asks his officials to read to him from the annuls, and he realizes that he never honored Mordecai for saving his life. Just then, Haman comes in to get the king's permission to hang Mordecai. The king asks him what he should do to honor a special man. Haman, presuming that the king wants to honor him, says, "Dress him in the king's robe and put him on the king's horse." The king says, "Great idea. Do this for Mordecai."

After Haman's humiliation, he attends Esther's banquet with the king. During the banquet, Esther reveals Haman's plot, and the king orders that he be executed--hung from the gallows he constructed for Mordecai. Haman is executed, the Jews are saved, Mordecai and Esther are put in charge of everything Haman once ran, the feast of Purim is established as a remembrance, and everyone lives happily ever after. End of story.

But not really. Then we come to chapter 9.

On the day on which the extermination of the Jews was supposed to take place, a counter-extermination takes place instead. The Jews are allowed to get up and kill all of their enemies. In Susa alone, 500 men are killed. The report is brought to the king, and he says to Esther, "Well, you got what you wanted. Now, if there is anything else you want me to do--I'll do it. Up to half of my kingdom." Esther responds, "Let the killing continue for another day." Over the two-day period, 75,000 people are killed throughout the Persian empire.

Now, I have heard Esther characterized in a number of ways. Some are positive, pointing out that she risked her life to save her people. Others are negative, pointing out that she got her power through sexual prowess and that she didn't step up to save the Jews until Mordecai threatened her. Esther never honors God or even mentions Him.

But not once have I ever heard anyone point out that Esther, when offered anything in the world by the most powerful man in the world, chose to continue a massacre for an additional 24 hours. This makes Herodias's daughter's request look like a call for world peace.

What do we do with chapters like this? Have you ever heard a sermon on Esther 9?

Scot McKnight Interviews Brian McLaren at Q

This is good. McKnight asks McLaren about his "provocative ambiguity" (great phrase btw), how he reconciles his views in A Generous Orthodoxy with those in A New Kind of Christianity, and about whether he is a universalist.

Q | Conversations on Being a Heretic from Q Ideas on Vimeo.

There are no words . . .

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thoughts on Ezra 8:21–23

Ezra 8:21–23 NET:

I called for a fast there by the Ahava Canal, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and seek from him a safe journey for us, our children, and all our property. 22 I was embarrassed to request soldiers and horsemen from the king to protect us from the enemy along the way, because we had said to the king, "The good hand of our God is on everyone who is seeking him, but his great anger is on everyone who forsakes him." 23 So we fasted and prayed to our God about this, and he answered us.

I like this passage. Ezra is leading a group to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity. He gathers the heads of the families and arranges to set off on the long walk to Israel. But before they leave, he calls for a fast.

I love Ezra's explanation for the fast: he was afraid and he was embarrassed. He made some bold statements to the Persian king, "The good hand of our God is on everyone who is seeking him, but his great anger is on everyone who forsakes him," but then he was afraid that someone would mug them on the road to Jerusalem. He wanted soldiers for protection, but he was embarrassed to ask for them because of his God-talk.

Honest words from Ezra preserved for eternity.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Interesting Re-Reading of the Jacob Narrative

So, I was reading in Genesis the other day, and I had an interesting thought: Why do we take the claims of Jacob seriously in this narrative?

The question arose when I compared Genesis 30:25–43 and Genesis 31:4–11. Genesis 30:25–43 is that strange passage in which Jacob makes a deal with Laban that his wages shall be the spotted and striped goats of the heard and that Laban would keep the solid colored ones. After Laban agrees to the deal, Jacob starts putting out sticks by the water troughs when the goats are breeding, and as a result of his actions, the young goats are all spotted and striped and Jacob gets rich.

Questions of science aside, Jacob clearly intends to take advantage of Laban in this passage.

But, it's interesting how Jacob spins this in the next chapter. When he is explaining to his wives why they must leave their father-in-law and travel back to his hometown, Jacob accuses Laban of taking advantage of him and he says that the LORD appeared to him in a vision and told him that He had vindicated him by giving him wealth anyway. So, in Genesis 31, Jacob says that God gave him prosperity because Laban tried to take advantage of him, but in Genesis 30 the text says that Jacob got wealthy by taking advantage of Laban.

Typically, we try to harmonize these passages. We conclude, "Well, Laban was trying to take advantage of Jacob, and even though Jacob was trying to take advantage of Laban, too, God sided with Jacob and vindicated him over Laban."

The question that popped into my head was, "Why do we try to harmonize what the text itself says happened with what Jacob claimed happened?" Why do we take Jacob seriously when he talks of visions that he received from the Lord? After all, Jacob's name means "deceiver," and he lies to keep himself out of trouble every chance that he gets. The text never says that Jacob actually had a vision of the LORD, it just says that he told his wives that he had a vision of the LORD. What if he was lying?

So, I started reading the Jacob narrative differently. Unless the text says explicitly that God told Jacob something, I just assumed that he was lying about everything that he claimed God told him. It makes for an interesting re-read. It intensifies Jacob's character as a deceiver and highlights God's grace for being faithful to him even though he manipulated everyone he met.

I don't know that I will settle on that reading as my preferred reading, but it's an interesting exercise.

Monday, August 2, 2010

2 Chronicles 30:18–20

I came across an interesting passage in 2 Chronicles the other day. It's one of those strange passages about which a former professor of mine may have said, "Put THAT in your theological pipe and smoke it."

Judah had come under the judgment of God due to the actions of their former king, Ahaz. His son Hezekiah, the new king, was trying to get them back on track by restoring the Temple worship. After the priests and Levites had consecrated themselves, Hezekiah decided that the nation should celebrate the Passover as an act of repentance--even though it was the wrong month (Exod 12:1–6, 2 Chr 30:1–4). A great number of people responded, but they didn't consecrate themselves and celebrate the feast according to the prescriptions in the law. The passage (2 Chr 30:18–20) says:

"The majority of the many people from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun were ritually unclean, yet they ate the Passover in violation of what is prescribed in the law. For Hezekiah prayed for them, saying: 'May the LORD, who is good, forgive 19 everyone who has determined to follow God, the LORD God of his ancestors, even if he is not ritually clean according to the standards of the temple.' 20 The LORD responded favorably to Hezekiah and forgave the people." (NET)

So, the people repent and decide to come back to God, but they don't "do it right," according to the Scriptures. Hezekiah prays that God would honor their actions anyway, and God does. What do we do with that?

Systematic theology would be so much easier were it not for the Bible. :)