Tuesday, October 14, 2014

2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51

The RCL text for the week from Matthew 22:15-22 can be found here:

To get at the story of David, Bathsheba and Nathan, I looked at the Psalm 51 portion of the readings.

Summary:  There are rich theological themes in this Psalm 51.  For my blog this week, I try to get into some the words, which are rich in imagery in the Hebrew.  Hopefully these descriptive words can be a means to get into the Psalm and accompanying story of David, Bathsheba and Nathan.   As a side note, I've always seen the fullest expression of Gospel in this passage in the existence of the Psalm 51.  God turned David's sin into something that was enduring and lasting.  His child died, but his words of lament have comforted people for centuries.

Key Words:
נביא  ("Nivea" meaning "prophet", 51:1 (intro to Psalm):  The word prophecy often means prediction in modern popular imagination and film (Harry Potter/Star Wars).  The prophets in the Bible did not predict the future.  Rather, they spoke the word of God, which often included future possibilities for judgment or promises of blessing.  But the main job of the prophet was to speak the Word of the Lord to the present situation, in this case, a king who had sinned badly.  Very badly.

נתן  ("Nathan", name of the prophet, 51:1 (intro to Psalm):  The prophet's name "Nathan" means gift.  Even the harsh words of God are a gift to David here in that he calls David to repent, to have a restored relationship with God.  When we deny calling 'sin' 'sin' we deprive people of the gift of forgiveness and repentance.

רחמים ("rakamim" meaning "compassion", 51:2) The origin of this word רחם meaning is womb.  In the plural it means compassion; this is clearly feminine way of thinking about God's love; it is like a woman's care born in her womb. 

מחא ("makha" meaning "wipe", 51:2;9):  As the TWOT points out, almost every time this verb shows up in the Hebrew Bible, it is significant.  For example, God will wipe out the earth with a flood; God will wipe away every tear in the eschaton (Isaiah 25:8).  The literal action means:  "Erasures in ancient leather scrolls were made by washing or sponging off the ink rather than blotting. "  Literally erase away, expunge!  So that when God reads the book of life, he reads them no more.

כבס  ("kabas" meaning "launder", 51:3;7)  TWOT:  "to make stuffs clean and soft by treading, kneading and beating them in cold water...it is used always for clothing, 'to launder'"

טהר ("tahar" meaning "cleanse, purify", 51:3;7)  In Hebrew, this word is associated with pure metals (especially gold); it is often associated with ritual and ceremonial cleansing and furthermore, cleansed items used in worship.   You could go a couple of ways here:  First, that God's cleansing is like removal of dross from metal -- getting rid of the crap in our lives that we might be pure.  Second, you could argue that the cleansing has a purpose (to be used in worship and service to God).  Third, you could argue that ultimately forgiveness neats a ritual cleansing, including through washing with water or blood.

חול  ("khul" meaning "twirl" translated here as "born", 51:5) from the moment the person begins writhing, twirling, dancing, moving, even in pain, they are born with sin.

אמת  ("amat" meaning "faithfulness" or "truth", 51:6) What is it that God desires?  It is not simply truth as in a true statement, but faithfulness.  Something beyond propsitional truth is desired here.  We could do a lot more here, but the NET translates this nicely with integrity.

ברה  ("barah" meaning "create" 51:10)  Just a reminder that this verb is only associated with God as the subject.  Humans can fairly be described as co-creators in the sense of we can imagine, build, make, name...but we cannot create life; nor can we create a new heart.

קדש ("kadesh" meaning "Holy" 51:11)  This is the only time in the Old Testament we have an unambiguous reference to the Holy Spirit.  The NRSV does not do Christians justice when they translate the words with lower case holy spirit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Joshua 24:1-15

For RCL folks this week, here is some work I've done on the NT lesson from Philippians.

Summary:  I found the subsequent verses (16-24) just as, if not more, fascinating.  Joshua does not simply offer them the promises, but also the consequences and challenges of following God.  Do we do the same in our preaching?  This text challenges me:  Do I preach the consequences of not serving the Lord as much as I preach the benefits of serving him? 

But if this is reading too far ahead, the preaching challenge of this text remains:  Can you preach the necessity of worshipping the Lord without preaching decision theology?

More practically:  What are the other gods out there today?  Who are the gods of old and the gods of the new?

 ירא ("yarah" meaning "fear", 24:13)  This word is translated as fear, revere and obey in various translations.  How we translate this word?  This linguistic question rests on a theological question:  what does it mean to fear the Lord?  We are back in the Ten Commandments and Luther's explanation of the first commandment:  "We are to fear, love and trust God above all things." 

Fear could be understood more in terms of reverence -- be in awe of the Lord!  I think this is something that we need to preach and inculcate in our parishoners.  We often, post-enlightment, reduce the miraculous nature of God.  God still does wonders and the church must proclaim this. 

However, in vs. 20 Joshua suggests that not worshipping God has extremely negative consequences, including punishment by God.  More than respectful awe is meant by the word "fear" here.  As a pastor, I see people all the time motivated by their fears:  fears of being alone, fears of being scorned, rejected, poor, dead, the list goes on.  I discover that people are often profoundly motivated by their fears.  When we fear God, his consequences, his judgment above all things, in this and I would argue in this alone, do we find true freedom.   What we fear will be our God.

עבד ("ayved", "serve, worship or be slave", 24:13) This verb shows up throughout the Exodus narrative.  Who will the people serve?  Pharaoh or the Lord?  It is interesting that all these words are related:  serve, be slave, worship.  To worship is to serve, even be slave to; there is not thought of worship that does not entail obedience.

The Exodus narrative is done, but as the people enter the promise land, at stake is who the people will worship.  Before it was Pharaoh; but now their options are the gods of old or the gods of the new.  This reminds us that a) there will always be alternatives to worship of God; b) we will always be worshipping some god or another.  Atheism is not really possible.

רע ("rah" meaning "evil", 24:15)  There is a great expression here, "If it is evil in your sight to worship the Lord."  For some, worship of the Lord will be unacceptable, even among God's people.

בחר ("bakhar" meaning "chose", 24:15)  It is interesting that the people cannot choose the Lord.  They can only choose to worship other gods.  Even when Joshua declares his loyalty (seemingly a passage that gives evidence to decision theology), the Bible still does not want to say that we can choose God.  We have free will -- to turn away, but that is it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Exodus 20 (10 Commandments)

RCL folks, I have a link here to my blog post about the Epistle reading, from Philippians

NL folks, this week is the Ten Commandments.  I am not sure if its fair to summarize this passage.  As we all know, it begins with God's relationship to the Isrealites and moves into our relationship to our neighbor.  It includes promises and threats.  A few linguistic tid bits to keep in mind:

"Ten Commandments":  This is not in the Hebrew.  It simply begins, "God spoke these words."

אנכי ("anocki", meaning "I", 20.2)  The first word of the ten commandments have nothing to do with rules, but God affirming his role as their savior and Lord.

לא ("lo", meaning "no", 20.3 and throughout the section)  This form of no means "really, do not."  Hebrew has another word for "no" in the case of most negative prohibitions; la is a supremely strong prohibition, almost could read:  "You will not take other Gods."

חסד ("khased", meaning "lovingkindness", 20.6)  This word means more than simply love as an emotion.  It is combined with the verb, עשה, which means "do."  Khased is the long-standing, faithful love of God that manifests itself in continued acts of generosity.  The question for interpretation is whether khased here refers only to God's love to Israel in this particular covenant (ie, God will loyal if you are loyal).  The evidence for Khased referring only to God's love in terms of this covenant stems from research on ancient convenants between dieties, kings and people.  However, Exodus 34 describes God's khased (the word is in Ex 34.6) after the apostasis.  This reveals that God's love, while bound in a covenant, is greater than the covenant.  Furthermore, I think it is fair to make the argument that the 10 commandments grow out of God's khased for the whole world, not just Israel.

רצח ("rasah", meaning "kill", 20.13)  Does this word mean murder or kill?  NET Bible note matches well with the TWOT bible on this:  "Refers to the premeditated or accidental taking of the life of another human being; it includes any unauthorized killing (it is used for the punishment of a murderer, but that would not be included in the prohibition). This commandment teaches the sanctity of all human life."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Exodus 14:10-29 (Crossing the red sea)

For those on the RCL, I've done a lot of work on the Philippians 2 work in the past:

For those on the NL:  I struggle a great deal with this text, because the innocent seem to suffer.  Perhaps, never really suffering oppression, I do not understand the harsh realities that undergird this text (escape from slavery and destruction of the military that allows for the system).  Here the Word of the Lord teaches me that some systems are so horrifically out of line with God's intentions that they will be destroyed, not simply by human weapons, but by God. 
If this is altogether too much, you can focus the fact that the Israelites are not so much told to be still, but to be quiet.  Sometimes, we need to be very quiet to see God at work!

ילחם from לחם   ("lakham", "fight", 14.4):  The word here means fight; in the niphil form (which it is here), it means wage war.  The "Lord Sabboth" (YHWH) is a God willing to fight for his people.

לכם("lakem"; two words, "to you all"; 14.4): God is not telling a particular individual to stay still, but the whole nation.  He will fight for all the people, the good, the bad, the lame.  In fact, he is speaking to the people that were just complaining.  He will free all who were enslaved.

תחרישון from חרש ("hkarash"; "be silent"; 14.4)  This word is translated here as "still" but it also means "be silent."  I think the be silent is more relevant here because the Israelites have been complaining.  Its not about "letting go" but "shutting up" ;-)
Here are some other uses of this verb: 
Esther 4:14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
Job 33:33 If not, listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom.
1 Samuel 7:8 The people of Israel said to Samuel, "Do not be silent in crying out to the LORD our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines."

רוח  ("ruach", "spirit"/"wind"; 14:21)  When I first read vs 21, I was thinking a lot of Genesis 1:  The Spirit moving; God dividing things; dry land appearing.  As it turns out, none of the words really match up.  Divide and dry land are different words than in Genesis 1.  Spirit here really means east wind...but...but...it is worth pointing out that the Spirit must be sent to engage against the forces of chaos and death.  I don't think one really stretches the Hebrew or theological narrative to say that the Exodus recalls, if not relives, the creation story of a God whose Spirit moves against chaos to create life.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Genesis 39:1-23 (Joseph in prison)

Summary:  This snippet from Joseph is rather interesting because we'd probably be more likely to focus on the powerful scenes of reconciliation at the end of the story.  This particular chapter gives one large room to preach "social justice" sermons (injustice toward minorities) or "prosperity gospel" (work hard, endure and God will bless you and those around you).   I am still wrestling with the idea of a God who causes us to prosper.  I wonder if my generally liberal protestant background, which is so nervous about prosperity Gospel, undercuts a healthy understanding of God's blessings in our lives.

סלח ("saleakh", "thrive", 39:2, 3, 23)  Last week in the narrative lectionary we focused on blessing.  This week we come upon the word "thrive."  What does it mean to thrive?  Once again, we cannot deny the "worldly" aspect of God's presence in this world.  Joseph (and his masters) gain health and wealth through his work. 

Two wrinkles:  Perhaps this idea of thriving is an Old Testament way of saying bear fruit.  This verb also appears in
Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
Whenever their is fruit, there is service to the neighbor because fruit doesn't do the tree itself any good.

Second, life isn't so simple that those who believe in God, only good comes to them.  In fact, the story of Joseph indicates the opposite -- that a life in God, even a thriving life, includes set backs!Psalm 37:7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
Proverbs 28:13 No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

עבד ("ayved", "servant, slave", 39:17, 19)  This word of slave will take on huge importance in the book of Exodus.  For now, I wanted to point out that Joseph is never called a "slave" until he is punished.  Everyone benefits from him and then he is showed no mercy.  I think this may be a more common feeling/experience of people outside the dominant social group.  A moral minority is uplifted, promoted and praised...one might even think that one has achieved a modicum of acceptance.  Then there is trouble; then there is name calling, no due process, imprisonment.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Genesis 12 (Matthew 18:21-35)

If you are working with the RCL, here is a post on this week's text (Matthew 18:21-35)

Summary:  Abraham was asked to do a lot.  The English gets you here ('to a land I will show you' isn't very much to go on); the Hebrew intensifies this.  As I continue to read this story, I am also reflecting a lot on what "bless" means.  I do not think one can walk away, in this or other stories, from the material nature of blessings in the Bible.  However, the Bible already shows the direction of God's blessing, namely, our neighbor.  Perhaps if we wanted to be most Lutheran, we would argue that the true blessing is the promise that allows one to live by faith.

Key words
לך-לך  ("lake - la - kah", "go immediately," vs 1)  This is often translated simply as "go."  It literally means "go-go" or "get up and go."  In Hebrew, when you have two verbs in a row, the first verb is often adverbial, as in "in a 'getting up' kind of way, go."  Or, more poetically:  "Immediatedly go."  The whole section in the Hebrew Bible is called "Lake-la-kah."  (The Hebrew Bible didn't use chapters; instead it divided up scrolls into sections, naming them after a key word near the beginning of the section)   Also, Abraham will be given this same command in Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac.

One wonders if the angel's commands to Paul (then Saul) in chapter 9 of Acts are the same -- "Get up and go" in the sense of "go immediately."

Grammatically:  Keep an eye out for dual verb commands in the Bible; they may reflect a Hebrew way of speaking whereby one verb functions as an adverb. 

Theologically:  God isn't about discernment in this passage, but about decision.  There is a sense of immediacy!

בת-אב  ("bet av", "father's house," vs 1)  This term means way more than simply "dad's house."  It was the fundamental social unit and reality of a person's life.  Here is a website with pictures: 
I think for us in the West today, it is impossible to understand the impact of traditional and family on a person's psyche and worldview, and thus the significance of God's command.

ברך ("baruch", "bless", vs 2,3)  The first point I want to address is the meaning of the word baruch.  In Genesis, blessing can often be assoicated with material prosperity:
*  Genesis 39:5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.
*  Genesis 26:3 Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.
*  See also Genesis 30:27

It also refers to children and descendents:
*  Genesis 1:22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas,   and let birds multiply on the earth."
*  Genesis 17:16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."
*Genesis 22:17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,
I would argue though, if you press the Bible harder, you discover that blessing means something more than a big house and big family. 
It also means fundamental human relationships based on complentary differences (yes family, but not necessarily size!)
*Genesis 5:2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "Humankind" when they were created
*Genesis 2:3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
God's peace and presence
*Numbers 6:23-27   23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,  24 The LORD bless you and keep you;  25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;  26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.  27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Ultimately though, I do not think one can de-materialize the nature of blessings.  I think what good pastors and theologians can do is direct this blessing back to the neighbor:
*Deuteronomy 14:28-29 28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Or simply as God says here in Genesis 12 -- the whole world is to be blessed by Abraham!

Lastly, there is a rather technical point here about the translation here having to do with verb forms in Hebrew.  The question is whether to treat the verb bless as a passive (the nations will be blessed by Abraham) or reflexive, "in Abraham (or his name) all the nations will bless themselves."  The Greek goes with the passive here and that is how this passage is traditionally translated.  That seems fair and good, but perhaps it is also worth asking:  How do we actively bless ourselves through Abraham and his legacy?

NET Bible notes:
Theoretically the Niphal can be translated either as passive or reflexive/reciprocal. (The Niphal of "bless" is only used in formulations of the Abrahamic covenant. See Gen 12:2; 18:18; 28:14.) Traditionally the verb is taken as passive here, as if Abram were going to be a channel or source of blessing. But in later formulations of the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen 22:18; 26:4) the Hitpael replaces this Niphal form, suggesting a translation "will bless [i.e., "pronounce blessings on"] themselves [or "one another"]." The Hitpael of "bless" is used with a reflexive/reciprocal sense in Deut 29:18; Ps 72:17; Isa 65:16; Jer 4:2. Gen 12:2 predicts that Abram will be held up as a paradigm of divine blessing and that people will use his name in their blessing formulae. For examples of blessing formulae utilizing an individual as an example of blessing see Gen 48:20 and Ruth 4:11.
קלל and אאר  ("qalal" and "arar", "curse", vs 2) These words, although both translated similarly in English as "curse", are different.  The first, qalal, means "treat lightly" in the sense of "disrespect" or "disgrace."  The second, arar, means remove from blessing.  Rather than think of this verse than as those who swear mean things at Abraham will have bad things happen to them, its probably better to think of it this way:  Because Abraham is a blessing, and an agent of blessing, from God, to disregard Abraham is to remove oneself from God's potential blessings.  The question is whether the Bible (God really) means all the blessings in the world, or the blessings from Abraham.  I'd be inclined to the latter.  In short, the Bible does not seem to be indicating quite as harsh as a sentence as "curse those who curse you" suggests, but it does offer a warning.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15

Summary:   This is a story that many "modern" people have trouble accessing.  It is a hard text for us as a pastors too.  I think the first connection point is found before this NL pericope begins, in vss 5-11, where God declares the world filled with violence.  No one living in 2014 should find it hard to imagine God's anger over the violence plaguing the world.  I don't think we need to walk away from God's fierce disappointment within this story.  This is the human condition.  Surprisingly God's wrath is absent, at least in words, from this story.  That is because God's wrath is connected with his abandonment.  This story is not about an angry God who leaves people to their own devices, but intervenes by destroying in order to bring about life.

What I wrestle with in this story is not simply the violence done by God, but the question of how eschatological to go with my sermon.  The story can be seen in light of Christ's ministry (teaching us the way of non-violence), Christ's death and resurrection (he creates a new non-violent humanity), but ultimately, Christ's next coming (he brings about a non-violent world.

I also wonder if a more personal appraoch is helpful, in that God is willing to kill us -- that within us which is hostile to him -- to make us alive.

Lastly, I would recommend reading the other flood narratives, especially the Epic of Gilgamesh.  It becomes quite clear our God is very different from other deities.

באה ("bo" meaning 'Go in':  6:17,18, 19):  The word, like many Hebrew words, can have a variety of meanings, ranging from "go in" to "come in" to even "bring in."  God "goes into"/"brings" the water; humans and the animals, "Go into" and are "brought into" the ark.  This is an interesting way of thinking about God's activity in Baptism, the ark of salvation (1 Peter); God destroys us in the water, but brings us home in the ark!

כל ("col" meaning 'all', repeatedly):  This word means all.  It is used throughout this section.  God's care is for ALL of creation, and one could argue, for ALL of humanity, in that we need to learn how be reborn to be less violent.

אות ("ot" meaning 'sign', 9:12)  God knows we need a sign, not just a covenant.  As the song said, "I need a sign!"

זכר ("zocar" meaning 'remember', 9:15)  The question here is -- why does God need to remember?  Perhaps linguistically we can get around this.  This verb is in the qal perfect, which means it is to be read as as imperfect, meaning incomplete action.  This can refer to future action or present on-going action.  This actually makes sense because the God of the whole heavens and earth is always shining clouds on the earth -- there is always a rainbow from God's perspective!  God is always remembering his covenant with us.