Monday, September 28, 2015

Exodus 3

This commentary focuses on Exodus 3:10-15.  This covers two separate Narrative Lectionary passages:
Sept 29. 2013 (Year 4): Exodus 3:10-15; 4:10-17
Oct 4, 2015 (Year 2):  Exodus 1: 8-14 and 3:1-15

Summary:  The Hebrew reminds us that as Moses asks for God's name, Moses is really asking for God's character.  The answer given seems very much like a New Testament answer:  A radically free God, who binds himself to the life of particular humans (incarnation!!), and out of his great mercy he sends the people to do his work (mission!).  Also, in Moses' protests we find a very common human disease:  a lack of self-esteem, ultimately grounded in a lack of trusting God.  The solution?  Pep talks??  No!!  It is all about God.

Side comment:  I think our kids don't need more self-esteem, but trust in God, which is more durable and more easily built back up.

אות ("sign"; Exodus 3.12; 4:17).  Obviously the idea of signs and covenants is a crucial one in the Old (and new) Testaments.  Interestingly, these signs God offer (worship on a mountain; Aaron's rod) are signs that will require Moses to take the first step in order to see.  I think it also reflects the human desire for a sign.  The people of Israel, including Moses, have seen great suffering.  Of course they want a sign!

עוד ("serve"; Exodus 3.12)  The word for serve has a range of meanings from "worship" to even be "slave to."  This sets up the key question for Exodus:  Whom will the people serve/worship/be in slave to:  God or Pharaoh?  This is a key hermeneutic for the story of Exodus:  Whom will the people serve?

As Americans today, this word challenges our notions of "freedom"  and faith.  Will we serve (meaning trust, worship and obey) God or will we serve Pharaoh?  By Pharaoh I do not meant the ancient king of Egypt, but the "man"?  (Old Testament professor Walter Bruggemann provocatively discusses this, arguing that Pharaoh is the military industrial complex).  Furthermore, when it comes to faith, are we really willing to "serve" God as we would a king? 

Lastly, our racial history makes any "positive" discussion of slavery in the context of faith extremely difficult.  For this reason, I believe the translators prefer to translate this word as "worship" God; however, the concept should not be lost.  There is no freedom in the abstract -- it is serve either God or Pharaoh.  Which brings up the question -- where is true freedom found?

שלח  ("send", 3.10, 12, 13, 14)  A crucial word in this passage; the word means send.  The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament.  Just as Jesus was sending disciples, God in the Old Testament was sending workers and laborers into this word.  The whole idea of sending (and equipping) is also an OT concept!

םה-שםו ("what is your name?"; 3:13)
This is not the usual way to ask someone their name.
From TWOT:  "This frequently-occurring interrogative pronoun is most significant when associated with the word 'name'.  'What is your name?' is not a question which inquires after a person's family or personal name; it endeavors to find what character or quality lies within or behind the person. To ask for simple identification, one would say in Hebrew, "Who (mî) are you?"

In short, the question gets at this question:  What kind of God are you??  Again, this goes back to the suffering of the people.  Why would the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob let this happen to the people!  Unlike the Biblical histories, which suggest the Babylonian captivity is a result of apostasy, the Bible portrays the enslavement of the Israelites as caused by the fear, greed and hatred of the Egyptians.

אהיה ("I will be"; 3.14) God's name here is often translated, "I am who I am."  Because the verb is in the imperfect (incomplete) tense, it may also be translated, "I am who I will be" or "I will be who I will be"; any permutations of these two!  The crucial idea is that God is radically free!

אבתיכם ("fathers"; 3.15)  This radically free God includes in his introduction, really in his name and reputation, his relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  While God may be radically free, God is also radically bound to the particular life and story of various individuals.  If the preaching passage includes

והוריתיך ("teach"; 4.12)  This word is fascinating in two ways here.  First, because the root word is the same root as "torah."  Moses will be "torahed" in a sense.  Secondly, the verb in its root form (as opposed to hiphil, as it appear here) means to throw, like throw an arrow.  As fundamental as bow and arrow were to early Israelists, so was the teaching of God's Word.  Something about using this word Torah, deriving it from shooting and teaching...I love it!

Mark 10:2-16

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B (Most recently Oct 2, 2015).
Summary:  This is a very difficult passage, causing shame for many and perhaps even smugness for some.  Many commentaries have been written about it.  I'd like to focus on a few Greek words, especially some "απο" words, that might provide a framework for considering divorce and preaching about it.  Again, very tough because everyone has such different baggage on this topic.
Side comment:  Another helping tool for looking at these passages is to compare the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 and Luke 16 (if not 1 Cor 7).

πειραζοντες ("test or tempt", from πειραζω, 10:2)  We see this come up often in the Gospels, where the Pharisees (or some other group) are trying to test Jesus.  This case is a bit different.  John the Baptist was imprisoned because he spoke out against the marriage practices of Herod.  The Pharisees questions are intended to have Jesus imprisoned, if not killed.  Our society has great culture wars going on now about marriage; perhaps each one of us will face persecution for our views.  Lastly, if we wonder why Jesus is so harsh in his words, it is because the Pharisees are inviting him to his death.

αποστατιον ("divorce", 10:4)  This word "explodes" off the page if you look at it in the Bible or in the Greek language.  First, in Greek, this word meant leave one's station ("απο" means away; just read the letters in the word: a-p-o-s-t-a-t-i-o-n!).  It meant a military defection from your captain, the one ahead of you in rank.  Moses gave permission to write a certificate of defection!!  What if we started calling divorce defection??  Ouch.

Jesus actually changes the law here.  If you look up the word, you are taken to Deuteronomy 24:1, where a man is given permission to kick out his wife if she doesn't please him.  Jesus today is calling men to a greater level of faithfulness than previous generations ever did; men cannot simply leave their wives because they don't please them!  Jesus also even admits the reality that women might leave their husbands on their own accord, something unthinkable.  In this way, Jesus alters the law (a radical concept), even enfranchising women, but finally asks for greater commitment.  (Note however, that even though the Bible's teaching divorce shifts over time, the teaching on marriage remains the same).

απολυω ("free"; 10:4)  This word can mean "release" or even finally "divorce" but it is worth looking simply at what the word means:  to set free.  As a pastor, I have seen this, where divorce is a freeing of someone from an abusive and unfaithful relationship plagued by addiction and anger. 

So here is the million dollar question:  When is the divorce "αποστατιον", namely, a defection?  And when is it a απολυω, a freeing?

σκηλροκαρδια ("hardness of hearts"; 10:5)  The word here contains the root "σκηλρος" which means hardness -- an awful disease is "multiple sclerosis", the hardening of certain body parts until finally the person cannot move.  In a downward spiraling relationship, there is a hardening of the heart, until finally the person cannot love.  As Christians, we believe that God creates new hearts (Psalm 51); however, Jesus admits (see also Matt 19) that certain conditions, like adultery, create such a hard heart, that the two are permitted not to be yolked any more.  I would add abuse and addiction, both forms of adultery, you could argue, to this list of permissible divorces.

αρχη ("beginning"; 10:6)  Jesus affirms that marriage is a long-long, committed relationship between a man and a woman, grounded in creation and the particular creation accounts we have in the Bible.  This means that marriage has a few purposes:  to offer companionship, to create new families and bring a couple into full intimacy, even union.  I think one could further argue that marriage is a tool of God's sanctification in us, in that we discover our sinfulness very clearly, need forgiveness and become of great use to God through the love given to us by our spouse.  Jesus returns the focus to God's goodness and intentions for marriage.

My haunch:  The Christian church needs to spend a great deal of time and teaching on what marriage truly is and what it is for.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Mark 9:38-50 (focus on Hell)

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary Year B (Most recently: Sept 27, 2015) 

Summary:  Jesus warns his followers about "gheenna," often translated Hell.  This week we will look at the three words for Hell in the Bible.  The terms and their interpretation reflect various schools of thought over time.  No matter how you slice it, there is death and judgment.  I have rarely encountered a topic where I have had as much trouble wrapping my hands around it.  This blog summary does not achieve "Summa", but rather gives one a general map of the territory.

Christians translate three Greek words as "Hell."

αδης ("hades")  The first word for Hell is hades (Hebrew: Sheol).  Interestingly, only the King James translates this word as Hell; most leave it as Sheol or Hades.  It normally refers to the house of souls after death, rather than a place of judgment.  Let's be clear, it is not a place you or I want to be, but it is not the home of Satan with fiery demons.

Basically, there are two helpful ways to understand Hades/Sheol.  The first is that is a warehouse of souls (a la purgatory).  So for example:

Psalm 138:8:  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

The problem with this understanding is that you get a universal soul sleep, without judgment or resurrection. 

The other way to understand Hades/Sheol is simply as "the grave." So for example:
Genesis 37:35 "All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort Jacob; but he refused to be comforted, and said, "No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." Thus his father bewailed him."
Jonah 2:2 "I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice."

In this sense, Hades/Sheol may have nothing to do with souls, simply the place where the body exists after death.  The theologian is then free to discuss the judgement and resurrection of souls.  This solution creates another dilemma though, in that you have separated bodies and souls, something rather foreign to the Hebrew mind. 

So, Hades in the OT remains problematic!  It is clear that the Old Testament ideas about the afterlife changed over time.  There never emerged in the Old Testament, however, the idea that Hades/Sheol was a place solely of fiery judgment, the location of sinners after death.  Everyone went to Sheol.  It wasn't until much later (Isaiah 25-27) that you get the idea that God will defeat death and raise the righteous up to life.

The New Testament turns Hades into a darker place, with a bit more judgment associated with it.  For example: 
Luke 16:23: "In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
In Matthew, Jesus even declares the gates of Hades to be the enemy of the church! (16:18)
Finally, in Revelation, Hades will be consumed, and it will give over the dead for judgment.

To summarize:  Hades refers to the place the dead go to await judgment.  Besides one brief mention in Luke, it is not a place of judgment, much less fiery judgment.  It is not seen as the home of devils and demons.  The Bible leaves open the idea that Hades/Sheol might be a two tiered place, of pain but also bliss, awaiting resurrection; the Bible also leaves open the idea that Hades/Sheol might be understood literally and metaphorically as the grave, without much connotation of the soul's current or final destiny.  Either one presents a systematics challenge.

γεεννα  ("gheenna").  Unlike Hades, gheenna refers to a specific place, in fact, it is a place where a lot of bad stuff happened in Israel's history.
"Gehenna (Greek γέεννα) derives from a place outside ancient Jerusalem known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom; one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City.  In the Hebrew Bible, the site was initially where apostate Israelites and followers of various Ba'als and Caananite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6)."
In depth look at citations of gheenna in the Bible, you can read here:

So, gheenna does refer to a hell-like place of judgment.  It may have even been a burning trash heap! 
An important take away about the OT citations of hell:  It was not the place of individual judgment, but of national judgement.

The New Testament continues this idea of judgment, but makes it a place for individual judgment as well.  This includes the passages for this week (Mark 9:44-50) but also:
Luke 12:5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
Matthew 23:33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?

While Revelation does not use the word gheenna, after Hades has been consumed, there is still a lake of fire to consume those not in the book of life, including the devil.   Even John speaks of fire consuming the branches that bear no fruit!  I think it is fair to say that association of fire and judgment is Biblical.  However, a place where people roast alive slowly under the tridents of demons does not fully comport with the Biblical evidence.

To summarize:  The Bible includes real judgment here, including the idea that fires of judgment occur.  Yet, this is not the place where the devil and demons live.  (If anything, it is where demons go to die, not to live!)  Gheenna describes a tomb in the midst of eternal fires.  Lastly, this place of judgment becomes more personal in the NT than in the OT.

κατώτατα ("lowest places")  This word does not appear directly in the NT, but does so in our Creed (based on Ephesians 4:9, which uses a form of this word).  It does, however, occur in the OT:
Psalm 139:15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Psalm 86:13  For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
Lamentations 3:56  I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit;

So, what is better?  Descended to the dead or to hell?  First Peter references (1 Peter 4:6 and 1 Peter 3:16-20) suggest "dead," or place of the dead.  I prefer hell because the word in the creed means "lowest of low."  By using "hell" we capture the emotional suffering of Christ Jesus, in that he had been emotionally to hell, namely, feeling abandoned by God.

All in all, a complicated topic.  The "hell" of popular imagination is not based on one image or word from the Bible, but a compilation, an imaginative blending of these various Scriptural passages.  The Bible does not speak of a fiery pit with devils tormenting individuals.  However, the Bible speaks of final judgment, including destruction by fire.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mark 9:30-37

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary Year B (Most recently: Sept 20, 2015) 
Summary:  "Serving others" sounds like an exciting idea in high school - volunteering is hip these days.  But serving others is actually quite difficult.  Jesus even ups the ante by commanding that we should be servant to all!  The hope I find in this week's passage is that Jesus follows this command to serve everyone by touching one particular person.  A reminder that service to world means service to individuals, often the very individuals the world forgets.

Key Words:
διακονος:  ("servant", 9:35)  The meaning of this word has come under great fire in the last generation.  In post-Vatican II Catholicism and post-Holocaust protestantism, there reemerged a strong desire and need for the church to serve the needy. (Not that this had ever gone away totally!)  What emerged was an incredible surge in the interest of service under various forms, offices and theology related to "διακονος."  A generation or two later, some, including the previous Pope, are concerned that we have replaced the ministry of the Word with charity.  If you research "Collins diakonia" you can read all about it.  Within the Lutheran context a rather pointed and academic article is here:

The word does have a variety of meanings, from "waiter" as in someone who waits on tables, but also someone who acts as an agent on behalf of someone.  In Mark's Gospel the word describes angels and women who attend to Jesus.  In this way, Mark's usasge attests to the idea of service to the needy, but the service always involves Jesus.

Without being overly argumentative, you can assert this: διακονος did not simply mean service to the poor but also service on behalf of Christ.  This week's passage shows a beautiful example of what διακονος entails:  bringing the least in society to the arms of Jesus.

παιδιον ("child", 9:36, 37)  The word here can mean "kid" but can also mean "child" (as in my kid) or "slave."  In our culture, we have seen this passage almost exclusively in light of the idea of "my child," a precious offspring of someone.  However, the social context of youth ought not to be lost -- children did not have great social status and were not the focus of parental energy.  In this sense, Jesus is acting toward the "least", namely, the people without voice, vote, income or status.

εναγκαλισμενος ("hug", 9:36 and 10:16)  This word is only used twice in the whole New Testament, both times in Mark!, when Jesus takes children into his arm.  This is also a reminder of what it means to welcome someone in the name of Christ, to bring them close enough that you can see their beauty, but also their warts, stinky breath and dirty fingernails.

Grammar:  "αν"
This word is nearly impossible to translate.  It sort of means "if" but not really.  It is best just to learn all the ways in which it is used (ie, consult a grammar aid when you come to it).  In verse 37, it is used with ος, which always gets translated "Whoever."  This might not make sense, but this combination is a bit like:  "Who, who?,..." to make a "whoever."

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Genesis 2:4b-25

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 2 (Most recently: Sept 13, 2015) 
Summary:  This passage shows God, humanity and the earth in beautiful concert.  A true paradise.  There are so many ways to go with this passage, especially ways that fit in with various political agendas.  I think the big point is less public policy (or even church polity policy) and the intentions of God for the world:  God, humanity and earth in concert, working together in joy.

Quick note:  I've read so many commentaries and heard so many lectures and sermons on Genesis 2 that I can hardly claim any of the following as exclusively mine. In some ways I am not offering a detailed commentary because I suspect that many of you have also heard bits and pieces.  Hopefully my comments jog some memories or spur some more questions on your part.

עבד ("avad", meaning "serve/be slave/worship", 2:5)  The translation of this verb as "work" as in "no one to work the land" is really mild. The word עבד also means to slave or worship.  The original purpose of humanity was much closer to the earth than the sky...

אדמה ("adamah", meaning "soil/ground", 2:7)  The word for "man" in Hebrew is אדמ or "Adam" which comes from/is related to אדמה "adamah" the word for ground.  (Kind of like "human" comes from "humus", no not the chip dip, but part of the soil that is rich in nutrients).  This creation story reminds us of our connection to the earth.

נפש ("nephish" meaning "soul or living being", 2:7) The word for soul in Hebrew does not mean an the ethereal part of us that becomes a ghost when we die.  The word for soul in Hebrew is linguistically related to the verb for breath; but more to the point, the human is not a living thing until it has breath.  Interestingly, the verb for "in-breath" has God as its subject twice.  First here and then in John's Gospel when Jesus, after the resurrection ενεφυσησεν into the disciples. 

יצר ("yatzir" meaning "form" as in "form pottery" or "form a plan", 2:7/2:8)  I really love that this image here is for pottery.  God makes us like a potter makes a clay vessel.  This metaphor is picked up in Jeremiah 18:6 and also  Isaiah 43:1:
"But now thus says the LORD, he who created ברא you, O Jacob, he who formed יצר you  O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."
This verse in Isaiah is fascinating because it ties together the words for creation from the first and second creation stories.  Also it is really cool because it shows that ultimately what matters is not Adam's act of naming the animals, but God's act of naming us as children.

כוש (Cush, 2:13)  The point of the Hebrew usage of Cush is to say "the furthest south you've ever heard of"; ie,. the garden of Eden essentially covers all of the known civilized world.

לא-טוב ("lo-tov" meaning "no good", 2:18)  The first bad thing in the bible is not human rebellion but human loneliness.  Genesis 1 keeps saying things are declared good by God.  Now we have a hiccup!  Important point:  The human is created to be in relationship with the earth and with each other.

עזר כנגדו ("ezer - canagado", meaning "helper to him", 2.18. 2:20)  What is the purpose of a spouse; it is to be a helper.  But this is a tricky phrase to translate, because it is not one word or term, but really three of four.  Basically it is the word "help" (somewhat straight forward) with a slapped together term of pronouns and prepositions: "like/as - in front of / opposite - him"  This particular construction of words does not appear again.  So what can we make of this?  Spouses are meant to help each other.  I would argue they should be equal but also at some level opposite.  (yin-yang?)  But my sense is that we will always put more into this term than we will get out of it.

קרא ("qarah" meaning "name or call", 2:19)  Adam names the animals. Some want to claim this is co-creator power.  Others simply want to say God let Adam name the animals.  I'll stay out of this debate for now.

And for fun:  Genesis 2:4b starts with the phrase, in the Greek:
βιβλος γενεσεως
(an account/book of the creation)
Matthew 1 will also start with this.  John 1 is a play on Genesis 1; Matthew 2 is a play on Genesis 2 one could argue.

I've often used Genesis 2 as a marriage sermon text/pre-marriage counseling Bible study:
The purposes of marriage:  mutual helping, awe-filled companionship and new family streams
The promise of marriage:  husband and wife become one flesh
The cross of marriage:  husband and wife become one flesh know each intimately (are naked on all levels) yet still are not ashamed of the other person.  This last point leads powerfully into the reality of the cross in marriage, the reality that our sinfulness comes before us in marriage and our need for Christ and his forgiveness.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mark 7:24-37

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B
Summary: Okay, this passage is really hard.  Mark goes out of his way to show how much "other" this woman is.  What do we make of this?  That Jesus is less compassionate or (gasp) more bigoted than we are today?   I don't think we want to go there.  But (gasp!) Luke dropped this story, unable to stomach it; I think many of us want to drop it as well.  But in the Bible it is.  A few possibilities for preaching
- Jesus entered a world with real cultural divisions, not the new creation.
- Sometimes we have to be persistent in prayer.
- If you can find a common language, you can solve all sorts of problems.
- Jesus did ultimately consider gentiles in his family, but this was not the natural state of affairs.

Again, the Greek offers no easy way out of this passage.

Key words:

Τορου (Tyre, 7:24) First reminder that we are away from Jewish territory. To give an example of how "bad" it was for Jesus to be there, recall the words of  Matthew 11:22 "But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you."  We almost wonder if Jesus wanted it kept secret that he was there because a good Jewish Rabbi should not have been going in that direction!

What is interesting is that in spite of all the cultural differences, they still speak a common language...

ερχομαι (απερχομαι and also εισερχομαι, numerous forms "ερχομαι" which means to go, 7:24)  There is a lot of movement in this text -- variants of ερχομαι are used throughout the text. The first movement is out into Tyre (απερχομαι ); then in to the home (εισερχομαι); the demon goes out; the woman leaves the house; the demon again has gone out; Jesus leaves the town.

Note on Greek:  ερχομαι is a very common verb, but it often appears in its aorist form: ηλθεν, or as a participle or with attached prefixes (απο (away) εισ (into)).  Learning to recognize the myriad forms of this verb can definitely speed up one's Greek reading.

ελληνις ("Hellenic" (not the rough breathing mark over the "e" or "Greek"), 7:26). For what is worth, the word Gentile should not be used here, but Greek should. (εθνη is not the word used; ελληνις is).  It is odd that such an amount of information is given about the woman.  Mark wants to drive some that this person is the embodiment of "other."

ηρατω (imperfect form of ερωταω, "beg/ask" 7:26)  What is significant here is that this verb is in the imperfect -- she was continuing to beg.  Jesus did not respond to her first request, it seems.  Kepp praying folks...

χορτασθηναι (from χορταζω, meaning "feed", 7:27) The word here for feed is χορταζω.  This word will be used in chapter 8 to describe Jesus feeding all of the gentiles...So here Jesus says he ain't gonna feed the people...but shortly after this, this is exactly what he is doing.  Which means, that when Jesus feeds the gentiles in chapter 8, Jesus is considering them children!

εβαλεν (aorist form of βαλλω, meaning "throw", 7:33)  The word translated as "put" as in "put" his fingers is βαλλω which means throw or cast.  This is normally used as a verb to describe Jesus "casting" out the demon.  In this image he casts his fingers into the man.  Kind of gross!

εστεναξεν (from στεναζω, meaning "groan", 7:34)  It is hard to say whether Jesus "sighs" here in frustration or effort.  This word will appear in some other powerful verses in the New Testament:
Romans 8:23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
2 Corinthians 5:4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Being in this town seems to make Jesus very uncomfortable.