Whose Side Are You On?

Today’s post is a re-blog from Karla Suomala, an associate professor of religion at Luther College in Iowa and sometime blogger for workingpreacher.org.

Tell me, whose side are you standing on? I’m standing on the Lord’s side. Whose side are you standing on? Standing on the Lord’s side. I stand, I stand, I stand, I stand…

Growing up, I sang this song in Sunday school and in Vacation Bible School. Even now, after all of these years, it’s still in my memory bank. I’ve come to wonder, however, about the worldview advocated by these words (as I have for many of the songs I sang, including “I’m in the Lord’s army, yessir!”).

Ours is a culture of taking sides, and regardless of the context, we’re constantly being challenged to take a stand. Are you on God’s side or not? Are you for or against the war in Iraq? Are you for Obama or McCain? Are you for or against capital punishment? The assumption behind every challenge is that there IS a right side—God’s side. Today’s reading from Exodus gives us pause to reevaluate the idea of being on God’s side and even what it means to be on God’s side.

Exodus 32 has two different scenes playing out simultaneously: in one, Moses is at the top of Mount Sinai where he is just about to conclude a period of forty days and forty nights which he has spent receiving instructions from God; and in the other, the Israelites are at the base of the mountain becoming restless, having begun to doubt that Moses will ever return.

The reading opens with the Israelites asking Aaron to make gods for them—visible, tangible figures that will lead them through the desert. Aaron, somewhat surprisingly, complies with this request. The people hand over all of their gold jewelry to Aaron who uses it to cast a golden calf. The people seem to be satisfied with this, and they begin celebrating early the next day.

In the scene on top of the mountain, God abruptly tells Moses to “go down at once,” indicating that the people have really messed up. In describing the actions of the Israelites at the base camp, God states that the Israelites “have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it”. After this litany of offenses, God then outlines God’s plans to destroy the people and start all over again, fresh, with Moses.

The stage has been set for the defining moment in Moses’ life and career. Should he choose God’s side and become the founder of a new, improved, nation or should he side with the Israelites? It hardly seems to be a difficult decision; after all, Moses hasn’t done anything wrong. He has done what God has asked, leading the people out of slavery, helping to establish a new covenant in the wilderness—enough for any successful career. The people, on the other hand, haven’t fared as well. God’s thunder and Moses’ voice is still echoing in their ears and they turn to Aaron to request new gods. Whose side are you standing on, Moses?

Astonishingly, Moses sides with the people. In the remainder of the passage, Moses mounts a case before God to save the Israelites, regardless of what they’ve done. “O Lord,” he says, “why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” The reason for God’s anger is clear to Moses. The people are worshiping idols and have apparently turned their back on God. In this rhetorical question, however, Moses makes an altogether different point: the people of Israel are not his people but God’s people. It was not Moses but God who brought them up out of Egypt. Moses is not going to let God off the hook easily here, allowing God to shove God’s chosen people aside the first time they get into trouble.

Now that Moses has refocused the conversation to examine God’s role rather than the people’s sin, he becomes even bolder, asking, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?'” In other words, “Think about your international reputation, God. After seeing your ingenious Red Sea escape route, do you want the Egyptians to say you’re crazy?”

After making two excellent points, Moses reaches the pinnacle of his argument and does the unthinkable. He makes demands of God! He tells God to:

  • turn from his anger.
  • repent or change his mind about destroying the Israelites.
  • remember the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel (“I will multiply your descendents like the stars of heaven, and all this land… they shall inherit it forever”).

Moses meets God head-to-head in this confrontation, putting everything on the line for the people at the base of the mountain. He reminds God of the promises that God has made, and challenges God to keep his word.

Even more remarkable than Moses’ taking a stance for the people, even to the point of making demands of God, is that God listens! In Exodus 32:14 we learn that “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Only then did Moses turn and go down from the mountain.

Moses’ radical advocacy for the Israelites, his taking their side, is depicted positively by the biblical narrator. He has done the right thing. At the end of Deuteronomy, in a summing up of Moses’ life and career, we learn that “never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” This text provides some powerful guidelines for taking sides with the people, especially those who have no other defenders. God can take care of himself.

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America’s Golden Calf

When Israel created and worshipped the golden calf, it was likely in large part due to Egyptian influence. The calf itself was probably fashioned after the Egyptian bull god Apis, but the Israelites were borrowing more than an image. They were borrowing the mindset of empire.

Empire is seductive, it is powerful, and it is ordered. It is respectable and imperial. Israel had subtly become inoculated with it during their 400-some years in slavery in the Egyptian empire. The golden calf shows that you can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take the Egypt out of the people.

So what is our golden calf in 21st-century America? In what ways have we drunk the Kool-aid of contemporary empire?

Shane Claiborne, in his landmark book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, points the finger at American patriotism as a major stumbling block for Christians. Not that Christians should not love their country. But patriotism, he contends, clouds our priorities and distorts our ability to offer Christ our exclusive allegiance in many ways. For instance, here’s what Claiborne has to say about 9/11 and the Iraq war:

I saw a banner hanging next to city hall in downtown Philadelphia that read, “Kill them all, and let God sort them out.” A bumper sticker read, “God will judge evildoers; we just have to get them to him.” I saw a T-shirt on a soldier that said, “US Air Force… we don’t die; we just go to hell to regroup.” Others were less dramatic- red, white, and blue billboards saying, “God bless our troops.” “God Bless America” became a marketing strategy. One store hung an ad in their window that said, “God bless America–$1 burgers.” Patriotism was everywhere, including in our altars and church buildings. In the aftermath of September 11th, most Christian bookstores had a section with books on the event, calendars, devotionals, buttons, all decorated in the colors of America, draped in stars and stripes, and sprinkled with golden eagles.
This burst of nationalism reveals the deep longing we all have for community, a natural thirst for intimacy… September 11th shattered the self-sufficient, autonomous individual, and we saw a country of broken fragile people who longed for community- for people to cry with, be angry with, to suffer with. People did not want to be alone in their sorrow, rage, and fear.
But what happened after September 11th broke my heart. Conservative Christians rallies around the drums of war. Liberal Christian took to the streets. The cross was smothered by the flag and trampled under the feet of angry protesters. The church community was lost, so the many hungry seekers found community in the civic religion of American patriotism. People were hurting and crying out for healing, for salvation in the best sense of the word, as in the salve with which you dress a wound. A people longing for a savior placed their faith in the fragile hands of human logic and military strength, which have always let us down. They have always fallen short of the glory of God.
…The tragedy of the church’s reaction to September 11th is not that we rallied around the families in New York and D.C. but that our love simply reflected the borders and allegiances of the world. We mourned the deaths of each soldier, as we should, but we did not feel the same anger and pain for each Iraqi death, or for the folks abused in the Abu Ghraib prison incident. We got farther and farther from Jesus’ vision, which extends beyond our rational love and the boundaries we have established. There is no doubt that we must mourn those lives on September 11th. We must mourn the lives of the soldiers. But with the same passion and outrage, we must mourn the lives of every Iraqi who is lost. They are just as precious, no more, no less. In our rebirth, every life lost in Iraq is just as tragic as a life lost in New York or D.C. And the lives of the thirty thousand children who die of starvation each day is like six September 11ths every single day, a silent tsunami that happens every week.

As Christians, our citizenship is in heaven, not in America or any earthly state. We are residents of the kingdom of God. I pray that we can begin to collectively repent of the ways that America’s empire mentality subtly colors our understanding of the gospel, and that by the Holy Spirit, those scales will begin to fall from our eyes.

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Taking a Sabbath

In the spirit of the Law, I am taking a much-needed Sabbath day from blogging. But don’t forget to join us tomorrow for our final class at 10am in the Parlor! We’ll be discussing Exodus 32-34 if you want to read it ahead of time. See you then!

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Building for God

“…So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the Lord has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the Lord has commanded.” Then Moses summoned Bezalel and Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the Lord had given ability and who was willing to come and do the work.

–Exodus 36:1-2

Exodus opens with the Israelites building for Pharaoh, and closes with the Israelites building for God. Having been saved from forced labor in construction, they freely give of their labor and their resources to build the tabernacle.

Construction of the tabernacle is a massive community-wide effort. The rest of Exodus 36 tells in great detail how the entire community comes together for this important project. Many are involved directly in the building process; many more give freewill offerings–so many in fact that Moses commands against making any more offerings because they had received so many (36:4-7). I don’t know about you, but that’s never happened at my church. The chapter is very similar in theme to the story of Nehemiah, particularly Nehemiah 3, where Israelite volunteers from all walks of life work to rebuild the ruined walls of Jerusalem. Both passages stress the broad-based grassroots nature of the construction.

As we, like Israel, freely give of our labor and resources for the establishment of the kingdom of God, are we working together? Do we believe that it takes everyone? It is not that God needs more people to get more done. He’s God–he doesn’t need anyone to get something done. But in calling us to build his kingdom as his people, he is also calling us to build up the edifice of community, not because he needs us but because it is for our good. After all, as we learn in the opening scenes of the Pentateuch, it is not good for man to be alone.

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The Tablets of the Law

We read in Exodus 31:18 that the law is given to Moses on two stone tablets. These stone tablets are usually depicted as containing commandments 1-5 on one, and 6-10 on the other. However, this was likely not the case.

Treaty between Hittite king Mursili II and Talmi-sharruma of Aleppo to regulate future relations between the two states, circa 1300 BC

In the ancient Middle East, it was customary when making covenants or treaties to create two identical copies of the governing document–one for each party to keep. From about 1800 BC onward, for instance, various Hittite kings followed this model to manage relations with their suzerain or vassal states (see example, left).

God’s covenant with his people, then, likely followed this same pattern, meaning both tablets would have likely been identical copies of the whole law. By creating this covenant according to the custom of that day in that region, God was formally establishing himself as Israel’s king, and Israel as his subjects.

It is also telling, then, that rather than taking one of the tablets up to heaven (his copy), God commands Israel to retain both copies of the law together, in an ornate special container created just for this purpose: the Ark of the Covenant. Biblical scholar J.A. Motyer says “This shows that Yahweh, the Great King who is the covenant-maker, was also the resident king among his people, and the covenant was his to guard and guarantee.” This is our incarnational God, whose character it is to dwell among us.

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The Ten Words

This is a re-post from my personal blog. It’s a reflection on the Ten Words, better known as the Ten Commandments.

  1. All sin is having other Gods before Yahweh. Whether it is Baal, Asherah, or Ra; or whether it is one of the three main contemporary American idols: “Mars, Mammon, and Me*,” we have a hard time with putting God first.
  2. All sin is making graven images. Our sentry skyscrapers bring praise to Adam Smith. Our Christmas displays (which were up before Halloween this year in my grocery store) magnify and extol Santa Claus. Even our churches spend millions on new buildings as people starve to death or die from preventable disease.
  3. All sin is taking the LORD’s name in vain. God’s name is written in all creation as a painter signs her work; yet we have lost wonder. All human beings bear God’s image and name and story; yet we create division and  disunity with stick-on labels like “right-winger”or “gay” or “terrorist.”
  4. All sin is forgetting the Sabbath. We work our lives away and gain nothing but money and nervous breakdowns and heart attacks. We fish and farm and log until the fisheries are gone and the topsoil is lost and the rainforest is a desert. We minister until we burn out, and if we don’t, we are bad Christians.
  5. All sin is dishonoring our fathers and mothers. We “go our own way” starting in high school or college, and don’t darken the church door again until we have our own kids to Christianize. We are neither thankful nor filial to our co-creators.
  6. All sin is murder. We offer sacrifices to Mars in Afghanistan. We create enemies despite Jesus’ own dogged refusal to do so. We hate and dislike and avoid and gossip and don’t forgive. We even turn Jesus from a principled pacifist into a supporter of whichever side of whichever war we happen to be fighting.
  7. All sin is adultery. Our hearts are darkly drawn to the “other.” We reject the sufficiency of Christ and the coequal blessings of singleness and marriage, choosing to devolve instead into some other mammal. And we justify it all with hermeneutical gymnastics; explaining away the unpopular message that sexual intimacy is for marriage only.
  8. All sin is stealing. We steal from the working poor so they don’t grow “dependent” on social safety nets. We steal the hope of a better future for undocumented immigrants by summarily deporting them. We steal the right to a fair hearing from those with different theological viewpoints.
  9. All sin is bearing false witness. Politicians and lawyers are the usual suspects, but what about coal companies? What about the ever-more-polarized media? What about (dare I suggest) even some of our preachers and theologians?
  10. All sin is coveting. God’s economy of plenty is supplanted by a human economy of scarcity. We “consume” “goods,” which lose their goodness all too quickly when our neighbors consume newer goods with more bells and whistles. Thy neighbor’s donkey, thy neighbor’s iPhone, thy neighbor’s self-confidence, thy neighbor’s perceived closeness with God; the list is long.

The remedy is neither capitalism nor communism, neither Calvinism nor Arminianism, neither science nor religion. The only remedy is Jesus, in whom all sin died, and in whom alone there is newness of life.

*courtesy of Reba Place Fellowship, Evanson, IL

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The Poor, The Widow, and The Foreigner

  • Over 1 million legal immigrants come to the United States each year.
  • Although illegal immigration is currently at its lowest point in decades, there are about 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and between 280,000 and 500,000 living in Arizona.
  • Tucson is one of the nation’s top destinations for refugees, and Northminster shares a campus with two sister congregations comprised primarily of refugees: the Middle Eastern Presbyterian Fellowship, and the Bethesda African Fellowship.

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

–Exodus 23:9

  • In Biblical times, widows and orphans were vulnerable largely because they could not support themselves, and thus were at extreme risk of poverty.
  • About 15% of the U.S. population lives below the federal poverty line, which is $23,050 for a family of four in 2012. Among Hispanics and African-Americans, the number is over 25%.
  • Over 1 billion people globally live on less than $1 per day, and over 3 billion (about half of all people) live on less than $2.50 per day.
  • 22,000 children die each day as a result of poverty.

If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

–Deuteronomy 15:7

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Does the Bible Support Slavery?

Poster advertising a slave auction

Continuing with our discussion from yesterday about which parts of the Law are universal and which are culturally specific, I have a post from another blog I’d like to share with you. When I read it, it was a very healthy reminder to me that we must approach this question, and the Bible in general, with a healthy dose of humility, acknowledging our biases and our shortcomings both as individuals and as a church. It is satire, and thus, some may find it offensive, so be warned. But here it is: a Biblical defense of slavery.

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Which Laws Still Apply?

Today Allison raised a wonderful issue in class: how do we know which laws from the Hebrew Scriptures we should still follow and which ones we no longer need to follow in Christ?

I don’t have the answer to this question. But it reminded me of an interesting TED talk from a journalist named A.J. Jacobs who spent one full year trying to live according to the laws in the Bible as literally as possible. Mr. Jacobs is Jewish and is an agnostic, so I don’t agree 100% with some of his conclusions from his experience, but it’s a fascinating window into what it would mean to follow the 613 commandments in the Torah on a daily basis. Maybe his quest will be instructive to us in some way as we wrestle with this important question.

Enjoy, and comment away!

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A Royal Priesthood and a Holy Nation

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

–Exodus 19:4-6

This is God’s preface to the covenant he was about to make with the people at Sinai, which is variously referred to as the Sinaitic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, or the Law. First, God reminds the people that he delivered them from Egypt through the majestic imagery of carrying them “on eagles’ wings.” Then, he provides a conditional, if-then promise: “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…[and] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The promise is preceded by and predicated upon remembrance of God’s faithfulness, and the promise is conditioned on Israel’s continuing faithfulness.

In Christ, we have a different sort of promise. We are empowered to live under an unconditional “law” called grace, expressly because Jesus has met the condition of the former law. God sent Jesus “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us…” (Romans 8:4).

For us, through Jesus’ righteousness and faithfulness in living out the Sinaitic Covenant, we have a promise that is unconditional. Peter parallels the above Exodus verse for emphasis:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

–1 Peter 2:9-10

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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