A Hero for the Alien

“For YHWH your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the HEROIC, and the fearsome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
— Deuteronomy 10:17-19

This is one of the few times that the word gibbôr (“hero”) is used of God. And it is used here to remind Israel that He is a God who brings His heroic might to bear in His love for the downcast, the stranger, the alien, the refugee.

In this connection, here is a wonderful and desperately needed reminder from Thabiti Anyabwile:

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Calvin on the Nephilim

“The Nephilim were in the land in those days—and so also afterward (whenever the sons of God went to the daughters of man so that they gave birth to them); they were the heroes of antiquity, men of name.”
— Genesis 6:4 (my translation)

The following is from John Calvin’s commentary on this verse:

[T]hey were ferocious tyrants, who separated themselves from the common rank.  Their first fault was pride; because, relying on their own strength, they arrogated to themselves more than was due.  Pride produced contempt of God, because being inflated by arrogance, they began to shake off every yoke. At the same time, they were also disdainful and cruel towards men; because it is not possible that they, who would not bear to yield obedience to God, should have acted with moderation towards men.
Moses adds, they were “men of renown;” by which he intimates that they boasted of their wickedness, and were, what are called hounourable robbers.  Nor is it to be doubted, that they had something more excellent than the common people, which procured for them favour and glory in the world.  Nevertheless, under the magnificent title of heroes, they cruelly exercised dominion, and acquired power and fame for themselves, by injuring and oppressing their brethren.  And this was the first nobility of the world.
Lest anyone should too greatly delight himself in a long and dingy line of ancestry; this, I repeat, was the nobility, which raised itself on high, by pouring contempt and disgrace on others.
Celebrity of name is not in itself condemned; since it is necessary that they whom the Lord has adorned with peculiar gifts should be pre-eminent among others; and it is advantageous that there should be distinction of ranks in the world.  But as ambition is always vicious, and more especially so when joined with a tyrannical ferocity, which causes the more powerful to insult the weak, the evil becomes intolerable.  It is, however, much worse, when wicked men gain honour by their crimes; and when, the more audacious any one is in doing injury, the more insolently he boasts of the empty smoke of titles.
Moreover, as Satan is an ingenious contriver of falsehoods, by which he would corrupt the truth of God, and in this manner render it suspected, the poets have invented many fables concerning the giants; who are called by them the sons of the Earth, for this reason, as it appears to me, because they rushed forward to acquire dominion, without any example of the their ancestors.

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Doing “Greater” Works than Jesus?

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.”  (John 14:12)

The word “greater” here is the comparative form of μεγας (megas), meaning “large,” or “great.” In terms of the way it means large or great, it carries a wide range of semantic possibilities.  It is not likely that the Lord is saying that Christians will do things that are of greater cosmic or theological significance than His work.  How could we exceed the work He has done? In this same discourse, He clearly teaches that we cannot do anything at all without Him (John 15:5).

Actually, the Lord explains here what He means when He says “because I go to the Father.” His entire lifetime on earth was scarcely over three decades in length. His public ministry lasted for about three years and was geographically limited to Palestine. But for two millennia, His church has been expanding her mission around theclothed-in-christ world; and this is because He went to the Father, and the Father sent the Spirit to indwell and empower His people.

Still, we must notice that the Lord does not say the church will do greater things, but that the individual who believes in Him will do greater things. Even so, we can see that the individual believer does more and other things than those done by the Lord Himself. This is no insult to the Lord or His work. He simply never intended to do all the kingdom ministry Himself. In fact, the vast majority of the work of God’s kingdom throughout history will not be done directly by the Lord Jesus Himself. It will be done by Him through His church. And that means it will be done by individual believers.

There is a good picture in Scripture to show us this relationship between the church and the individual believer in doing the greater works of Jesus. To the church at Colossae, the apostle Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Col. 1:24).  That is a crazy statement. It almost sounds like a man with a Messiah-complex. There turns out to be something missing in Jesus’ work on the cross (His “afflictions”)?… And Paul is going to pick up the slack?!  Well, actually, Paul says that what he is doing is on behalf of the church, not on behalf of Christ. In other words, it is his share in what the church is doing in making up the gap.

But why is there a gap at all? Again, it is not that anything was found wanting in the work of our Lord’s sufferings. It was God’s intention all along to accomplish the vast majority of this work through believing individuals. One major image of suffering in the Hebrew Scriptures—and therefore, something that must be borne by the shoulders of the Messiah—is that of the captive pining away in captivity. But other than His arrest and incarceration the night before he died, the Lord Jesus never directly suffered the plight of the prisoner. That particular piece of His afflictions, he left to Paul and others. Yet clearly, it is not Paul in himself who makes up these afflictions, but Christ in Paul who finishes His work in the story of the church.

On the road to Damascus, the Lord referred to Paul’s (then Saul’s) persecution of the church as persecution done to Him personally: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). When the Lord then tells Ananias to be ready to receive Saul, Ananias objects on the grounds that Paul is a persecutor of the church. Part of the Lord’s response is to say, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (v. 16). In other words, he will show Paul how, as part of the church he once persecuted, he will get to participate in His Lord’s own redemptive afflictions, filling up his part of the great works of Christ which God had planned and prepared beforehand.

In this way, every believer has a share in “filling up” the rest of the Lord’s work—yes, even His afflictions, for there is a cross-shaped costliness to every good thing we do in and for our Lord. The apostle John says that we all have an anointing from the Holy One (I Jhn. 2:20,27). There is a day coming when The Book of the Life of the Lamb will be opened, and our stories will be read from it (Rev. 20:12,15). The stories in which we do the “greater” (read: ‘more’ and ‘other’) things that our Lord has done through us by His Spirit. This is His life, after all (Gal. 2:20).

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God of the Disempowered

In a theology class I am currently taking, I have been given the task of writing a Scripture Meditation on I Corinthians 1:18-31.  I thought I would put it here as well:

Here in the Portland area, we have a housing crisis that is growing worse and worse all the time.  Homeless camps are strewn all over the city.  Many people who used to be homeowners are now living in small apartments.  Many people who used to live in small apartments are now living with relatives or in hovels that look like something from Calcutta.

The “strong” and “wise” make a lot of sounds of concern about it, but frankly, I am rather skeptical.  Around here, civic leaders allow big-money investors to buy up properties so that ordinary families cannot afford to ‘compete’ for a house.  They also engage in this thing called “gentrification,” going into poor neighborhoods and slowly (actually, pretty quickly) buying properties, ‘upgrading’ them, jacking up rents and real values, and erecting a New Seasons and other hip, trendy shops.  The poor of the neighborhood are squeezed out to go settle in other areas.  And each time, a certain number end up without a chair when the music stops.

What does this have to do with I Corinthians 1:18-31?
Right in the middle of this passage, Paul reminds the Corinthians that among them there were “not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many of the gentry” (v. 26).  No kidding.  The word is eugenēs, which means something like “well-born”—literally, ‘generated well.’  Most translations render it either with “of noble birth” or simply “noble.”  “Gentrified” would certainly be a good translation.  Two verses later, Paul writes “and the non-gentrified and the despised God has chosen” (v. 28).  The word here is agenēs (note the a of negation).

I Corinthians 1:18-31 is one of my very favorite passages in all of Scripture.  It seems somehow fitting to be meditating on it on this election day, when the “wise” and “strong” and “noble” are vying for votes from people who believe the message of the powers that their best shot at having a “voice” or any significance is participation in the electoral process—a very different message from the “foolish” one preached by Paul.

The Bible says God is with the poor, the weak, the foolish, the uncool.  This is not just an interesting side note, but is in fact central to the gospel.  The very means of salvation that God has provided in the cross of His Son is foolishness in the eyes of the rich, strong, wise and cool.  In Luke 6, the Lord turns His gaze to His disciples and says, “Blessed are you who are poor,… hungry,… crying,… ostracized.”  Then to the same disciples He says, “Woe to you who are rich,… well-fed,… laughing,… accepted.”

Lord Jesus, forgive me for the times and ways in which I forget this and think that it is somehow my wisdom or power or machinations which get me through this life.  Open my eyes to Your right-side-up kingdom and let me be a fool who fits there, not among the wise of this world.  Thank you, Father, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.  Let me be among the latter.  In the name of Him who became our wisdom from heaven, Amen.

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‘I Can Be a Gibbor’ — Book Review

Recently, I ordered a very important book for my research in Geberology.  It arrived yesterday.  It is a book written by Sara Blau and published by Judaica Press.  It is titled I Can Be a Gibbor.

i-can-be-a-gibbor-front-coverOn the copyright page, we see Dovy, the first character in the book, with a red gimel on his chest.  This is for gibbor, “mighty one,” the word translated as the adjective “strong” in the message next to Dovy.  i-can-be-a-gibbor-copyrightThis message is somewhat mysterious to me.  It may be composed of some modern mix of Hebrew and Yiddish or something.  Near as I can tell, the word Hakoveish which is translated “one who overcomes” would literally be something like “the quenching man.”  And the phrase Yetzer Hara in the translation—itself a recasting of the Hebrew, rather than a translation—would mean something like “form of evil.”  So the answer to the question who is a gibbor? is “the man who quenches his form of evil.”  In other words, if you want to be a mighty person, you must conquer your own sin.

Even if this is not quite the right understanding of the message on the copyright page, it is certainly unmistakable as the message of the book.  Just after the copyright page, there is a full page note from Perl Abramovitz, who is apparently a noted parenting lecturer and coach.i-can-be-a-gibbor-for-parentsFinally, we get into the book proper where we meet four kids, Dovy, Dina, Benny and Bina.  Each of them comes up against an ordinary, everyday difficulty.  Dovy is tempted to get angry when his little brother breaks his brand new RC car.  Dina is tempted to brag about having more toys than her friend.  Benny is tempted to eat snacks that are reserved just for Shabbos (the Sabbath).  And Bina is tempted to be lazy and put off her chores.  Each hears two voices in his or her head arguing over what to do.  And each chooses to do the right thing.  Each chooses to be a gibbor.

Here is Dovy’s story:i-can-be-a-gibbor-p-3i-can-be-a-gibbor-p-4i-can-be-a-gibbor-p-5i-can-be-a-gibbor-p-6i-can-be-a-gibbor-p-7

i-can-be-a-gibbor-p-8

Since Jewish people will not use the name of God, one of the traditions that has formed over time is that of simply referring to Him as “the Name”—or in Hebrew, Hashem.

The book wraps up with a call to every boy and girl reader:i-can-be-a-gibbor-p-23And at the very, very end, there is a page for parents to photocopy so that they can praise their kids with special notes of recognition whenever they have been strong.

i-can-be-a-gibbor-notesWell…

If there was any real doubt as to whether Judaism is a religion of works righteousness and striving under law, I’d have to say that, to the degree that this children’s book is an accurate representation of that faith, the matter is settled.

The message here is clear:  Good = strong, and strong = good.

The book is right to bring the question of goodness and strength down into the ordinary moments of everyday life.  The question is not just important on an actual field of battle.  In fact, it is actually more important in the way we live each day before God interacting with other people made in His image.

But what happens when we take this book’s understanding of gibbor to a reading of Scripture?  It would have to mean that when characters like Saul and David do the right thing, they are strong.  When they do the wrong thing, they are not strong.  When they do good, they are gibborim.  When they sin, they are not gibborim.  Is this the Bible’s image of the gibbor?

Sara Blau and the folks at Judaica Press are not likely reading the New Testament.  Thus, they are not thinking of Paul’s view of strength in his Corinthian letters.  But one wonders whether their Bibles might also be missing these Scriptures:

“The bows of the gibborim are shattered, but the feeble gird on strength.”
— I Samuel 2:4

“Your beauty, O Israel, is slain on your high places!  How have the gibborim fallen!”
— II Samuel 1:19

“Thus says Hashem, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the gibbor boast of his gevurah…”
— Jeremiah 9:23

Of course, this is a children’s book, and it is understandably simple.  But there is a difference between simple, which is appropriate for children, and simplistic, which is appropriate for no one.  Does God’s word ever describe his people as rightly being strong?  Is it ever good that someone is called a gibbor in the Bible?  Yes.  To say otherwise would be to oversimplify things in the other direction.

The real problem, of course, is not that this book oversimplifies the biblical testimony about the idea of the gibbor.  It is that, in doing so, it sets us up for a life of seeking righteousness through our own strength.  That is deadly.

 

 

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The Powers Before the Fall

EWTRTW- T for FWhen I was quite a bit younger, I would sometimes have all-night Risk battles with my cousins and others.  There was so much competition and jostling around for superlativity of one kind or another among us that it seemed natural to play a game the object of which was to dominate the world.  Looking back now, it strikes me as… interesting.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I’d still love to play nowadays, if I could just find the time.)

God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it…”
—  Genesis 1:28

Reading Genesis 1 again, I am struck by the apparent fact that–not just rulership–but active subjugation of the earth is part of the pre-fallen plan of God for humanity in the world.  “Fill the earth and subdue it,” He says, among His first recorded words to humans.

The word translated “subdue” in 1:28 is kabash (pronounced kah-VAHSH).  This is one of only 14 occurrences of it in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It denotes a bringing of someone or something into submission by treading them/it down (e.g. what the Lord does to our sins in Micah 7:19).  In Numbers and Joshua, kabash is used in reference to Israel subduing the land and its former occupants.

At the very end of his life in Chronicles, David gives a parting speech to Israel in which he says, “Is not YHWH your God with you?  And has He not given you rest on every side?  For He has given the inhabitants of the land into my hand, and the land is subdued (kabash) before YHWH and before His people” (I Chr. 22:18).  So the activity envisioned by users of the word kabash seems to imply, if not resistance from that which is subdued, certainly a wresting of autonomy from it.

Does this mean that in the pre-fall world, human beings were expected to grab creation by the horns and wrestle it into submission?  Is this something like bronco-busting?  Something like the way the big blue people in the Avatar movie (not Airbender) have to conquer their flying beasts who then become loyal steeds ever after?

Certainly this cannot be the same thing as the irksome and laborious post-fall struggle humans will have with ground that responds to their gardening efforts by yielding thorns and thistles.  No, but it definitely seems to entail some sort of forceful assertion and exercise of power.

For the past several years, I have been increasingly interested in a theological focus called Exousiology (by some).  It is the study of the powers.  It is concerned with understanding just what it is to which Paul and the other biblical authors are referring when they speak about the “powers,” “principalities,” “rulers,” “dominions,” authorities,” etc.  It is, in my view, a woefully neglected piece of our theologies.  What scanty attention the powers do get is usually little more than as part of Angelology or its subtopic, Demonology.

Upon investigation, it turns out that—the angelic and demonic participations notwithstanding—the powers have much to do with humanity, that is, with human culture and society.  They are the structures of power which now tend to dominate the world and us who live in it.  They were conquered by our Lord in His crucifixion (Col 2:14-15), but like the demonic forces who work through them, they are not yet fully acknowledging that they have been kabashed.
A major aspect of the church’s mission in the world is to relate rightly to these powers as long as we are here.  We are to submit to them (which is not at all the same thing as saying we are to obey).  That is, we are to openly recognize their existence as the powers that have been ordered by God.  But we are also to insist respectfully that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ is, in fact, their sovereign Lord.  Generally, the powers that be do not appreciate being told this, and so we find that the church is a persecuted minority in the world (or should be).

Most presentations of a biblical theology of the powers (e.g. see The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder) begin with the observations that (1) the powers were created by God for good, and (2) they have now risen in rebellion against Him and dominate humanity rather than serve us.  This second truth is what people are expressing when they say, “You can’t fight City Hall” or when they dolefully sigh “It is what it is.”

But what of the first one?  Where in the Bible might we get the idea that the power structures of this world, which now dominate us, were originally intended by God for the good of humanity?  Right here in Genesis 1.  In fact, God saw that the whole thing he had made was “very good” (1:31).  That includes the enterprise of human subduing of the world.  It was meant to be good.

Then sin entered the picture.  God’s words to the fallen couple in chapter 3 are not that they will now have to work the ground and bear children.  Rather, He tells them that these activities will now involve painful labor.  If that is so, then we are no doubt right to see the same kind of negative effect apply to their filling the earth and kabashing it.  Now, instead of taking shape in structures of shalom, justice and righteousness, human efforts at the formation of society and culture will result in complication, oppression and skillful wickedness.

Indeed, God informs Adam and Eve that it will begin right in the midst of their marriage in a struggle for dominance.  And in the next chapter, it is already moving at full speed as Cain and his descendants develop urbanity and culture in ways that are almost hellish.

Since then, not much has changed–at least not for the better.
Makes me long for the coming of the New Jerusalem.
Maranatha!

Posted in Angelology, Biblical Hebrew/Greek, Christus Victor, Exousiology, Genesis, Politics, Theology, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Excuse Me, but Your Glory-ing is Showing

As I write this, the world is in the middle of a giant display of the might of the gibborim.  The contests of what are presumed to be the mightiest of the mighty men and women in the world of sports are underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Cover of J. Williams Olympic CDI hear the blood-pounding Olympic Fanfare composed by John Williams, and I cannot help but feel the exultant spirit of the Games.  (Interestingly, the longer piece Williams composed for the 1996 games in Atlanta —I think, for the parade of the athletes during the opening ceremonies—is called “Summon the Heroes.”  Most likely, you’ve heard it many times, even if you don’t recognize the title.  Here it is, if you want to see for yourself.)

A couple of nights ago at the current games in Rio, American Olympic divers, David Boudia and Steele Johnson did amazingly well in Men’s Synchronized Platform Diving.

Boudia and Steele with Silver

Between the moment of realization that they had won silver medals and the moment they were interviewed by NBC, the camera showed them huddling—and obviously praying—with their coach.  Then, in the interview, both young men boldly and clearly expressed something wonderful.  I don’t have the exact words they used, but they each said something pretty close to this:  ‘Yeah, winning the medal is great, but our identity is not in diving.  It’s in Christ.  We knew going into this that, whatever the outcome, God is good.  We are so thankful for the opportunity to come here and do this for Him.’

On primetime network television…  Wow.

Contrast this with the exhibition of the most decorated Olympic athlete in the 120-year history of the modern games as he won his 20th gold medal.  At the end of the race, Michael Phelps stood in the water, enjoying the ebullient cheers of the crowd.  Looking right and left up at them, he raised his arms and signaled with his hands, gesturing as if to say, “Yes, that’s right!  Keep it coming!  Praise me!  Worship me!”  Michael Phelps receives praise for 20th goldOkay, that may be overstated.  I do not know just what was in Phelps’ mind and heart at that moment, but it would seem difficult to interpret his actions as conveying a message of anything like humility or gratitude.

 

It reminds me of Muhammed Ali’s “I’m the Greates’!”

All of this provides a good opportunity to review once again the Bible’s teaching on the phenomenon of glory-ing.  The Scriptures are replete with messages about “boasting.”  Oddly, the Bible does not prohibit it.  In fact, it encourages it.

If that sounds strange, it is probably because we are used to thinking of ‘boast’ as a synonym of ‘brag.’  But that is not how the Bible uses the word.

In the New Testament, the noun kauchēma and other words in its family form the main vocabulary of boasting.  The verb form means something like “glory in.”  It is exactly what we see happening when an athlete scores a winning goal and celebrates by running around screaming and fist-pumping.  And so, rather than telling us not to do it at all, the Scriptures teach us that we must glory in the right things.

This means, at least, boasting or glorying in God.  But it seems that other good things, things having to do with our enjoyment of God and the work he has given us, are rightly to be gloried in.  For example, the apostle Paul writes to the Christians at Thessalonica that they themselves will be his boast (kauchēsis) in the presence of the Lord at his coming (I Thess. 2:19)!

The Hebrew Scriptures treat it the same way:  “Thus says YHWH, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the YHWH who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares YHWH” (Jer. 9:23-24).

Just as in the NT, the word translated “boast” here means something like “glory in.”  What makes you jump up and down and celebrate, pumping your fist and yelling, “Yes! Yes! YES!!”?  Is it the achievements you make with what I call the “Three M’s” (mind, muscle and money)?  Or is it that you know the God of love and justice?

Oddly enough, the verb “boast” here in Jeremiah 9 is halal.  It is intransitive here and so it is followed each time by a preposition: “of” or, better “in” (boast in wisdom, etc.).  Throughout much of the book of Psalms it is transitive and is rightly translated “praise.”  In fact, it is often written in an imperative form—hallelu—with its direct object attached; that object is the short form of God’s name, Yah.  This is “Hallelu-jah!”

Like the over all biblical teaching about heroism that we want to explore here at “Geberology,” the Bible’s teaching about boasting is not as simple as one might expect upon first considering it.  Just as we must ask whether and how we may rightly have (and maybe be?) human heroes, we need to ask how to be good boasters.  Was it right of me to go to a Bengal game in Seattle a few years ago and get a bunch of Bengal signatures on my tiger-striped hardhat?  Should Christian young people be encouraged to see David Boudia and Steele Johnson as heroes?  Is it wrong of me to refer to, say, Richard Sibbes as one of my heroes in the faith?  Or is there a sense in which such things are appropriate?

Well… it’s complicated.
And so is a biblical theology of boasting.

In the Corinthian letters alone, Paul develops a very complex theology of boasting.  It is foolishness, and he literally mocks the Corinthians for it (I Cor. 4:6-10).  But by the end of the second letter, he finds it necessary to do a little boasting himself and says it’s necessary (II Cor. 12:1) and, at least once, says it isn’t foolish, because it’s the truth (v. 6)!

Ahhh!…  But we must read carefully!

Paul says, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me! (II Cor. 12:9)”

In another NBC interview, one that was prior to the winning of the silver, Boudia and Steele were asked about the excitement of participating in this Olympiad.  “We can’t take the credit for this,” said Boudia.  “To God be the glory.”

I think… the apostle Paul would approve.

Posted in American Life, Athletics, Biblical Hebrew/Greek, Gibborim, Theology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment