Monday, April 5, 2010

project 4:4: the prodigal weeks, week 9

Remember Project 4:4?  In the good old days before Lost obsession and packing and moving and illness and basic inadequacy encroached? Before I let myself get crazy behind?  I remember with equal measures of fondness and guilt.  When I was finally back at PV for an entire normal Sunday today, I felt keenly how behind I was and how much I missed being a part of this shared experience of daily Bible reading.  And for once, in my guilt-ridden blog existence, I did some work on fixing it instead of just lamenting it.  Tonight I made seven days' progress in the reading and now present a week's worth of my reflections, which should have been posted here sometime on or near March 7th.  I'm officially less than a month behind now.  Excuse me while I do a bit of unattractive gloating.

Six days worth of reading, portions of which I had read or skimmed back when I was mostly on schedule, brought me to the end of the law, so I anticipate that the upcoming conquests will read a bit more quickly (and with less reluctance) than those last weeks of February.

And because I'm out of practice and because I made several randomish notes as I was reading, I expect this post will wind and twist and suffer from a lack of transition, but such is the nature of things around here.

It's interesting to me that God condones slavery.  I know we're still in this era where the Hebrews are His people and everyone else is fair game for punishment or destruction, and I'm probably just being all 21st century again as I read this and feel appalled that owning another person is ever okay.  I know He hands down some mandates about treatment that should perhaps prevent some abuse, but it seems like after the whole slaves in Egypt mess, it's an institution that we're better off avoiding.  On the other hand, without these passages about foreign slaves and Hebrew servants who choose a lifetime of service rather than release, we wouldn't have the song "Pierce My Ear" and its image about choosing a life of commitment and service.  Still it's tricky.

So though the practice of slavery seems more than a bit morally questionable to me, regardless of context, I do have unreserved enthusiasm for the passages from this week's readings regarding the treatment of the poor and vulnerable, the suffering, the disenfranchised.  Today I caught the tail-end of a conversation that Mac and Shane and maybe Robyn were having about the seven-year release of servants and forgiveness of debts and maybe the Year of Jubilee (I've really got to start listening better, especially if I'm going to try and blog about it later).  They were talking (I think) about how the system wasn't meant to promote wealth but to preserve family and foster generosity and de-emphasize that human tendency to pursue getting ahead at the expense of others.  And if I hadn't been holding down two other conversations at the same time, I would have joined in.  Instead I just silently agreed and felt a little amused that thanks to daily Bible reading and Mac's teaching OT Survey this semester, we're all Mosaic Law scholars these days. 

Week nine's readings also cover the some health regulations and the dietary laws, both of which made me glad to be living in my world instead of theirs.  I like modern medicine and disease prevention that can go beyond just hand-washing (though in the absence of modern medicine, hand-washing was a wise command).  I also like bacon and shrimp and probably a few more unclean foods.

One entire day's reading was devoted to a description of the blessings that were Israel's to enjoy as long as they kept the covenant and of the curses that awaited them if they broke faith with God.  To read those curses and know that some very specific promises regarding exile and hardship would come to fruition for those Hebrews was a sobering reminder that disobedience carries stiff penalty.  One contrast that struck me in this reading was the difference between this Deuteronomic theology (this term brought to you by Harding University and a bunch of educational debt) that says if you do good and follow God you can expect only good things and the seemingly more democratic description of God's dealings with man that we see in NT passages like Matthew 5:45  " . . .He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."  Admittedly, in the OT model, there's no reason for bad things to happen to good people, no explanation for misfortune or suffering other than sin or disobedience.  It's the sort of system that has Job's friends questioning what he had done to cause such a severe punishment from God and the disciples asking Jesus whether a blind man or his parents sinned and caused the blindness.  I'm sure it's mostly the lateness of the hour talking here, but it's another one of those moments when OT God and NT God seem like two different deities, and I struggle with the "unchanging" part of His nature.  I know I'll work through that and feel all right about it later, but I'm kinda counting on Mac to come through with some wisdom for me--or to tell me that I'm being obnoxious. 

And so you, dear imaginary readers, don't think I'm a complete heretic, let me relay the following anecdote.  When I read Exodus 22:22 with its warning to take care in the treatment of widows and orphans, I immediately thought of that gem from James 1:27 that declares looking after widows and orphans to be pure and faultless religion.  And I felt comfortable in God's unchanging nature, in a way that I'm sure He intended.

And now, friends, I leave you to your thoughts and reflections (and, I hope, comments).  I also hope the remaining 4:4 posts representing my lost weekend are forthcoming.  Feel free to harass me about them as needed.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mac, please explain the problem of unjust suffering and also the problem of unjust rewards as it relates to the Deuteronomistic system of blessings and curses. No pressure.

    The short answer is that while the OT does contain a number of passages which lay out some version of retribution theology (sort of like Jewish Karma but with God as the source rather than some impersonal force), much of it does not. You alluded to Job earlier which addresses the matter head-on, but there are passages in the Torah, the historical books, the Psalms, and the prophets that all seek to add nuance or offer a different perspective on the issue. Here are a couple:
    1. The whole notion of God covenanting with fallible humans. From his unconditional promise not to destroy creation again no matter what to his promise that David's line would reign in perpetuity regardless of their sinfulness, God's covenants defy the notion that blessings are only given to the good and curses only to the evil. God will have mercy on those whom he will have mercy and he will punish those whom he will punish.

    2. The doctrine of Israel's election itself is a strong anti-retribution teaching. God tells Israel (in Deuteronomy no less) that he did not choose them because they were strong or good or righteous. He chose them because of he had "set his heart upon your fathers."

    Another important point to make here is that retribution theology isn't entirely wrong. In one sense the NT with its teachings about Heaven and Hell actually presents it as more fundamental, eternal truth than the OT ever did. Additionally, you've got stuff in the NT about God making the sun to rise on the just and the unjust, but you've also got him striking folks dead when they lie or sending worms to eat them if they make prideful boasts about their power in Acts. There are lots of things in this world and the next where "what goes around, comes around" is a pretty fair maxim. There are lots of other times when it isn't applicable. I think that Scripture presents that tension in both testaments. Certainly there's more attention given to retribution theology overall than other ideas, but I think a lot of that is because the suffering that comes as a result of our sin and bad behavior is the only suffering that we have the power to deal with. So God gives us lots of encouragement and incentive to "choose life rather than death" but He doesn't ignore the fact that all suffering doesn't fit into that nice little box.

    More later on slavery. Love the post.


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