Blogging Old Testament Style – God

This last blog will focus on the topic of God. God? This was the last theme of the class. The question was, what do we learn about God by reading through the Old Testament? As I started this process, I have to admit that my exposure to the Old Testament was limited. I hadn’t heard too many sermons or had done that many bible studies on the Old Testament. Even when I had exposure to the Old Testament, it was usually the same few texts whether it was the story of the creation/fall, the exodus/Moses, David, Jonah, and Esther. Why don’t we have more exposure to the stories that confuse or scare us? What about the story in Exodus 4 where God wants to kill Moses and his wife has to circumcise their son to save him? What about God’s call to Joshua to wipe out whole nations as they take over the Promised Land? What about the sexual assault on women like Tamar and Dinah? What about the tribe of Benjamin who are allowed to  abduct the women of a neighboring tribe as their wives in Judges 21? What about Moses “changing” the mind of God in Exodus 32?

There are many more questions we can ask about the Old Testament. Comedian Bill Maher has stated that the story of Noah shows God as a “psychotic mass murderer”. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens along with other members of the New Atheism movement have attacked God as a petulant and patriarchal deity who arbitrarily kills humans as he pleases based on the Old Testament. Of course, I would vehemently disagree with this assessment and I won’t go into detail about why I think their views are wrong and skewed. However, if I’m honest, there are ways I can see how other people could perceive God in not so nice terms based on reading certain parts of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is raw. It doesn’t hold back. But that’s what I love about it. It’s not sanitized. It’s not trying to gloss over the difficult stuff. It’s all there for all of us to see. However, people tend to neglect God’s grace and love that is also sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. He repeats this mantra of “you are my people and I am your God”. Even though the people of Israel keep breaking their covenant with God, God is still with them. God still loves them.

Sometimes we as Christians can be Marcionites or people who want to get rid of the Old Testament. We all relate to the language of love and grace in the New Testament. However, we may subconsciously dismiss the Old Testament because it shows God’s anger and wrath. We’d rather deal with grace rather than judgment. However, there is a language of grace in the Old Testament and a language of judgment in the New Testament. Also, as Christians we must believe that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. Scripture gives us a wholistic picture of God. We can’t pick and choose which parts we like and don’t like. Moreover, you can’t understand the New Testament without knowing the Old Testament. There are so many Old Testament references by Jesus and Paul that what they talk about won’t be comprehensible without referring back to the Old Testament. The Old Testament is a beautiful yet challenging text. There are still so many questions I still don’t have answers to. Yet, I still believe in the goodness of God. There is nothing else I can hold onto but to the hope that is given to us by God.

Blogging Old Testament Style – Wisdom

This blog post will deal with the topic of wisdom. Wisdom is a broad topic. Wikipedia defines wisdom as “the ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight”. The Old Testament includes a section called “Wisdom literature”. This includes the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Sometimes this section feels out of place from the rest of the Old Testament. However, they provide important insight into how to live a good life.

Proverbs is a practical and optimistic text. It offers helpful advice on how to make good choices in your life. Proverbs shows us that life is not about just one decision but a lifetime of choices that we make. If we make good choices throughout our life, we will be able to live a fruitful life. We have the freedom to choose wisdom or folly.

Ecclesiastes is much more somber. The author of this book, Quoheleth, laments that so many things we think are worthy of our attention are meaningless. Whether it’s wealth, hard work, and wisdom, all those things are meaningless. Whether we are good or evil, we will all meet the same fate in the form of death at the end of our lives. Even though this text is somber, it also does a great job of showing us that the idols of this world will never lead to anything meaningful in our lives. God is the only thing that lasts and brings meaning.

Job is a difficult book to read. It’s a story of a faithful follower of God who loses everything in his life that is important to him. Before all this happens, “the satan” tells God that Job is only faithful because God has blessed him. To prove “the satan” wrong, God allows “the satan” to take away all that Job has. At first glance, it seems cruel for God to let this happen to Joel. Why would God do this just to make a point to “the satan”? This brings up the concept of “disinterested righteousness”. Can we pursue righteousness without expecting any sort of reward? I wonder if we subconsciously expect God’s blessing just for doing what we’re supposed to do as Christians. Job through a painful process debates his friends and at the end he comes to the conclusion that God is still worthy to be praised. God blesses Job twofold at the end.

Why do we pursue wisdom? Because it’s God’s gift to us. We should pursue the knowledge that will help us live a righteous life that is pleasing to God. Wisdom is usually not talked about much in our sermons. It isn’t talked about in our bible studies. However, wisdom is such a key to living a life of discipleship. We need to listen to God’s words of life so that we may live a meaningful life and not be tempted to follow the fool’s gold that the world has to offer.

Blogging Old Testament Style – Jerusalem: Temple, Hope, Messiah

This blog post will deal with the topic of Jerusalem: temple, hope, and messiah. During the time of David, he captures Jerusalem and from then on it becomes the capital of Israel. Solomon builds the temple during his reign. The temple was symbolically the place that God could dwell. However, through the disobedience of the people of Israel, its enemies come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Symbolically, this had a devastating effect on the psyche of the people. This becomes a source of shame and loss of identity. They do have an opportunity to return and rebuild the temple through Ezra. However, the temple was never as great as it was in the time of Solomon.

However, even in the midst of their exile, the people of Israel find hope in a messiah. Their hope came in a future king or high priest who would save them from their enemies and restore Israel. This messiah would come and free them from their subjugation to foreign kings and powers. This was the hope they had in the midst of their despair. Isaiah 11 describes a future messiah coming from the “branch of Jesse”. He will be the one who brings about justice on the earth. He will bring enemies together as “the wolf will live with the lamb”. In Jeremiah 31, God promises hope for their descendants. All may seem lost now. However, there will be a time when the people of Israel will rise up and praise the Lord for all his great deeds.

Of course as we know from the New Testament, Jesus comes as the messiah. However, he does not bring a political solution to the plight of the Jews. The Jews are expecting someone who will save them from their colonization from the Romans. Jesus brings a solution that is radically different. The hope of Israel comes through the body and life of Jesus. The locus of worship goes from the temple to Jesus. Isaiah predicted that the suffering servant would be rejected and killed through his “servant songs”.  So the fate of the messiah was foretold.

What are the places we need the hope of a messiah? Where does our hope come from in times of deep despair? How do my expectations of restoration and rescue differ from what God has in store for me? There have been times in my life when I thought restoration would come in a specific way and I would be disappointed when it didn’t happen that way. God why can’t you just change my father? God why didn’t you heal the thorn on my side instantaneously? God why am I still anxious? God why am I still lonely? In these times, it’s good for me to come back to God and submit all my hopes to him. I must be OK with God working in his mysterious way and not having him resolve my pain and my problems in the way that is the easiest for me. I must put my hope in the Lord who is the only one I can turn to and who I know has in the past and is in the present and will be in the future bringing restoration to my life. That sort of hope is truly good news.

Blogging Old Testament Style – Justice

This blog post will focus on the topic of justice. Justice is a large topic. However, it is sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. I look at the injustice set against the Hebrews by Egypt. Pharoah commits genocide against the Hebrews by ordering the killing of their male babies. However, there’s a story in Exodus 1:15-21 about midwives who covertly disobey the pharaoh’s orders. Shiphrah and Puah lie to the pharaoh and are later rewarded by God for their courage. These midwives disobey the orders of the most powerful person in their corner of the world. I love how these women take matters into their own hands and use their agency to save the lives of so many babies.

Contrast this with Moses, who responds to injustice in a different way. Moses sees the injustice of one of a fellow Hebrew slave being whipped mercilessly by an Egypt overseer. His first response is to use violence and kill the overseer. Even though we can all understand how Moses feels, his form of vigilante violence only begot more violence and fear. Moses ended up running away and actually made things worse for the Hebrew slaves. In an earlier blog post, I discussed the revenge killing of Simeon and Levi. They took justice into their own hands. God nor their father affirmed their actions. Justice belongs to God and not to humans. Violence is never the proper response to injustice. This is complicated because some would say God uses violence to respond to injustice. I think in theory this all makes sense. How does this work in the real world? I can’t speak for deeply oppressed people around the world who have no hope for any transformative recourse. I have privileges that they don’t have. God is the true purveyor of justice and I must discern the ways I can be the hands and feet of God in the work for justice in this world.

Earlier I also mentioned the laws of Israel that mandated justice for the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. God through his laws has thoroughly made it clear that he has a strong sense of looking after the oppressed and marginalized. However, Israel starts to be disobedient to God’s call for justice. They oppress the poor and the downtrodden. As they do this, prophets come and rebuke them for their life of injustice which is contrary to God’s will. Jeremiah calls for Israel to come back to God and that destruction is coming their way. Amos emphatically calls out the people of Israel for the ways they have oppressed the marginalized and have become perpetrators of injustice. This theme of living out justice is important for God. He is calling his chosen people to live out in such a way that is an example to other nations. However, this did not materialize. Eventually, these oracles and prophecies against Israel came true and they would lose their land to their enemies.

We read an article in class by Jewish scholar Jon Levenson. He critiques George Pixley and other liberation theologists who see the story of the exodus as a story of human freedom. Levenson critiques our modern notions of freedom and asserts that when the Israelites are freed from Egypt, they are not free in the sense that we think about it. The Israelites are free to be slaves of God. Their freedom is living in the will and plans of Yahweh. That is a very different concept of liberation. We may look at some of these Old Testament stories as stories of justice. However, we may need to examine our modern eyes to see if we are missing the true cultural context of the people of Israel. God’s justice in the Old Testament may look different from our Englightenment influenced definitions of justice and freedom.

Blogging Old Testament Style – Land, Exile, Return

This blog post will be on the topic of land, exile, and return. The concept of land was extremely important to the identity of Israel. They were a people who were landless while they were enslaved in Egypt and also  as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Generations of Hebrews lived as people without a homeland. Even in our world today, there are people groups without a homeland. You look at the situation with the Palestinians in Israel, the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, and the Uyghurs in China. These are people still fighting for their right to have a piece of land to call their own. So much of a culture’s identity is connected to a physical homeland. That is why people are willing to fight and lose their lives over it. The Israelites roamed around without a homeland. God was forming their identity during the exile. However, throughout the process, he promised them a place to call home. My parents are immigrants from South Korea. There is a sense of loss because their homeland is divided between North and South because of the geopolitics of the Cold War. There is a sense of division and separation that affects the culture and there is a sense of longing for the day when there will be a unified Korea which will make the people whole.

Once the Israelites gained a homeland, God gave them specific rules about how to take care of it. The land was not their’s. The land belonged to God. The Israelites were tenants who would steward the land. In the year of Jubilee, which occurred every 5o years, the fields would be returned to its original owners. The land was not earned by the Israelites. They had to prove that they were worthy of God’s land. This would lead them to become generous and hospitable to their neighbors. The land was a gift from God. Every seven years, the land would also get a Sabbath as nothing new would be planted. Israel had a special relationship with the land. The land was there’s to take care of as something generously given to them by God. This idea of land has implications for us today. We are also called to be responsible stewards of the land that we have been given to take care of. That’s why ecological discipleship is not just optional but truly necessary. This is where the writings of Wendell Berry and Howard Snyder are helpful. They have connected how the Israelites were called to take care of their land to our call today to be stewards of the land and the environment. The earth belongs to God and we are mandated to take care of it.

However, the Israelites continue to disobey God and eventually lose their land to foreign colonizers. They are conquered and exiled to foreign lands in Babylon. They lose their identity as they lose their land. However, God has not forgotten them. Ezekiel has his vision of God bringing life to dry bones in chapter 37. God promises the house of Israel that they will return to their land. Even though Israel has lost all hope, God promises restoration and redemption. Eventually, they are allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem through Ezra and later with Nehemiah. Even though the temple is not as great as it was back in the time of Solomon, it was still an important event for them to get a glimpse of their homeland again. Throughout the exile, God promises that they will return to their land. Unfortunately, the Jews would continued to be colonized later by the Greeks and Romans. Jesus would come and transform the locus of their homeland from a physical place to the life and body of Christ. The idea of “home” is fundamentally changed from the life of Israel in the Old Testament because of the incarnation of Christ.

Blogging Old Testament Style – Power

This blog post will be on the topic of power. My professor started her lecture with this quote about power.

“And the good ruler is precisely the one who exercises his power as it ought to be exercised, that is, simultaneously exercising his power over himself. And it is the power over oneself that thus regulates one’s power over others.”
― Michel Foucault

Israel was ruled by judges and yet they were clamoring for a king because other nations also had kings. God tells Samuel to tell the people of Israel that there would be pain and despair that would be headed there way if they were ruled by a king. What Israel was doing was rejecting God as their king. God was the one who ruled over them. However, they wanted a human king and God relented.

Saul is chosen as the first king. However, he ends up disobeying God when he does not wipe out his enemies in battle and keeps some of their bests livestock. Whether Saul was malicious or naive in his disobedience is up for debate. Eventually, God regrets choosing Saul and rejects him as king. God chooses David the son of Jacob to be the next king. Saul looks to kill David and David goes on the run. Saul would end up killing himself and David would soon become the king of Judah and eventually unite the 12 tribes of Israel under one kingship.

Israel would reach new heights under the rule of David. Through God’s favor, David would easily defeat his neighbors and expand Israel’s boundaries. However, power got to David’s head. Kings were supposed to be in battle. Yet on one occasion he decide to stay behind. This is when his eyes wandered and saw Bathsheba as she bathed. He had sex with her even though she was married to Uriah. She ends up getting pregnant and David unsuccessfully tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife to cover up the affair. He eventually gets Uriah killed by moving him up in the battle lines. Nathan comes and rebukes David and David repents. As punishment, his son dies and David changes his ways and goes back to God. Power is a tricky thing. Even the greatest people in the Bible are tempted and fall prey to it. However, prophets like Nathan played an important role as mediator from God and also a person who would keep the king accountable. All people in power need people like Nathan next to their side.

God makes a covenant with David promising that his descendants would continue to rule Israel. However, power hunger strikes again in the form of rebellion by David’s son Absalom. Absalom tries to kill his father but ends up dying. Eventually Solomon becomes king and takes Israel to even greater heights. However, Solomon also gets caught up in his power and builds a palace that is so much greater and larger in size and scope than the temple. He also adopts the ways of his foreign wives. God is angered and the kingdom of Israel eventually breaks apart between the ten Northern tribes of Israel and Judah and Benjamin in the south. The arrogance of power has led to the split of the kingdom. Power has been abused and God’s wisdom and presence has been rejected by the kings. As time would go on, Israel would have mostly disobedient kings leading to their conquest by Assyria. Eventually, Judah would follow two centuries later when it was conquered by Babylon. Judah had a series of faithful and disobedient kings. Just as God had warned, the arrogant power of the kings would lead to pain and despair.

These passages remind me that humans must be careful when they have power. We should not be scared of power. However, we need to be aware of how our power can hurt others. Power must be taken seriously and must be used with the discernment and guidance of God. So I don’t think the lesson is to run away from power. I think it takes courage to to take power and use it for good in the obedience of God’s will and plans.

Blogging Old Testament Style – History and Memory, War and Violence

The topic for this blog post is history and memory, war and violence. The Israelites are a forgetful bunch. God has been faithful to his people. He has taken them out of slavery and provided for their needs. He has led them to victory in battle. Yet, the Israelites forget what God has done and continually live in disobedience. Throughout the Old Testament there is a pattern where God leads Israel into victory in battle when they are obedient and God leaves their presence and Israel gets routed in battle when they are disobedient to God. During the time that Israel was led by judges, there were periods of war and peace dependent on whether the judge was obedient to God in his/her leadership. However, as time would go on, the judges would become more disobedient and times of peace would become shorter. God was being faithful to his part of the covenant while Israel was not and this would be the recurring theme throughout the Old Testament.

Israel had a certain way of fighting holy wars called “herem”. This would lead to the wiping out of whole people groups. In Deuteronomy 20, God commands the Israelites to completely destroy the seven nations that were occupying the Promised Land. Through “herem”, they were to completely annihilate these nations leaving no one alive. For many people, God’s call for total destruction of the enemies of Israel becomes very problematic. Why would God do this? Is God perpetrating genocide? This seems to be against what we think is good. I wrestle with the violence in the Old Testament. Maybe those nations were already evil and they are all being punished for their collective sin. Maybe God doesn’t want any of the evil of those nations to contaminate the purity and holiness of God’s chose people. I’m not totally sure. I don’t have a good answer for this. Yet, I must still believe in the goodness of God even when my sense of what is good and just are disturbed.

One place of random and disturbing violence takes place in Genesis 34. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, is raped by Shechem. Shechem’s father wants Dinah to marry his son. Dinah’s brother deceive Shechem and his family by accepting them into Jacob’s family if they would be circumcised. While the men of Shechem’s family are in pain from circumcision, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, killed every man in Shechem’s village. This passage is disturbing in many ways. First, a woman is raped and then her rapist wants to marry her. The woman is treated like property. She has no rights. Yet, her rapist has no remorse and has the audacity to ask her hand in marriage. Second, the violence perpetrated by Simeon and Levi seems extreme. Even though we can all sympathize with their anger because of the rape of their sister, their act of revenge seems so extreme. They use circumcision as a trap to slay every man in Shechem’s city. However, in this case, both Jacob and God disapprove of their actions. In Deuteronomy 49 when Jacob is dying, he curses Simeon and Levi while blessing his other sons. Even with God’s disapproval, the situation speaks to the brutal violence in the Old Testament.

So does this mean that there are just causes for war and violence? I’m not sure. The Old Testament’s violence is something I can’t always understand and fathom. God give me the understanding and grace to know you are good even when I don’t comprehend the reasons for violence in the Old Testament.