Facts Matter

 (Ingus Kruklitis / Shutterstock.com)When I was a young Christian, I remember reading, and sharing, a mimeographed sheet (in the days before the internet, that was the way that such rumors were spread) quoting Harold Hill, president of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore and consultant to NASA at the the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Mr. Hill claimed that NASA’s calculations of the location of objects in space, necessary for placing satellites and people in orbit, had revealed a lost day in time:

Finally, a Christian man on the team said, “You know, one time I was in Sunday School and they talked about the sun standing still.” While they didn’t believe him, they didn’t have an answer either, so they said, “Show us.”

He got a Bible and went back to the book of Joshua  . . . Joshua was concerned because he was surrounded by the enemy and if darkness fell they would overpower them. So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still! That’s right — “The sun stood still and the moon stayed — and hasted not to go down about a whole day!”   (Joshua 10:12-13)

The astronauts and scientists said, “There is the missing day!” They checked the computers going back into the time it was written and found it was close but not close enough. The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua’s day was 23 hours and 20 minutes — not a whole day. . . . Forty minutes had to be found because it can be multiplied many times over in orbits.

As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible where it said the sun went BACKWARDS. The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but they got out the Book and read these words in 2 Kings that told of the following story:

Hezekiah, on his deathbed, was visited by the prophet Isaiah who told him that he was not going to die.

Hezekiah asked for a sign as proof. Isaiah said “Do you want the sun to go ahead 10 degrees?” Hezekiah said “It is nothing for the sun to go ahead 10 degrees, but let the shadow return backward 10 degrees.”

Isaiah spoke to the Lord and the Lord brought the shadow ten degrees BACKWARD!

Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes! Twenty-three hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in Second Kings make the missing day in the universe!

According to the Goddard Space Flight Center, nothing like this actually happened.  While Mr. Hill was indeed president of the Curtis Engine Company, and while he was indeed employed for a short time at Goddard as an engineer, he was never a NASA consultant, and was never present when launch trajectories were being calculated.

Further, a bit of thought should have revealed the problems with this still-circulating bit of misinformation.  Why would anyone dealing with satellite trajectories need to know “the position of the sun, moon, and planets out in space where they would be 100 years and 1000 years” into the future–satellites don’t last that long!  Why would they ever need to know those positions in the distant past?  Indeed, if time was “missing,” how could that be discerned?  What evidence could possibly reveal it?

Of course, it did not occur to zealous, teen-aged me to ask such questions.  All I needed–or wanted–to know was that science had proven the Bible to be true.

Sadly, this was far from the only time that I, as a young Christian, trafficked in misinformation.  In high school, I did a science fair project “debunking” the theory of evolution, citing in particular the absence of transitional forms.  If, say, whales had developed from land animals as scientists claimed, then where were the transitional forms in the fossil record?  Why were there no fossils of whales with legs?

The answer, of course, is that there were.  Transitional forms for the evolution of whales are well documented.  However, the Fundamentalist sources I was using back then were either ignorant of that evidence, or chose to ignore or deny it–and some are still denying it.  I, on the other hand, no longer see any conflict between evolution and God’s creation of the world.  Indeed, I have written:

There is a consonance between Genesis 1, where God empowers the world to bring forth life [Gen 1:11, 20, 24], and contemporary evolutionary biology.  Biologists strive to understand the emergence and development of life in naturalistic terms, just as an engineer designing a dam or an astronomer calculating the orbit of a planet strives to make predictions based on observable, natural laws.  Genesis 1 is not biology.  Israel’s ancient priests knew nothing of DNA or mitochondria or the evolution of species.  Their description of creation proceeds from their idea of God, not from investigation into the world’s workings.  However, their insight that God empowers God’s world for self-creation, and invites its participation in its own coming into being, lends support to the biologist’s quest for understanding.


Abortion pill order latest contentious ruling by Texas judge | AP News

These cases came to my mind as I read of Texas Justice Matthew J. Kacsmaryk’s ruling on the commonly prescribed abortion drug mifepristone:

“The court does not second-guess F.D.A.’s decision-making lightly,” the judge wrote. “But here, F.D.A. acquiesced on its legitimate safety concerns — in violation of its statutory duty — based on plainly unsound reasoning and studies that did not support its conclusions. There is also evidence indicating F.D.A. faced significant political pressure to forgo its proposed safety precautions to better advance the political objective of increased ‘access’ to chemical abortion.”

The issue here, friends, is not the morality or ethics of abortion, allegedly not at issue in this case.  Justice Kacsmaryk claimed to rule, on scientific and medical grounds, not only that mifepristone is unsafe for the women taking it, but that the Food and Drug Administration and the doctors prescribing that drug have known it to be unsafe, and have pushed it anyway, for political reasons.

That claim is patently false.  More than a hundred studies of mifepristone have been performed over the past thirty years, not to mention the evidence of the many thousands of women to whom the drug has been given since the FDA approved it just over twenty years ago: “All conclude that the pills are a safe method for terminating a pregnancy.”

“There may be a political fight here, but there’s not a lot of scientific ambiguity about the safety and effectiveness of this product,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness.

It is worth noting that the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is certainly sympathetic to Justice Kacsmaryk’s views, did not uphold his ruling blocking the FDA’s approval, although “a divided three-judge panel still reduced the period of pregnancy when the drug can be taken and said it could not be dispensed by mail.” In response to the Department of Justice’s appeal, the Supreme Court has stayed that order until midnight on Wednesday April 19th, while the justices study the briefs and lower court rulings.


Whatever the outcome of this legal case, the issue I want us to consider right now is how ready many Christians are to embrace disinformation–as I was with the “lost time” legend, or concerning the fossil record.  Far too many people of faith today seem ready, even eager, to believe the worst of their adversaries (of course the FDA and the medical establishment are deliberately poisoning women!), and to embrace flimsy, even false arguments if they confirm their beliefs.

Image result for white CHristian Nationalists at Capitol

As a result, Christians–specifically white Evangelical Christians–have proven all too willing to be caught up in lies, from anti-vaxxing to “election fraud.”  In a survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center, one statement to which participants were asked to respond was, “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites”–a central claim of QAnon.  Among those who regarded that bizarre statement as mostly or completely true, 27% were white Evangelicals.  Evangelical leader Eric Metaxas has claimed, without any evidence at all, that Donald Trump won re-election “in a landslide,” calling the attempt to “steal” the election from Mr. Trump “the most horrible thing that ever happened in the history of our nation.” Indeed, Mr. Metaxas compares faith in Mr. Trump’s stolen election to faith in Christ:

It’s like somebody saying, “Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.” We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it.”


To be sure, the role of science and evidence, of proof  and facts, is limited–truth is larger than fact.  As Christian author Frederick Buechner (may light perpetual shine upon him!) wrote in Wishful Thinking,

I can’t prove the friendship of my friend. When I experience it, I don’t need to prove it. When I don’t experience it, no proof will do. If I tried to put his friendship to the test somehow, the test itself would queer the friendship I was testing. So it is with the Godness of God. . . .
Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved. I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window. I can prove that the world is round if I’m clever at that sort of thing—that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound. I cannot prove that life is better than death or love better than hate. I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful.


We are saved, not by demonstrable facts, but by faith.   However, faith does not mean, like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, “believing six impossible things before breakfast.”  Facts matter.  We cannot advance the Gospel by deception, of others or of ourselves.  I wish that I had understood that sooner.


Christe anesti!

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In the early church, when believers met one another in the holy season of Easter, they would not just say “Hello.”  Instead, they would greet one another with a hearty and enthusiastic Christe anesti–“Christ is risen!”–to which the only possible response is Allthos anesti–“He is risen indeed!”  On this boisterous, rollicking, joy-filled day, it is surely appropriate to do a bit of shouting!

In celebration of this holiest of holy days, St. John of Damascus wrote the glorious hymn below.  Have a joyous Easter, sisters and brothers and friends: Christe anesti!

Come, you faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel
into joy from sadness,
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters;
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.


’Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ has burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from the Light to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

Neither could the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal,
hold you as a mortal:
but today, among your own,
you appear, bestowing
your deep peace, which ever more
passes human knowing.

Alleluia! Now we cry
to our Lord immortal,
who, triumphant, burst the bars
of the tomb’s dark portal;
Alleluia! With the Son,
God the Father praising;
Alleluia! Yet again
to the Spirit raising.


The above translation of John of Damascus’ sixth century hymn is by John Mason Neale: likely better known for his Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas”!  I have usually sung this to St. Kevin, a tune by Arthur Sullivan.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!


Nailed to the Cross

This past Saturday I was visiting my Dad, and the two of us were sitting in his living room, having our morning devotions together.  I was reading the Palm Sunday texts for the Liturgy of the Passion on my iPhone, when suddenly, I realized that in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death, nothing is said of his being nailed to the cross!  Stunned, I did a quick search on my phone for mentions of nails in the Bible and found that nothing was said of Jesus being nailed to the cross in any of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion.

I have often said that I learn something new every time I open my Bible–that sometimes, even a familiar text will  reach out, grab me by the throat, and show me something I have never seen before.  You would think that, by now, the Bible’s unceasing newness would no longer surprise me–but it still does, every time.  Please note, friends–this does not mean that Jesus was not nailed to the cross.  But it is a reminder that what I have always assumed the text says and what it actually does say are not the same.

Our word “crucifixion” comes from the Latin words for “cross” (crux) and “fasten” (figere, from which we also derive our word “fix”).  The Romans fastened naked victims to a cross, usually with ropes, but sometimes with nails, then left them to die from pain, exhaustion, and exposure: an end that usually came only after hours, even days, of suffering.  Sometimes (as in John 19:31-37), death was speeded by breaking the legs of the crucified; the victims, no longer able to push up to relieve the pressure on their lungs and diaphragm, would soon suffocate.

The  Gospel account that comes closest to specifying how Jesus was crucified is John 20:25, where Thomas (having missed Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples), says “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”  Likely, it is this passage that leads to the universal Christian tradition that Jesus was nailed to his cross.

Outside of the Gospels, two passages may support what John’s account of the wounds on the resurrected Jesus confesses–although that evidence is uncertain.  The first is Peter’s Pentecost sermon, where he accuses the religious leaders in his audience,

In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross (Acts 2:23). 

The Greek verb prospegnumi (apparently meaning “fix, or fasten”), it must be noted, occurs in the New Testament only here, and while the NIV agrees with the CEB’s reading, many other translations do not: the ESV, the NRSVue, and even the KJV say here only that Jesus was crucified–not that the means of his crucifixion involved nails.

The second passage is Colossians 2:13-14:

When you were dead because of the things you had done wrong and because your body wasn’t circumcised, God made you alive with Christ and forgave all the things you had done wrong.  He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross.

This time, the Greek for the phrase “nailing it to the cross” is proselosas auto to stauro: a phrase used for crucifixion by a variety of writers in late antiquity, including the Greek physician Galen and the historians Diodorus Siculus and Josephus (Jewish War 2:308)–although again the use of nails is not always explicit.

The verb proseloo occurs nowhere else in the NT.  Although the BDAG lexicon proposes the translation “nail (fast),” the verb is used in 3 Maccabees 4:9-10 for deported Jews fastened into their shipboard berths with chains:

They were driven like animals, constrained by the power of iron chains. Some were fastened by the neck to the ship’s benches; some were secured by their feet with unbreakable shackles. Moreover, they were plunged into total darkness due to thick planks positioned above them so that they would receive the treatment due traitors throughout the entire voyage.

Surely, this passage is a grim reminder of the slave ships in our own nation’s history.

Slave Ship Diagram | Smithsonian OceanIt is clear from Colossians 2:14 that our debt is cancelled–put to death–on the cross; however, that this passage supports the use of nails in Jesus’ crucifixion is less clear.

We know about the Roman practice of crucifixion from contemporary accounts:

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, wrote in 40AD that the process of crucifying someone varied greatly: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in different ways: some have their victims with their head down to the ground, some impale their private parts, others stretch out their arms.”. . .

The Roman orator Cicero noted that “of all punishments, it is the most cruel and most terrifying,” and Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.”  

Ecce Homo: A day with El Greco's Christ on the Cross – Ampersand

Rome didn’t inflict this humiliating and horrifying death on thieves, or rapists, or even murderers.  It reserved  crucifixion for slaves, and for insurrectionists–those who rebelled against Roman authority.  The words posted above Jesus’ head on the cross, then, were not an epitaph, but an accusation– the accusation that brought him to the cross: “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.”

When Christians reflect on the cross, we cannot forget this obvious truth: Jesus was a political prisoner, executed by the Roman state on the charge of insurrection.  The Jews did not kill Jesus, friends– Rome did.  Or, speaking theologically rather than historically, since Jesus died for your sins and mine, we killed Jesus.  In her powerful devotional book God Is No Fool (Nashville: Abingdon, 1969), Lois A. Cheney writes:

Would we crucify Jesus today? It’s not a rhetorical question for the mind to play with.

I believe,

We are born with a body, a mind, a soul, and a handful of nails.

I believe,

When a man dies, no one has ever found any nails left,

            clutched in his hand

                        or stuffed in his pockets  (Cheney, 40-41).

"Who bears the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus?" Courtesy graphic

Thankfully, a survey of Roman Catholic Christians conducted by St. Joseph’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations in July 2022 with SurveyUSA determined that “Catholics were significantly more likely to affirm Catholic teaching regarding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.”

Nearly 70% of respondents blamed “the sins of humanity” (41.6%) or Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate (28.2%).

Even so, the scholars seemed unsettled that roughly 30% of U.S. Catholics didn’t know (9.6%), thought no one is to blame (9.6%) or openly blamed Jewish people (11%).

Given the sad resurgence of antisemitism in contemporary American politics, I wonder what a similar survey of Protestant Christians would reveal?

Although the Roman practice of crucifixion is widely attested in texts, archaeological evidence is scant.  This is because the bodies of crucifixion victims were customarily left unburied, to rot in the open and be eaten by scavengers (Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999], 89).   That is why, in John’s gospel, the religious leaders ask for a quicker death for Jesus and his fellow sufferers–not out of mercy or pity, but because unburied corpses defile the land (Deut 21:23; for Paul’s use of this passage, see Gal 3:13).  It was important for these leaders that the condemned men died before sundown, so that their corpses would not defile the Sabbath–particularly that Sabbath, of Passover.

That is also what makes Jesus’ burial, and Joseph of Arimathea’s request for his body, so unusual–although all four gospels agree that this was done (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51; John 19:38).  However, we do have evidence for the burial of another crucified man, which also provides our only material evidence for someone nailed to a cross:

In 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis excavated some tombs in the northeastern section of Jerusalem, at a site called Giv’at ha-Mivtar.  Within this rather wealthy 1st century AD Jewish tomb, Tzaferis came across the remains of a man who seemed to have been crucified.  His name, according to the inscription on the ossuary, was Yehohanan ben Hagkol.  Analysis of the bones by osteologist Nicu Haas showed that Yehohanan was about 24 to 28 years old at the time of his death.  He stood roughly 167cm tall, the average for men of this period.  His skeleton points to moderate muscular activity, but there was no indication that he was engaged in manual labor.

Drawing of the calcaneus of Yehohanon along with a reconstruction of the fleshed and defleshed foot skeleton. (Public domain image by S. Rubén Betanzo via wikimedia commons.)

Of course, the most interesting feature of Yehohanan’s skeleton is his feet.  Immediately upon excavation, Tzaferis noticed a 19cm nail that had penetrated the body of the right heel bone before being driven into olive wood so hard that it bent.  Because of the impossibility of removing the nail and because the man was buried rather than exposed, we have direct evidence of the practice of crucifixion.

I see no reason to question the tradition that Jesus, like poor Yehohanan ben Hagkol, was nailed to his cross.  Nor do I doubt the witness of Thomas, whom Jesus invited, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” (John 20:27).  But I am, once more, astonished by the Bible’s continual capacity to take me by surprise, and reminded how important it is to consider what the text actually says, rather than what I have always assumed it to say.

In this Holy Week, may Jesus’ suffering for us shame our pride, and challenge us to bear witness to his life, death, resurrection, and coming again.  This prayer for Holy Week comes from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, Consultation on Common Texts (Augsburg Fortress, 2002):

Almighty God,
Your name is glorified
even in the anguish of your Son’s death.
Grant us the courage
to receive your anointed servant
who embodies a wisdom and love
that is foolishness to the world.
empower us in witness
so that all the world may recognize
in the scandal of the cross the mystery of reconciliation. Amen.



The Way of the Servant

This Sunday, Palm Sunday, is also called Passion Sunday, as it marks the  beginning of Holy Week. Four of the Old Testament readings for Holy Week are poems from Isaiah 40—55: a portion of this prophetic book commonly called Second Isaiah, set in the Babylonian exile. These four passages, Isaiah 42:1-949:1-750:4-11; and 52:13—53:12, are called the Servant Songs.  All deal with the Servant of the LORD, a mysterious figure whose mission involves not only the deliverance of Israel, but also the transformation of the world.  Appropriately, the Hebrew Bible reading for Good Friday’s remembrance of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, death, and burial is the fourth Song,  Isaiah 52:13—53:12: the song of the Suffering Servant.

The suffering of the Servant is a common theme in the Songs, from the first Song, where the world threatens to crush the Servant (Isa 42:4) to Isaiah 50:6, where the Servant bares his back to the smiters, and offers his cheek “to those who pulled out the beard.”

However, the Servant’s suffering is the major theme of the fourth and final Song:

He was despised and avoided by others;
    a man who suffered, who knew sickness well.
Like someone from whom people hid their faces,
    he was despised, and we didn’t think about him (Isa 53:3).

The Servant’s suffering is never accidental, or incidental. Rather, the Servant suffers deliberately, purposively: in solidarity with others. So, the vindication of the Servant becomes their vindication as well; when the Servant is strengthened, his fellow-sufferers too find strength.


Christian readers have long seen Jesus in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of the LORD.  So, in Acts 8:26-38, when the Ethiopian eunuch asks if the prophet speaks in Isa 53 “about himself or about someone else,” Philip wastes no time in sharing with him “the good news about Jesus.”

In 1 Peter 2:21-25, that writer, alluding to Isaiah 53, declares of Jesus

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

We Christians still cannot help but see Jesus in Isaiah’s Servant.  But that does not mean that we must, in triumphalist fashion, see Second Isaiah as predicting Jesus’ coming; as though the prophet’s words had no meaning for his own time or people.

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The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the Servant Songs do not describe one particular person, but rather set forth the way of the Servant, a new understanding of Israel’s past and future particularly as revealed through suffering. The Servant’s way is “the work born out of affliction,” culminating in “the liberation of the subject peoples, laid upon the servant, the divine order of the expiated world of the nations, which the purified servant as its ‘light’ has to bring in, the covenant of the people of the human beings with God, the human center of which is the servant” (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies [New York: Macmillan, 1949], 229).  The way of the Servant is the path of redemptive suffering deliberately chosen, which will render the tangled history of God’s people meaningful.  Jesus, we can certainly say, deliberately set out to follow that way, which led him inexorably to the cross.

Jesus has been linked to Isaiah 52:13—53:12 in particular, not only because of the Servant’s innocent suffering on behalf of others (Isa 53:4-6), but specifically because of Isaiah 53:10, where many English translations read that the Servant’s life has been made (or will be made) “an offering for sin.”

Christians have often understood Jesus’ death on the cross in just this way: as a sacrifice for sin.  In our New Testament, the book of Hebrews understands Jesus as at once high priest and sacrifice, offering himself as a sin offering for the world (Heb 9—10).  There are some indications that Jesus may have thought of his own death in that way.  So, in Matthew’s account of the Last Supper.

He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (Matt 26:27-28, CEB).

Notice, though, that this passage uses no sacrificial language, saying only that it is now, in his death, that Jesus fulfills the meaning of his name: Yeshua, that is “savior,” for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

Yom Kippur - Wikipedia

Similarly, it is unclear that Paul intended us to see Jesus’ death as a sin offering.  That may seem a strange claim, in light of Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV):

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

But the Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  This Greek word is used in Leviticus 16, the biblical description of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It refers, however, not to the sin sacrifice or to the scapegoat in that ritual, but rather to the lid of the ark, where the blood of the sacrifice is applied (Hebrew kapporet).  At least in this famous passage, Paul refers to the cross not as a sacrifice for sin, but rather as the place of atonement (see the NRSV translator’s footnote on this phrase), where God and humanity are reconciled.

Another translation problem occurs in Isaiah 53:10. Although several English translations have “offering for sin,” the word “sin” does not appear in this verse, and the Hebrew word for the offering is not khattat (Hebrew for the sin offering), but ‘asham: used in Leviticus 5:14-26 for what is commonly called the “guilt offering.”

While ‘asham is often translated as “guilt,” it more precisely means “to incur liability,” and is used for payment of damages. This is the only offering in ancient Israel’s sacrificial system that involves a fine as well as a sacrifice–indeed, for which a fine can be substituted.  Jewish scholars Baruch Schwartz (in the Jewish Study Bible) and Jacob Milgrom (in the HarperCollins Study Bible) both propose “reparation offering” as a better translation.   In the NRSV and the NRSVue, this section of Leviticus carries the heading “Offerings with Restitution.”

the scream

As the ‘asham is described in Leviticus, it is an offering to be made when an act has been performed, even accidentally, that brings defilement upon the community or upon the holy things.  So, this is an offering for when you suspect you have done something wrong, but do not know what–making the traditional rendering “guilt offering” fitting after all!  An ‘asham is offered when something isn’t right, in my life or in my community, but I can’t say what it is–so, perhaps I have somehow, inadvertently, brought defilement upon the community and the holy things. The ‘asham, we could say, addresses free-flowing Angst!

What might this mean in the context of our Song?  First, whatever else Isa 53:10 may mean, it does not mean that the Servant is a sacrifice for sin.  In the CEB, this verse is translated “his life is offered as restitution”–a more accurate rendering, but what might that mean?  Translator’s notes in the NRSV and NRSVue acknowledge, “Meaning of Heb uncertain.”  Perhaps the point, as the Song as a whole implies, is that by identifying with those who suffer guilt, pain, and shame, the Servant eases that suffering, mysteriously shifting it onto himself.

Perhaps this is a better way of thinking about the suffering of Jesus, too.  The Oxford English Dictionary dates our English word “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin word adunamentum  (“unity”), and an older word, “onement:” from the obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite.”  The word was particularly used to talk about the reconciliation of God and humanity through Christ.  What “atonement” originally meant was not the assuaging of divine wrath with a blood sacrifice, but being reunited (“at one”) with God.  As the apostle Paul writes:

If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God (Romans 5:6-11).

In Christ’s death, we are reconciled (Greek katalasso) to God.  The gap between humanity and divinity is bridged.  In Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine, God experiences all that being human means, in joy and in sorrow.  Life learns what it is to die.  Absolute power learns what it is to be weak.  God Godself experiences God-forsakenness.  In Christ’s resurrection, we mortals are given the hope and the promise of our own deliverance from death.  By entering into our life, and even into our death, Jesus draws God near to us, and us near to God.  He brings God’s divinity down to where we are, and lifts our humanity up to where God is.

Of course, if Isaiah 52:13—53:12 cannot be safely restricted to a sacrificial act which Jesus alone could, and did, do, we are brought back to asking what this passage may mean for the living of our lives.  But after forty days of penitential Lenten reflection, we are likely eager to move on.  Palm Sunday leads to Good Friday, of course, but that in turn leads to Easter–and we are naturally eager to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and the promise of our own!

But, let us not hurry to the empty tomb too quickly, friends. Let us stay with the cross awhile, and ask what it might mean for us to follow Jesus on the way of the Servant; to surrender authority and privilege, and stand with the suffering and oppressed.  After all, did Jesus not say, ““All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24)?

Footprints in the Sand" Poem Meaning & Biblical Hope

1 Peter definitely sees the cross in Isa 53, but does not therefore think that we are relieved of the responsibility to walk in this way ourselves. Indeed, this Christian writes, “You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21).

So too, the writer of Hebrews calls Jesus “faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (Heb 12:2).

What might it mean to follow such a pioneer—to, in the words of the old Gospel hymn, “go with him, with him, all the way”? What might it mean to say, with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20)?




The Strong Name of the Trinity

Friday March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation–as in the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity.  Of course, as a metaphor for God’s unity in three persons, the shamrock has its problems!  But then again, perhaps every metaphor for the Divine life must fall short.

This week, I have been remembering the controversial depiction of the Trinity in William P. Young’s novel The Shack.  My covenant group at St. Paul’s UMC read this book, but I honestly do not believe I ever finished it.  Wendy reminds me that I was dismissive of The Shack, scornful of what I saw as its naïveté and its theological shortcomings.

Then, on March 9, 2017, I went to see the film version with my father and my sister—and I wept. The film is visually beautiful, and, I thought, very well acted: especially by the lead Sam Worthington, and by the luminous Octavia Spencer as the First Person of the Trinity. I will freely allow that I was emotionally open and vulnerable, seeing this film with my father and sister on my late mother’s birthday, just a week before the first anniversary of her death. But mainly, I think, I was moved by the film’s potent portrayal of the boundless love of God, and the power of forgiveness.

In the movie as in the book, Mack Phillips has suffered a terrible tragedy. The loss of a child has plunged him, and his family, into darkness and despair. Led by a mysterious note to the eponymous shack, the place where his child had died, Mack is met by two women—a motherly African American cook and an Asian gardener—and by a young man, a Palestinian carpenter.

The three strangers reveal themselves as the triune Godhead, who teaches Mack about forgiveness, the major theme of this film: both the joy of being forgiven, and the freedom from anger and bitterness that comes when we forgive others.

The film, like the book, was harshly critiqued. Blogger Grayson Gilbert wrote,

The Shack panders to the sensationalism brought on by emotional appeal and subjective relativism. . . . If you want to hear from God, open up the scriptures and read. Drink deeply of a brook that never runs dry; fill yourself with waters free from the bitter gall of heretical teaching.

Pastor Jack Wellman concluded,

Even though The Shack is fiction, I believe it is dangerous, particularly for new Christians, because they don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible and of God, and so they might confuse these fictional characters with the way God really is. . . . I don’t need another fictional book to tell me what God is like. We have the best source on earth for that and its call [sic.] the Bible. We don’t have to guess about the nature of God or His attributes, because we can know.

Yet on the other hand, scholar Allan R. Bevere wrote,

I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered. I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian Trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.

I wonder how much of the fury directed at The Shack  really boils down to Wellman’s angry assertion, “the Father is not an African American woman and the Holy Spirit is not a mysterious Asian woman named Sarayu.” Reading this retort, I found myself thinking, “No, but neither is God an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), nor Jesus a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4), nor the Holy Spirit a dove (Luke 3:22).” Scripture is filled with metaphors; indeed all of our language about God, without exception, is metaphorical. How could it possibly be otherwise, God being GOD, after all, and not an object in the world of space and time?

In a column on faith in the 21st century West, David Brooks argues for a “friendship with complexity” that engages the world, rather than an ideological purity that rejects it. Brooks concludes that the real enemy of faith is “a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.”  How winsome can our faith possibly be if it is so rigid, pedantic, pedestrian, and rule-bound? What room can there be in such confining doctrinal boxes for a vibrant relationship with the living Lord?

Trinity Knot or Rings (Triquetra) | City of Grove Oklahoma

What, after all, does the Bible say about the Trinity?  The truth is–not much!  Indeed, it would be generations before Christians refined their theology into the Trinitarian formulas in the classical creeds of the church.  Christianity’s first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, met in 325 CE.  Particularly at issue for this gathering was how to speak meaningfully about the relationship between the Father and the Son.  According to Arius and his followers, Jesus was a creation of God–the highest creature to be sure, indeed the first-born of all creation, but still distinct from the one God.  Jesus and God are therefore homoiousias: of like substance or essence.

To be fair, this kind of language is used in Scripture. Colossians 1:15 describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the one who is first [Greek prototokos, “firstborn“] over all creation.”  The Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says that

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings (Phil 2:6-7).

The Council, however, wound up affirming that Jesus and God were homoousias: that is, of the same substance, or of one substance.  The Nicene Creed accordingly confesses,

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being [Greek homoousion] with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.

So, why did the Council at Nicaea insist upon this confession?  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible (what Lindbeck terms “Christological maximalism”), as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him. Hence, the New Testament calls Jesus God’s Son (The Nature of Doctrine [Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 94).

Trinity (Andrei Rublev) - WikipediaWhile full-blown Trinitarian language is wanting in the texts of Scripture, the Gospel of John comes very close.  John 1:1 affirms,

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.

Indeed, in John 10:30, Jesus proclaims, “I and the Father are one.”  In John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.

This language in turn reflects the struggle of the sages of ancient Israel to find a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other, as intimately involved and engaged with the world.  Particularly in Proverbs 8, they described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (khokmah) is feminine.

Best of Frenemies: Unexpected Role of Social Networks in Ecology | UC DavisLady Wisdom  says, “The LORD created me [Hebrew qanani; perhaps better “acquired me,” that is, as a wife] at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.

I was formed in ancient times,
    at the beginning, before the earth was.
When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs flowing with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
    before the hills, I was brought forth;
    before God made the earth and the fields
    or the first of the dry land.
I was there when he established the heavens,
    when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
    when he thickened the clouds above,
    when he secured the fountains of the deep,
    when he set a limit for the sea,
        so the water couldn’t go beyond his command,
    when he marked out the earth’s foundations.
I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race (Prov 8:23-31).

Christian readers will be reminded, again, of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God who is God, through whom the world was made. This is a Wisdom Christology: a way of talking about Christ drawn from the language of Proverbs 8!

1 John 4:8 gives us another way to visualize the Divine life: “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is at once the Lover, and the Beloved, and the Love that binds them as one.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

Psychoanalytical pioneer and scholar of religion Carl Jung remembered taking confirmation classes from his father, a Lutheran minister.  It was all very boring–but young Carl had read ahead in his catechism, and knew that coming up was something strange, mysterious, and wonderful–the Trinity!  When the day assigned to study the Trinity arrived at last, however, Jung’s father said, “This is very complicated, and I really don’t understand it myself, so we’ll skip over it.”  For Jung, this marked a major turning point, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his decision that he could not accept what he saw as his father’s pallid, shallow faith.

The Trinity is foundational for Christians in the most basic sense: we are baptized in name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20).  So we really can’t “skip over” this.  As the Council at Nicaea affirmed, it is true that God is three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; yet it is also true that God is one.  That may seem nonsensical–but the Trinity is not a logic problem for us to solve!  We come to the paradoxical language of Trinity because we are driven to it by the shape of our experience of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is, and what God is up to in our world.  As my friend and colleague from graduate school Ray Jones used to say about the Trinity, “I don’t believe this stuff because I want to.  I believe it because it’s true!”


St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is a classic expression of Celtic spirituality (perhaps best known from this familiar hymn), and a full-throated celebration of the Triune God.  Here is the prayer in full, translated into English verse by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1889:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.

I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!


All Along the Way

Title: St. Savin - Calling of Abraham [Click for larger image view]

The Hebrew Bible reading for Sunday is Abram’s call (Genesis 12:1-4a).  It is tempting for us, with the benefit of biblical hindsight, to think that this passage marks the beginning of Abram’s singular, goal-oriented pursuit of God’s promises: that he would find a homeland, become prosperous, and have many children. But our text cannot support such a reading. What Abram is leaving behind is defined, clearly and repeatedly: “Go from your country and from your family and from your home” (Gen 12:1, my translation)—leave, in short, all that is familiar. But as for where he is going, God says only that it is “the land that I will show you.” Abram sets out for—wherever. He and Sarai are given no map, no specific heading. Instead, they are required to be open to God’s direction and guidance all along the way.

We should not expect our own path to be any different than theirs: whether as individuals, as congregations, or as the church. We as well cannot know what the future might bring—and so, to limit our planning and dreaming to a simple extrapolation of what we now know may be to dream wrongly, to plan awry. Like Abram, we are called to lives of open expectation and radical trust in the God who goes before us.

The Cloud of Unknowing - DAM MUSEUM

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic of Christian spirituality, puts it this way:

Your whole life must be one of longing, if you are to achieve perfection. And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent. But, a word of warning: he is a jealous lover, and will brook no rival; he will not work in your will if he has not sole charge; he does not ask for help, he asks for you.

While Abram and Sarai are given no specific goal, they are given the assurance of God’s good intentions for them. God declares, “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). However, God’s blessing is not given to Abram for his own sake: to enrich Abram, meet his needs, and make his dreams come true.

This is particularly clear in the Hebrew of Genesis 12:3. While the NRSV of this verse reads, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”—implying that the blessing on Abram is primary, and that the blessing on the “families of the earth” follows from it—the Hebrew reads, wenibreku beka: that is, “they will bless themselves by you” (see the text notes in the NRSV, NRSVue, and CEB). The point, it seems, is that others, challenged and motivated by what they see in Abram and his heirs, will say to one another, “May life be for you as it has been for Abram.” Abram is blessed for the sake of others.

For us as well, the purpose of God’s blessing is “so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2, NRSVue). If our planning, as a church or as a denomination, is solely about our survival, our goals will be far too small. If we seek a future that will bless and enrich us, then even if that dream is realized, we will find it to have been the wrong dream!  Better questions, which will guide us into God’s dream for us, are:  How can we be a blessing to others? How can we be used by God in the continual reformation of Christ’s church? How can we be agents of God’s kingdom in the world?

Painting With Penicillin: Alexander Fleming's Germ Art | Science| Smithsonian Magazine

The story of Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, dramatically demonstrates the limitations of a focused, goal-directed approach to life. Fleming discovered this marvelous antibiotic in 1928, when bacterial cultures growing in petri dishes in his lab were contaminated by mold spores. As the mold spread, the bacteria died. Penicillin was discovered, not as the end of a deliberately focused research program, but by accident!

But then again, “accident” may not be the right word. Much like Abram and Sarai, Alexander Fleming was heading toward a goal he himself did not choose and could not have foreseen. He discovered penicillin, we might say, because he was open to discovery, and so found himself in the right place at the right time. We Christians call this “providence.”

A story is told about Sir Fleming that may not be true, but deserves to be. Late in his life, he was given a tour of an antiseptic, gleaming, state-of-the-art medical lab. Someone said to him, “Imagine what you could have discovered if you had had all of this at your disposal!” Fleming sardonically replied, “Not penicillin.”

This Lent, as we reflect on our calling and look into our futures, God grant that we might not be found focused on our goals and the pursuit of our dreams. May we instead discern God’s dream for us, by asking how we might become a blessing: to our church, to our city, and to our hurting world. May we be, not cold, antiseptic, and closed-minded, but like Abram and Sarai open to God’s unexpected gifts of grace and direction all along our way.


The fresco at the head of this blog depicting Abram’s call is from the upper south register of the nave of Abbaye de Saint-Savin in Vienne, France.  It is taken from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=33460 [retrieved February 27, 2023]. Original source: image donated by Jim Womack and Anne Richardson.

The digital artwork for “The Cloud of Unknowing” is by Roman Verostko.



When I was in seminary, my friend Frank Redding and I each served two of five churches in a cooperative New Jersey parish; elder David Wilson was pastor of the fifth and largest church on the parish (Allentown), and had administrative oversight over all five.  Each week, the three of us would meet to talk about what was happening in our churches, and to discuss the lectionary readings for the week.  Almost always, we found that Dave was concentrating on the gospel, Frank the epistle, and that I (no surprise!) was preaching from the Hebrew Bible.

I remember vividly one such discussion, just prior to the last Sunday before Lent: Transfiguration Sunday.  Frank was wrestling with how to preach these texts.  I remember him sharing the griefs and pains of his people that week, and then asking, “What difference does it make to them that Jesus lit up like a light bulb?”

So, what exactly did happen on that mountain–and why does it matter?  In the old King James Bible, Sunday’s gospel declares,

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light (Matthew 17:1-2; note that the NIV and NRSVue  follow the KJV reading “transfigured,” while the CEB has “transformed.”)

The Greek word rendered “transfigured” here is metamorphoo, source of our English word “metamorphosis.”  Likely, that word will call to our minds the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly; or perhaps, we may think of the macabre Franz Kafka novella of the same name, in which Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find that he has transformed overnight into a giant cockroach.

The Metamorphosis Audiobook By Franz Kafka cover artBut what would this word have meant to the writers, and hearers, of the Gospels?  The verb metamorphoo is not used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture), and in our New Testament, it appears only four times.  Two of these are the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew and Mark (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2).  So, in the mosaic of the Transfiguration at the top of this blog, the Greek title reads “The Metamorphosis.”

We may conclude with the CEB that Jesus was transformed on the mountain–indeed, we may even say that the disciples there at last saw Jesus as he truly was.  But that is a dangerous, and deeply misleading, conclusion.  After all, we Christians confess that Jesus was fully God AND fully human.  He was not God sometimes (say, on the Mount of Transfiguration) and human sometimes (say, in the manger–or on the cross).  Certainly, Jesus was not God pretending to be human–God in a people mask.  Nor was he a charlatan–a human pretending to be a god.  Jesus was, always and everywhere, himself.  So, yes: the Jesus they saw every day–laughing, crying, hungry, angry, dusty and weary from the road, Jesus in all his fleshiness–was indeed Jesus as he truly was.

Of course, the blinding glory of Jesus’ divinity was not always apparent–thankfully, for Jesus’ family and friends!  Indeed, had it been, Jesus could scarcely have been “fully human.”  But just this once, the “fully God” side of the incarnation equation was fully evident.  As the tradition passed down from Peter proclaims,

We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes.  He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18).

The change Peter, James, and John witnessed on the mountain did not mean that Jesus had changed–only that his disciples saw him more clearly.

The other two appearances of the Greek verb metamorphoo are both in Paul’s letters.  In 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Paul discusses the glory of God’s revelation on Sinai (see Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, Exod 24:12-18), which made Moses’ face shine (see Exod 34:29-35; by the way, in Hebrew the word for the rays shining from Moses’ face [qaran] is related to the word for horns [qeren], so Moses is sometimes depicted as horned!).

Image result for moses michelangelo

Paul compares that glory with the glory of the freedom revealed in Christ.  While the glory beaming from Moses’ face was only temporary–the result of the revelation he had received–gazing upon Christ works a permanent transformation:

All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed [metamorphoo] into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

Therefore, in Romans 12:2, Paul famously challenges his readers:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed  [metamorphoo] by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Gazing on Jesus, who is not only truly God but truly human, prompts us to change. Jesus shows us what being human–created in God’s image (Gen 1:27)–really means.  The International Theological Commission of the Vatican (2004) put it very well:

Thus, what it means to be created in the imago Dei is only fully revealed to us in the imago Christi. In him, we find the total receptivity to the Father which should characterize our own existence, the openness to the other in an attitude of service which should characterize our relations with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the mercy and love for others which Christ, as the image of the Father, displays for us (Communion and Stewardship, paragraph 53).

Image result for charlers Wesley

In his hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Charles Wesley joyfully takes up Paul’s language from 2 Corinthians:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Sisters and brothers, friends and siblings in Christ, so may it be for us!  This prayer for Transfiguration Sunday (from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts [Augsburg Fortress]) invites us to ask God for a transfiguration of our own:

Holy God, mighty and immortal,
you are beyond our knowing,
yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ,
whose compassion illumines the world.
Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ,
who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity,
through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


I am writing this on Valentines Day, thinking of my darling Wendy, for whom I am so very thankful!  God bless you, love.  This picture, from when we were very young, was taken at Siloam UMC (one of the two churches I served in seminary) by dear friend (and then, youth group member!) Lora McQueen.

Although the historical and religious connection with St. Valentine that gives the day its name was stretched past the breaking point long ago, it is still worthwhile on this day to reflect on Valentine, saint and martyr, whose legend includes his advocacy for couples in love, including secret marriages, and a note to his jailer’s daughter, whose blindness he had miraculously cured, signed, “Your Valentine.”


Bible Games

When I was a boy, my family had this very game!  I remember playing it with my sisters.  You moved your piece around a map of the Holy Land, gathering wheat, olives, fish, and grain to give to the poor and, one by one, collecting and memorizing each of the Ten Commandments.  The winner was the first to collect all ten, and recite them to a Philistine.  I still remember a visiting aunt scolding me when I told her that the game was fun!  The Bible, she said, isn’t supposed to be fun.

But fortunately, no one told the rabbis!  For the last several weeks, I have been working through Midrash Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic stories, sermons, and conversations about Torah.  Specifically, I have been reading the opening chapters of Bereshit Rabbah, dedicated to the creation accounts in Genesis 1–3.  A clear sense of playfulness runs all through these conversations.  For example: Bereshit Rabbah 20:8 says, regarding Genesis 3:17 (“Cursed is the ground because of you”):

The sign of the curse is that it will produce for you cursed things, such as mosquitoes, midges, and fleas.

Should it produce a pest as large as a camel for you?

Said R. Isaac of Magdala, “But in that case it would produce benefit, for someone could sell it and derive benefit from the proceeds.”

Often, the rabbis play word games with the text.  For example, R. Simon wonders how the original light created on the First Day (Genesis 1:3-5) differed from the lights created on Day Four (Genesis 1:14-19)—including the daylight of the sun that we know.  Since the word “light” (Hebrew ‘or) occurs five times in Genesis 1:3-5, R. Simon relates that original light to the Torah, which has five books (Bereshit Rabbah 3:5)!


In Bereshit Rabbah 14, the rabbis observe that in Genesis 2:7, where the LORD God creates ‘adam, the word for “formed” is spelled oddly, with two yods (wayiytser).  They conclude, then, that there must have been two formations, which some take to mean Adam and Eve (Bereshit Rabbah 14.2), others the upper and lower worlds (Bereshit Rabbah 14.3), and still others this world and world to come (Bereshit Rabbah 14.5).  Indeed, R. Hanina bar Idi says that this means God created humans with “both the impulse to do good and the impulse to do evil” (Bereshit Rabbah 14.4)–heady thoughts, prompted by an oddity in spelling!

Psalm 119 (from which Sunday’s Psalm reading is taken) is itself a complicated word game.  The psalm consists of twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza has eight verses beginning with that letter.  But to make the game still more complicated, eight different legal terms are used, usually one to each verse. In addition to “law” (torah) these terms in the NRSV are “decree” (‘edut), “statutes” (khuqqim), “commandments” (mitswot), “ordinances” (mishpatim), “word” (dabar), “precepts” (pequdim), and “promise” (‘imrah).  Most of this legal vocabulary comes from Deuteronomy, where these words describe different aspects of God’s law. However, in Psalm 119 no attempt is made to define any of these terms, nor is any distinction made among them. James Luther Mays suggests that in Psalm 119, they are all interchangeable with torah (Psalms [Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994], 382-383).

This Sunday’s Psalter (Psalm 119:1-8) is the first of these stanzas, so each line begins with ‘aleph:

Those whose way is blameless—
    who walk in the Lord’s Instruction—are truly happy!
Those who guard God’s laws are truly happy!
    They seek God with all their hearts.
They don’t even do anything wrong!
    They walk in God’s ways.
God, you have ordered that your decrees
    should be kept most carefully.
How I wish my ways were strong
    when it comes to keeping your statutes!
 Then I wouldn’t be ashamed
    when I examine all your commandments.
 I will give thanks to you with a heart that does right
    as I learn your righteous rules.
 I will keep your statutes.
    Please don’t leave me all alone!

The theme of Psalm 119 is expressed in the blessing pronounced in the first two verses:

Happy [‘ashre in Hebrew] are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy [again, ‘ashre] are those who keep his decrees,
    who seek him with their whole heart (NRSV)

The word translated “law” in Psalm 119:1 is the Hebrew torah, a word also used for the first five books of the Bible.  Although often rendered as “law,” torah could be better translated (as in the CEB) as “instruction.”  Psalms 1 and 19 resemble Psalm 119 in content and theme (compare Psalm 1:2 with Psalm 119:15Psalm 19:7 with Psalm 119:129-130). All three psalms express a life of piety centered on torah. In these poems, Mays suggests, the book of Psalms is viewed not simply as a prayer book, but as instruction in the pious life (The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 134-135).

Note, though, that this is the LORD’s  instruction. Consistently, all these terms are identified as the property of the LORD: it is “the law of the LORD” (verse 1); “his decrees” (verse two); “your precepts” (verse four); “your statutes” (verse 5). Confirmation of this insight comes even in the apparent exceptions to the rule. In Psalm 119:3, none of the eight torah terms appear. However, the Psalmist speaks of the blessed as those “who do no wrong,/ but walk in his ways” (emphasis mine; see also Psalm 119:15 and 37).

Psalm 119 does not identify God’s instruction with the written law: an important distinction, for the ideal of obedience to God’s will can all too easily be corrupted into petty legalism. Remember that Jesus’ opponents chastised him for breaking the law, while Jesus rebuked them for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23, NRSV). Unlike those among the religious leadership who opposed Jesus, the Psalmist recognizes that God’s instruction is also God’s gift, which cannot be possessed once for all but must be rediscovered in every time, by every seeker.  Mays writes,

The word of God is given but never possessed. Because it is God’s instruction, it is not owned apart from the teaching of God.… it must be sought and constantly studied in prayer in order to be taught (Mays, Psalms, 385).

God’s instruction is a gift.  In Christian theological terms, we are saved by grace!

Image result for happy

The best expression of what salvation by grace means that I know comes from Frederick Buechner:

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too (originally published in Wishful Thinking).

We may think that this psalm–indeed, that the Bible–is a grim and humorless series of commands and demands which we must follow unerringly or be condemned by a wrathful God.  However, the rabbis in Bereshit Rabbah, and the Psalmist in Psalm 119, read differently.  Psalm 119, after all, is a game!  Perhaps the Bible is an invitation to play.


“An Even Better Bible”

Title: Star of Bethlehem with Pomegranate Trees [Click for larger image view]

Christian friends, we are still (and will be right through February 19) in the season after Epiphany, during which we remember and celebrate the light of God’s revelation, symbolized by the Bethlehem star.  According to the old King James Version, the light of that star guided the “wise men” to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-12): a reading followed by the RSV, and the NRSV.  However, like the CEB and the NIV, the newly published NRSVue (that is, the Updated Edition of the New Revised Standard Version) more accurately reads “the magi“–a Persian clan of Zoroastrian astrologers.

To understand what the NRSVue is, we need to rehearse a wee bit of history.  The Revised Standard Version (1952) was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–itself the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881.  The RSV was the work of a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the predecessors of the National  Council of Churches [NCC]).  The RSV was not intended to be an entirely new translation; the intent was to preserve the familiar rhythms and language of the KJV as much as possible “in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other”  (from the preface to the RSV).

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee formed by the NCC, this time chaired by Bruce Metzger.  One issue driving this call for a revision was the increasing recognition in many churches that our language should reflect more accurately the full inclusion of women in the community of faith.  So, in the NRSV, Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind [the NRSVue simply has “humans”] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Here, the translation “humankind” is far better than the KJV and RSV “man”: the Hebrew word used, ‘adam, means “humanity” rather than “man.”   The NRSV renders the standard New Testament greeting to fellow Christians, “Brothers” (adelphoi in Greek; for example, 1 Corinthians 2:1), as “Brothers and sisters”–not a literal translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities.

But the major reason that a new revision of the RSV seemed needed was that new texts continued to come to light–particularly, with the publication of more and more material from Qumran: the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.  The NRSV translators paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the text notes), making this the best scholarly translation of the Bible to date, especially for the Old Testament.

The NRSVue, published in 2021, was begun about five years ago as a cooperative project of the NCC and the Society of Biblical literature (SBL).  According to an email from SBL Press and the Bible Odyssey team, “nearly seventy-five SBL members working individually and collaboratively over the course of four years” produced this “review and revision of the NRSV thirty years after its initial release.”  Much like its predecessors, the NRSVue is an updating and revision, rather than a fresh translation from scratch.  The NRSVue is readily accessible on the web, at Bible Gateway  and at Bible Odyssey.

The title of this blog is taken from a recent interview  with the two heads of the NRSVue project: Joseph Crockett, the (now retired) CEO of the NCC’s publishing house Friendship Press, and John Kutsko, then executive director of SBL (see Annelisa Burns, “An even better Bible,” The Christian Century [February 2023]: 62-65).  In that interview, John Kutsko observes,

We approached this project as if it were a regularly scheduled maintenance in light of new texts and understandings.  We believed from the start that its primary value would be in the review itself, regardless of the extent of revisions made to the text.  We did not know that we’d have 12,000 substantive changes. 

Most of these changes are minor, if significant: like the substitution of “magi” for the traditional reading “wise men.”  Just as the NRSV paid particular attention to gender, the NRSVue has paid particular attention to “ableist” readings that reduce people to their infirmity.  So, while the NRSV of Mark 1:40 reads, “A leper [Greek lepros] came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’”, the NRSVue of this passage (like the CEB) has “A man with a skin disease.”  In addition to granting the sufferer his full humanity, this reading avoids the ready confusion of biblical “leprosy” (the Greek lepros and the Hebrew tsara’ath/tsara’ are catchall terms in Scripture for a host of skin diseases, not to mention molds and mildews [see Leviticus 13–14!]) with clinical leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.

Of course, as with the RSV and NRSV before it, the ready accusation is that the translators are watering down the Gospel with their liberal agenda.  In response to an interviewer who asked if the NRSVue was a “woke revision,” Kutsko said,

“[W]oke” is a mischaracterization of what we do.  While all scholarship, including translation, is socially located and can’t be completely objective, our book editors and the general editors were both diverse and specialized.  They strove for the ideal of representing the sources and meaning of the ancient texts.

In the Christian Century interview, when asked about controversial changes, Kutsko and Crockett noted in particular the decision in the NRSVue to render the Hebrew khattat as “purification offering” rather than “sin offering.”  This was not, they noted, an attempt to take “sin” out of the Bible (Kutsko: “I can assure your  readers that there is still a lot of sin in the Bible.” Crockett: “And it doesn’t stop with the Bible!”), but rather a reflection of the best scholarship on the meaning and use of this particular ancient Israelite ritual (as Jacob Milgrom’s footnotes to Leviticus in the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible observe).

While I affirm most of the choices I have encountered in the NRSVue, I must confess that some took me by surprise.  To begin at the beginning, Genesis 1:1-2 reads,

When God began to create the heavens and the earth,  the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 

I have no quibble with this translation–in fact, I affirm it, although it does represent yet another step away from the traditional language of the KJV.

However, I do differ with the NRSVue on Genesis 2:2:

On the sixth day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done (Gen 2:2).

This reading (also found in the CEB) is in keeping with the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and the Syriac, all of which read in Genesis 2:2 that God completed God’s work on the sixth day (see also Exod 20:11; 31:17; 2 Esdras 6:38-59).  The versions, influenced in particular by the Exodus passages, are making an understandable decision: after all, how can God be said to finish God’s work on God’s day of rest?  Indeed, since, in Genesis as we have it the seventh day of creation is placed in a different chapter than the first six (Gen 2:1-3), one could easily conclude that the seventh day comes after the work of creation is completed.

But the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) reads wayyikal ‘elohim bayom hashibi’i mela’kto [“God completed God’s work on the seventh day”].  The NRSV stayed with the MT here (as do the KJV, NJPS, and NIV).  I am persuaded that that is the better course.  The priestly writers in this unit pursue a sabbatical logic.  In Genesis 1:1–2:4a, each day is numbered, from One through Seven (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:2-3). Indeed, rather than using the word “Sabbath,” Gen 2:1-3 speaks only of Day Seven, to preserve that numbering sequence.  In this context, then, the seventh day is the day of completion, the climax of creation.  The NRSV had it right.

While the RSV remains available, the editors have chosen to let the NRSV go out of print (so, for example, it is no longer available at the Bible Gateway website).  I think this decision is unfortunate: I am certain that, as I use this new Bible, I will find still other places where I prefer the text critical decisions made in that earlier version to those in the NRSVue.  Still, so far as I can now see, in most places the Updated Edition has stayed with the critical assessments of the NRSV, which is all to the good.

Unfortunately, the NRSVue suffers from some of the same limitations as the NRSV.  It assumes a college-age reading level–a major barrier to many readers.  While excellent for study, this Bible is harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection.  Those looking for a more accessible translation should try the Common English Bible.  Still, the NCC and the SBL must be commended for revisiting, and revising, their work.  Joseph Crockett puts it very well:

God deserves the best each generation can render, and the growth of information in the past 30-plus years makes Bible research, interpretation, and understanding an ever-changing enterprise.


The textile art at the head of this blog, “Star of Bethlehem With Pomegranate Trees,” was made by an anonymous quilter in 1850, and is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  This image comes from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56278 [retrieved January 30, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Star_of_Bethlehem_with_Pomegranate_Trees,_New_York,_c._1850_-_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_Boston_-_DSC02710.JPG.

I cannot let Ms. Burns’ interview go without noting these sobering words of warning from John Kutsko concerning modern seminary education:

I worry about the future’s ability to support scholars with sufficient language facility. We found it pretty difficult to find a team of people who had mastered Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and so on. Most Protestant denominations don’t require Greek or Hebrew for ordination, so faculty are teaching these languages less. I’m not optimistic that a review begun in 2050 will find the necessary scholars to do what we did in this updated edition.


What Everybody Knows

Ames trapezoid - Wikipedia

Just this week, I learned about the Ames Window: a visual illusion invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1951.  Seeing it here in two dimensions, the Ames Window appears unremarkable–we readily understand this image as a rectangular window with six panes.  Actually, of course, it is nothing of the sort: the shape is a trapezoid, not a rectangle.  But since in our experience objects appear larger when they are close to us, and smaller when far away, we readily interpret the drawing as a rectangular frame viewed from one end.

The Ames Window really comes into its own, however, when we cut it out and play with it in three dimensions.  This astounding video, from the Australian educational program “The Curiosity Show,” demonstrates the Window’s amazing properties.  Since we perceive the longer end as closer to us even when it in fact is not, when the window is spun on a string, it seems not to spin, but to oscillate back and forth.  A pen stuck through the window will clearly be seen to spin when the Window spins.  However, since we still perceive the Window itself as oscillating rather than spinning, the amazing result is that the pen appears to pass through the solid fabric of the cut-out design–even though we know that to be impossible.

Adelbert Ames was a pioneering figure in the physiological study of the eye, and particularly of binocular vision.  But that work led him into the psychology of perception.  We can readily understand how and why his illusion works.  Our brain makes sense of visual stimuli in three dimensions by interpreting objects nearby as larger than objects far away.  That is how we judge distances: how we can know how far away a target (say, a piece of fruit, or a prey animal) is, or whether (and how quickly!) a threat is approaching us.

What Do Panthers Eat? 15 Animals They Hunt For Food - AZ Animals

Those hard-wired perceptual cues usually serve us well.  But, as the Ames Window demonstrates, what we know to be true can lead us astray when reality does not, in fact, agree with our perception.

In a recent article intriguingly titled,”The Key to Success in College Is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned,” Jonathan Milesic writes,

In more than 20 years of college teaching, I have seen that students who are open to new knowledge will learn. Students who aren’t won’t. But this attitude is not fixed. The paradoxical union of intellectual humility and ambition is something that every student can (with help from teachers, counselors and parents) and should cultivate. It’s what makes learning possible.

I have found this to be true in my teaching–and also in my own study.  The necessary precursor to learning anything new is the humble acknowledgement that we do not know!  Yet, as Milesic goes on to observe, a major obstacle to learning is “knowingness”–our insistence that we do know:

Knowingness is everywhere in our culture. From a former president claiming “everybody knows” some conspiracist nonsense to podcasters smugly debunking cultural myths to your feeling you have to have read, heard and streamed everything, the posture of already knowing supersedes the need to approach new situations with curiosity.

Perhaps nowhere is this tendency so obvious, and so dangerous, as in those matters of faith that mean most to us.  Our certainties about what faith means, and what therefore the Bible must say, can easily prevent us from seeing what the text on the page actually says.  Milesic’s experience teaching theology in many ways mirrors my own experience teaching Bible:

Every semester during my years teaching theology, students would tell me on the first day of class that they knew they would get an A, because they’d already had 12 years of Catholic school. But often enough, they’d get a C. Their assumptions about the subject matter kept them from learning the more critical approach to the subject I was trying to teach.

Life-size Noah's Ark | Ark Encounter

To take one fairly trivial example: everybody knows that Noah took two of every kind of animal into the ark, and that with that menagerie and his family he rode out the flood.  But is that in fact what the Bible says?  Genesis 6:19-20 seems conclusive:

From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive. From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive.

But what, then, are we to do with Genesis 7:2-3?

From every clean animal, take seven pairs, a male and his mate; and from every unclean animal, take one pair, a male and his mate;  and from the birds in the sky as well, take seven pairs, male and female, so that their offspring will survive throughout the earth.

I still remember, in my first teaching post out of grad school, seeing a young woman in my Bible course do a classic double-take when we read this passage!  After class, she asked me, “Why has no one ever told me about this?”  Of course, she didn’t actually need anyone to tell her anything: the biblical text was there to be read.  But it was only when she actually read the text, rather than reading over it, that she was able to see what it said, rather than what she assumed it said.

The conflict between Genesis 6:19-20 and 7:2-3, together with other tensions within the flood story,  strongly suggests that the final form of the text is not a single account, but an interweaving of two flood traditions.  One tradition assumes that Noah and his family are already eating meat, and that a clan leader like Noah is permitted to offer sacrifices (as he does in Gen 8:20-22)–hence the need for extra “clean” animals, suitable for altar and table.  The other evidently understands sacrifice to be the exclusive province of proper cult officials, and regards meat-eating as only beginning after the flood (see Gen 1:29-30; 9:1-6).  As a result, this tradition insists that no extra “clean” animals were required, and emphasizes that only two of every kind were taken on the ark.  The presence of two dissonant flood traditions, one of which seems to be correcting the other, complicates our straightforward assumptions about this text–particularly if we had assumed the text to be the factual account of an actual event.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No public man in these islands ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means” (“Our Theatres In The Nineties,” 1930). Certainly, Shaw had a point!  It is far easier, and simpler, to stick with what “everybody knows” the Bible says than to wrestle with what Scripture actually means.

On the one hand, the Bible continually frustrates our attempts to turn it into an end in itself: whether as an infallible witness to history, or as a self-sufficient, internally consistent rule of behavior.  The Bible is far more complex than that, as an honest reading of the text on the page continually reveals. But on the other hand, reading the Bible brings us into an encounter with the living God.  Reformed theologian Daniel Migliore puts it very well: “Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  However, “Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible” (Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 50). The distinction is vital, friends.  Can we lay aside our biblical “knowingness,” and allow the words of Scripture to bring us into a new experience of the living Word of God?