FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog from 2018, on the meaning of the shout, “Hosanna!”  Have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyfilled, triumphant Easter!

In “The Princess Bride,” one of my favorite films, a continuing shtick involves Wallace Shawn’s character, Vazzini, who uses the word  “Inconceivable!” over and over again.  Eventually, this prompts Vazzini’s henchman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think that it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes, we use words without thinking what they mean, just because they seem to fit a context: think of how astonished we are when we say, “How are you?,” and someone actually starts to tell us!  We didn’t mean, really, “Tell me how you are.”  All we meant was, “I see you there, I recognize and acknowledge you, and now I am off to do something  else.”

Or consider the word “Hosanna.”   Hosanna is a church word, like “amen” and “Alleluia”—in fact, I would bet that you have never used or heard that word outside of a church.  Hosanna pops up in hymns, particularly the Palm Sunday standards, and in prayers–particularly in the Great Thanksgiving, every time we celebrate communion:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
      heaven and earth are full of your glory.
     Hosanna in the highest.
     Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
     Hosanna in the highest.


In the gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year, the shout seems to be taken up spontaneously by the crowd as a parade takes shape, and word spreads that the one on the donkey is David’s descendant, who has come to Jerusalem to claim a throne. They use Hosanna as a festival shout–the way we might cheer at a ball game:

Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10).

But unlike “Yahoo!” or “Hurray!” in English, “Hosanna” is a real word in Hebrew.  It comes from Psalm 118—part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118). These psalms are sung in Jewish festivals, particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.

Just as around Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” is everywhere–in our ears and in the air!–the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

To be more specific, “Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118:25, which in Hebrew reads

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

Though the Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, most ordinary Judeans didn’t actually speak Hebrew: in Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Palestinian Jews would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what they mean. So, while they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, then, they are calling to Jesus for help.

Do they need help? Indeed, they do!  In Jesus’ time, Judea was under the heel of Roman military occupation.  Taxes were high, prices were high, and popular unrest was high—which is probably why the crowds were spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to lead them.  This ferment would explode into disastrous revolts against Rome that will result, first, in the destruction of the temple, and then, in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem itself for generations.

But that is not why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.  We know the story that unfolds in this next week very well.  Jesus has come, not to claim a throne, but to take a stand against the religious and political establishments that will result in his execution.  He has come to suffer, and to die.


From the first, Christians have confessed that somehow, all of our suffering and death is caught up in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Jesus will die for us—communicating at once the depth of human sin and depravity, and the extent of God’s love for us.


It is well, then, that we should shout “Hosanna,” friends–“Save us, please!”  For Jesus has come to save, not just those ignorant crowds at the gate, who were crying for help but didn’t know it, but you, and me, and all of us, for all of time.

Friend, whatever your need is this day, in this Holy Week, whatever your sorrow, whatever your pain, you are not alone!  Christ has come to be with you right where you are, in the center of your darkness– to bring you home.  We can join the Palm Sunday crowds, and call, not in ignorance but in earnest, “Hosanna”–“Save  us, Lord!”—knowing that Christ will answer.


The Breastplate of Saint Patrick

FOREWORD:  This week, in keeping with my duties, obligations, and privileges as the World’s Biggest Leprechaun, I am reposting this blog entry in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Wednesday March 17, is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

Patrick embraces a joyful spirituality of nature, wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.  This St. Patrick’s Day, may we too seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.


Oh, and–Erin go bragh!


Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the 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 obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

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 way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel 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 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.



Faith, Not Belief

What SETI can learn from evangelical sports fans.

Sunday’s Gospel features John 3:16–perhaps the most memorized and quoted passage in Scripture.  I learned it myself in the King James:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16 has embedded itself so deeply in our culture that it can be held aloft at sporting events, posted on billboards and bumperstickers, worn on tee-shirts, and even flaunted in tattoos!  Perhaps more than any other passage, it is the cornerstone of Evangelical Christian faith: if you believe in Jesus, then you will be saved.

But what does it mean to “believe in” Jesus?  In the Greek, the verb used in this verse is pisteuo, the verbal correspondent to the noun pistos, “faith”–so it would be better rendered as “have faith.”  According to nineteenth-century Bible scholar Joseph Henry Thayer, pisteuo expresses “the conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of his soul.”  Having faith in Jesus means committing myself to Jesus; it means trusting that, in Jesus, God’s love for the world–and for me–is made manifest. However, most English translators follow the KJV here in translating the verb as “believe.”

We may wonder what difference this makes: after all, aren’t “belief” and “faith” the same thing?  But I am persuaded that they are not–and indeed, that confusing “belief” with “faith” has done considerable harm in American Christianity. “Belief” is intellectual assent to a concept: “I  believe it is going to be a sunny day.”  We use “belief” in that everyday sort of way when we lack the evidence for certitude, and are fairly, but not absolutely, sure of what is going to happen–after all, the sun is shining now, but it may yet cloud up and rain!

But as used in many Christian circles, “belief” instead conveys an absolute certainly, despite the lack of evidence, or even in the face of conflicting evidence.  Indeed, believing without evidence, or against the evidence, is seen as evidence of a strong faith.  Forgetting that Jesus himself did not condemn Thomas’ desire for evidence, such Christians find sanction in John 20:29: “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Church historian Diana Butler Bass observes a similar misunderstanding in the Christian creeds.  The Latin verb credo, from which we get our word “creed,” doesn’t mean“I believe,” but rather, she notes, “I set my heart upon.” The difference is “a shift from information about to experience of”–that is, from belief to faith!  Indeed, in her revolutionary book Christianity After Religion,  Bass writes:

A great modern heresy of the Church is the heresy of believing. Christianity was never intended to be a system or structure of belief in the modern sense; it originated as a disposition of the heart.


Confusing faith with belief has made many Christians suspicious of other sources of knowledge–and of science in particular.  So, regarding the vaccines now available for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, only 54% of white Evangelicals say that they will probably get the vaccination, while 45% say they will not: the worst record among any religious group surveyed.  John Fea, a U.S. historian at Messiah University, was unsurprised:

“There’s a long history of anti-science within American evangelicalism,” Fea said. “It goes back to the Scopes trial and evolution in the 1920s,” in which evangelicals debated Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Also disturbing is the susceptibility of such Christians to conspiracy theories–which one is also required to accept “on faith.”  In a recent 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 bizarre idea that is a central claim of QAnon.  Among those who regarded that statement as mostly or completely true, 27% were white Evangelicals.  Ed Stetzer, an evangelical pastor and executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, sadly observes

“People of faith believe there is a divine plan — that there are forces of good and forces of evil at work in the world.  QAnon is a train that runs on the tracks that religion has already put in place.”

Perhaps the best way to derail that train is to uncouple “faith” and “belief.”

Holy Prophet Habakkuk – Damascene Gallery

The best way into an authentic biblical understanding of faith is through the prophet Habakkuk, who speaks out of the doubt, fear and anxiety prompted by the rise of Babylonian imperial power in sixth century Judah.   Habakkuk 2:4–one of the primary texts Paul cites for his doctrine of justification by grace through faith (see Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11)–expresses how the righteous are to live in such perilous times:

Look at the proud!
    Their spirit is not right in them,
    but the righteous live by their faith (Hab 2:4, NRSV)

The Hebrew word ‘emunah (rendered “faith” in the NRSV) typically has to do with steadfastness, trustworthiness, and reliability.  Habakkuk contrasts the righteous one (Hebrew tsaddiq) and the one who is not righteous, but is instead “puffed up” and proud.  The righteous “live by their [changed in the NRSV for reasons of inclusivity; the Hebrew reads “his”] faith” (Hebrew be’emunato yikhyeh). If “his” refers, as seems simplest, to the righteous one, then “his faith” refers to the steadfastness, trustworthiness, and reliability of the righteous: in a word, to their commitment. The Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew reads, “the righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity.”

Unlike the wicked, who are concerned only for themselves, the righteous live lives of commitment and devotion to God and to God’s torah (that is, God’s instruction, or law).   Habakkuk 2:5 and the woes that follow in 2:6-20 serve by contrast to describe the selfish, arrogant lifestyle of the wicked, and so to legitimate God’s judgment upon them.  This verse is not about what the righteous believe about God, but about their commitment to God.


Our oldest references to the book of Habakkuk come from the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls–indeed, from one of the first scrolls found, in what is now called Cave 1.  It is a Bible study (in Aramaic, a pesher) called 1QpHab, interpreting Habakkuk as a prophecy concerning the Essene community at Qumran.   The portion dealing with our passage from Habakkuk (1QpHab 8:1-3) says that Hab 2:4 “concerns all in the house of Judah who observe the torah, who God has removed from the house of judgment on account of their hard labor and their faithfulness to the Teacher of Righteousness.”  This early Jewish community understood our passage to be about faith, not belief.

The Septuagint (the Jewish Scriptures in Greek translation) of Hab 2:4 has pisteos mou “my [God’s] faith,” rather than “his faith.”  This may reflect a common scribal error (the third person and first person pronominal endings are often confused), but it is also possible that the translators are interpreting the text here, refocusing the verse upon God’s faithfulness.  Still, the Greek captures the point we have been making: in contrast to the self-righteous, who are self-centered and proud, the truly righteous are characterized by their devotion to God.

Paul cites Hab 2:4 twice, in Galatians 3:11 and in Romans 1:17.   In Galatians, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham is not restricted to Abraham’s physical descendants, but rather applies to all, Jew and Gentile alike, who like Abraham believe God’s word (Gal 3:6-14). In that connection, Paul asserts, “But since no one is made righteous by the Law as far as God is concerned, it is clear that the righteous one will live on the basis of faith” (Gal 3:11).

Similarly, Paul cites our passage from Habakkuk in Romans 1:17 as part of his larger argument for the commonality of Jew and Gentile before God: first in condemnation, and then in salvation through Christ (see Rom 2:9-29; 3:21-26). Paul declares, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). To demonstrate this truth, Paul cites Hab 2:4b: “God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Paul’s point, in both Galatians and Romans, is the inclusion of the Gentiles, not (as is sometimes claimed) the exclusion of the Jews (see Rom 11:13-26) or the rejection of the law (see Gal 3:19-29).

Intriguingly, Paul’s citations of Hab 2:4b do not follow either the Hebrew (“his faith”) or the Greek (“my faith”) text!  James Dunn sees Paul as charting a middle course between them, embracing both (James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1—8 Word Bible Commentary 38A [Dallas: Word, 1988], 45).  Referring back to Rom 1:17, where God’s righteousness is revealed “from faithfulness to faith,” Dunn sees the Habakkuk citation as referring to faith in both senses:

He who is maintained within or has been brought into the relationship with God which brings about salvation, by the outreach of God’s faithfulness to his own faith, shall experience the fullness of life which God intended for humankind as he lives in the dependence of faith on the continuing faithfulness of God (Dunn 1988, 48).

Like Dunn, Richard Hays proposes that Paul’s citation is purposefully ambiguous, but in a different sense. As Paul uses it in Gal 3:11, the phrase from Hab 2:4 means:

  • The Messiah [i.e., the Righteous One] will live by (his own) faith(fullness).
  • The righteous person will live as a result of the Messiah’s faith(fullness).
  • The righteous person will live by (his own) faith in the Messiah (Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, Second Ed [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 140).

The second option is of greatest interest for Hayes, who argues that “for Paul the obedience and faithfulness of Jesus Christ are of central soteriological significance. . . Jesus’ faith is not merely exemplary, as in nineteenth-century liberal theology, but vicariously efficacious” (Hays 2002, 210). In any case, Paul’s citation of Habakkuk intends all three: “Paul’s thought is rendered wholly intelligible only if all three of these interpretations are held together and affirmed as correct” (Hays 2002, 140).

In the deepest sense, what Paul affirms in his use of Hab 2:4b is not unlike what the authoritative compendium of rabbinic teaching, the Talmud, affirms about this same verse.  In b. Makkot 23b-24a,  Rabbi Simlai teaches that though there are 613 commandments in Torah, they are condensed into eleven by David (Ps 15), into six by Isaiah (Isa 33:15-16), into three by Micah (Mic 6:8); into two in Isaiah 56:1, and into one in Amos 5:4 (“The LORD proclaims to the house of Israel: Seek me and live”) and in Habakkuk 2:4–“the righteous live by their faith”!  In the claim that all of the commandments in Torah find their heart in our passage and in Amos 5:4, Rabbi Simlai, like Paul, affirms that a dynamic, committed relationship with the God must come first and remain foremost in our lives.  Salvation does not come through, like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, “believing six impossible things before breakfast.”  It comes through faith: through commitment to God and trust in God’s love for us, demonstrated and made accessible in Jesus Christ.



Counting to Ten

How many commandments are there?  That’s an easy one–ten, right?  This Sunday’s Hebrew Bible reading is Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments.  The Hebrew Bible refers to this passage three times (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4) as ‘asheret haddebarim: that is, “the ten words.”

Growing up, I learned the Ten Commandments as they are presented (from the KJV of the Exodus passage) and numbered here, in this photograph of the old commandment boards from the original Anglican Church (built 1752-3) of Trinity-on-the-Green, New Haven, CT (photographed by John Wallace).

But, as it turns out, not all faith traditions count to ten in the same way!  Depending on how–and where–we count, we may come up with a different numbering of the ten (or eleven!) commandments.

In Judaism, the first “commandment” really doesn’t seem to be a commandment at all.  This stained-glass window from the Plymouth Synagogue (built in 1762, it is the oldest synagogue in England; indeed in the English-speaking world) shows that the first commandment begins ‘Anoki Yhwh: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6).  That makes the second commandment the one that, as a young United Methodist, I learned to call the first: “You must have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7)–in Hebrew, Lo’ yihyeh-leka ‘elohim ‘akherim ‘al-penay.

The Ten Commandments

Recall, though, that the Hebrew expression for this passage, ‘asheret haddebarim, actually means not “the Ten Commandments,” but  “the ten words.” Similarly, “Decalogue,” a title often used for this text, means literally “ten words.”  In the first of these “words,” God introduces Godself, by name, as Israel’s deliverer.  In Hebrew, God’s name is YHWH.  Pious Jews, out of respect for the Name (see Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11), do not attempt to pronounce it, but simply say “Adonai,” or “My Lord;” most English translations accordingly render YHWH as LORD in all capital letters.  In Judaism, God’s self-identification becomes very appropriately the first “word,” on which all of the words that follow depend.

Another difficulty with numbering and listing the Ten Commandments is that they are recorded twice in our Bibles: not only in Exodus 20:1-17, but also in Deuteronomy 5:1-21.   Indeed, one reason that the fifth book in our Bibles is called “Deuteronomy” (“second law” in Greek) is that this second account of the commandments is found there.

While the two versions of the Decalogue are over broad swaths identical, there are differences.  For example, the priestly Decalogue in Exodus 20 says that we are to Remember [Hebrew zakor] the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. . . .  Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day” (Exod 20:8-11; see the priestly account of creation in Gen 1:1–2:4a).  But the Deuteronomic version reads, Keep [Hebrew shamor] the Sabbath day and treat it as holy . . . Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut 5:12-15).

Busy Housewife Vector

Which version of the Ten Commandments we are reading makes a particular difference in the meaning, and possibly in the numbering, of the last commandment.  In the priestly Decalogue,  Exodus 20:17 (which many of us learned as the tenth commandment) states,

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.  

Here, your (explicitly male) neighbor’s house–that is, all that he owns–is placed first, followed by a list of its contents.  His wife, like his slaves, his domestic animals, and everything else included in his house “belongs to your neighbor,” and his ownership is to be respected: the same verb (khamad) is used both times in this verse (the NRSV, like the KJV, simply has “covet”).  Other texts–most notably, the priestly account of creation to which the Sabbath command alludes (Gen 1:27)–challenge this idea, but in the priestly Decalogue, women are property.

However, Deuteronomy 5:21 reads:

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

The change in the order here, the break in the middle of the verse, and the different verbs used with regard to the neighbor’s wife (Hebrew khamad) and the neighbor’s property (Hebrew ‘awah) are all accurately rendered features of the Hebrew text.  The perspective is still masculine.  But Deuteronomy puts the neighbor’s wife first, and makes a clear distinction between her and the neighbor’s house.  Women are not property, here!

Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, following the version of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5, appropriately regard coveting a neighbor’s wife and coveting a neighbor’s property as two different commandments: the ninth and the tenth, respectively.  They avoid having eleven commandments by, with Jewish tradition, reading the prohibition of idols (Exod 20:4-6; Deut 5:8-10, which I learned to count as the second commandment) as part of the command to have no other gods (commandment number one in my Sunday School class–but, remember, the second of the ten words in the synagogue).

The differences in the ways that we count to ten are more than ecclesiastical curiosities.  They remind us of how much our traditions have to learn from one another, and lead us deeper into reflection on this most numbingly familiar of biblical passages–reminding us that the Bible never loses its capacity to surprise and challenge us.


Whose Church Is This?


Image result for white CHristian Nationalists at CapitolFOREWORD:  I am re-sharing this post from 2016, lightly edited, for this Ash Wednesday.  The issue it poses has become, if anything, even more urgent today.  The recent second impeachment trial for Mr. Trump involved horrific video and witness statements concerning the insurrectionist mob assault on our nation’s capitol January 6.  To our sorrow and shame, as the white cross in the center of this image reminds us, that mob contained no small number of white Christian nationalists, people who are persuaded that the church, and the nation, belong by rights to them and those like them.  May this Ash Wednesday remind us that it is Christ’s church, and that we enter it–all of us–humbly and in sincere repentance, at Jesus’ generous invitation.


aint peters church

When friend and colleague in United Methodist ministry Tom Barnicott shared this picture from Analytical Grammar on Facebook, I first laughed uproariously (what can I say–I love a good pun!), then shared it myself (with the added caption, “‘Tain’t Paul’s, neither”), and then thought, “Huh! Whose church is this?”–that is a profoundly important question.

The Christian season of Lent, during which we are called to repent of our sins and to seek God’s will for our lives, begins with Ash Wednesday, February 17.  I can think of no better way to enter into this Lenten discipline than to reflect on whose church it is, after all, and what that means for our lives and outreach.

Likely, many readers will think immediately of Jesus’ words to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, following Peter’s acclamation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter.  And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.  I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven” (Matt 16:16-19).

Traditional Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage finds here the establishment of Peter, the first Pope and vicar of Christ, as the foundation–the Rock–upon whom the church is established.  This passage, by the way, puns on the name “Peter” (Greek Petros), a nickname given to Simon bar Jonah by Jesus (see Mark 3:16; John 1:42).  Petros means “rock;” as does the Aramaic name Cephas (used for Peter in John 1:42 and consistently by Paul; see 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14).  It is as though Jesus called his friend “Rocky”!

Stair Climb: Get Your Rocky Balboa On and See L.A. From Above Los Angeles Magazine


This passage is also the source of the association of Peter with the keys to the kingdom, seen in the El Greco painting above, and in the crossed keys of the papal seal (here, the official seal of Pope Francis):

In the Greek of Matthew 16:19, the second-person pronouns (“you”) are singular, which could support the understanding that the keys were given to Peter. But other aspects of this passage call that into question.  First of all, while Petros is, of course, masculine, the noun translated “rock” in that very same verse is feminine: not petros, a rock or stone, but petra, a crag or outcropping (in the parable of the sower in Luke 8:6, 13, this is the word used for bedrock with only a very thin covering of soil).  In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) of Isaiah 8:14petra is used for Mount Zion–a passage quoted in Romans 9:33 and in 1 Peter 2:8 with reference to Jesus as the Messiah:

God will become a sanctuary—
    but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel;
    a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem.

In short, it appears that the Rock on which the church is founded may not be Peter after all, but rather Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Certainly, the text is very clear on whose church this is: Jesus declares, “I’ll build my church on this rock.”  The church belongs to Christ.

In Matthew’s gospel, the “kingdom of heaven” is not a reference to the afterlife (as in the myriad jokes about Saint Peter standing at the pearly gates).  Instead, the very Jewish Matthew, reluctant to refer to the Divine too directly, consistently uses this expression where Mark and Luke have “the kingdom of God“–the inbreaking of God’s reign into our world which Jesus both announced and inaugurated (compare Matt 4:17 with Mark 1:15). The kingdom is God’s–but we who claim to know and love the Lord can either give people access to what God is doing, or stand in their way.  The keys are ours–but that is less a promise or an honor than a caution.

Sadly, when we think that the church is ours, we may also think that having the keys gives us the authority to admit or exclude whomever we like.  On James Dobson’s radio program “Family Talk,” evangelist Franklin Graham said,

We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children. 

What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches. You have immoral people who get into the churches and it begins to effect the others in the church and it is dangerous.

Rev. Graham’s pronouns are significant: “our churches,” “our homes”–as though the church of Jesus Christ were our personal preserve, our private club, into which we need admit only those who think like us, and from which we can exclude anyone who makes us uncomfortable. This view of the church is not only mistaken, it is idolatrous: the church is Christ’s, not ours.  Indeed, as Christian blogger Benjamin Corey writes, the call for the exclusion of gay children, from Rev. Graham and others,

is precisely why 40% of homeless children in the United States are LGBTQ. It’s also why 68% of them report their homelessness is due to family rejection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, often by religious parents.

Mr. Corey is right: “these are dangerous, dangerous ideas– ideas the people of Jesus must resist and rebuke.”



My dear friend and colleague Andrew Purves, the Jean and Nancy Davis Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts this better than anyone I know:

Seeing ministry as “our” ministry or “my” ministry is the root problem that ails us. Ministry, rightly understood is our sharing in the continuing and ongoing ministry of Jesus in the world. . . . The heart of the matter is this: To participate in Jesus’ ministry requires our being willing to crucify any understanding of ministry as ours so that we may more fully experience the resurrection hope and power of Jesus’ ministry in and through our lives.

After all, brothers and sisters, it ain’t Peter’s church–or Paul’s, or yours, or mine.  It is the church of Jesus Christ.  God help us to claim and live this truth, in every congregation of Christ’s Church.


I [HEART] You!

This Sunday is Valentine’s Day.  In popular culture, the historical and religious connection with St. Valentine that gives the day its name was stretched past the breaking point long ago.  We know Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers, and a celebration of romantic love.  Its symbol is the heart, whether mailed as a valentine, given in candy form, texted as <3, or expressed as an emoji:

Image result for heart emoji

Since the Middle Ages, the heart has been the symbol of romantic love in the West, and regarded as the seat of the emotions and of sentiment.  We commonly contrast thinking and feeling as matters of the head and the heart, respectively.

Today, of course, we are well aware of the difference between the symbol and the reality.  We know that our hearts are actually powerful muscular pumps in our chests, which circulate life-giving, oxygen-bearing blood through our veins and arteries to every part of our bodies.  If our heart ever stops beating, and does not start again, we die.

When our Bibles mention the heart, we are likely to think about one of these two concepts.  The problem is, neither one was known to the Old or the New Testament authors, who did not connect the heart with emotions and did not understand the circulatory system!  To understand what they would have meant by the heart requires us to set our preconceptions aside, and see with new (or more accurately, with ancient!) eyes.

A good way into understanding the heart in Scripture is Jesus’s teaching on the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28). In all three passages, Jesus’ teaching comes in a conversation with an expert on Jewish law, although the accounts differ on small points:  in Matthew, the expert seeks to test Jesus; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert!  In all three, however, the answer is the same: no single commandment is the greatest.  The meaning and message of Scripture hang not on one, but on two essential teachings: love for God, and love for neighbor.

Jesus’ “first commandment” comes from the Shema’, which Mark’s version quotes in its entirety, and which still today is the heart of Jewish life and faith.  The name comes from its first word in Hebrew: Shema’ Yisrael ‘Adonai ‘Elohenu ‘Adonai ‘echad. The traditional translation (see the KJV) of this verse, reflected in the Septuagint and in the Greek of Mark’s gospel, is: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.” A better rendering, though, is the one found in the Jewish Publication Society’s translation, and in the NRSV: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  While the traditional translation is an affirmation of the doctrine of monotheism (there is only one God), the better reading understands the Shema’ as a pledge of allegiance, a declaration of commitment: our God is the LORD, and only the LORD!

Deuteronomy 6:5, which immediately follows, describes the totality of that commitment: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  While some interpretations of this commandment find here three different ways of loving God, that does not seem to be its intent.  The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: connected, not with feeling, but with deciding and doing.   Loving God with all your heart, then, means choosing, as the opening verse of the Shema’ declares, to commit yourself solely and absolutely to God: to love God as much as you can.

The remainder of the verse restates and underlines this absolute commitment. Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul.”  Rather than some separate, immaterial part of me, nephesh refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of me.   To love God with all one’s nephesh is to love God entirely, with all that I am.  The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew–not a noun, actually, but an adverb, meaning “much” or “very.”  We are to love God with all our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!

In the Greek of the New Testament, however, and in the minds of early Christians influenced by Greek thought, this command does become a threefold (or more) depiction of loving God, with every aspect of one’s being.  The KJV of Mark 12:30 reads,”And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”  The Greek psyche can refer (unlike Hebrew nephesh) to an immaterial, spiritual part of the person: hence, the soul.  The Greek word dianoia refers to thoughts and intentions, and is commonly translated as “mind.”  One’s “might” (Greek hischus) could be regarded as relating to one’s physical, material self.

First in the list, though, is the heart: Greek kardia.  In Greek as in Hebrew, the heart is the center of the self–the choosing, deciding aspect of the person.  Loving God with all one’s kardia is, on the right-hand side of the Bible, no more about feeling or sentiment than loving God with all one’s lebab on the left-hand side!  In each case, love is a decision: an act of the will.  Curiously, the association of love with the heart, in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, plainly demonstrates that love is not regarded here as an emotion.  Love has to do, not with feeling or sentiment, but with the will.  Love is a choice.

Jesus’ second “great commandment” makes this crystal clear.  Leviticus 19:18 says, “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”  We could perhaps ask, as the lawyer does in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?” Indeed, some interpreters have proposed that this was an in-house commandment: “your neighbor” means “your fellow Israelite.” But Leviticus 19:33-34 demonstrates that this is far too narrow a reading. There, love is commanded toward “the alien who resides with you” (the Hebrew term is ger, meaning a non-Israelite living in the land without the comfort and protection of a clan) in the same language used in 19:18 for the neighbor: “you shall love the alien as yourself.” In fact this passage says, the ger “shall be to you as a citizen among you.”  All quibbling aside, we already know this, as the lawyer in Luke’s account certainly would have known it.  The real question, as Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, is how can we demonstrate love–not just to those like us, and those we like, but to all our neighbors?

Actually, the fact that Scripture commands love for God and neighbor should already have made this clear.  Feelings cannot be commanded–they simply are.  Love for the neighbor doesn’t mean fond feeling: I may not even like my neighbor (at least, at first)!  Love means willing and acting for my neighbors’ good, in order to bring about for them what I would wish for myself.  Likewise, love for the LORD is not a sentimental valentine to God.  Loving God is the decision to commit myself–my entire being–deliberately into God’s hands, and to live with the consequences.  Making that choice, we discover that the deepest consequence of loving God is knowing that God loves us–that indeed, God loved us first!


Putting People First

How can the Bible be written by God yet have human authors?

This Sunday’s epistle, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, is one of my favorite passages from Paul’s letters.  That may strike you as odd: why should I be so enamored of this weird passage, on such an obscure matter?  But friends, I am persuaded that Paul’s treatment of the question of whether or not Christians may eat food offered to idols  has a significance far beyond its narrow cultural and historical context.  Bear with me for awhile.

To us, of course, this question is irrelevant.  Whether or not we should eat food offered to idols isn’t even on our radar screen!  But we know from our New Testament that this issue divided the early church.  In Acts 15, the Apostolic Council–called to consider whether Gentiles could be part of the body of Christ–turned, in part, on this divisive issue.  James, leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (and likely, the brother of Jesus and the source of the Christian wisdom recorded in our book of James) spoke for the Council:

I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood (Acts 15:19-20, NRSV).

Gentiles would not need to become Jews in order to be followers of Christ.  However, all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, had to follow some rules.  They had to abide by a bare minimum of  kosher law (no eating blood, or meat with the blood still in it: that is, from animals killed by strangling).  They had to forswear the sexual perversions that James believed (with some justification!) were rife in the Greco-Roman world.  But at the top of the list, they had to abstain “from things polluted by idols”–that is, no eating food that had been offered as a sacrifice.  The John of Revelation too held that those who ate food sacrificed to idols separated themselves from the church of Jesus Christ (Rev 2:14, 20).

Marcus Aurelius sacrificingWe may think that, even in the ancient world, this surely could not have been that big a deal: how hard would it have been to avoid eating food offered to an idol?  As it turns out, it could be very difficult indeed!  Temples, and their priesthoods, supported themselves largely through sacrifices.  A select portion of the worshipper’s offering would be burned on an altar for the god.  But the remainder became the property of the temple, and of the priestess or priest.  They could sell it to vendors, to be resold on the open market to consumers.  So, unless you were very careful about where you obtained your meat, you might not know whether it had first been offered to a god or goddess.

If you took avoiding such food seriously, you would also be very careful about with whom you socialized.  You couldn’t eat with nonbelievers–or even with other believers who weren’t as scrupulous as you were.  Indeed, as the texts from Revelation cited above showed, you might even deny that those less careful Christians were Christians at all.

The Cult Statue of Artemis of Ephesus

Avoiding meat offered to idols could have economic implications as well.  Practitioners of skilled trades were organized into guilds, which could be dedicated to a patron god or goddess–like the silversmiths of Ephesus, dedicated to Artemis (Acts 19:23-41; the Romans called this goddess Diana).  Guild gatherings would have involved meals, likely including food offered to their divine patron.  To avoid eating such food, Christians (for example, Christian silversmiths in Ephesus) would have to surrender their guild membership–but if they did that, they would likely find employment difficult or impossible.  Abstaining from food offered to idols could mean losing their livelihood.

However, as Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians shows, some believers thought differently.  They reasoned that, since there was only one true God, idols were merely statues, and food sacrificed to them was no different than any other kind of food (see 1 Cor 8:1-6).  Paul, who steadfastly refused to reduce faith to rule-following, certainly agreed with their theology:

There is one God the Father.
        All things come from him, and we belong to him.
And there is one Lord Jesus Christ.
        All things exist through him, and we live through him (1 Cor 8:6).

But Paul refused to settle the matter legalistically, either way–because Paul understood that the food itself was not the real issue.  What really mattered was sensitivity to one another in the body of Christ.  If the faith of “weaker” Christians is threatened when they see other believers eating food sacrificed to idols, then the “stronger” Christians need to abstain (1 Cor 8:7-13).

This does not mean, by the way, that Paul simply surrendered to the rule-followers!  In Galatians 2:11-14, when Peter refuses to eat with Paul’s Gentile converts for fear of James’ “circumcision faction” (Gal 2:12, NRSV), Paul is caustically scornful:

But when I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [Peter’s name in Aramaic] in front of everyone, “If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14).

Paul sums up his advice on food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33.   Buy your meat wherever is convenient, and eat it without fear.  Accept invitations from unbelievers–after all, how will you ever have the opportunity to witness for Christ if you only associate with like-minded Christians?  Thank God for whatever they offer you, and eat it gratefully–unless they make an issue of it, by telling you that the food you are eating comes from an idol sacrifice.  But even then, notice, the issue is not the food or where it comes from, but the conscience of the person who has offered this food to you, who may think that, by knowingly eating food offered to an idol, you are condoning their idolatry.

So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory. Don’t offend either Jews or Greeks, or God’s church. This is the same thing that I do. I please everyone in everything I do. I don’t look out for my own advantage, but I look out for many people so that they can be saved (1 Cor 10:31-33).

For Paul, people, and their salvation, matter more than ideology, or even than right theology.

First and Second Chronicles: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by [Steven S. Tuell]

Paul’s resolution of this thorny problem reminds me of another favorite passage, from the left-hand side of the Bible (2 Chronicles 30:15-22).   King Hezekiah had invited refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel, who had escaped the fall of their kingdom to Assyria (722 BCE), to come to Jerusalem for Passover.  Sadly, Hezekiah’s invitation was rejected by many in the north, who laughed at and scorned his messengers (2 Chr 30:10).  Perhaps Jesus was thinking of this passage when he told his parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14; compare Lk 14:15-20), where the messengers are also scorned and ill-treated.

However, as in Jesus’ parable, the failure of those invited to respond does not stop the feast!  Some northerners, from the tribes of Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun, do humble themselves  (an important theme in Chronicles; see  2 Chr 7:14) and come south to Jerusalem for the feast.  In Judah, meanwhile, the response is overwhelming: “God’s power was at work in Judah, unifying them to do what the king and his officials had ordered by the Lord’s command” (2 Chr 30:12).  The Hebrew of this verse says that God gave them leb ‘ekhad–that is, “one heart” (see 1 Chr 12:38, where those who come to make David king are likewise said to be of “one heart”).  In the end, “a huge crowd” gathers in Jerusalem for the feast (2 Chr 30:13).  Jerusalem and the temple are cleansed, and the priests and Levites stand ready to serve (2 Chr 30:15), conducting themselves “according to the law of Moses the man of God” (2 Chr 30:16, NRSV).

It is fortunate that the priests and Levites are ready, for a great number of those attending are ritually unclean, and so cannot kill their own sacrifices; the Levites must do this for them (2 Chr 30:17; for the killing of the sacrifice by Levites, see also Ezr 6:20; Ezek 44:11).  Nothing is said of the reasons for their defilement; however, since many of those said to be defiled come from the north (2 Chr 30:18), they may have had different ideas about what constitutes ritual purity, or about the requirements for the observance of Passover.  From the Chronicler’s perspective, however, this means that they “hadn’t eaten the Passover meal in the prescribed way” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, they were in violation of God’s law in Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5).

Joe Biden is a man of faith. That could help him win over some White evangelicals. - CNNPolitics

But rather than barring these rule-breakers from his Passover, Hezekiah prays for them:

May the good LORD forgive everyone who has decided to seek the true God, the LORD, the God of their ancestors, even though they aren’t ceremonially clean by sanctuary standards (2 Chr 30:18-19).

The LORD hears the king’s prayer, and the community is healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Hezekiah’s prayer, and the LORD’s favorable response, strike a blow against legalism.  Clearly, it is more important to set one’s heart to seek God than it is to be in a state of scrupulous ritual purity.  Similarly, the prophet Micah declares:

He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Mic 6:8).

Was Jesus Silent about the issue of Homosexuality? – Theist Thug Life


In his teaching, Jesus as well placed “the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith” above laws of ritual purity (Matt 23:23).  So, for Jesus, meeting human need by healing on the sabbath was more important than strict adherence to the regulations of the rabbis (so, for example, Mk 3:1-6).

Today, the church is divided by other questions and controversies.  Yet, we still are tempted to appeal to legalism, whether in our reading of Scripture or in our application of community standards–which, far from resolving our conflicts, only heightens our division.  We need to remember that Scripture itself rejects this narrow, rigid standard.  How much better, like Paul and King Hezekiah, to put people before ideology: to trust in God’s grace, and remember that devotion to the Lord, and loving those whom God loves, is our first and highest calling.


The image of Roman sacrificial religion above comes from Wikipedia:  User:MatthiasKabel.  It is a bas-relief from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, depicting “Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) and members of the Imperial family offer[ing] sacrifice in gratitude for success against Germanic tribes. In the backgrounds stands the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitolium (this is the only extant portrayal of this [R]oman temple).”


Telling the Truth

Title: Living Cross [Click for larger image view]In the Christian year, this season after Epiphany is a season of light, and revelation–a season for the truth.  Jesus, whose marvelous birth we have just celebrated, promised “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  But we may ask, what is the truth?  When multiple voices declare, with absolute certainty and sincerity, mutually contradictory truths, how can we know what–or whom–to believe?

In Jewish tradition, Psalms, Proverbs and Job are called the “Books of Truth”–in large measure, because the first letters of ‘Iyob (Job, in Hebrew), Meshaley (Proverbs), and Tehillim (literally, “praises;” the Hebrew title for the Psalms) spell ‘emet: Hebrew for “truth.” However, it is doubtful that this acronym would have occurred to anyone if these books were not already regarded as vehicles of truth.

The Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 139, begins by affirming a fundamental truth of the poet’s own existence, and of ours: “LORD, you have examined me.  You know me” (Ps 139:1).  In the Hebrew, that second verb lacks an object: “you have searched me and you know . . . .”  The Greek of the Septuagint assumes, as our English translations do, that the poet or the reader–I–am the one whom God knows, which is certainly apt.  But the open-endedness of the poet’s declaration is powerful–“you know (fill in the blank)”!  You know the truth, about everything.  You know all secrets and mysteries–even the ones I keep hidden, perhaps even from myself.  Whatever the truth is, you, LORD, know it.

Job's Comforters

Certainly, Job is famous for telling the truth. At the beginning of his book, Job is described by the narrator as “honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil” (Job 1:1). God declares the same: when the Accuser (the Hebrew hassatan is a title, not a name, referring to a sort of heavenly prosecuting attorney) comes to a gathering of the divine council, reporting that he has just come from walking about on the earth, God asks if he has seen “my servant Job; surely there is no one like him on earth, a man who is honest, who is of absolute integrity, who reveres God and avoids evil?” (1:8).

Even after Job has lost his family and his wealth, he remains true, so that the LORD says to the Accuser yet again, “Have you thought about my servant Job, for there is no one like him on earth, a man who is honest, who is of absolute integrity, who reveres God and avoids evil? He still holds on to his integrity, even though you incited me to ruin him for no reason” (2:3). All through the poetic disputations which form the bulk of this book, Job’s three friends defend the Divine: rather than comforting Job, they attempt to vindicate God’s justice in the face of Job’s suffering. But at the book’s climax, God declares to them, “you didn’t speak correctly, as did my servant Job” (42:8)! Job alone has told the truth about God.

This is astonishing, since Job refuses either to justify God’s actions, or to reconcile himself to his own circumstances by accepting his fate.   Job 16–17 is typical of Job’s speeches throughout this book. In his suffering, Job hates his life, and longs for death:

My spirit is broken,
    my days extinguished,
    the grave, mine. . . .

If I hope for the underworld as my dwelling,
    lay out my bed in darkness,
    I’ve called corruption “my father,”
    the worm, “my mother and sister.”
    Where then is my hope?
        My hope—who can see it?
Will they go down with me to the underworld;
    will we descend together to the dust? (17:1, 13-16).

Yet, Job also steadfastly insists upon his own innocence, and the injustice of his suffering:

My face is red from crying,
    and dark gloom hangs on my eyelids.
But there is no violence in my hands,
    and my prayer is pure.

 Earth, don’t cover my blood;
    let my outcry never cease (16:16-18).


This speech is Job’s response to one of his disputants and alleged comforters, Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 15). Eliphaz embraces the traditions of conventional Israelite wisdom: “I will show you; listen to me; what I have seen I will declare— what sages have told, and their ancestors have not hidden” (Job 15:17-18 NRSV). These traditions, expressed particularly in the book of Proverbs, insist that life makes sense: the sage, by rightly discerning the pattern of God’s will in the world, can choose rightly, and so live rightly and well:

Those who have integrity will dwell in the land;
    the innocent will remain in it.
But the wicked will be cut off from the land,
    and the treacherous will be ripped up (Prov 2:21-22).

Suffering comes from resistance and opposition to God’s will:

for they raise a fist against God
        and try to overpower the Almighty.
They run toward him aggressively,
    with a massive and strong shield (Job 15:25-26).

Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament by [William P. Brown]

Job’s angry insistence upon his own integrity and refusal to submit to instruction place him in opposition to this traditional perspective. As William P. Brown observes,

Job is nothing less than a monstrosity in the eyes of his friends. His situation and his character do not fit within any schema of moral and theological coherence with which they are familiar. . . Job threatens the collapse of the moral world order as it has been traditionally construed (Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], pp. 68-69).

The problem is not that the sages, represented by Job’s friends, were ignorant of innocent suffering—after all, they weren’t idiots! The problem is that Job won’t play his proper role. Rather than accepting the role of the pupil, and permitting his wise friends to instruct him about life and God, Job claims the role of the teacher, and speaks a truth hard-won by his own experience. Eliphaz huffs that, by voicing his doubts and fears in front of civilians, Job is “truly making religion ineffective and restraining meditation before God” (15:4)! But rather than shoehorning his experience into Eliphaz’s theology, and confessing a guilt he knows he has not incurred,  Job instead challenges God to act justly, and vindicate him: “my eye pours out tears to God, that he would maintain the right of a mortal with God, as one does for a neighbor” (16:20-21 NRSV)!  Job insists upon telling the truth—and so must we.

Supporters of President Trump in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday.

This week, we witnessed the hitherto unimaginable spectacle of American citizens breaking into the Capitol and threatening the Senate and Congress in session–committing acts of vandalism, injuring several Capitol police officers, and killing one: Officer Brian Sicknick. The mob that perpetrated this violence claimed that they were acting to correct a horrendous injustice: that the 2020 election had been stolen from its rightful victor, Mr. Trump, who encouraged and indeed instigated their violence. But evidence for that massive fraud has never been demonstrated, and indeed, court case after court case has rebuffed attempts to nullify the election’s results.  In short, the justification for their violence was, and is, a lie.

The fact that they may have sincerely believed this lie does not make it any less a lie.  One of my favorite sayings comes from nineteenth- century American humorist Josh Billings (the stage name of Henry Wheeler Shaw): “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.”  The mob that invaded the capitol knew that they were right–but that does not make them any less wrong.

Sadly, the church bears no small amount of blame for this–and not only because many members of the mob bore signs saying “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus in 2020” as they pressed past the police barricades and up the Capitol Steps.  We Christians have conveyed the idea that faith means believing things without evidence or proof–indeed, despite evidence or proof.  As a result, evangelical leader Eric Metaxas could say, 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 says,

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.’

Essentially, this was Eliphaz’s argument.  We know the truth, and therefore evidence–whether of Mr. Biden’s election, or of Job’s innocent suffering–is irrelevant.  But that is not faith: it is nonsense.  Job’s insistence that he is innocent is affirmed by God, who also declares that Eliphaz and his friends are wrong–not only about Job, but about the God they claim to defend.

If faith is not belief, then what is it?  Psalm 139 affirms God’s presence with us everywhere, from horizon to horizon, in heaven and in the underworld, and every when: from before our life begins to beyond its ending.  Similarly, in Job, the divine speeches in chapters 38–41 underline God’s presence with and involvement in every aspect of the created world.  Faith is not affirming things about God, as Eliphaz and his colleagues do quite well.  Faith means relationship with God–a relationship that Job demonstrates in his unceasing engagement with God, even in resistance!  Similarly, the truth Jesus promises to reveal does not involve claims about him we are to affirm without evidence.  Rather, the truth he reveals is himself: “before Abraham was, I Am” (John 8:58)

Every September, for the last thirty years, I have welcomed a new class of students into the academic study of the Bible.  Many of them, I am sure, received from some well-meaning friends and family the same warning I was given: “If you’re not careful, you’ll lose your faith.”  The truth is, those friends and family are absolutely right!  If I do my job, they certainly will lose their faith: if “faith” means to them what it means to Eliphaz, or to Mr. Metaxas.  Education, and seminary education most of all, is fundamentally about learning to tell the truth: about Scripture, about faith, about human experience. The first step in that process is realizing that we do not yet know the truth—relinquishing our illusions through the painful process of questioning, doubt and uncertainty. “Our” faith cannot survive that crucible—but then, if “our” faith is so fragile that it cannot stand up to questions and trials, what good is it anyway? We have no use for a china-cabinet faith, which cannot be challenged, but must be guarded and protected. We need a rugged faith that we can take out on the road, a four-wheel-drive faith to get us through the ruts and mud and obstacles of life.

Friends, we must lose our faith, so that we may find—and be found by—the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2 NRSV).

Telling the truth is hard to do. We are always tempted to say instead what is popular, or expedient. But we do no one any favors if we listen to Eliphaz, and duck the hard truths of life and God. God grant us the power and the integrity to be honest, before God and the world. God grant us the grace to tell the truth.


The stained glass art at the top of this blog is by Sarah Hall, and is called “Living Cross.”  I downloaded the image from from “Art in the Christian Tradition,” a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN,


A Child He Was

My favorite poem for this glorious season is “A Child He Was,” by Giles Fletcher (1588-1623).  I have never found any other expression that so fully captures the wonder, awe, terror and glory of the incarnation of our Lord.  May God richly bless us all–Merry Christmas, friends!

Who can forget – never to be forgot –

         The time, that all the world in slumber lies,

When like the stars the singing angels shot

         To earth, and heaven awaked all his eyes,

To see another sun at midnight rise

         On earth? Was ever sight of pareil fame

         For God before, man like Himself did frame,

But God Himself now like a mortal was become.

A Child He was, and had not learnt to speak,

         That with His word the world before did make.

His mother’s arms Him bore, He was so weak,

         That with one hand the vaults of heaven could shake.

See how small room my infant Lord doth take

         Whom all the world is not enough to hold,

         Who of His years, as of His age hath told?

Never such age so young, never a child so old.

And yet but newly He was infanted,

         And yet already He was sought to die;

Yet scarcely born, already banishëd.

         Not able yet to go, and forced to fly:

But scarcely fled away, when by and by,

         The tyran’s sword with blood is all defiled,

         And Rachel, her sons, with fury wild,

Cries, “O thou cruel king!”, and “O my sweetest child!”

Egypt His nurse became, where Nilus springs,

         Who, straight to entertain the rising sun,

The hasty harvest in his bosom brings;

         But now for drought the fields were all undone,

And now with waters all is overrun:

         So fast the Cynthian mountains poured their snow,

         When once they felt the sun so near them flow,

That Nilus Egypt lost, and to sea did grow.

The angels carolled loud their song of peace;

         The cursed oracles were strucken dumb;

To see their Shepherd the poor shepherds press;

         To see their king the kingly sophies come;

And them to guide unto his Master’s home,

         A star comes dancing up the Orient,

         That springs for joy over the strawy tent,

Where gold to make their prince a crown, they all present.

Source: Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), pp. 273-4.




Judas Maccabeus, Daniel–and the Grinch

Hanukkah 2020 - Stories, Traditions & Origins - HISTORYAs I write this, we are midway through the celebration of Hanukkah: a Jewish holiday eight nights long (this year, December 11-18).  Each night of this festival, observant Jews light another candle on their Hanukkah menorah (these have nine branches, as one holds the light from which the others are lit).  A minor festival in the Jewish religious year, the significance of Hanukkah as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to its December neighbor, the Christian celebration of Christmas.  This year, both winter holidays are butting up against the necessary restrictions posed by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing Jewish and Christian families to think differently about their celebrations.

The story back of Hanukkah is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in the Apocrypha, in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61.  Intriguingly, that story is also related, albeit cryptically, in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  This may surprise us: the Maccabean revolt, after all, was in the second century BCE, while Daniel is set nearly 400 years earlier, in the time of the Babylonian exile.  However, most scholars agree that in its final form, Daniel must actually have been written down in the mid-second century: in fact, between 167 and 164 BCE.  For example, the writer of Daniel doesn’t know the name of the Judean king under whom the first exile took place–it was Jehoiachin (see 2 Kgs 24:8-17; Ezekiel 1:1-3), not Jehoiakim, as Daniel 1:1-4 claims–and says that the city of Babylon was conquered, not by Cyrus the Persian (see 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 45:1-4), but by an otherwise unknown Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30–6:3). These statements couldn’t have been made by an eyewitness to the events.

On the other hand, Daniel accurately describes the events of the Greek period, which also set the stage for the events recalled at Hanukkah. In around 332 BCE, most of the known world was conquered by a young Macedonian called Alexander the Great. When Alexander died ten years later, leaving behind no heir, his generals divided the empire among them. For the Jews in Palestine, two of these rulers would prove especially significant.  To their south, Egypt was claimed by Ptolemy, while to their north, Seleucus ruled in Syria. Through the following generations, the descendants of these two Greek generals, called the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, squabbled for control of Palestine. As long as the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control, the Jews of Palestine were left alone. However, in 200 BCE Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid, conquered Palestine. At first, little changed. But when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in 175 BCE, he began to intervene drastically in Jewish life (1 Maccabees 1:20-64; Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39): perhaps as part of a campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion, perhaps in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury–or perhaps as an act of anti-Semitic hatred.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion | Reading Acts

Antiochus IV appointed a high priest of his own choosing in Jerusalem, and gave his support to those in the Jerusalem aristocracy who favored the new Greek ways. When pious Jews resisted, he used cruder methods. In 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus, chief god of the Greeks, was set up in the Jerusalem temple. On this altar was sacrificed an animal sacred to Zeus: the pig. This terrible sacrilege–the sacrifice of an unclean anmal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” see also Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14). Similar altars, and similar sacrifices, were ordered established throughout the land. It became illegal to circumcise male children, to observe the Sabbath or any of the other festivals, to teach or even to read the Law, and those who resisted were horrifically persecuted.  The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” (here adapted and set to music by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers) retells the story.

All of this is accurately (if symbolically) related in Daniel’s vision of the future (Dan 10:1–11:39). But at this point, historical events and the course of the vision no longer coincide. Daniel 11:40-43 predicts steadily greater victories for Antiochus–until suddenly “reports from the east and north will alarm him, and in a great rage he will set off to devastate and destroy many” (Dan 11:44). Then, preparing to return to Syria, Antiochus will camp in Palestine, where the archangel Michael will fall upon him with the heavenly armies and destroy him, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (Dan 12:1-3)–which, of course, did not happen.  Antiochus actually died in the course of his campaign against Persia, in 164 BCE. Earlier that same year, Jerusalem was liberated by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  Daniel does not describe these events, likely because the book was written before they happened: sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live ScienceSo, why the eight nights of Hanukkah, with their eight lights?  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, Judas Maccabeus summoned faithful priests to reconsecrate the temple and its altar, defiled by the idolatrous rites that had been performed there under Antiochus’ rule.  But, according to the tradition, they hit a snag.  Talmud says:

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest,  but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel  and thanksgiving [b. Shabbat 21b].

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The dreidel game traditionally played during Hanukkah becomes another way of recalling the miracle of the lamps:

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (gimel), ה‎ (hei), ש‎ (shin). These letters are translated in Yiddish to a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shtel arayn, “put in”). However, according to folk etymology, they represent the Hebrew phrase נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם‎ (nes gadól hayá sham, “a great miracle happened there”).

Michelangelo Buonarroti: The Prophet Daniel

While Hanukkah rightly celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over their Greek oppressors, the book of Daniel models a different path, of passive, peaceful  resistance.  Although written long after the Babylonian exile, Daniel 1 likely preserves authentic memories from the era of the Babylonian exile. We know from Babylonian records that Jewish exiles did become part of the imperial bureaucracy, so Daniel and his friends being singled out for special training as palace officials (Dan 1:3-7) may reflect a memory of Babylon. The king’s provision of “daily allotments from his own food and from the royal wine” (Dan 1:5) is reminiscent of 2 Kings 25:27-30, where Jehoiachin, after thirty-seven years as a prisoner, was released and permitted to live in the palace, receiving “a regular food allowance” from the king, “every day.” However, the term used for this portion in Daniel is pat-bag (found only here and in Dan 11:26), a loanword from the Persian patibaga, meaning “delicacy”—showing that while this passage may recall experiences in the Babylonian exile, it was written down much later.

Accepting the king’s pat-bag would have meant violating the Jewish dietary laws, since no attempt could have been made to slaughter animals, or to select and prepare dishes, in accordance with those strict requirements (see Lev 11:1-47; 17:1-16; compare Deut 12:20-27; 14:1-21). The palace master was unwilling to let his Jewish charges eat anything other than what the king had provided.  But Daniel persuaded their guard to agree to a contest. For ten days, Daniel and his friends would eat only fruits and vegetables (the Hebrew zero’im and zero’nim, found only in Dan 1:12, 16, apparently mean “seed-bearing plants”) and drink only water–a diet that involves no violation of kosher laws. At the end of that time, Daniel invited the guard to “compare our appearance to the appearance of the young men who eat the king’s food. Then deal with your servants according to what you see” (Dan 1:13).   Sure enough, Daniel and his friends thrived: “At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food” (Dan 1:15). The guard, therefore, was pleased to continue giving them vegetables and water. Without any violence, indeed with scarcely a disturbance, Daniel had won his first victory over his captors, contriving to live for his faith, rather than to die for it!

Book Of Daniel Art | Fine Art America

Perhaps the most famous story in this book is Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan 6:1-28), set in the reign of Darius–evidently the Persian Darius I (522-486 BCE), although according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Hist. 3.89-94), Darius divided his empire into twenty satrapies, not the 120 that the Aramaic text of Daniel 6:1 claims.  In form, this story is reminiscent of the book of Esther, also set in the Persian period (in Esther 1:1, Ahasuerus [Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE] is said to rule “from India to Cush—one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all;” note that the Greek text of Daniel 6:1 also counts 127 satrapies). In Esther as in Daniel, a good and just councilor (Mordecai in Esther, Daniel here) is victimized by jealous enemies in the court (Haman in Esther; in Daniel, all the other councilors). In both books, the Persian king is tricked into signing an irrevocable edict: in Esther, ordering the deaths of all the Jewish people; in Daniel, directing that “for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions” (Est 3:9-15; Dan 6:8, 12, 15).  We should note that “the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be annulled” (Dan 6:8, 12) is a bit of folklore, rather than a genuine feature of Persian law.  But while in Esther Ahasuerus’ irrevocable command is matched by a new law arming the Jews and empowering them to resist (Est 8:8-13), in Daniel Darius is forced to carry out his edict. Daniel, who had continued his practice of daily prayer in defiance of the law, is hurled into the lions’ den.  The story records how, after a sleepless night, King Darius breathlessly ran to the lions’ den, to learn how his friend had fared:

At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.  As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”  Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”  The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God (Dan 6:19-23).

No photo description available.

Today, the Asiatic lion is extinct, and lions are restricted to a few African regions.  But in the ancient times, these fierce predators ranged across the Near East, and were understandably feared and respected–even regarded as symbols of royalty in Israel (for example, Gen 49:9; 1 Kgs 10:18-20//2 Chron 9:17-19; Ezek 19:1-9) and Mesopotamia. Yet for all the vividness of Daniel’s story, we have no evidence from the Persian period of lions as a mode of execution. Daniel Smith-Christopher (“The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 91) proposes that the lions’ den serves as “a symbol of the exile itself,” and of God’s promise of deliverance to God’s people.

Mahatma Gandhi | Biography, Accomplishments, & Facts | Britannica

Mahatma Gandhi, who called Daniel “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” said specifically of the lion’s den story:

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha [nonviolent resistance; a term coined by Gandhi] in its purest form.

The book of Daniel models and affirms the passive, nonviolent resistance practiced by its own faithful community: a different way than the path of violent revolution followed by the Maccabean rebels.  Today, some Christians regard the COVID-19 restrictions on religious and social gatherings advised by medical professionals as an assault upon their freedom of worship, and call upon the church to resist, like Judas Maccabeus taking up the sword against what they see as an oppressive regime.  But I would argue that that model is fundamentally flawed.  People of faith are being inconvenienced by these necessary regulations, not persecuted.  We may not be able to gather in public, but nothing and no one is restricting our freedom to worship.  The faithful response in our day is not the militance of the Maccabees, but the peaceful acquiescence in pursuit of a higher goal modeled by Daniel. How The Grinch Stole Christmas! - Dr. Seuss: Appstore for AndroidSo–what about the Grinch?  What is this inspired invention of Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Suess) doing in the same blog as Judas Maccabeus and Daniel?  In a wonderful Twitter thread, Sandra Tayler sees in this now-classic Christmas story a model of and a lesson for holiday observance in this season of pandemic:

The entire genre of Christmas stories with the formula Protagonist Saves Christmas is doing us a disservice this pandemic year by teaching that the holiday is “saved” by massive efforts to restore the status quo Santa-Delivers-Presents and accompanying traditions. These stories say that Christmas can’t be Christmas w/o a specific set of events & trappings, that it will be ruined if there is any disruption to those events & trappings. This primes people to panic and feel huge loss if they can’t celebrate in the ways they are accustomed to.

This year, more than ever, we need the story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where all the trappings are stripped away and Christmas saves the Grinch. . . . Yes the Grinch story does end with the restoration of the traditions and trappings, but it didn’t have to. Christmas would have been fine even if the sled had gone off Mount Crumpit. That was the point. That’s WHY it saved the Grinch.

In the end, Tayler argues, it is far more true to the spirit of Christmas not to fight for our “right” to celebrate Christ’s birth in the way to which we are accustomed, but to submit to the straightened circumstances necessary to combat the spread of this virus.  She concludes:
All of our traditions, gatherings, decorations, etc are merely a frame for something larger than ourselves to arrive into. We can change the frame without harming the holiday. 

If Christmas is holy to you (as it is to me,) that holiness exists with or without the tinsel and trappings. Trust that no matter what form your holiday must take this year, the holiness will show up to fill the space you create.
Chanukkah sameach and a Merry Christmas to you and yours, friends–God bless us every one!