How To Read the Bible, Part Eight: Show Invisibles

When I first started using word processing software (on a computer just like this one!), what you saw onscreen was not what you saw when the document printed.  Commands for underlining, indenting, and a host of other functions were part of the onscreen text.  Once the software improved enough to show on the screen something more like the appearance of the printed document, it was still possible to input a command to reveal those hidden indicators which determined the format of the final text.  The command was called, “Show invisibles.”

The Bible, I find, does this all the time!  Scripture often shows us things we cannot see, or do not want to see. Two powerful and poignant recent chapel services at my seminary reminded me of this–and that, sometimes, what we don’t see, can’t see, or refuse to see can indeed harm us, and others.

This past Monday, as part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute (MUI), Dr. Stephanie Boddie, a Senior Consultant with MUI and the Carnegie Mellon University CAUSE Post-Doctoral Fellow, led an extraordinary service of worship in music.  The service was built around African-American spirituals, including Dr. Boddie’s own chilling rendering of My Lord, What A Morning.  Throughout the service, images from America’s slave-owning past showed on a screen.

African slavery was justified then on biblical grounds.  After all, both testaments assume the existence of slavery, and the New Testament repeatedly urges slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).  What those white antebellum Bible scholars could not see, but that African American Christians could, were texts such as Paul’s statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).  The church somehow could not see that the heart of the Hebrew Bible–called by philosopher Emil Fackenheim the “root experience” of the Jewish people–was the exodus out of Egypt: God’s action to set slaves free.  Sadly, over 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, racism in America remains invisible to those who, thanks to white privilege, do not–or even cannot–see it.

The other service that revealed those too often invisible was a chapel earlier this term planned and presented by Rebecca “Dixie” Dix and Jason “J” Freyer: a service of music and drama about the silencing of Tamar (see 2 Samuel 13).

In this tragic biblical narrative, Tamar, the daughter of King David, is raped by her half-brother Amnon.  Tamar is invisible to the men in this story: abused by her half-brother, ignored by her father.  Even her brother Absalom’s revenge killing of Amnon is less an act of vengeance for Tamar than a self-serving assassination: with Amnon removed, Absalom is next in line for his father’s throne.

In fact, an even more disturbing interpretation of this story is possible.  The person who advises Amnon on how to trick Tamar into his bedroom is Jonadab, called “a very clever man” (2 Sam 13:3).  Yet later in this narrative, when David learns of Amnon’s death and fears that Absalom has killed all his remaining sons, it is Jonadab who reports:

My master shouldn’t think that all the young princes have been killed—only Amnon is dead. This has been Absalom’s plan ever since the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar. So don’t let this bother you, my master; don’t think that all the princes are dead, because only Amnon is dead, and Absalom has fled (2 Sam 13:32-34).

This raises a deeply disturbing question: how did Jonadab know this–unless he was privy to Absalom’s plans?  Might this whole scenario, including Tamar’s rape, have been set up by Jonadab to provide an excuse for Absalom’s assassination of his rival?  If so, then Tamar is even more invisible, more silenced, more marginalized than ever in this narrative.

Tamar’s story calls to mind the millions of women who have experienced abuse at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, or friends.  The results of the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), a public health study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–cited in a public service announcement by President Obama–are particularly disturbing:

It estimated that 1.9 million American women were raped in the preceding 12-month period. In fact, the survey said that more than 23 million women (19.3 percent) were raped during their lifetime.

Nearly one in five women in America, this survey concludes, have suffered sexual violence–yet, we do not see it.  Like Tamar, they remain invisible.

Tamar’s story also raises other questions.  To our (modern) astonishment, Tamar begs her rapist to marry her!

No, my brother! Don’t rape me. Such a thing shouldn’t be done in Israel. Don’t do this horrible thing.  Think about me—where could I hide my shame? And you—you would become like some fool in Israel! Please, just talk to the king! He won’t keep me from marrying you (2 Sam 13:12-13)

Once his lust is spent, Amnon’s obsession with his half-sister turns to loathing, and he drives her out. But Tamar again pleads with him,

No, my brother! Sending me away would be worse than the wrong you’ve already done (2 Sam 13:16).

Apparently, Tamar is thinking of the law set forth in Deuteronomy 22:28-29:

If a man meets up with a young woman who is a virgin and not engaged, grabs her and has sex with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who had sex with her must give fifty silver shekels to the young woman’s father. She will also become his wife because he has humiliated her. He is never allowed to divorce her.

What is going on here? Why would the law require a woman to marry her rapist–and why would Tamar want this?  Perhaps, in the ancient world, marriage meant something different than it does to us.


Our idea of marriage is likely built on the ideal of romantic love: two people fall in love with one another, and commit themselves to one another because of that love.  But this is a relatively modern, and Western, conception.  In the ancient world, marriage was primarily about property, and about honor.  In part, this was because women could themselves be regarded as property. One version of the Ten Commandments states,


Do not desire 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 (Exodus 20:17).

Here, the wife, like the household servants, domestic animals, and everything else included in a man’s “house,” is regarded as his property.  This is why the rapist pays a fine to the father of his victim, who is now out the customary bride price and shamed as a result.

But the victim has also been robbed, as well as shamed, by this assault.  Now that her virginity has been taken, she will be unable to make a good marriage.  To preserve her honor, and to ensure for her future livelihood in perpetuity, Deuteronomy requires her rapist to assume the responsibilities of housing and care that would have been performed by her rightful husband.  Further, this becomes a lifelong obligation–one that he may not under any circumstances avoid by divorce.  In terms of the understanding of marriage in ancient Israel, then, this law makes perfect sense. Both the woman’s and her family’s honor and property rights are upheld.

The harrowing story of the rape of Tamar illustrates this law through its violation. Tamar’s rapist Amnon, being David’s son, eludes his responsibility toward his victim.  Indeed, he is not held accountable at all–until his murder by Tamar’s brother Absalom.  What by our definition of marriage is an affront, then, is by this ancient definition of marriage a just arrangement.


Opponents of same-sex marriage commonly declare that they affirm the biblical definition of marriage.  For example, the Primates (that is, the assembled bishops from around the world) of the Anglican Communion, following a  recent gathering, justified their rebuke of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (which recognizes same-sex marriage and ordains LGBTQ persons) by stating:

The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.

Next month, United Methodists from around the world will gather in Portland, Oregon for General Conference, to consider revisions and expansions to the church’s manual of polity and practice, the United Methodist Discipline–and on everyone’s mind are numerous proposals that the UMC stance on LGBTQ matters be changed. While the current Discipline does support “Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation” (¶ 162 J, p. 126), it also states that, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶ 161F, p. 111).  UMC pastors are forbidden to officiate at same-sex marriages (though some disobey), and church property cannot be used for same-sex weddings.  These provisions, too, are often justified on biblical grounds.

Tamar’s story–and her plea that her rapist Amnon marry her, in obedience to Torah–surely ought to show us the flaw in the “biblical marriage” argument.  We can understand Deuteronomy 22:28-29 in terms of ancient Israel’s ideas about women, property, and honor, but we do not share those ideas–nor should we.  “Marriage” does not mean the same thing to us that it meant for ancient people. Indeed, “marriage” does not mean the same thing everywhere in Scripture (for example, compare the assumption of polygamy in the Genesis stories of the patriarchs with the emphasis on monogamy in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:6). A reading of the Bible that, rather than “showing invisibles,” forces marginalized folk even further into the margins, must be called into question.


Stories From Palestine


I have used this image before—in advertising for a FOSNA conference at the seminary, and in a previous blog—but this is my photo, taken earlier this month, from my first visit to Tent of Nations and the Nassar farm. I was there with twenty-four other pilgrims, from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Westminster Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, and a few Pittsburgh area clergy, on a trip under the auspices of the World Mission Initiative.  This trip was purposively planned to provide support for and engagement with the church in the land of its birth: not only to see the dead stones of ancient holy sites, but to encounter our sisters and brothers in Christ–the living stones (1 Peter 2:5)!

The stones pictured above were placed at the entrance to his family farm by Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian Christian living in the West Bank, southwest of Bethlehem. Although the land has been in his family since 1916, and has been cultivated by them throughout that time, the Nassar family has been in Israeli state courts since 1991, resisting attempts to seize their land for a Jewish settlement.   Daoud and his family host Tent of Nations, a work camp dedicated to fostering peace and understanding among the world’s communities.   The stones declare the purpose of Tent of Nations, and the commitment of the Nassar family to nonviolent resistance, in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and German: “We refuse to be enemies.”

Judean hills

We could not drive to the farm: settlers have blocked the road with heaps of boulders. So after our bus had taken us as close as John, our exceptionally skilled driver, could manage (driving backwards a good bit of the way, as there was no place to turn around!), we hiked the rest of the way. The view across the Judean hills was spectacular!

Daoud explains

Later, Daoud explained to us the meaning of those stones to him and his family. In response to attempts to take their land from them by force or to seize it through government action, how could they respond as Christians? First, they decided that they could not give in, nor could they remain silent: “We refuse to be victims.” Nor, however, could they respond with force, or violence: “We refuse to be enemies.” I thought of Jesus’ own life and teaching—how he freely healed and taught and fed the hungry, refusing to the very end to return evil for evil, violence for violence.

lunch at Tent of Nations

We saw this faith in action. The family had prepared a delicious lunch for us. As we were sitting down to eat, four Israeli soldiers, with weapons at ready, walked up to the farm. We watched and prayed as Daoud walked down to meet them. They talked briefly, and then the soldiers, clearly puzzled, walked away. When Daoud returned, we asked him what had been said. They were curious, he told us, about who we were—specifically, they wondered if we were Israelis, and if so, what we were doing there. He explained to them that we were Christian pilgrims paying fellow Christians a visit. “And then,” he said, “I invited them to lunch.”

That, to me, was the heart of the gospel—expressed simply and profoundly. “We refuse to be enemies” is not a passive stance, but an active one—we will not respond to violence, we will not be intimidated, we will show hospitality and try to be friends. We will, in short, love others as God has loved us.

planting treesWhole orchards of fruit trees belonging to the Nassars have been bulldozed by settlers claiming that the trees were on their land. So before we left, we planted a few apricot trees. The soil was rocky, the air was cold—I am not sure if the trees will make it. Nor am I sure that Daoud will prevail in this struggle. But I do know that I have met a saint of God—a Christian committed to living his faith, despite circumstances.


On our trip to Israel and Palestine, we spent two nights in the homes of Palestinian Christians in Beit Sahour—the Shepherds’ Field, where, according to tradition, the angels told the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. Today, with Bethlehem and Beit Jalla, Beit Sahour is part of the Christian Triangle, where most of the Christians in the West Bank live and work. Four of us stayed with Abdullah and Nuha Awwad.

Abdullah and Nuha

Abdullah’s degree was in English literature, which remains his passion—he will, at the drop of a hat, quote from the Romantic poets, in big hunks! However, he worked for a time as a press secretary to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, back when many Arabs hoped that Gaddafi might become a unifying leader for Arab peoples. Instead, of course, Gaddafi turned out to be a vicious megalomaniac, as Abdullah learned first-hand when he was imprisoned. Upon his release, he managed to smuggle his family out of Libya, and back home to Palestine.

Abdullah became the headmaster of the Lutheran school in Bethlehem. Nearly everyone we met in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour knew him, we discovered—indeed, many had learned their English from him! While working as an educator, Abdullah became concerned about developmentally disabled persons in Bethlehem, who were sometimes kept in isolation by their own families. He told us of one man whose family, deeply ashamed of him, kept him in a cave with the goats. In 1987, Abdullah founded the Al Basma Special Rehabilitation Centre, “a place where young adults with learning disabilities can go during the day for training in valuable life and work skills.” Today the Centre serves 37 people. “Al Basma,” by the way, means “Smile.”

AbdullahToday, Abdullah is retired for health reasons (he is a survivor of esophageal cancer, and still calls his early diagnosis and treatment a miracle), but still goes every day to the Centre that he founded and loves. His life and work are an illustration and application of Jesus’ teaching: “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matt 25:40, CEB).

Although they are committed Lutheran Christians living a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, Abdullah and Nuha cannot go to the sacred sites there without a special permit—and those are very difficult to come by. Indeed, to travel abroad to see their sons and grandchildren, they need first to go to Jordan. Nuha is from Gaza—her family still lives there. Although, thanks to the internet, they are able to speak regularly, she has not seen them in years—they cannot get out, and she is not permitted to go in. Repeatedly, Abdullah and Nuha asked us to share their story with American friends, and to assure them that they are NOT terrorists!


Several times, Abdullah shared with us his motto—he and Nuha have it printed, in many formats, all around their house: “Friends are like stars—you don’t always see them, but you always know they’re there.” I am honored to count a Christian leader like Abdullah as my friend. Being a good friend to him in turn means, at the very least, telling his story.


Our Own Personal Easter

MomLet me tell you about my Mom, Mary Louise Tuell, who joined the church triumphant on March 16.  Mom was, quite simply, the best person I have known.  She was endlessly kind, loving, and affirming.  She was also very funny–sometimes unintentionally so, as she tended to scramble her sentences delightfully.  My sons still gleefully recall her mock-stern words when someone was besting her in a game: “Cheater, cheater, pants on fire!”  One of my own favorite Mom stories is as much about my Dad, and the marvelous rapport the two of them had (they were married for 61 years, and before that were high school sweethearts).  We were driving down our country road, and passed a huge “slip”–a place where a large chunk of the hillside had broken free and slid down, nearly covering the road.  Mom pointed at the slip and said,”Dig, dig, dig.”  Dad, without skipping a beat, said, “Yes, Mary, that is a big hole.”

Although my Mom was painfully shy, and afraid of many things–heights, water, tight places–she never let her fears control her.  One of her favorite passages of Scripture was 1 John 4:18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.


Trusting in Christ to overcome her fears, Mom travelled with us to the Blue Ridge, to Nags Head, even to Niagara Falls!


Despite her shyness, Mom came to concerts, performances, talent shows, and graduations: including my installation as James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament here at PTS.

Another favorite Scripture of Mom’s–and the passage read at her funeral–was John 14:1-14, the famous declaration by Jesus that he was going to “prepare a place” for us.  That passage, too, begins with a refutation of fear: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).  But it goes on to affirm a confidence in the risen Christ to bring us through our own death into everlasting life.  The first line of Mom’s obituary, written by my sister Tracey, embraces that promise:

Surrounded by her loving family, Mary Louise Holland Tuell, 80, of Mineral Wells, defeated Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as she went home to be with the Lord.

Mom did not succumb to her illnesses–she triumphed over them through the power of Christ’s invincible life!

Mom and Dad were my first and best Bible teachers. But they did not so much teach us about Jesus, and faith, and loving kindness–rather, they showed us by example what a life of faith looks like.  They started every day with Scripture and prayer, took us to church, and modeled Christian love by their giving, and their support of others.  Daddy is teaching me still: showing me how a Christian grieves, modeling for me how to find a bedrock faith in the midst of sorrow and pain.  Pray for him, please, and for all of us–but also, celebrate with us Mom’s life well lived.

Mom’s funeral was on Palm Sunday.  Her and Dad’s pastor, Rod Blanchard, observed, “Mary is having her own triumphal entry!”  And so she was–her own personal victory march into the New Jerusalem.  This past Sunday, back at our own church here in Pittsburgh, I sat in the choir with Wendy and Sean, and saw Anthony in the congregation.  As the music rolled over me, as the ancient words of Scripture were read and proclaimed, as the congregation together pronounced, “Christ is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!”, I realized that this Easter too is personal, in a new way, for me.

In the Orthodox icons of the resurrection, Jesus does not rise alone–he lifts others into the light, sharing his new life.  In Scripture as well, Jesus’ resurrection was never just about Jesus.  As John 14 reminds us, Jesus’ resurrection becomes our resurrection, my resurrection–Mom’s resurrection. I have always known this, of course.  But now, I KNOW it, at the center of my being.

May light perpetual shine on you, Mommy!  Thank you for all the love and kindness you lavished on us, showing us how to live together in God’s world.  We will meet you in glory.


To all who have offered words of comfort, prayers, cards, flowers, and other memorials–thank you so much.  May God richly bless you for being instruments to us of Christ’s peace.


How To the Read the Bible, Part Seven: Mind the Gap!

A major shortcoming of today’s rich online and media environment, with thousands of sources to choose from for our education, information, and entertainment, is that we can heed those we like, and ignore those we don’t.  As a result, we can surround ourselves with voices telling us what we already believe to be the case, and persuade ourselves that every reasonable person on earth thinks–or indeed, has always thought–just as we do.

This creates a major problem when we turn to the ancient and venerated text of the Bible.  We may think that our questions are no different than those posed by the original audience of the text.  We may even persuade ourselves that our cherished assumptions were also held by the writers of Scripture.  We may, in short, naively assume that our reading is the right reading: the plain meaning of the text for everyone and anyone–to the end that, sadly, the Bible winds up confirming our own prejudices, and telling us, in the end, nothing that we did not already know.

A moment’s thought dispels these deceptions.  For the Bible is old: speaking to us from as far as three thousand years in the past (the likely date of the ancient Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1-18, probably the oldest passage in Scripture), and expressing traditions and memories even older than its oldest written texts.  The Bible was written in languages foreign to us: classical Hebrew, Aramaic, ancient Greek.  Its traditions were formed and preserved in cultures very different from ours–and in many cases, different even from one another.  This means that those of us reading the Bible in English must remind ourselves continually as we read that any particular word or concept, translated from its original language and context into ours, may have meant something very different to them than that same word means to us.

Ubiquitous cautions in London’s subway system, the Tube, warn about the space between the platform and the train: “Mind the Gap.” In our Bible reading, we too must carefully and prayerfully mind the gap between ourselves and the text.

To take a fairly innocuous, noncontroversial example, consider the word “bishop.”  This year, the United Methodist Church will hold its Jurisdictional and Central Conferences, at which new Bishops will be elected.  Delegates to those conferences will prepare for this serious task by doing Bible study–as well they should.  But simply looking up the word “bishop” in Bible concordances and considering “what the Bible says about bishops” is not likely to be helpful.

Two passages are often held to relate the “biblical teaching” concerning the office of bishop.  In the King James Version, 1 Timothy 3:2 reads,

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach (so too the NRSV).

Likewise, Titus 1:7-9  says:

If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.  For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers (KJV; again, compare NRSV).

Our first problem is that the proper translation of the Greek word episkopos (rendered “bishop” in the passages above) is uncertain.  The NIV reads “overseer” instead of bishop, and the CEB has “supervisor” in these same passages.  Both are consistent with the use of this term in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, where episkopos translates various words related to the Hebrew paqad, referring to duty, responsibility, or some official position of authority (for example, Numbers 4:16 or Nehemiah 11:9).  Elsewhere in the New Testament, episkopos refers to a church office in Philippians 1:1 (compare the NRSV), but is also used in 1 Peter 2:25 for Jesus, “the shepherd and guardian [Greek episkopon] of your lives” (compare the KJV!).  In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the elders of the church in Ephesus,

Watch yourselves and the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as supervisors [Greek episkopoi], to shepherd God’s church, which he obtained with the death of his own Son.

So, whom did New Testament episkopoi oversee or supervise: A single congregation (as Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders implies, and as is often the case in modern African American churches)? Many congregations in an area (as bishops do in my own tradition)? Christians generally? We do not know–making the application of these passages to our context difficult.

Indeed, we need to ask whether the word episkopos meant at all for the first readers of Timothy and Titus what “bishop” means for United Methodist Christians.  Even in the contemporary church, “bishop” means something very different in, say, Roman Catholicism, or in African American Baptist traditions, than it means for United Methodists. The officials of the early church who are called “bishops” in the KJV and NRSV (among other translations) clearly differ from United Methodist bishops in multiple ways.

For example, it is evident from these biblical passages that episkopoi were to be men–not surprising, since  1 Timothy 2:8-15 denies women the right to preach or lead:

Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived (1 Tim 2:14).

We don’t need to take the author of 1 Timothy’s word for what the text says, of course–we can look up Genesis 3:12-13 for ourselves!  There, sure enough, the man declares, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12)–blaming not only Eve, but God, who had brought her to him.  The woman in turn blames the snake: “The snake tricked me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13).  God, however, buys none of this.  As the narrative unfolds in Genesis 3:14-19, the man, the woman, and the snake are all held accountable, and each suffers the consequences of the choice made.

The claims in 1 Timothy notwithstanding, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of women in leadership in the earliest church.  John’s gospel tells the remarkable story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, talked with him, and became the first missionary.  The work of Jesus and his followers was enabled by women of independent means “who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:2-3).  At the end, when his male disciples had forsaken him, the women remained, at the cross and at the tomb, so that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

In his letters, Paul mentions women leaders by name every time he offers personal greetings.  Romans 16 provides several fascinating examples. First, there is Phoebe, whom Paul calls a diakonon (Rom 16:1)–the CEB reads “servant,” but diakonos, the Greek word found here in a feminine form, is the same title the tradition assigns to male servant leaders such as Philip and Stephen (see Acts 6:1-6): like them, Phoebe was a deacon.  Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3-4) were a husband and wife ministry team; here as elsewhere, Paul breaks convention by mentioning the wife, Prisca (also called Priscilla), first. Paul also greets Mary (Rom 16:6), and most remarkably, Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7): another husband and wife team mentioned only here, but who Paul says are “prominent among the apostles.” Paul refers to Junia, a woman, as an apostle!

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul insists that Corinthian women follow custom by wearing a head covering while prophesying: emphasizing a distinction in dignity between women and men.  Still, this passage assumes that women were speaking in the churches–Paul just wants them to do so more respectfully.  Most remarkable of all is Paul’s bold proclamation in Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  

The attitudes expressed in Timothy and Titus must be read, not in isolation, but in the context of the whole of Scripture.  A solid biblical argument can be made for female pastoral leadership, at every level of church life.  In the United Methodist Church, women have been serving as bishops since 1980, when Rev. Marjorie Matthews was elected to that office.  Currently, 15 women serve as United Methodist bishops worldwide.

The passages from Timothy and Titus assume that bishops are not only men, but married men–clearly not the case in the Roman Catholic context!  Indeed, bishops must have had only one wife.  Again, the United Methodist Church (with the exception of the church in Liberia) does not follow this practice, permitting divorce and remarriage for laity and clergy alike, including bishops–indeed, my own Bishop fits into this category.  In short: it is by no means clear that the New Testament term sometimes rendered “bishop” has any simple relationship with the word “bishop” as my own Christian tradition–or for that matter, any contemporary church–uses it.

More controversial examples could be cited, of course.  Christian Zionists such as Rev. John Hagee argue that in these last days, the state of Israel must be re-established out to its ancient borders–rejecting the claims of Palestinian Arabs (including Christians) who also live in the land.  But shouldn’t the Bible’s clear call for the just treatment of all in the land (Exod 22:21-24Lev 19:33-34Deut 10:18-19) have a say in this matter as well? The relationship between biblical “Israel” and the modern political state called “Israel” may be less evident than is sometimes claimed.
Many folk opposing same-sex marriage (for example, the Primates of the Anglican Church, who in their recent meeting disciplined the Episcopal Church in the U.S. in part for celebrating same-sex marriages) base their opposition on their support for “biblical marriage.”  But can we assume that “marriage” meant for the ancient communities who gave us the Bible what it means for us? Indeed, is there any unified biblical view of marriage at all?
We will certainly revisit these questions in future blogs.  But, for now, all of us need to be wary of reading our own perspectives into the Bible.  We need to give the Bible its own independent and authentic voice–to listen humbly, to read carefully, and always, to mind the gap.

Aint Peter’s Church

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 10.  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”!


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.


Clergy of all traditions are invited to join in a continuing education event sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and led by Dr. Andrew Purves called “The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord,”  Saturday, March 5, 9 AM – 3 PM, at Dutilh UMC, 1270 Dutilh Rd Cranberry Twp, PA 16066 (click on the link to register).  This will be a soul-stirring, life-changing, ministry-transforming experience!



How to Read the Bible, Part Six: What the Bible Isn’t


2016-01-18 15.07.09

Sorting through the boxes of papers left by her mother Gerry, Wendy found a stack of material that Mom had used in her Sunday School classes.  Among those old papers, I found this intriguing piece (clicking on it will reveal a larger image), attributed to Erwin L. Shaver, a pioneer in the Weekday Religious Education program of the ’40s–a program still operative in at least four states (Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, and Virginia).

This text is titled, “TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR THE TEACHER’S USE OF THE GREAT RULE BOOK.”  If there was any doubt as to the Book being referenced, the “first commandment” reads,

Thou shalt use the Bible as the Great Rule Book of the Christian life.

This is not the first time I have seen the Bible described as a rule book or instruction manual, of course.  A popular humorous piece claiming to present “The Entire Bible Explained In One Facebook Post” essentially summarizes God’s message to humanity as “Don’t do the things.”  Not long ago, when I asked a study group to reflect on what the Bible is, one participant responded: “The BIBLE is God’s Book of Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

This perception of the Bible is neither modern, nor American.  Pioneering astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) famously wrote in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615; quoting a private conversation with  Cardinal Cesare Baronius ), “La Bibbia ci insegna la via per andare in cielo, non come il cielo sia fatto“–commonly translated,

The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

For Galileo, science tells us how to understand nature in this world, while the Bible tells us how to prepare for the world to come–once more, the Bible is a rule book.

John Wesley, leader of the Wesleyan revivals in eighteenth century England, spoke similarly of the Bible as a guidebook to the afterlife:

I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing–the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [that is, “a man of one book”]. Preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, 1746.

At least in this essay, Wesley too seems to present the Bible as a rule book for how to go to heaven.

The problem, apparent to anyone who has actually sat down to read the Bible through, is that it is not a rule book–at least, not in any simple, straightforward sense.  While some portions of the Old Testament can be identified as rules or laws (notably, the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy), large sections of Scripture are not laws at all.

For example, the very first book of the Bible presents not rules, but a story: the story of Israel, from the beginnings of creation (Gen 1–3) to the ancestry of Abraham (Gen 11:25-32) to the lives of Abraham’s descendants, culminating in the family taking refuge in Egypt, led by Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph (Gen 46–50).  Along the way, the stories of Abraham’s family certainly do not serve as moral lessons (Jacob, for example, is a scoundrel!).  But they do demonstrate God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

Similarly, while some parts of the New Testament may fit the bill as setting forth rules for life (for example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7, or the book of James), much of it does not.  The Gospels, for example, are primarily narratives of Jesus’ life, and in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches not by setting forth rules for life, but by telling stories called parables (see Mark 4:34; Matt 13:34).  Once more, the Bible does not so much present rules to follow as tell a story about what a life lived in relationship to God is like.

Even those texts which certainly qualify as rules sometimes conflict, or are even abrogated–that is, set aside–by later texts.  For example, Deuteronomy 23:1-8 (23:2-9 in Hebrew) states clearly the makeup of Israel’s qahal: a term used both for a division in battle and for the worshipping congregation.  Specifically barred from participation are eunuchs:

No man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off can belong to the LORD’s assembly (Deut 23:1[2]).

Yet, despite the clear and explicit teaching of the  Torah, Isaiah 56:3b-5 states:

. . . don’t let the eunuch say,
        “I’m just a dry tree.”
The Lord says:
    To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    choose what I desire,
    and remain loyal to my covenant.
    In my temple and courts, I will give them
    a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
    I will give to them an enduring name
    that won’t be removed.

Why would the prophet directly contradict the Torah?  The answer lies in the different context of this oracle.  Likely, Isaiah 56 addresses the community in the days after the return from exile in Babylon, when Israel was rebuilding its culture as well as its towns and temple.  Some of those returnees would have been persons who had attained significant positions in the Babylonian bureaucracy, an honor that could carry with it a significant personal sacrifice: to ensure the king’s bloodline, and to restrict the temptation to rebellion, such persons–particularly those whose duties brought them into contact with the queen–could be castrated (see 2 Kings 20:18//Isaiah 39:7).  As eunuchs, they would have been barred from the congregation as ritually defiled.  But the prophet declares that other things are more important than ritual law: loving what God loves, honoring God’s sabbath, and loyalty to the covenant.  Far from rejecting these persons, the prophet affirms them, and assures that, despite being childless, their names would be remembered in Israel.

This is far from the only time in Scripture that one passage takes issue with another, based on what is deemed most important.  In 2 Chronicles 30:15-22, King Hezekiah of Judah invites all Israel to celebrate the passover in Jerusalem.  When he learned that some “hadn’t purified themselves and so hadn’t eaten the Passover meal in the prescribed way” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, in violation of the rules of Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5)–Hezekiah’s response was not to expel them.  Instead,

Hezekiah prayed 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 heard the king’s prayer, and the community was healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Often in the Bible, interpreters of Scripture look beneath the rules for the RULE, if you will.  So, the prophet Micah asked, “What does God truly want?

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
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 (Micah 6:6-8).

Jesus too sets aside strict legalism, seeking the heart and spirit of God in Scripture.  Six times in Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “But I say.” Jesus reads specific texts of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals of justice upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire.  Jesus does not take the Bible literally.  He takes the Bible seriously.

In Erwin Shaver’s second commandment for teachers, he urged, “Thou shalt seek to discover in it [that is, in the Bible] the rules of the spirit and not be misled by the ‘the letter which killeth'” (the reference is to 2 Corinthians 3:6 in the KJV).  Indeed, for all Shaver’s disparaging words about exalting “the Word and His principles set forth in this Great Ruler Book above the compromising ethics and customs made by agreement of ‘men-pleasers'” (his tenth commandment; the reference is to Colossians 3:22//Ephesians 6:6 in  the KJV), his sixth commandment reads, “Thou shalt reveal the Bible as an up-to-date rule book by interpreting its everlasting truths in terms of today’s needs.” Mr. Shaver knew that Scripture calls for interpretation, not mechanical, rote application.

So too, in the preface to his Sermons, John Wesley acknowledged that understanding the meaning of Scripture calls for more than rule-following:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

May we turn to the Bible, not as an inflexible book of rules, but as an invitation into relationship with the God of Scripture.  Only then will we understand what the Bible truly is.


The Sun of Righteousness

 For millions of Western Christians, this Wednesday, January 6, will be the Feast of the Epiphany–a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  More broadly, however, Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!

In Malachi 4:1-3 (3:19-21 in the Hebrew), that coming day of the LORD is described, as is typical in the Book of the Twelve (for example, see Zech 10:3-6; 12:1-9), as a day of fiery judgment upon the wicked oppressors of God’s people:

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the LORD of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch. . . .
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
       on the day that I am preparing, says the LORD of heavenly forces.


But Malachi also declares that that day will be a time of renewal and blessing for God’s faithful, who are rejuvenated and filled with exuberant joy:

But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall (Mal 4:2).

Christian readers of this blog will likely be reminded of Charles Wesley’s use of this passage in his 1739 Christmas carolHark! the Herald Angels Sing.”  Charles Wesley’s third stanza is:

Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.

Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.

In Wesley’s mind, clearly, the “Sun of Righteousness” is Jesus!

For Malachi, it is the LORD who is “the sun of righteousness,” rising with “healing. . . in its wings.” The Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate, have “his wings” (see the KJV, and the words of Wesley’s carol), but the Hebrew text and the Targum (the Aramaic version of this text used in early synagogues) have “her wings”–probably with reference to “righteousness,” which is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

For good (for example, Ps 84:11) or for ill (see Ezek 8:16), images of the LORD as the sun, and associations of the sunrise with God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple (which faced east) are fairly common in Scripture.  As a part of the worship reforms put in place by King Josiah, the horses and chariots of the sun were removed from the temple (2 Kgs 23:11).  Indeed, mosaics of the solar chariot (associated in Greco-Roman religion with Apollo or with Sol Invictus) appear in early synagogues at Beth Alpha (shown above), Naaran, Hamath Tiberius, Yafa, and Isfiya.


The Egyptian sun disc, often combined with a winged scarab, was a widespread symbol in the ancient Middle East, even incorporated into the royal seals of Judean kings such as Hezekiah.

Malachi, writing in the Persian Period, was likely familiar with a modification of the winged solar disc from Persian art.  This symbol appears with Persian king Darius’ monumental inscription at Behistun, at his palace at Persepolis, and above the door of his tomb (depicted above); likely, it is meant to represent the Persian creator god Ahuramazda.  But for the prophet Malachi, of course, the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings can only be the LORD!  Depicting God’s coming as the sunrise represents a positive counter to the destructive image of the day of the LORD “burning like an oven” (4:1): the coming of the LORD may burn, but it also heals.

May this new year be for us all a time of healing and renewal.  May the Sun of Righteousness rise today, in our hearts, our homes, our country, and our world, burning away the chaff and dross of the past, and empowering us to live anew!




Cosmic Christmas

Friend and fellow United Methodist minister Rob Hernan posted on Facebook, “Today in church I called Bethlehem a ‘timey’ village. Thanks, Doctor Who!”

Fellow Whovians will recognize the reference to a scene from this British science fiction series (from the episode, “Blink,” written by Steven Moffat, starring David Tennant), in which the Doctor, an alien time traveler, says,

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey. . . stuff.

Actually, I think that Rob’s slip of the tongue is rather brilliant.  Christians have always confessed that Christ’s coming has altered the whole shape of reality.  There is definitely something “wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey” about the effect of Christ’s incarnation on the whole of space-time, backwards as well as forwards in time!

That is the reason that most Christians recite the phrase “He descended into hell” as part of the Apostle’s Creed–a confession incorporated into the Creed by around the eighth century, drawing perhaps on 1 Peter 3:19, which says that after his death, Jesus “went to preach to the spirits in prison.”  This confession, and the linked tradition of the harrowing of Hell, recognizes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring salvation, not only to those of us who live on this side of Easter, but to all the generations who lived before.

This Sunday, as we sang “Once in Royal David’s City,” I heard for the first time that confession in Cecil Frances Alexander‘s old carol, of the cosmic significance of Christmas, for our time and for all times.  I share that carol with all of you, as we celebrate Christ’s coming, and look for his coming again.

Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.


For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

God bless us, every one–and have a very Merry, timey-wimey, Christmas!



I had decided that I would not address Mr. Donald Trump’s bombast at all–that I would ignore him until he went away.  But then, this week, he gave a speech to which I must respond–to which, I believe, all committed people of faith must respond.  Mr. Trump is “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Called on this xenophobic rant by voices from all over the political spectrum, Mr. Trump reiterated his stance, justifying it by appeal to the disastrous policies regarding people of German, Italian, and Japanese descent in WWII, policies which led to the infamous Japanese internment camps.

To this message of hatred, and to its messenger, people of faith must say, “No.”  This cannot be permitted to stand as just another political position among others.  This is not about Republican or Democrat, right or left, conservative or liberal.  Mr. Trump’s words are a denial of our fundamental identity as Americans, and of fundamental morality, and must be repudiated by all of us.

As a Christian and a Bible Guy, I find peddling hatred and fear of outsiders totally at odds with this season, and with the texts we read and remember as Christmas draws near.  Consider Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, a young family compelled by violent and hate-filled rulers (first mad Herod, then his vicious son Archelaus) to run for their lives, becoming refugees first in Egypt, and ultimately in Nazareth (see Matt 2:13-23; compare Luke 2:1-7, which says that Joseph and Mary were originally from Nazareth).

Consider, too, those wise men.  Tradition says that there were three, that they were kings from three continents and three races, that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  None of this is in Matthew’s simple account:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him” (Matt 2:1-2).

The Magi were a clan of priests and astrologers from Persia–our words “magic” and “magician” derive from “magi.”  Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came–the traditional number three comes from their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11-12). The idea that they were kings from distant lands and races comes from Isaiah 60:1-6, traditionally read as fulfilled in the visit of the Magi:

Nations will come to your light
    and kings to your dawning radiance.

. . . the nations’ wealth will come to you.
 Countless camels will cover your land,
    young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
    carrying gold and incense,
    proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

Still, there is an appropriateness to the tradition’s reading of the Magi as representing the whole outside world.  After all, they come to the manger as the ultimate outsiders.  They come not only from outside of Judea, but from outside the Roman empire itself–from the land of the feared Parthians, an armed and unstable threat on the empire’s eastern frontier. They are not Jews, either ethnically or religiously; while nothing is said of their religious heritage by Matthew, they would have been Zoroastrians.  Remarkably, it is Matthew who tells their story: Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, is the one who records a visit to the Christ child from foreigners and unbelievers!  Yet in this gospel these foreigners come, not as enemies to threaten the Child, but as pilgrims to honor him.

Herod’s religious experts also see the Magi’s star, and rightly interpret the Scriptures that witness to the coming king:

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
 Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5; see Matt 2:4-6)

But these faithful, patriotic citizens stay in the false security of Herod’s walled palace, and never see the miracle.  Instead, it is the foreign, Gentile Magi who become the first, faithful witnesses to the new thing God is doing–breaking into our world as one us there in Bethlehem.

May we learn from the wise men to be “wise guys” ourselves: to be ready to receive God’s blessing from the hands, and to hear God’s word in the voice, of a stranger.  May we say to all hatred, racism, and fearmongering a firm and unequivocal “No.”



Whose Land?


I have just come back to work after convalescing from a fall.  I am thankful for all the prayers lifted up on my behalf, and am pleased to report that I am feeling great–though I regret my lengthy hiatus from my work, including this blog.  Rather than delaying these posts any further, and in sorrowful recognition of recent conflicts in Israel and in the West Bank, I am reposting my blog from April 14, 2013, entitled “Whose Land?,”  with prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, and justice for all of God’s people.

The Bible is always in the background of discussions about the land in Palestine.  Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the American churches and synagogues that support them, sometimes insist that Jews can settle wherever they like, because the land is theirs: promised to them by God.  Just as Abraham and Joshua were told to walk through the land and so claim and possess it (Genesis 13:17; Joshua 1:3; 24:3; compare Ezekiel 36:8-12, where this is applied to those returning from exile in Babylon), so building more and more settlements in the West Bank is for some a way of laying claim to God’s promise. 

So, what is God’s promise?   In Genesis 12:1-3, God says to Abraham, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you” (Common English Bible).  This promise, repeated in different forms in Genesis 17:7-8 and Exodus 3:16-17, seems fairly explicit.  The land of Canaan—modern-day Palestine—is promised to Abraham and to his descendants.

But to whom is the promise given? Deuteronomy 26:1-11 directs that, when presenting the offering of the first fruits gathered in the harvest, the worshipper is to recall the history of God’s kindness to the ancestors, beginning with Abraham: “My father was a starving Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).  In Exodus 3:16-17, God promises the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land full of milk and honey.”  As we discussed in an earlier blog (see “The Bible and ‘The Bible’”, March 13, 2013), Israel is described in Joshua and Judges as a landless and friendless people, to whom the land comes as a gift.  In the Bible, the promise of land is not given to a people securely settled and established: it is an offer of hope to homeless, landless people, without power or property.

Further, while God says, “I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession” (Genesis 17:8), the promise of possession never involves ownership.  The people of Israel are given the right to live on the land, to farm it and to graze their flocks upon it, but the land itself does not belong to Israel.  This important distinction is emphasized in the laws concerning sabbatical years and jubilees in Leviticus 25 (from a part of the book of Leviticus called the Holiness Code).  According to these laws, every seventh year (the sabbatical year), the land is to be left fallow: the fields are not to be plowed, and no new crops are to be sown.  Then, every 49th year (the seventh seventh year) is to be followed by another fallow year, called the jubilee.  In the year of jubilee, all debts are forgiven, and any land claims revert to the family among Israel’s tribes and clans to whom that particular piece of real estate was originally entrusted, according to Joshua 14:1—19:51.

What this means, in short, is that the land itself could not be bought or sold—not permanently.  All that one could do is rent a property for the number of harvests remaining until the jubilee, when it would return to its properly assigned clan.  Leviticus 25:23 makes this principle explicit: “The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”  We do not know if the priestly ideal of the jubilee was ever historically realized.  But the principle it expresses, that the land belongs to the Lord, is consistently upheld in Scripture.

Since the land is and remains God’s, the prophets make it very clear that God’s permission for Israel to live in the land was not absolute.  In Jeremiah 7:3, in response to Jerusalem’s false worship, violence, and injustice, the Lord says, “Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place.”  In fact, the Hebrew of this verse could be translated as a plea, expressing God’s longing and love for Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (New Revised Standard Version).  God will be in Israel’s midst in the land, and Israel will enjoy the benefits that presence brings, only if Israel worships God rightly, and acts justly.  Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel rejects the claims of violent people who rely on the sword that they shall possess the land (Ezekiel 33:26).  The land is God’s, and its inhabitants will be those whom God permits.

In Isaiah 61:1-2, the promise of jubilee becomes God’s promise of justice to all the oppressed:

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
    to bring good news to the poor,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim release for captives,
        and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and a day of vindication for our God,
    to comfort all who mourn. . .

For this prophet, “the year of the LORD’s favor” must also be “a day of vindication for our God.”  Sometimes oppressors must be overthrown before real peace can be found; peace without justice is no peace at all.

But when Jesus read from this passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he pointedly dropped that line (Luke 4:18-19) – not because he sided with the oppressors (Romans, in first century Palestine), but because he had come to bring new life to everyone: Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, alike (Luke 4:25-27; see also Isaiah 66:18-23; Jonah 3–4).

There are, have always been, and will always be hotly contested claims to the land of Palestine.  The modern state of Israel, first established in 1948 in the wake of World War II as a homeland for the dispossessed Jews devastated by Hitler’s holocaust, has a right to exist and thrive.  But the Palestinian Arabs also have a right to live and thrive, in a state of their own (such a state, in fact, was stipulated by the same UN resolution that established the modern state of Israel).  But that discussion is a matter for another day.  For today, my purpose has been simply to address the claim advanced, particularly by American Christians, that the land belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them, while Arabs (Christians and Muslims alike) have no right to the land.  That claim, I would suggest, is not valid.  According to Scripture, the land doesn’t belong to Israel: it never did.  The land is God’s.