Friday, October 7, 2011

The ferocious zeal of God

“What prepares you for that?” asked my wife, in tears, after the surgeon had left us alone in the ward.

It was Wednesday morning and she had been admitted to hospital on the Monday with excruciating abdominal pains. The diagnosis had raised the possibility of cancer. She was not ready to die.

You see it in other people. You hear about it when it is someone else. But, no, nothing prepares you when it is your own mortality that stands up to you and slaps you in the face.

She was terrified. I was scared, but at least it wasn’t my body that had threatened to kill me. I decided to read the Bible. There was a Gideon’s Bible in the bedside cabinet (thankyou Gideon’s), so I opened it and found Psalm 23. I tried to read out loud, but the words stuck in my throat. In between monumental pauses, I managed to croak and stumble to the end. It must have been the worst reading heard in human history ever, and my voice probably conveyed more fear than faith to her at this time.

The LORD is my shepherd;
         I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
         He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
         He leads me in the paths of righteousness
         For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
         I will fear no evil;
         For You are
with me;
         Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
         You anoint my head with oil;
         My cup runs over.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
         All the days of my life;
         And I will dwell in the house of the LORD

As I came to the closing lines, I saw something that I had not seen before. This was not a Psalm about dying; it was a Psalm about living, even in the face of death.

This week, when I waited with Janna as they tested and scanned her, deciding the best course of action for surgery, I have had the privilege of spending much of my day thinking and reading. I read an entire book that I had been recently given, and on the Wednesday I got through two thirds of the Book of Isaiah. I earnestly believe I did not do it as an escape. I did it because our dire circumstances forced me to engage the reality of the situation that we had been thrown into. 

I grew angry at the mindless pap that the television churned out. Its voice was void and empty and unable to reach into our lives. The glass screen said it all. It presented a rigid wall between its imperious pontifications and the flesh and blood of our trembling lives. It existed to project its sound and vision onto us, but it had nothing to say. It could not touch us. The gods of the 21st century western world were exposed in their impotence.

The Mater Hospital, where Janna ended up, was founded on a Catholic tradition, and it included an unadorned Chapel, where I whiled away some of the hours during Janna’s surgery. In Janna’s ward, and probably every other, there hung a small, stylized crucifix over the window. Here was a God whom I could worship; one that had entered into our humanity, to suffer and die that we might live. Unlike the proud gods of the television, sitting behind their hermeneutically sealed glass screen, this God not only touched our humanity, but humbled himself to come right into it. This God then picked up and carried away the things that contend against our humanity, even death itself, taking them into his own body and nailing them to the cross where they died.

This thought infuriated me, and it still does. It was that same feeling of frustration as I read Isaiah. My knowledge of Hebrew is, to be generous, rudimentary. However, I know enough to know that our English Translations struggle to convey not just the technicalities of the text, but also their beauty and raw power. In Isaiah 1:2, the prophet declares “Hear, o heavens; give ear, o earth; for the LORD has spoken”. It took me a whole evening the week before Janna’s emergency to read three words in the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls on-line, and I was amazed at the musicality of its native language. Yet, I could not hear it well. I did not have the tongue to annunciate the words. I determined to learn more Hebrew, so I could more fully appreciate those verses that so tantalized me.

Yet, there was something else that was tantalizing me. I could sense it like a giant wave building in the ocean. I could not see or hear it clearly, and the other waves disguised its presence, but I sensed it was there. I can only describe it as the ferocious zeal of God.

I could see glimpses of it in Psalm 23, and in the voice of the prophet. I could see it in the image of the crucified man over the window. I could see it in the kindness of our family and friends as they offered their love and support. God, whom had called the cosmos into being with His indomitable Word, was filled with a ferocious zeal for our living. He was committed to our living in a way that we could only faintly sense. We can hardly assemble the language to describe it. It was this ferocious zeal of His that had called us into being, and this same zeal had given us the capacity to surprise Him. This same ferocious zeal compelled Him to enter into our flesh and blood existence, and to do whatever was necessary, at whatever cost, to secure our living. 

And it was not simply an existence that He brought about for us, but true living. God’s single-bloody-minded and whole-hearted commitment to our living is not a religion, or a set of parameters in a mathematical equation, nor even the certainty that comes from accurate or reliable predictions. It is nothing less than life itself; life in chaos and uncertainty; life in which choices make a real difference; life in defiance of death, which seeks constantly to subdue, stultify and cow us.

It’s the Gospel of Grace, but in a context that we rarely get to experience. Janna’s reaction to the Surgeon’s bad news was perfectly natural; “Why me?” She quickly recoiled at the thought. She was humble enough to know that the flip-side to this question was “Why not?” The Gospel of Grace tells us that we don’t pre-qualify for God’s love; we cannot earn it; we cannot make ourselves ready for it. We cannot be prepared for it. Like the baby entering into the world through a borrowed manger, God’s life invades our lives in unexpected ways, whether we deserve it or not; whether we are ready for it or not; whether we are prepared or not. Why? So that He is vindicated in all He does. So, if He deigns to act on our living in ways that seem best to Him, why should He also not act on our passing in the same way?

This, of course, is nothing new. The ancients knew that their lives were held in the hands of the gods. They knew their mortality in ways that we have forgotten in our modern, headlong retreat from the thinking life. What was a revolution to them was the news of God’s ferocious zeal for our living; borne to them by the despised of the world - women and Jews.

It was like God had betrothed Himself to us humble creatures, made from the earth. What business had the Divine with us sons of the soil? And, as a man would seal the oath by cutting his own flesh and shedding his own blood, so God had scourged His own flesh and shed His own blood at the cross. This was serious, and we had better take it seriously. We had better take life seriously too, not because we had done something to deserve it or enhance it, but because God had committed Himself to our living. Misuse the life He had given us, or the life that He had given to our friends and neighbors, and it would be His ferocious zeal for our living that we would ultimately answer to.

In the face of such a ferocious zeal for our living, it ceases to be a question of what we deserve, but what we do. Who knows what will come tomorrow? Tomorrow has enough worries of it’s own, as the preacher from Nazareth said. Today is the day, and we will live in it, even if we see the shadow of death lengthen over it.

Nothing can prepare you for that day when you know you will die. But you can say that until that day, you will live. What is more, beyond that day, you will live because God’s ferocious zeal is with you in your living, and it will not be extinguished or diminished in your dying.

Janna’s surgery was a success, though she had her ovaries, tubes, uterus and appendix removed. The Surgeon found no signs of cancer, thank God (and all the medics involved). It was an endometriosis.

It would be wrong to call this a reprieve because we would be saying that death, not God, had done the reprieving. We live another day. Death has receded from us, but God has not. There will come a day when death has exhausted its terrible arsenal on us, but God, and His ferocious zeal for our living will remain undefeated.

I pray that I will never forget the glancing blow that this day dealt to us, and the tantalizing glimpse it gave me of God’s ferocious zeal for our living. I pray that I might find the language to speak this zeal into our lives, my life, Janna’s life, your life, that we can celebrate the living that God has given us, in all it’s unpredictable and surprising wonder and variety.

This is a song about living, not dying.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Can you trust the archaeological evidence?

In a follow-up query from a FaceBook friend, I was asked, “Can you trust the archaeological evidence?”

Here is my reply; In short, it would be wise not to ignore it.  

Welcoming the evidence

The Christian world-view ought to fortify us for honest enquiries, and I think Christians should not be as terrified of archaeology and the sciences as some would like us to be. As I noted previously, Jeremiah says the word of the Lord came to him and asked him what he saw (Jeremiah 1:11, 1:13). Note that it is not what God saw, but what Jeremiah saw that's under consideration here, and he wrote the book, so we should notice what he says about his own oracle.

This point is worth pondering. The Bible is consistent and persistent in valuing truth and truthfulness. Jesus declared that “…the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The Wisdom literature in the Biblbe urges us to look and ponder what we see. Proverbs 3:5-7 states;
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.
I have a particular concern about this verse at present, because it is often quoted in Christian culture as a reason not to think about what we see. How silly! The entire Book of Proverbs enjoins us to think, learn and to gain understanding above all else. Are we to believe that the author committed his life’s wisdom to the book, then some evil apostate sneaked in a verse that up-ends the entire work? I don’t think so. What the verse refers to is the exact opposite of what it has often been used for. It says “you will not find wisdom or knowledge by looking in your own heart; what you need to do is to learn from God, who speaks to you by His word; And, you will need to allow what’s in your heart to be shaped by what is outside it.” It’s an instruction to allow our thoughts and our understanding to be shaped by what see outside ourselves, not by the predispositions, prejudices and motives that we find in our own hearts. It’s a command to submit to the discipline of thinking, not to avoid it because what we see might make us feel uncomfortable.

What are those things that are outside ourselves? Two obvious answers are the world in which we live, and the Word of God. Our Christian faith ought to predispose us to welcome the evidence, not to ignore it. Indeed, despite the propaganda of prevailing culture, the Christian faith has more to drive us to understand the world in which we live than any other world-view, particularly atheism and magisterial religions such as Islam and Mormonism (which stultify the search for knowledge for different reasons).  

Data and inferences

The Bible, in my reading of it, presents a holistic view of understanding and wisdom by saying that if we understand the world in which we live; we are likely to make right decisions. I don’t wish to contend with it, but it’s a different question than the one you might be asking, which is; can we trust the data?

My personal response is that the data are neutral. What is important is what we infer from them in our decision-making, which is, to me, the essence of wisdom. In other words, I believe the data are important, and it is important to get good data, but they will not direct us in our thinking – we do that, and we do it for the entire smorgasbord of reasons, good and bad, that make us human. Acknowledging this (and, again, it’s a Christian perspective) ought to fortify us as we look at the data, and the inferences that people draw from them.

An important feature of this is to acknowledge why the data have been collected in the first place. I’m an anti-conspiracy-theorist, which means I don’t buy some of the more sinister motives that anti-scientists ascribe to the scientific community. But, even if the scientists' motives for collecting and publishing data are nefarious, the good news is that the data they collect are neutral. In other words, we can look at the data, but we can be discerning in what meaning we draw from them, and the meaning that I draw from them might not coincide with the archaeologists' or scientists' original inferences.  


You asked about archaeological evidence, so that’s what I’ll address next. Please forgive the lengthy preamble, but I would like to illustrate how my hermeneutic relates to some of the archaeology.

Before going to University, I took a gap year and spent about six months on a Kibbutz in Israel. At one point, I took a few days off to join in with an archaeological dig at Gamla in the Golan Heights. Gamla was sacked by the Romans in AD68, when they crushed the Jewish revolt. Next to fall were Jerusalem in AD70 and, finally, Masada in AD72.

After I had left the dig, I found that the location I was digging in was near the Synagogue that the dig-leaders were anxious to find. They had thought it might be near the centre of the settlement, but as it turned out, it was at the wall that the residents had erected as a defence against the Romans, where I had been active with my shovel.

To understand why the dig-leaders thought that finding a Synagogue was important, we need to understand what it meant in the current geo-political context. The Golan heights were (and are) disputed territory. The discovery of a Jewish Synagogue would do two things 1) reinforce the reasons for the dig, and hence allow the dig-leaders to appeal for more money and 2) legitimize modern Israel’s occupation of the Golan heights by staking a claim on the territory based on antiquity.
Even though you might disagree with these motives, the fact remains that the dig now gives us a better picture of Jewish life around that time, and we are richer for it. For instance, we can see a real-life example of the kind of Synagogue that Jesus would have taught in. We can also see what happens when a people put their faith in their ethnic/cultural/religious identity before faith in Christ (I’m referring to the Jewish revolt and the consequent annihilation of the Temple-system by the Romans).

Again, what I’m saying here is that you should look at the archaeological evidence, but you’re not compelled to agree with other people’s inferences of it.

Archaeological evidence around the New Testament

I’m going to refrain from using the phrase “archaeological evidence of the Bible”, because I believe that such a statement misunderstands the issue.

The good news for Christians is that much of the evidence supports the narratives of the New Testament; it attests to the New Testament accounts. The environment, culture, place-names, people of the Bible fit well into the environment that the extra- Biblical archaeological evidence and historic sources describe. However, there are some contentious areas and it would be unwise to ignore them.

It has been my interest, and my joy, to release the Biblical stories back into their “native environment”, which is described by the archaeology. I have found that this brings the stories to life in ways that are quite unexpected and sometimes challenging. I refer you to some of the earlier notes I made on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well to see what I mean. For example, being able to project this story onto its archaeological background, like one of the son-et-lumiere presentations you sometimes see projected on mediaeval castle walls, has got me reading the Gospel of John in a new and refreshing light.

The biggest problems that I am aware of in the New Testament are;
• The details of the death of Judas (compare Matt 27:5 with Acts 1:18-19)
• Whether there was a census under Qurinius around the birth of Jesus, as described in Luke 2:2

It’s a very short list, and I don’t think these problems are insurmountable, though I concede that we might need to stretch the text a little. For instance, Judas might have strung himself up (per Matthew), then his corpse might have fallen off the gibbet causing his guts to explode (per Acts). In any case, the point of both accounts seems to be that he died a shameful death. The census might be resolved if we accept that Quirinius was the de-facto governor of Syria, and that this particular census didn’t find it’s way into the annals (which would be unusual, but not impossible). Still, there was a Quirinius, there was a Syria, and they did censuses, according to all the available extra-Biblical evidence.

Archaeological evidence around the Old Testament

This is a huge subject, which is hotly contested by a number of learned societies. I’m not going to do it justice, so I trust that you will forgive my rather cursory treatment of it. Much of the controversy relates to time-lining the development of the Biblical texts. I’ll try to give you an overview and to do this, I’ll work backwards.

The later Biblical texts are usually accepted as extant (the events they describe to occurred at the time of writing, or soon before). These texts are usually identified by the language (late Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek translations), and the consensus is that they comprise much of the Wisdom Literature (I understand). The Psalms, for example, seem to be a very mixed bag, including many of the earlier works, but many phrases, language and ideas appear to have been re-cycled in the later Psalms. (Incidentally, this “recycling” causes me no problem whatsoever, because that’s exactly what we do in our modern hymns and songs of praise.)

The earlier texts are more contentious, and there is much speculation. Humanistic scholarship insists on dismissing anything that might have the slightest hint of the miraculous, so it ascribes the origins of the stories not in some miracle, but in folk-religion. The critical period, according to this perspective, is around the centralist reforms of King Josiah. The redaction camp use this to argue that the Priests of Josiah commandeered and formalized the folk-religion of Israel and Judah to legitimize Josiah’s reign in Jerusalem. There is actual support for this from the Biblical narrative itself - 2 Kings 22 describes the rediscovery of the Book of the Law, and we could legitimately ask what they did with it when they found it. We honestly can't be certain, but the more negative inferences would tell us that characters such as Abraham and Moses were not real people, but rather mythological constructs on which the folk-stories were projected, rather like the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood (which vary according to who is telling the story).

Importantly, the humanist camp dismisses any idea that the Exodus was a real event, or that David and Solomon actually reigned over a united kingdom, and these are the areas in which the archaeology can be called as a witness.

As far as the Exodus is concerned, the humanists have a point. There is no archaeological evidence for the kind of mighty upheaval that you might expect following the conquest of Joshua in the 12th Century BC. Why the 12th Century? Because that’s the date you get from the calculations of lifetimes and years in the Biblical record. However, if we adjust our math, and allow for Abraham to live “in Egypt” whilst in Canaan (which is possible because Egypt did project its power over the region), then we’re not stuck with the 12th Century, and we can look earlier for an Exodus-like scenario.

There is plenty of evidence that such a scenario might be found in the 15th Century BC. This was a time of massive upheaval and cities being sacked and rebuilt. Basically, the land of Canaan was caught between the competing super-powers of Egypt to the south and the Hittites to the north. Such regional instability would fit well with some of the statements in the Bible, such as the metaphorical “hornet” that God sends ahead of his conquering people (Exodus 23:28, Deuteronomy 7:20, Joshua 24:12) and the sense that the conquering Hebrews are God’s judgment on a violent and lawless people (see Genesis 15:14-16).

Then, there is the etymology of the word “Hebrew”. It is possibly derived from the Egyptian “Apiru”, which means “wanderer” or “vagabond”. Could it be that the chosen nation was not an established earthly kingdom, like Egypt, but a bunch of displaced refugees, who wandered in from the desert and found a home under YHWH’s protection and reign? I find that tidbits like these actually help my theology come to life.

In these cases, the archaeology challenges our perceptions of the Exodus story, but I believe that if we allow the archaeology to speak to the text, and for the text to speak to the archaeology, we have a better chance of building up a true picture of what the archaeology and the text are about.

But what do we make of the opening chapters of Genesis – the stories before Abraham? My personal view is that these are mythological, in the sense that they could have been co-opted from neighboring cultures, though they might have arisen from real, historic events.

The flood account in Genesis 6:9-9:17, is an instructive example, because the story-line shares so much with the Gilgamesh Epic. Returning to my earlier comments about inferences, I find it fascinating to see how the theology of Genesis varies so profoundly with Gilgamesh. The God of Genesis could not be more different that the “gods” of Gilgamesh, and that, I believe, is it’s true message, whether it was written before Gilgamesh, or not.  


There is much, much more that I could possibly relate here. In short, I believe that the Biblical narrative was derived mostly from actual historic events, which are attested to by the extra-Biblical archaeological evidence. The New Testament, being comparatively modern, has good attestation; the Old Testament is mixed; some parts have good attestation, some don't. The Old Testament might well have been redacted under Josiah, but one has to ask if they were doing what we are doing now – taking what they can see and inferring what they can from it.

The irony is that though the origins of the Biblical stories are sometimes obscure, we can see the agenda that the authors (or redactors) had when they committed their knowledge to writing. I believe that if we truly intend to treat the Bible as the Word of God, we need to listen to that agenda because that is the light that will make our paths straight, as the Book of Proverbs promises. The archaeological evidence, I believe, informs our understanding of this agenda and helps bring it to life. As I said at the start, we would be wise to listen to the archaeology, but discerning in what we get from it.