I can’t how many times I have been reminded and drawn to the words Paul penned in his letter to the Philippians about Jesus (Phil: 2:6-8):
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Scholars tell us these words were an early creed. The creed that Paul recited to the people in Philippi was probably familiar to them, as it was intended to be recited. That is the nature of creeds: they are meant to be repeated.
Thus, I suppose, the fact that I find myself drawn over and over again to the Philippian creed is apt. It carries significant and timeworn meaning to me, as it certainly must have done for Paul and and the early followers of Jesus to be considered so worth repeating.
I found myself thinking again about these words today as I wrapped up another blog post (Lessons Learned from the Edge of the Wilderness). As often is the case when meditating on Scripture, meanings deepen, grow and broaden. The Philippian creed takes on new meaning for me in light of the exercise of comparing and harmonizing the “God of the Old Testament” with Jesus (another theme I have focused on in the past).
In Lessons Learned from the Edge of the Wilderness, I was thinking about the fact that Moses and the people of Israel were distanced from God – such is the fate of all people in our natural and sinful state. In this piece, I want to explore what that means (and why it is the case), and I want to explore why our perception of God changes in the revelation of Jesus.
I am reading through the Bible chronologically. By the way, the “books” of the Bible are only roughly chronological. Following the chronology closely requires jumping around a bit. I didn’t realize to what extent that is true before taking this journey that I am on.
Presently, I am right at the point where Moses stands on top of a mountain (east of Jericho, on the edge of the plains of Moab) to survey the land that God promised hundreds of years earlier to Abraham and his descendants. Moses dies right before they go in.
Before he dies, though, he reminds the people of all that has transpired. He reminds them how God delivered them out of their slavery in Egypt and went with them every step along the way. The reminder of God’s presence was with them by fire at night and cloud during the day.
God revealed Himself in dramatic ways to these people and instructed them through Moses down to very particular details for establishing a relationship with God through the Tent of Meeting, Ark of the Covenant and the offerings they were to make through the intermediaries of the Levite priests, among other things. They had 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with God’s presence continually among them in visual demonstration and ritual reminders.
Reading through this history of God’s interaction with the people He chose to lead eventually into a land He promised many, many generations before through a modern, intellectual lens can be unnerving. The skepticism of the age echoes in my mind and unsettles my heart.
Of particular note are the times we read that people are stricken dead for ignoring or refusing to follow the instruction. For instance, the Sons of Korah, the sons of Moses’ cousin Korah led a revolt against Moses. They and all the people who followed them died when God caused “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah”. (Numbers 16:1-33)
Incidences like this prompt a person of modern sensibilities to wonder, “Why would a good God do such a thing?!” It seems Draconian.
The stakes were high for these people, and even less intentional “slips” were sometimes met with the same fate. It’s hard to imagine living in those circumstances, especially in light of the grace that seems to color everything that Jesus said and did.
When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.
I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.
Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.
Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The scholarly understanding when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.
It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.
Recently I did some research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is just conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.
If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.
Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.
The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.
Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.
Back to Abraham, though… he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southwest Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.
I have been listening to the podcast, Ask NT Wright Anything, with host, Justin Brierley, out of the UK. It’s good to get other perspectives on any topic, as we tend to be blind to the particular bents and biases and ways of thinking that we have, not realizing that there are other ways of viewing things.
One amazing thing about Scripture is that it has been translated into over 300 languages, hundreds of more translations than any other book of any type. Though the combination of writings making up the Bible were written over a period of about 1500 years by about 40 Ancient Near Eastern authors from one concentrated area in the world, it has found universal acceptance and application, even today, nearly 2000 years after the last writing.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Australia to the West Indies, Canada to Papua New Guinea, the Congo to Russia, and El Salvador to Mongolia, the Bible has found an audience of devotees who consider it the Word of God. The Bible has resonated with virtually every people group in the world.
In western civilization, and the American version of it, in particular, we can be pretty provincial in our understanding, for all the sophistication we think we have. We have developed certain blind spots, and we get hung up in certain ruts that we don’t even realize are obstacles to a more nuanced, balanced and (perhaps) accurate understanding.
For instance, the prosperity gospel is uniquely western, and particularly American. The prosperity gospel isn’t preached in Pakistan, Sudan, Honduras or Haiti. It shouldn’t take much thought to realize the reason why. Our America view of the gospel, God and the Bible can be (and is) influenced by our cultural bents. Without the balance of other views, we can tend toward the heretical.
Another example of our cultural bent is our western and American view of the Old Testament and “the God of the Old Testament”. Most non-westerners don’t have the issues we have with “the wrath of God” and some of the passages of the Old Testament that seem unsavory to the modern sensibilities of Americans.
This doesn’t necessarily make the rest of the world “right”, but we have to realize that our views may not be perfectly “right” either. We can all benefit by views of people who have different cultural backgrounds.
American, for instance, have gotten hung up on things like the “inerrancy of Scripture” and a “fundamentalist”, literalistic view of the Bible. NT Wright talks about this often in his interviews with Justin Brierley. He notes that Americans tend to trip over details and miss “the story”.
NT Wright was recently speaking of the issues that some people have with the Old Testament, fixating on whether it is historically and factually true in every detail. In doing so, we may might never get to the story, and the meaning of the story, which is the whole point! We get stuck in a rut asking whether it is true in every detail, and, “If we can’t be sure that it is true on every point, can we really trust it?”
I began a two-part series on The God that we Judge with a little introduction. In reading and listening to people who judge “the God of the Old Testament” (or, more universally, “the God of the Bible”), I am shocked at how little understanding most people have about what they are judging and rejecting. My goal is to provide a little context and understanding, albeit it is very little.
For starters, the biblical narrative is the story of an infinite God revealing Himself to His finite, limited creation. That creation (humankind) has capacity to learn and to understand, but the limits in knowledge, experience, understanding, perspective, etc. must be overcome. The revelation is progressive, little by little over a long period of time. That perspective and understanding is developed through one people group that God tries to work with to a point when, at that right time, God introduces Himself into the creation/story in human form – Jesus.
Many of the people who judge “the God of the Old Testament” consider Jesus to be a wise man, like Ghandi. Jesus is the universal religious figure. All religions claim Jesus and acknowledge him, but many of them don’t consider Jesus to be God. Many people believe Jesus was just a wise man. Many people also believe Jesus to be very different than the God of the Old Testament. And that is where I will start in this second half of this two-part series.