Social Justice in Ancient Israel 1

25 04 2008

Truett Seminary

Moshe Weinfeld’s Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East examines how the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern culture tackled the problem of social justice.

In the introduction of his book, Weinfeld points out that the concepts of justice and righteousness are “more associated with mercy and loving kindness or… are to be seen with the context of ameliorating the situation of the destitute.” The point of his book then, is to show that the practice of righteousness and justice in the OT and in ancient Israel is essentially acting on behalf of the poor and less fortunate classes of people.

He compares the practice of Israel with other Mesopotamian cultures: the Mesopotamian kings instituted liberty and freedom when they came into power. This proclamation of liberty appears to be a propaganda tool so as to win over the hearts of the people. For instance, King Cyrus sends the exiles home during the Persian Empire. In Israel’s case, on the other hand, the proclamation of justice and righteousness is done on the part of YHWH. Thus, the sabbatical and jubilee years (established periods of liberation) “were understood as divinely ordained institutions, in which human interests fulfilled no role whatever.”

In other words, the OT calls the people of Israel to consistently pursue justice and righteousness. This is not a negative command (that is, it is not a command not to do something), but a positive command. Justice and righteousness are positive actions, such as feeding the hungry or visiting the sick. Plus, there is a stronger call for the ruling classes to remember the plight of the disenfranchised.

The introduction is intriguing because it contrasts the divine inspiration and general goodwill of justice and righteousness of the OT with the often times oppressive nature of “justice and righteousness” in other ancient cultures.

More to come…

Imagery in the Apocalypse: Rev 2.1

18 10 2007

I promise – thoughts on McLaren’s new book are coming, I’ve just got a really busy week with class.

Now to the actual post….

You can’t tell me that the Apocalypse of the prophet John is literal. From the beginning of the work, John uses vivid, spectacular language. I’m working on an exegesis of Rev 2.1-7 for preaching 1 class right now, and simply from the first verse in this passage we can see John’s fantastic portrayal of the Son of Man:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands….

Check it out – the Christ is “holding” in his “right hand” the “seven stars.” First of all, we have to note that the previous verse tells us that the seven stars and the seven lampstands are the seven spirits of the churches and the seven churches respectively.  Clearly – this is poetic, imaginative imagery.  The Greek word for “holds” has the connotation of having power, further illustrated by the use of “right hand.”  Anytime you see a reference to the right hand in the Bible, it is a declaration of strength.  So, we see that Christ has power.  We see that Christ is in control.  And in the oral culture culture in which it was written, the imagery of holding stars and walking among golden lampstands offers a notion of grandeur.

And not only are we given a sense of Christ’s other-ness (that is, his holiness), but the text reveals that he walks “among” or “in the midst of” the churches.  He is with the church.  We know that he is in control, and we know that he is with us!

The imagery used in this seemingly simple verse offers a picture of a holy Christ who is deeply concerned for his people, who walks among his people.

And as we see later on in the text, the Christ who holds us and who is with us scolds us and beckons us and encourages us.  He calls us to follow….

more to come

The Christian war-hawks of America make me angry

27 09 2007

Please stop using the Bible to justify the current U.S. presence in Iraq.

Just stop it.

I know, I know. The Bible says that God blessed the Israelites when they massacred their enemies in the land of Canaan. It even says that God commanded them to kill their enemies, even women and children. I’m not going to tackle why that is right now because that’s not the issue here.

The issue is your shoddy interpretation and application of the text.

You’re missing the fact that this is a biblical story. It is NOT a truism that applies to all times and all places. God is not commanding everyone to kill their enemies. Nor is he calling all of his people of all times to violence. He is ESPECIALLY not calling 21st century Americans to violence in this text.

It seems to me that you’re operating out of your Republican agenda and coming to the biblical text looking for an excuse and a justification to fight your war that you were already fixated upon anyway. This is what biblical scholars like to call “eisegesis.” That means that you’re reading into the text what’s not really there. You’re coming from your own time and place and making your actions and ideas fit into the text where they don’t really go.

You know what, though? It’s one thing if you think the war in Iraq is a good idea based upon current political and international circumstances. You’re wrong, but I can at least respect that opinion.

But don’t use the Bible and say, “God blessed Israel at war, so God’s blessing America at war today.” It’s just wrong on so many levels.

And since when is pre-emptive war a Christ-like response to the world’s problems?

Christ calls his people to nonviolence. It is because of the call of Christ that Christians must no longer support this type of violent war-mongering in our society. Just stop it. To do so is evil, oppressive, intolerant, and ignorant.

If we do not stand up as a people of God and prevent our government from making another mistake by continuing to provoke Iran and other groups like them, then we are in deep trouble. Quite frankly, I am growing terrified of the current administration’s aggressive foreign policy. Let us learn from our mistakes in the very recent past. Let us promote peace and diplomacy and justice.

Now, I am not sure how to reconcile my faith in Christ and my love for our country when I am confronted with these statistics:

  • The US military budget in 2006 was larger than the next 25 nations combined. In other words, the strongest 25 countries in the world would have to switch from being US allies (as most of them are) to US enemies in order for the US to be confronted with an equal force.
  • 10 percent of the US military budget, if reinvested in foreign aid and development, could care for the basic needs of the entire world’s poor.
  • The US produces 53 percent of the world’s weapons, supplying most of the world.
  • The US, Great Britain, and France make more money selling weapons to developing countries than they give those countries in aid.
  • 163 of 202 nations in the world have US troops stationed within them.

As a believer in the God of Peace and Christ the peacemaker I don’t know how to deal with these issues.

(Thanks to Mark Hobbs for providing these statistics in his review of Brian McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change.)

[edit] Here’s a great article by Jim Wallis on dealing with Iran.

Biblical type-scenes (or, how Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne made it into the Bible)

20 09 2007

I’ve been reading Robert Alter’s book, The Art of Biblical Narrative for Dr. Ngan’s scriptures 1 class (that’s Genesis through Chronicles), and so far it’s been extremely beneficial for how I read the Bible. Of particular note is chapter three, entitled “Biblical Type-Scenes and the Uses of Convention.” For Alter, the biblical writers used literary techniques to tell a story and, really, to create art. One of these techniques is commonly known as the ‘type-scene.’

Now, before we delve further into what Alter talks about, let’s look at an example that we can all understand: superheroes. I like superheroes. I grew up watching the old school Adam West Batman series, the Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and that really cool Batman cartoon series that came out in the early to mid 90’s.

When we watch a superhero cartoon, TV show, movie, or read a graphic novel (the new “with-it” term for comic book), one of the things we notice is that almost all superheroes have a moment when they begin to realize their powers. For example, Peter Parker in the first Spider-Man movie goes through a series of scenes where he struggles to understand these strange abilities he obtains. After his uncle is killed, Parker realizes that his uncle’s words ring true: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Thus, Parker uses his talents for the greater good of society. We can see a similar “coming of age” story within the Batman mythology. Batman’s parents are killed by a robber when he is a young boy, and this event never leaves his memory. Bruce Wayne uses this memory, his never-ending wealth, and his physical ability to fight crime, and in a sense he avenges the death of his parents.

Notice that both heroes go through this same process, but within each story we can see similarities and differences that illuminate their respective characters. We can call these instances type-scenes. In superhero mythology, the hero discovers his call, and he must decide how to use that call.

The biblical writers used literary conventions similar to this. Alter uses the example of the betrothal story. Alter says that the typical betrothal story includes the main character traveling to a foreign land, the encounter with the girl or girls at a well, someone draws water from the well, the girl or girls rush off to their father, and a betrothal is concluded after a meal.

For instance, in Genesis there are a few betrothal stories. The story of Isaac’s betrothal to Rebekah and the story of Jacob’s betrothal to Rachel are of particular interest. Isaac himself, does not travel to the foreign land, but sends a servant. The servant in Isaac’s place meets Rebekah at the well, and Rebekah not only draws water for the servant, but for the servant’s animals as well. The servant explains why he is there, and Rebekah rushes off to her father’s house, and they have a meal with the servant. The servant travels with Rebekah back to Isaac, and they are finally betrothed. The interesting thing about this story is that Isaac plays a very passive role, while Rebekah plays a very active role. This characterization illustrates the larger narrative in the story of Isaac. It is Rebekah who takes an active role in making sure that her favorite son Jacob receives the blessing, while Isaac pretty much copies everything his father, Abraham, did.

In the next story we see that Jacob takes on an active role in finding his wife Rachel. He travels to the land of Laban, and sees Rachel at the well. It is Jacob this time who draws the water, and he has an obstacle to overcome – the stone on the mouth of the well. Alter writes that this “minor variation of the convention contributes to the consistent characterization of Jacob.” Jacob the heel-grabber is the one who wrestles throughout the narrative. He struggles with Laban, with God, and with his sons. Jacob, though, instead of receiving Rachel as his bride, receives Leah. The writers compare Leah to Rachel – Rachel was beautiful, but Leah had “weak/beautiful” eyes. In other words – Rachel was hot, but not Leah. Jacob is tricked by Laban, and the narrative continues as a struggle.

Now, these two stories show how the type-scene characterizes the actors in the story. What’s even more interesting, though, is when the writers play with the literary conventions so as to communicate something totally unique about the character as in the case with Saul. Saul begins what looks like is going to be a betrothal scene as some girls come down to the well. Instead of meeting one of the girls and seeking a bride, he pulls a Harry and Lloyd – “You ladies are in luck… There’s a town a few miles down the road.” Alter suggests that the reason the writer does this is to foreshadow that things aren’t going to go so well for Saul. Saul, in keeping with his character, did not find a wife at the well as was expected, and neither will Saul maintain his kingship.

I’ve tried to explain in this relatively short entry what Alter does in 15 pages. So if the argument is weak it’s because I sacrificed space for brevity. At the least, though, we can see that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is not “pure history” in the modern sense of the word. It is filled with narrative and exciting story lines. In essence, the Bible is a piece of literary artwork designed to tell the story of God and his people. So, next time you read the story of Abraham or David or Elijah, think about how Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne fit into the narrative.