Showing posts with label Israel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Israel. Show all posts

Monday, 27 May 2013

Temptations in the Widerness (Matthew 4:1-11)

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (which, if you have ever been to Palestine, you know is really a desert) is an exceedingly symbolic passage. I say this because it takes the form of a sort of dialogue between the devil and Jesus, and each of the three issues on which Satan tempts Jesus is highly loaded, in an almost allegorical sense.

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." (v. 1)

This could be overlooked as a connecting sentence into the next section, but I claim it has more importance than that. Three points can be made:

     1. Jesus was led by the Spirit, which means, God took him to be tempted. We will see that elsewhere in the New Testament, God promises to never give a temptation that we could not resist, but here we can clearly see that God still takes us into temptation.

     2. Jesus was led into the wilderness, that is, Jesus was alone - almost. Although Jesus was not with any other person, the Spirit was there with him, and obviously, the devil will appear soon. This makes it clear that whether or not Jesus resists the temptations, he will do it for the sake of God alone, not because other people are there urging him to be a good person. He could succumb, and if he did, then nobody would know. Hence, this temptation is distilled in that no other factors come into play.

     3. Jesus was led to be tempted, in other words, Jesus can be tempted too! And since Jesus has no sin, we must then infer that being tempted is not in itself sinful. This is more of a pastoral note, since we can often find ourselves guilty for having a wayward desire. We will see in the passage that Jesus never shows signs of giving in, or being troubled, and so I would contend that a real want for something illicit is indicative of sinfulness, yet still I affirm that it is not itself sin.

"The tempter came and said to him "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written,
        'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"" (vv. 3-4)

We have just seen God "christen" Jesus as Son of God, and this time in the wilderness is going to test that. The first test is one of relieving suffering, of earthly indulgence. The devil essentially asks Jesus "since you're the Son of God, you could totally just make those stones into bread, and eat, and so fill your belly. Food is not bad, is it?" Jesus response follows as if it were said to what I take to the devil's words, and he essentially replies: "No, because although food is good, it is not enough. Man cannot live by only this earthly food, but instead by what flows from the mouth of God" We could misinterpret that to mean that we could subside only by means of reading the Scriptures, but from the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible (my commentary on which you can find here), the words of God are endowed with a special meaning, because unlike the words of any creature, when God utters a word, things are made. So Jesus is not saying "I shan't eat food, because I can live off reading the Bible", but instead "I shan't succumb to my desire to make my own solution to hunger, because I must live of what proceeds from God."

""If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (vv. 6-7)

This is an interesting one, because upon reading it, I find myself thinking "Jesus is saying 'do not make falsifiable claims about God,'" but that reading is anachronistic and theologically poor. Yet understanding this passage has profound pastoral importance - for instance, if a priest says to you, "go to Iraq to share the gospel, God will protect you, because you are his child" (I use Iraq because I imagine it has a fairly hostile attitude towards Christian things), should you respond "Do not put the Lord your God to the test"? There seems to be something terribly wrong with that. Maybe it is because throwing oneself onto rocks is not in any sense "for" God, whereas my scenario is. I put forward that what is characteristic about this is that here, Satan asks Jesus to do something that is really only expressing the attitude "do this for me", and Jesus responds by saying "I act unconditionally - I do not say "do this for me", as if I was testing God." So we certainly may have boldness that comes only from the knowledge of God's care and protection - but not because we demand things for the sake of demanding them. That would be equivalent to testing God.

"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

 Part of the irony of the previous temptation is that Satan is doing exactly what he knows not to: he is testing the Son of God, seeing if he really is God's Son. This last temptation does away with the formula "If you are the Son of God...", and in one last attempt to subdue Jesus, offers him absolutely everything of desirable nature in the world. Anybody that has been educated in the past five hundred or so years knows that there is no possible way in which one can go up a mountain and see all the kingdoms of the world - at best, you can observe half the planet, from an infinitely tall mountain. Perhaps all the kingdoms are conveniently placed on one hemisphere, and the rest of the world has civilizations which are not kingdoms, but such a reading seems completely bankrupt theologically.Still, the point is clear that Jesus is offered anything and everything he could possibly want in the whole world - if he would only renounces all he actually does want, not of this world. So true to his Sonship, Jesus says "no!, I will worship only the Lord!" This is an expression of the virtue of religion.

These temptations, though important in their own right, have higher meanings also. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes "Matthew and Luke recount three temptations of Jesus that reflect the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly mattes in human life."[1]  It is also exceedingly important to see that these three show the underlying temptation to trust anything other than God himself.

In the scheme of the book of Matthew, however, probably the most important thing is how this mirrors "Jesus as the true Israel". This has been hinted at in quoting Hosea ("out of Egypt I called my son"), and here we see how where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.[2] In this way, Jesus, the true Son, comes out of his 40 day period spotless, and ready to begin his ministry, just as Israel was meant to do after the 40 years in the wilderness.

[1] Jesus of Nazareth, page 28.
[2] Israel doubted God's providence (Exodus 16:3), put God to the test (Exodus 17:1) and abandoned God for idolatry (Exodus 32).

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Immoral Argument against the Old Testament

The core question of ethics, "what ought one do?" is one of the foundational questions of philosophy. Christianity seems to get ethics from the Bible, but is it really a good source? If one looks at the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then it may seem very plausible. Yet the earliest gentile Christians realized that it was not quite so simple - they were going to have to contend with the seemingly abhorrent actions committed by Israel, codified into Mosaic Law and commanded by God. Can an argument from the immorality of the Hebrew Bible suffice to reject the Bible as authoritative on matters of morality?

Allow me first to bring up some of this "evidence". From things Israel committed, see Numbers 31
where Moses commands the Israelites (it can be reasonably argued from verse 7 that God was the one who really commanded, but it is possible that the brutality was not God's - in this instance) to destroy the Midianites, and then Moses complains further when the Israelites have not killed every woman. These Midianite women and the men (referred to as boys in the passage) are to be put to death. The virgins, however, are kept as plunder "for themselves".

If the ownership of women seems unlawful to you, then this only complicates matters, as the law of Moses clearly speaks of women as property[1], for instance, in Exodus 22:16-17. Christians can speak of Jesus abolishing this law all they like, but the gospel according to St Matthew is insistent on the fact that Jesus' role was fulfilment, not abolishment - and if the sinless man fulfils it, then the Mosaic law must be the standard of morality to judge sin by. Furthermore, if Christians are adamant that Jesus actions mean we can ignore the law of Moses, why does St Paul refer to it as good and holy? (see: Romans 7:12)

One final piece of evidence: God's own explicit commands. Where better than the genocide of Joshua, commanded in Deuteronomy 7? I take this last instance to be common enough knowledge, and if not, then Deuteronomy is clear enough.

Now comes the logic part. It seems to be the case that these have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, about compassion on loving on another - but they do, for Jesus claims to be the son of the God of Israel and no other. The modus ponens argument I suggest is as follows:

1. To commit or command the actions listed above is immoral. (P implies Q - commanding these actions implies that the commander is immoral)
2. God commands the actions listed above. (P: God does indeed command these actions)
3. Therefore, God is immoral. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, God is immoral)

The logic of this statement is valid, but one may also attack the truth of the premises. Some Christians reject the first premise, saying that it is not in all times, cultures and places immoral to kill others or enslave them. Some say that it may be for most, but not for God, because God can do whatever he likes. Phrased in a more sophisticated manner, God has no moral obligations, as nothing is above God to impose them.

Very well, but that neither seems biblical nor does it seem to bode well in philosophy, either. If God does not, by his very own righteous nature, impose standards on his own actions, then how does he impose standards on ours? Where does this standard come from in the Christian view, if not from God's own essence? Either we propose an authority above God from which morality emanates, thereby constraining God, or we reject this and propose that the standard is, in fact, from within God and then he must have moral obligations; to himself.

But the second premise can also be challenged. Is biblical infallibility a terribly out-dated doctrine that ought to be left aside? It would certainly be helpful to reject it at times like these! Or at least, do we really need to take things so literally, word-for-word true, leaving aside the human element inherent in it?

In fact, I would opt for something along the lines of the latter. There are however, problems with this view, and there exist tensions which I am not wise enough to solve. Succinctly, the most crucial is that the New Testament writers all valued the Old Testament very highly, if not as inerrant. For some more discussion on this topic, see Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away.

[1] It has come to my attention that the Roman Catholic Church actually (quite prudently in my opinion) has the decalogue (10 Commandments) arranged in a different way. These commandments are numbered 10, but there are in fact 13 "you shall not"s, and so it falls upon the translators to combine them to make 10. Catholics combine the "first two" and separate wives from property, avoiding this problem.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away

Two days ago I wrote some "fairly unorthodox" (among Christians) views on the Bible - I used it as it can undeniably be taken; a historical document. Unfortunately, although some early Christians (sometimes called Marcionites, after Marcion, who had this goal) tried to get rid of the Old Testament as distinctly human, if we are to grant Jesus authority, then we must grapple with how he uses the Old Testament. It cannot be ignored easily.

The most common argument however, is not from Jesus' use, but from St Paul's letter to Timothy. In it is the famous verse (2 Timothy 3:16-17): "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." It would perhaps be nice to say this includes the New Testament, but given the context of the preceding verses, it is clear Paul speaks of the Old Testament (the only sacred texts he would have been able to study in his childhood). We see that Paul and Jesus, as well as many others, have a high regard for the Hebrew Bible - but what use do they make of it? This is the crux of the matter. How should Christians today understand and apply these Jewish texts?

Although Jesus' regard for Scripture is often cited as evidence by literalists and inerrantists, Jesus does not seem to take the Hebrew Bible literally in the sense that it is used today. The people that are meant to be inspired by God to write the Biblical documents use it in an odd way. I shall cite some uses from the gospel according to St Matthew, because it is the most Jewish. They are not exhaustive, and I recognize that often the Old Testament is used as we would expect it to be.
  • Matthew 1:23. This is a quotation from Isaiah 7:14, and unless one looks up the source, it may seem convincing. But upon opening the book of Isaiah at chapter 7, we see that this does not appear, in context, to be about the coming of the Messiah. The Messianic prophecy does not come until later in that book. The writer of this gospel has taken clear poetic license to quote this verse.
  • Matthew 2:15. This is from Hosea 11:1, but in context, this again is a reference to something different. In Hosea, God personifies Ephraim (Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel) as his son. It does not seem to be the case that Hosea spoke of Jesus. The author has taken a liberty here.
  • Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus takes it upon himself to deepen the severity of the Law, and in one section (5:38-48), he even overrides and changes it! The first case is with the so-called law of talion: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" - Jesus then says no! Do not resist an evil person (which is the same as saying, do not take his eye for yours, or his tooth for yours). If he strikes you on the cheek, do not strike back, but instead, offer the other! This change of the law may seem to be more moral or noble, but there is (almost) no denying it is a change.

    However, the next bit of law he changes is even more startling, because it appears far more clearly to be a contradiction: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Now, the spirit of the idea of staying well away and uninvolved with enemies is clear from the surrounding passages of Leviticus 19, but "hate your enemy" is not stated verbatim there, whereas "love your neighbour" is.
  • Matthew 19. This passage on divorce uses Genesis, where the supposed "first couple" appear. It is used at times to prove Jesus took Genesis 1 as a literal account of history and science, as well as to verify the historicity of the figure of Adam. But Jesus does not, in fact, do any such thing. Jesus gives as the reason for not divorcing that "in the beginning they were made male and female" (which is a fact, as far as anyone can tell, since Homo Sapiens have always been divided by sex) and then continues "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh" (which is the quotation). Here note that this cannot be about Adam and Eve as a literalistic reading of the passage would give us. Adam and Eve had no parents, and they were one flesh quite literally, in that one was made from the other - they cannot, therefore, "become" one flesh. They already are.
I hope it is clear now that very often the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is used in ways we do not expect. Yes, Jesus has the authority to add his own - but see how this is understood best as the finality of revelation in Jesus. The authors of the New Testament use the Old in ways that are unexpected - so above all, we must take humility in how we interpret it.