Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Reading Numbers

This book is a mix of three things: preparing to leave Sinai, the sojourn in the wilderness, and preparing to enter Canaan. A census occurs at the beginning of the first and third sections. The first section is devoted to the organization of the people for their camping and marching. Imagine concentric squares with the tabernacle at the middle. The first square around the tabernacle consist of Moses and Aaron and families, and the three clans that make up the tribe of Levi, with one camp on each side of the square. The second ring is made up of the tribes divided into groups of three, each group of three on a side. The marching order of the tribes puts the tabernacle in the center of the tribes (see Numbers 2).

The wilderness sojourn is the best-known part of the Book of Numbers, essentially beginning with the refusal of the people to enter the land, and ending with them camped by the Jordan, being prophesied over by Balaam.

The last section begins with the second census (40 years after the first, during which the total number of Israelite fighting men has dropped (certainly unexpected after the prolific fecundity of the people in Exodus, as described in Exodus 1). Moses then makes preparations for Israel to enter the land, beginning and ending with the questions regarding the daughters of Zelophehad.

The intent of the book is to remind the people of God that we are under his marching orders, and that we are to move out and forward according to those directions. While it is easy to point the finger at the disobedient Israelites, many Christians (and many churches) spend years wandering in the wilderness due to fundamental disobedience to God's instructions for how we are to conduct our lives here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Reading Leviticus

For more comments on Leviticus, see my posts from March 2007. This post asks the question, "How should we read Leviticus?" Or, "What should we expect to learn from Leviticus?"

Leviticus constitutes part of the large central section of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch can be outlined in three points as follows:

I. From Creation to Sinai: Genesis 1-50, Exodus 1-18
II. Israel at Sinai: Exodus 19-40, Leviticus, Numbers 1-10
II. From Sinai to the Jordan: Numbers 11-36, Deuteronomy

The central section of the Pentateuch presents God's constitution of Israel as his treasured possession among the nations. As such, he will dwell in their midst. But Israelites, like other men, are sinners, and their sin threatens the relationship that God establishes with them. Thus the book of Leviticus sets forth how the relationship is to be restored when it is broken by sin (the sacrifices), how the holiness of God is to be reflected in the individual lives of Israelites and in the corporate life of Israel (food laws, cleanness laws, holiness laws, and the liturgical calendar).

In all this Israel becomes an example for the church. The holiness of the lives of individual Christians and the holiness of the life of the church is to reflect the holiness of God. Of course, many of the things that were to characterize the life of Israel (food laws, holiness laws, liturgical calendar) are fulfilled in Christ, and applied to his people by the work of the Holy Spirit. But it is essential for Christians to learn that God is holy, and his people are therefore to be holy, and that their holy behavior is to pervade every aspect of their lives as holy behavior was to characterize every aspect of the life of Israelites and the life of Israel.

If you learn nothing else from Leviticus, at least learn that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Reading Exodus

Part of the problem with the Pentateuch is that we tend to see it as five distinct books. In a sense, they are, in that all of the manuscripts that we have divide between the books at the same point our English Bible do. The problem with that is that we tend to read them as separate entities. But they are identified traditionally (and rightly) as The Five Books of Moses. They have one author, therefore one point of view, and one aim. They tell a unified story, so each book of the five should be read as a part of the larger whole. This is the strength of John Sailhamer's The Pentateuch as Narrative. In spite of some difficulties I have with his interpretation, especially concerning Genesis 1-11, still he makes the reader look at each book as a part of the larger whole.

That brings us to Exodus. What part does it play in the larger whole? The first thing to consider is the outline of the book.

I. Deliverance From Egypt, chs 1-15
II. From the Red Sea to Sinai, chs 16-18
III. At Sinai, chs 19-40

That makes the point that Exodus connects with Leviticus and Numbers, because all of Leviticus and the opening chapters of Numbers take place at Sinai. It also connects with Genesis because the end of Genesis sets up the beginning of Exodus.

The Book of Exodus should thus be read as follows: It tells the story of the chosen family, descending from Abraham, having grown into a slave nation in Egypt. God comes to deliver his people and bring them to Sinai, where he will enter into a national covenant with them. The framework of that covenant and its requirements are spelled out in chs 20-24. The directions for the building of the tabernacle (chs 25-31) provide for the dwelling of God in the midst of his people. These directions are bracketed by the Sabbath (24:16 and 31:12-17), the day of God's favor. But the people smash the covenant with their faithlessness in their having quickly turned to another god, or at least a god they could see. In the face of the threat of destruction, Moses intercedes for the people, and God restores the covenant (ch 34). As a result of the restoration, the divine dwelling place may now be built in the midst of the people (chs 35-40). Again, note how the Sabbath, the day of God's favor, brackets the Golden Calf episode (31:12-17 and 35:1-3).

The book comes to its conclusion with the Glory of God appearing to the people and descending upon the tabernacle (40:34-38). This shows not only God's presence with his people, but his determination to accompany them in their travels (40:38).

Everything in the book should be read in the light of this overall framework.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Job 27-42

Following the dialogues with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, the Book of Job concludes with three monologues and an epilogue. The monologues are those of Job (chs 27-31), Elihu (chs 32-37), and God (chs 38-41). Job's monologue presents his final defense of his integrity, focusing on the problem of understanding/wisdom in ch 28. The idea is that human wisdom is insufficient to comprehend Job's situation, and God alone is capable of understanding. Thus, the best man can do is fear God and turn from evil. Job then seeks to demonstrate that this has indeed been the course of his life.

Elihu's monologue has probably been over analyzed because he has not previously been mentioned in the book. His message probably serves two primary purposes. First, he puts forth the instructional element in suffering, that is, that suffering presents an opportunity for learning. This has not been suggested in any clear way in the book up to this point. Second, Elihu's speech serves to heighten expectation for God's appearance on the scene. In other words, he serves to increase the tension.

God's monologue does not address Job's concerns. He does not explain himself. Instead, he takes the "Pauline" tack, "Who are you, O man?" But in his response God emphasizes both the demonstration of his wisdom in the making of creation and the care he continually exerts in providence, giving his statement an "if God so clothes the grass" character that Job picks up on.

The Epilogue. Does Job repent? If he does, of what does he have to repent? God says that Job spoke truly concerning him. Instead, a better translation is "I comfort myself upon dust and ashes. That is, even in the midst of my scraping myself upon the dust heap, I comfort myself with the vision and knowledge I now have of God. Lest anyone think this is a new idea with me, I borrowed it from The Word Became Fresh by Dale Ralph Davis, pp. 118-119, footnote 18.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Notes on the Bible, Job Continued

Yes, it has been three months. If you're keeping up with your Bible reading, you're well beyond Job by now. But I though I ought at least to finish up my overview of Job.

Chapters 4-26 constitute the dialogues among Job and his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In the first round (chs 4-14) the friends express their "karma" view of theology. That is, if something bad happens to you, it was in payback for something bad that you did. It is easy to fault Job's friends for this, but it is a theology that most people naturally fall into. Witness, for example, the disciples of Jesus in John 9:2. Since Job's situation has gotten so inordinately bad, he must have done something inordinately bad to deserve it. That is what all three friends say, though more nicely and at greater length. Job insists that such is not the case. In the course of his responses, Job recognizes the need for an arbiter between God and man (the "daysman" of 9:33 KJV) and he continues to trust in God in spite of circumstances (13:15).

In the second round of dialogues (chs 15-22), the friends, apparently disappointed by Job's unwillingness to admit his great sin, continue the make their charges, though more sharply and with less grace. Job on his part continues to evidence faith in God and in his own vindication (19:23-27), though it is clear that he is struggling to hold on.

The last round of dialogues is the shortest, as if all the verbal combatants are running out of energy, as well as out of things to say. Nothing really new is said in this section. Zophar does not speak in the last round, and Bildad speaks only briefly. The dialogues end with Job's assertions that his friends have done God no service, and that God is greater than their theology. Thus the dialogues end with Job maintaining his trust in God and the certainty of his vindication.

It's my view that too many of those who would preach through Job tend to spend too much time in the dialogues and end up with a great deal of repetition.