Friday, September 16, 2011

Josiah: Death of a King (II Chronicles 35)

Whose army killed King Josiah on the plain of Megiddo? The army of Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (II Chronicles 35:20-24)

Josiah was a religious reformer and the last good king Judah would ever have (II Kings 21:25). He was slain in battle at Megiddo against Pharaoh Necho II’s Egyptian army in 609 BCE (II Kings 23:29-30; II Chronicles 35:20-35). In addition to the canonical accounts, Josiah’s death is also recorded in I Esdras, a Greek version of Ezra found in the Apocrypha (I Esdras 1:25-32). Josiah’s death proved catastrophic, marking the beginning of the end of his nation. His son, Jehoahaz, lasted only three months as king before being deposed (II Kings 23:31-34; II Chronicles 36:1-4) and Judah would fall permanently twelve years later.

Tragically, Necho II had no desire to kill Josiah or even battle Judah (II Chronicles 35:21; I Esdras 1:26-27). Necho II had just become Pharaoh and was using the coastal route, Via Maris, to reach Carchemish in northern Syria (II Kings 23:29; II Chronicles 35:20; I Esdras 1:25). He simply wanted to aid his allies, the Assyrians, in their battle against the Babylonians. Necho II requested passage through Judah but for unknown reasons, Josiah refused and rushed to intercept the Pharaoh’s northward march at Megiddo (II Chronicles 35:22; I Esdras 1:28). Josiah’s ambush was unsuccessful and he died from wounds received from archers in the disastrous engagement (II Kings 23:29; II Chronicles 30:23-24; I Esdras 1:29-31).

Megiddo is where we derive the word Armageddon, which reads literally “Mount Megiddo”.

Josiah’s rationale for attacking the Egyptians is unknown. Avner Falk (b. 1943) describes the act of attacking the far superior Egyptian army as “clearly suicidal” (Falk, A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews, 181). Falk also offers several explanations. Firstly, Josiah feared an Egyptian victory would strengthen his traditional rival, Assyria, who had supported Manasseh’s syncretistic policies (II Kings 21:10-18). In this scenario, Josiah did not discern that it was no longer Assyria who would be his biggest threat, but Babylon, who would permanently overthrow his nation. Another hypothesis is that Josiah was honoring a mutual defense treaty with Babylon. Falk suggests that Josiah’s own narcissism proved his own undoing (Falk, 181).

Eric H. Cline (b. 1960) proposes that Necho II was threatened by Josiah’s religious reforms and tricked the king into meeting him only to assassinate him (Cline, The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age, 99). This theory fits the abrupt account in Kings - “And King Josiah went to meet him, and when Pharaoh Neco saw him he killed him at Megiddo” (II Kings 23:30 NASB) - though it does not fit Chronicles’ record which notes that Necho II warned Josiah and that the king disguised himself (II Chronicles 35:22).

Other scholars have attempted to reconstruct Josiah’s motives by claiming that he wished to reunite Israel and Judah. In battling Necho II, Josiah was attempting to eliminate Egypt from the region (Victor H. Matthews (b. 1950), A Brief History of Ancient Israel, 90).

Why do you think Josiah made such a disastrous decision? What is the most misguided decision you have ever made? What were the consequences?

One of the most perplexing aspects of the story is that Necho II, presumably a pagan who worshiped his own gods, invokes God’s will, in an attempt to deter Josiah:

“What have we to do with each other, O King of Judah? I am not coming against you today but against the house with which I am at war, and God has ordered me to hurry. Stop for your own sake from interfering with God who is with me, so that He will not destroy you.” (II Chronicles 35:21 NASB)
Necho II’s words actually did come from God (II Chronicles 35:22). I Esdras echoes these sentiments and adds that the prophet Jeremiah objected to Josiah’s strategy (I Esdras 1:28).

Was Necho really speaking for God? Why would Judah’s holiest king not follow God? Why would God triangulate, speaking to Josiah through a (presumably unreliable) third party? Have you ever felt God speaking to you through someone who espoused a different religion?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Priests: Born or Made? (Numbers 3)

Out of the twelve tribes, which one was consecrated to the temple service? The tribe of Levi (Numbers 3:6-8)

In the Old Testament, the descendants of Levi were consecrated for among other things, temple service (Numbers 3:6-10, 18:2-7; Deuteronomy 10:8-9). The Levites were charged with ministering to the Kohanim (priests) and keeping watch over the Tabernacle (Numbers 18:2-6). (Contrary to popular belief, the Levites did not simply make God’s jeans.) All priests were Levites but not all Levites were priests (Numbers 18:1-2; Deuteronomy 21:5, 31:9). The book of Leviticus, which has a priestly impetus, is taken from the Greek meaning “relating to the Levites”.

Levi was the third son of Jacob a.k.a. Israel (Genesis 29:34, 35:23). God personally selected his descendants commanding “you shall cleanse them and present them as a wave offering; for they are wholly given to Me from among the sons of Israel. I have taken them for Myself instead of every first issue of the womb, the firstborn of all the sons of Israel (Numbers 8:15-16 NASB).”

The Levites were unique among Israel’s tribes. A special ceremony was held to consecrate the Levites and designate them to God’s service (Numbers 8:5-22). They were not eligible for military service as in conducting the census of the army, Moses was explicitly instructed to not count the Levites (Numbers 1:47-53, 2:33). The Levites were the only tribe not allotted land (Leviticus 25:32-34; Deuteronomy 10:8-9, 14:29; Joshua 13:13, 33, 14:3-4, 18:7) though they were given cities in which to reside (Numbers 35:1-5; Joshua 21:1-42). The Levites were given no inheritance as “the LORD, the God of Israel, is their inheritance” (Joshua 13:33 NASB). The Levites were dependent upon the landed tribes for sustenance, namely through tithes (Numbers 18:8-31; Deuteronomy 12:19), particularly the tithe known as the Maaser Rishon or Levite Tithe (Numbers 18:21-26).

Was the Levites designation as clergy a boon or did they draw the short end of the stick? In an era of the priesthood of all believers, should Christians mimic the ordinances set for the Levites? Why were the Levites set apart as Levi never demonstrated any moral superiority over his brothers (Genesis 34:1-31, 49:5-7)?

The Levites were selected for the clerical task because they were the tribe who stood with Moses in the blasphemous incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:26-29). While Moses was on Mount Sinai convening with God and retrieving the Ten Commandments, the people became restless and convinced Aaron to fashion a Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-6). When Moses returned, the Levites were the tribe which banded with Moses against the idolaters (Exodus 32:26). In fact, they killed 3000 infidels that very day (Exodus 32:28). It was presumably this zeal that set them apart for the priesthood (Exodus 32:29).

Ironically, both Moses and Aaron were Levites (Exodus 2:1-10, 4:14; Numbers 26:59; Joshua 21:4, 10).

In contrast, today Christian clergy are selected based on an individual sense of calling as opposed to being born into the profession.

Which system of clergy selection do you prefer? What are the benefits of both methods? What overarching factors changed to necessitate the change in clergy appointment? Have you known any second generation ministers? What are the advantages?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gospel Thesis (John 20:31)

According to John 20:31, what is John’s stated purpose in writing the Gospel? “That you might believe in Jesus Christ and have life through His name”

Of all the gospels, John has the most clear purpose statement. The author writes “but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31 NASB).” Given this statement at the conclusion of chapter 20, John’s twenty-first and final chapter has often been viewed as an epilogue.

John 20:31 is an example of a thesis statement. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina advises “state your point of view on the topic directly and often in one sentence. This sentence is the thesis statement, and it serves as a summary of the argument you’ll make in the rest of your paper (“Thesis Statements”).

Were you to write a life of Christ, what would the thesis statement be?

Each gospel was written to a different audience with a different agenda and as such each has its own thesis statement. Scholars have unanimously determined the thesis statements to Mark’s and Luke’s gospels:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 NASB)

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10, NASB)

While scholars have reached a consensus on the thesis statements of three of the gospels, Matthew’s key verse is subject to debate with numerous verses offered (Matthew 2:2, 4:17, 5:17, 16:16, 21:39, 27:37). While Matthew’s thesis statement is not clearly defined, the gospel’s message is: Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the long awaited king and Messiah.

Which verse would you pick as Matthew’s purpose statement? Which gospel’s thesis statement do you prefer? Why? What was the purpose of Jesus’ life?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gamaliel the Teacher (Acts 22:3)

Who was Paul’s teacher? Gamaliel (Acts 22:3)

Paul is one of the most controversial figures in Christianity yet even his biggest detractors do not doubt his education. When presenting his defense at trial in Jerusalem, Paul cites his credentials, including studying under the famed Jewish rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). This would be the ancient equivalent of an Ivy League education.

Gamaliel the Elder (d. 52 CE) was a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish tribunal. He was the first to whom the title “Rabban” (“our master”), from which we get “Rabbi”, was given. Rabbi was a relatively new term during Paul’s life as it developed around the time of a schism which arose between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Many suppose that Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, but the earliest traditions document that he founded his own school (Andreas J. Köstenberger [b.1957], L. Scott Kellum [b. 1964] and Charles L.Quarles [b.1965], The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, 389). The Talmud claims that 500 people in Gamaliel’s “house” studied the Torah while 500 studied Greek wisdom (Baba Kamma 83a).

Gamaliel is revered in the Mishnaic tradition but referenced less frequently in the Talmud (Heigel, The Pre-Christian Paul, 29-34). In the Mishnah, like Billy Graham (b. 1918) in modern times, Gamaliel was called to consult a king and queen (Pesahim 88:2) and he is remembered as one of the greatest teachers ever: “Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time (Sotah 15:18).”

Gamaliel is one of the few Pharisees to garner favorable reviews in the New Testament, where he is referenced twice (Acts 5:34, 22:3). In Gamaliel’s only other Biblical appearance, he diffused Christian opposition by asking that his Jewish constituents exercise patience (Acts 5:33-40). They grudgingly heed his advice - “So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God (Acts 5:38-39 NASB).” An early church tradition even claims that Gamaliel embraced Christianity but remained in the Sanhedrin as a covert Christian operative (Recognitions of Clement, 1:65-66).

Who taught you? Is your education formal or informal? How much did your teachers influence you? Do your opinions mirrors those of your mentors and/or teachers? Did Gamaliel influence Paul?

To varying degrees, all teachers influence their students. The magnitude to which Gamaliel impacted Paul is debated as Paul does not state the nature or the extent of his tutelage under Gamaliel. Given Paul’s murderous pursuit of Christians (Acts 8:1-3, 9:4-5, 22:4, 22:7-8, 26:14-15; I Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6; I Timothy 1:13) and Gamaliel’s tolerance (Acts 5:33-40), there was certainly a disconnect between the two. N.T. Wright (b. 1948) explains that Gamaliel’s stance was indicative of the Hillelites who “broadly speaking, pursued a quality of ‘live and let live.’” (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 27). In contrast, it has been speculated that Paul espoused the stricter code of law as supported by Hillel [d. 10]’s foe, Shammai [50 BCE-30 CE] (Galatians 5:3, Köstenberger, 389) Their diverging beliefs and the fact that the pairing is not mentioned elsewhere has led many, including Helmet Koester (b. 1926), to doubt whether Paul actually studied with Gamaliel. The Talmud does describe Gamaliel as having taught an impudent student (Shabbath 30b), which a few scholars have speculated references Paul.

Paul certainly was more radical than the tolerant Gamaliel. The discrepancies between the two does not necessarily mean that they did not work together. In his speech, Paul never claims to have been disciple of Gamaliel. A student, unlike a disciple, does not always adopt the philosophy of her teacher. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Strikingly, Paul never references Gamaliel in any of his epistles, even in places where it would be expected as when he cites his Jewish credentials (Philippians 3:4-6). Then again, when Paul brags, it is of his deeds, not his education (II Corinthians 10:13). Paul’s education led to action. George Santayana (1863-1952) wrote, “The great difficulty in education is to get experience out of ideas.” Paul certainly did this.

Can Gamaliel’s influence be seen in Paul’s theology? Are you proud of your education? Was Paul proud of his?

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” - Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pharaoh’s “Hard” Heart (Exodus 11:10)

Whose heart was hardened by God? Pharaoh’s (Exodus 11:10)

The book of Exodus is known for Moses liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The interplay between Pharaoh and Moses is actually secondary to the story’s primary duel between God and Pharaoh. Though they never speak directly, the story is really a battle between God and Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler who claimed divinity. Moses merely serves as the emissary between the two “deities”. Throughout the account, the narrative notes 17 times that the Israelites’ freedom was delayed because Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened” (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 13, 22, 8:15, 19, 32, 9:7, 12, 34, 35, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8). In nine of those instances, God is said to be the catalyst behind Pharaoh’s hardened heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8)!

God initiating Pharaoh’s hard heart makes for difficult theology. Skeptics read the story as God coercing the monarch into making poor decisions he might otherwise not have made. This reading, though very natural, pictures God as manipulative, coercive, and culpable in sin. God would also be seen as hypocritical for hardening the ruler’s heart and then punishing him for it. God also would be disciplining someone not acting of their own volition, much less God’s own. Further, God would be foolishly undermining God’s own objective of freeing the Israelites. Perhaps most egregiously, God would be overriding the free will of a human being. Critics denounce God for mistreating Pharaoh who in this scenario is seen as little more than God’s helpless puppet. If God worked in this manner with Pharoah, the same could presumably be done towards others, namely us. As such, the story calls into question God’s justice and goodness.

It is worth noting that the original audience would have never viewed the text in this manner. Pharaoh is the story’s villain and the intended reader would not have sympathized with him. They would have read the text from below, as the underdogs. Exodus is replete with miraculous divine intervention and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart would be viewed as one more in a long line of miracles. Readers tend not to mind when the miraculous is a violation of nature but object when the miraculous entails a violation of the nature of a human being.

If Pharaoh’s actions were determined by God, was he wrongly punished? Does God play fair? Is God just? Is God good? How do we reconcile God’s actions?

Many explanations have been posed regarding the allegations levied against God in the case of Pharaoh’s heart. One is that God does not compel Pharaoh to do anything that was not in his will. Of the 17 times that Pharaoh’s heart is said to have been hardened, three distinct declarations are made. Nine times God is credited (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8), five times the claim is presented in the passive form with no source given as to the cause (Genesis 7:13, 22, 8:19, 9:7, 35) and three times Pharaoh himself initiated the hardening (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34). At other times the text notes that Pharaoh refused to humble himself (Exodus 10:3) and that he was stubborn (Exodus 13:15). The text also indicates that, at times, Pharaoh’s own magicians had a hand in the hardening of his heart (Exodus 7:22; 8:19). When the story is recounted in Samuel, it is remembered that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (I Samuel 6:6).

Apologist Norman Geisler (b. 1932) and Thomas Howe (b. 1950) hold that God would not directly harden anyone’s heart contrary to their own free choice, but only indirectly, through their own choice. They write, “God in His omniscience foreknew exactly how Pharaoh would respond, and He used it to accomplish His purposes. God ordained the means of Pharaoh’s free but stubborn action as well as the end of Israel’s deliverance (Geisler and Howe, Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, 209). ”

Certainly, even were he totally benevolent, Pharaoh by the nature of his position would have resisted Moses’ request. Through the lens of political science, he could not have afforded either the scandal of losing two million slaves or the economic loss of his labor force. Even so, the text starts with God prophesying that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3-5). If Pharaoh would have acted as he did regardless, why is God implicated in his hardened heart?

In a similar explanation, others propose that the text means that God simply facilitated a process that Pharaoh himself initiated. God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart until after the fifth plague. Previously he did it himself.

Others claim that the text conveys that God presented only the opportunity for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened and that God permitted it. E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913) wrote that some active verbs “were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do (Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in The Bible, 823).” Thus, when the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that God provided the occasion for Pharaoh to demonstrate his unyielding attitude. This is true as had God not sent Moses, Pharaoh would have never faced the dilemma of whether to release the Israelites. In this scenario, God is like a parent who takes a spoiled child to a toy store at which the tike pitches a fit when she does not receive the prize she desired. The parent did not create the tantrum, she only placed the child in a position where her character would show. This reading is problematic as the expression is used in the context of a prophecy where the scenario is being described anyway (Exodus 4:21), making this explanation redundant.

The text is naturally more problematic for the Arminian than the Calvinist as Calvinists explain the text with the fact that God can do whatever God chooses to do. The answer is “not to retract the sovereignty of God’s election, or to try to give a rational explanation to doubting men” (Edwin H. Palmer [1922-1980], The Five Points of Calvinism, 33). Some have viewed Paul’s allusion to Pharaoh in Romans 9:17-18 as referring to this instance and subsequently Pharaoh’s hardened heart is simply a way for God’s glory to be revealed.

While God did receive honor through the events in Exodus, there must have been other ways to accrue glory that would not have infringed upon Pharaoh’s free will. This reading seems to have no problem with God causing sin to make Godself look great. It elevates God’s sovereignty at the expense of God’s character.

Infringing upon one’s free will is out of character for God. Is there another case where God even appears to be violating someone’s free will? As this is so irregular, something else may be going on.

The Hebrew word typically used when God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart is chazaq. It does not carry the same connotation in Hebrew that “harden” does in English. It means “to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, be resolute, be sore.” It is used eight of the nine times God is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 13, 22, 8:19, 9:12, 35, 10:20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8). In contrast, when Pharaoh hardens his own heart, the word kabad is used, meaning “to be heavy, be weighty, be grievous, be hard, be rich, be honourable, be glorious, be burdensome, be honoured” (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:7, 34, 10:1, 14:4). Only in Exodus 10:1 is this verb used of God.

Chazaq is a common term with a generally positive connotation. It is not rendered “harden” outside of being connected to the heart. It often describes assisting someone with a course that they have decided upon. Whereas in English, “harden” has a pejorative feel as traditionally soft heartedness is a virtue, chazaq is at worst neutral. Since nowhere is it said that someone softened the heart, there is not even a negative correlate. Though the hardening of the heart is typically seen as God impeding Pharaoh, God could have potentially been assisting Pharaoh. This would fit with the more normative use of the Hebrew. In changing the translation, the text’s meaning changes.

Pharaoh, who professes to be God, is competing with God and is woefully overmatched. There are two ways in which a dominant player can give an adversary a fighting chance. One can reduce one’s own power or increase the power of one’s adversaries. In chess, one can pull her queen to give the other player a chance or in basketball someone can spot an inferior opponent points. God cannot reduce God’s own power but God can spot Pharaoh. In strengthening Pharaoh’s heart, God is evening the playing field. This interpretation also fits the context as God only addresses Pharaoh’s heart after the fifth plague, a point at which the exasperated ruler might not have been able to do so himself.

Viewing Pharaoh’s heart as strengthened moves the verb from a negative to, at worst, a neutral. Much like receiving an adrenaline rush in crisis, the recipient could use the added strength for good or evil. Perhaps his strengthened heart could have enabled Pharoah to tell his attendants that he was relinquishing the man power his slaves provided.

Whether the reader feels he had a choice or not, what is undeniable is that Pharaoh chose poorly.

Does God still harden people’s hearts? Have you ever known anyone whose heart you felt had been hardened? Has yours? What would have been the results had God not hardened Pharaoh’s heart? What did function did it serve? Does God’s treatment of Pharaoh make you trust God less?