Friday, October 21, 2011

Nile River: Blood is Thicker... (Exodus 7)

Which river did Moses turn to blood with his rod? The Nile

During the Exodus, God sent ten plagues upon Egypt (Exodus 7:14-Exodus 11:10). The first plague occurred when Moses raised his staff over the Nile River at God’s request to transform the river’s water into blood (Exodus 7:14-25). The results were immediate and palpable: “The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt (Exodus 7:21 NASB).”

Many scholars have identified the blood of the first plague with the red silt that characterizes the Nile during its flooding season. Werner Keller (1909-1980) is representative of this rationalistic approach, writing, “Deposits from the Abyssinian lakes often color the flood waters a dark reddish brown, especially in the Upper Nile. That might well be said to look like ‘blood’ (Keller, The Bible As History, 120).”

While this explanation is prevalent, it does not fit the tone of the Biblical account. The text explicitly claims that what was once water was now blood (Exodus 7:17-20) and elsewhere the Bible uses language for water that merely appears to be blood (II Kings 3:22). Further, the natural phenomena that affects the Nile is a gradual transformation, commonly seen as a blessing by the natives, not the immediate curse seen in the text (Exodus 7:18, 21). Silting also does not typically result in the death of fish or produce a stench (Exodus 7:18, 21). The Biblical phenomena actually extended beyond the river to water in “vessels of wood and in vessels of stone (Exodus 7:19 NASB).” As such, the Biblical account goes to great lengths to present a supernatural event.

Do you prefer the natural or supernatural reading of the first plague? Why? Why do you think that the assault on Egypt began with contaminating the water supply?

The Nile was synonymous with Egypt and served as the source of life or disaster for civilizations in Northeast Africa. The Egyptians regarded the Nile’s annual flooding as a manifestation of the god Osiris. In attacking the water, the text pits God against god. The Nile was also where Pharaoh had decreed that all newborn Hebrew males be cast into the river (Exodus 1:22) and attacking it carries a sense of poetic justice.

In areas where it is readily available, one can easily forget just how important water is. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) said “Water is the driving force of all nature.” As can be seen by the death of the wildlife (Exodus 7:18, 21), water affects an entire ecosystem. Water is so important that many scholars have speculated that the other nine plagues represent a chain reaction stemming from the contaminated water source.

Over large parts of the world, humans have inadequate access to potable water. reports:

  • 884 million people lack access to safe water supplies; approximately one in eight people.
  • 3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease.
  • The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.
  • People living in the slums often pay 5-10 times more per liter of water than wealthy people living in the same city.
  • An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than a typical person in a developing country slum uses in a whole day.
How would your life change without access to water? Are you thankful that you live in an area that has water? How can you assist those without water?

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” - W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Enoch: Gone Without a Trace (Genesis 5:24)

Of whom is it said, “He walked with God and he was not?” Enoch (Genesis 5:24)

In the genealogy of Seth, a character named Enoch breaks up the monotonous formulae (Genesis 5:21-24). Enoch appears in Genesis as the seventh of the ten pre-flood patriarchs, the great grandfather of Noah. His father Jared is the second oldest man in the Bible (962, Genesis 5:20) and his son Methuselah is the oldest (969, Genesis 5:27). Instead of announcing Enoch’s death, instead the text mysteriously reads that “he was not” (Genesis 5:24 NASB):

Enoch lived sixty-five years, and became the father of Methuselah. Then Enoch walked with God three hundred years after he became the father of Methuselah, and he had other sons and daughters. So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him. (Genesis 5:21-24 NASB)
Enoch’s absence is described in two ways: 1. He was not. 2. God took him. Claus Westermann (1909-2000) surmised that the second clause “is certainly a later statement, an attempt to ‘rationalize’ (Westermann, 358).” The anomaly of his earthly exit elevates Enoch among the ten descendants of Noah and makes him one of only two Biblical characters to not experience natural death (Genesis 5:23-24; II Kings 2:1-14).

Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) speculates that “Enoch’s age corresponds to the 365 days in a solar year, suggesting completeness (Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1- 11:26, 315).” The key is that Enoch’s shortened life is not indicative of punishment but is rather honorific.

In the genealogical prescription, where his predecessors were said to have “lived”, Enoch instead “walked with God”. Some commentators emphasize that the only other character the Bible explicitly says walked with God is Noah (Genesis 6:9) though Abraham walked “before” God (Genesis 17:1, 24:40). For the psalmist to walk before God indicated life and prosperity (Psalms 56:13-14, 116:9). The expression to walk with God is reminiscent of Adam’s initial state of being (Genesis 3:8).

Given the rarity of Enoch’s departure from the earth, it would seem that it is significant.

Why do you think Enoch did not need die? What does it mean to “walk with God”? Are you walking with God or are you just living? What is the connection between sin and death?

Enoch is remembered as an exemplar of righteousness (Sirach 44:16, 49:14; Wisdom of Solomon 4:10; I Clement 9:3). Sirach states, “Enoch pleased the Lord and was taken up, an example of repentance to all generations. (Sirach 44:16 NRSV).”

After Christianity and Judaism had separated, the prevailing view regarding Enoch was that Enoch had such close communion with God that he received a reprieve from death. He appears three times in the New Testament (Luke 3:37; Hebrews 11:5; Jude 1:14-15) including being listed in the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:5). In contrast, a Jewish view of Enoch claims that he was he was the only pious man of his time and was taken away before he could become corrupted.

An entire mythology sprang from Enoch’s brief account in Genesis. Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) stated, “The passage, to be sure, gives the impression of being only a brief reference to a much more extensive tradition (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 71).”

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) adds:

The main reading in tradition does not concern obedience (which is presumed) but privileged entry into the secrets of God. Thus, Enoch subsequently became a clustering point for apocalyptic traditions. (Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation : A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 68).
Enoch is nothing if not mysterious. Brueggeman concludes, “Even in this terse form, it reflects that Enoch represents some role in overcoming the utter discontinuity of God and humankind (Brueggemann, 69).”

Enoch is a glimpse of the future restored relationship between God and huamnity.

Where do you think Enoch was taken? Why? Would you want to be taken by God? Which is scarier to you a “natural” or “unnatural” exit from the earth?

“And like that, poof. He’s gone.” - Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey [b. 1959]), The Usual Suspects (1995)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Satan, a Roaring Lion (I Peter 5:8)

Who described Satan as a roaring lion? Peter (I Peter 5:8)

I Peter encourages steadfastness and perseverance in the face of persecution (I Peter 1:1–2:10). In its closing advice, the letter warns to guard against the devil (I Peter 5:8). The letter draws on Old testament imagery and compares Satan to a lion (Psalms 22:13; Amos 3:8). The lion was a symbol of power, the king of the beasts (Proverbs 30:30) and an instrument of death (Daniel 6:16-28).

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. (I Peter 5:8-9 NASB)
I Peter 5:8-9 has been part of the Compline (or Night Prayer), the final church service (or Office) of the day among Catholics, for centuries.

Thomas R. Schreiner (b. 1954) explains:

The devil roars like a lion to induce fear in the people of God. In other words, persecution is the roar by which he tries to intimidate believers in hopes that they will capitulate at the prospect of suffering. If believers deny their faith, then the devil has devoured them, bringing them back into his fold...The roaring of the devil is the crazed anger of a defeated enemy, and if they do not fear his ferocious bark, they will never be consumed by his bite. (Schreiner, The New American Commentary, Volume 37 - I and II Peter, Jude, 242)
If Satan were an animal, what animal would the devil be? Why? (Yes I just asked that.) In what ways is the devil like a lion?

Wayne A. Grudem (b. 1948) writes, “The metaphor is apt, for a prowling lion attacks suddenly, viciously, and often when its unsuspecting victim is engaged in routine activities (Grudem, 1 Peter (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 196).”

Lions do not hunt indiscriminately but rather use a highly calculated method. They choose the coolest hours to hunt which is linked to energy conservation since their hearts are relatively small. Lions usually seek prey under a cover of night and the moonless part of the night is preferred. Lions hunt less during the day due to the heat and the probability of being spotted by their prey. When they do hunt during the day, their best opportunity for making a kill is when they encounter a lone animal who is caught by surprise. They methodically stalk the prey moving closer inch by inch and strike when the animal lowers its head to graze.

Once a lion has selected its prey, it will sprint to it and attempt to grab hold of it. As lions are not endurance runners, they usually need to be within 20 yards of their quarries. Killing is generally done in two stages, first, bringing the animal down, then completing the kill. Many animals who are seemingly successful in escaping a lion’s advances die later from lacerations. Most deaths at the paws of lions occur through suffocation as a single lion will often crush its victim’s windpipe. After a success, unlike most other cats, lions prefer to eat crouching or lying down. A lion will then gorge itself, if possible, on any given kill.

Interestingly, the prey seldom struggles after it is brought down, perhaps due to the shock of being caught. Although it may seem that lions attempt to “humanely” dispatch their prey, they actually selfishly prefer quick kills so that they will be able to dine sooner.

In comparing the devil to a ravenous lion, I Peter paints the image of a calculating predator. In response to this threat, the epistle repeats its previous commands to be self controlled or “sober” (I Peter 1:13, 4:7, 5:8) and adds that the Christian need always be alert.

In what ways are you guarding against Satan?

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.” - Ephesians 6:11 NASB

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Don’t Count Your Chickens (Proverbs 27:1)

Complete this Proverb: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for ____________________________________________.” You do not know what a day may bring forth (Proverbs 27:1)

Proverbs 27:1-22 constitutes a unit of sayings (Proverbs 27:1-22). Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) explains that this section of Proverbs “is a relecture of once isolated proverbs. As such, its proverbs can be interpreted both individually and as part of a whole. For example, its frame in light of the whole composition features the necessity of friends praising each another (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 (NICOT), 372).” The unit begins by admonishing against self praise, namely future successes. It echoes the modern saying “don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.”

Do not boast about tomorrow,
For you do not know what a day may bring forth. (Proverbs 27:1 NASB)
Humans cannot boast of tomorrow because it overshoots their capacity. One of the limitations of the human condition is an inadequate knowledge of the future. No triumph is assured. There is a famous Yiddish saying that captures the tone of this proverb - Man tracht und Gott lacht - humans plan and God laughs.

How would you rewrite this proverb in your own words? When you think of the future, does it excite or scare you? Or both?

While boasting of the future is discouraged, the inverse is also true. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:30 NASB)
Our limited knowledge of the future also means that hopelessness is as foolish as bravado. John Claypool (1930-2005) consistently reminded his congregation that “despair is presumptuous”.
As an old rabbi once said to me, “Despair is presumptuous. It is saying something about the future that we have no right to say. If God can make the things that are out of the things that are not, and can make dead things come to life again, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency might yet do with what we have done?” (Claypool, God The Ingenious Alchemist: Transforming Tragedy Into Blessing, 21)
What can we say for certain about tomorrow? What is the proper attitude towards tomorrow?
“Today was good. Today was fun.
Tomorrow is another one.”
- Dr. Seuss (1904-1991), One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish

Monday, October 17, 2011

David’s Bromance (II Samuel 1:26)

Who was David’s best friend? Jonathan

Only two men in Scripture are explicitly said to be the friend of David: Hushai (II Samuel 15:37, 16:16-17; I Chronicles 27:33) and Hiram (I Kings 5:1). Both of these men were actually Gentiles which may be why it was found necessary to state that they were friends of the king.

The language when referring to the relationship between David and King Saul’s son Jonathan is stronger than friendship. The first time they are seen together, the narrator informs “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself (I Samuel 18:1 NASB).” In fact, the two even made a covenant with one another (I Samuel 18:3, 19:8, 16, 22:8, 23:18). Jonathan even sided with his friend when his father unjustly sought to eliminate David (I Samuel 19:1-7, 20:1-29).

Proverbs claims:

A man of too many friends comes to ruin,
But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24 NASB)
David and Jonathan were friends who stuck closer than brothers. At Jonathan’s death, David eulogized:
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
You have been very pleasant to me.
Your love to me was more wonderful
Than the love of women. (II Samuel 1:26 NASB)
Why do you think David and Jonathan bonded so tightly? Who is your best friend? Were you to get married today, which friends would serve as your wedding party? In your opinion, what makes someone a true friend?

Jonathan repeatedly demonstrated his love for David, consistently showing that he loved David as himself (I Samuel 18:1). Jonathan frequently assisted David in fleeing his father’s murderous advances. He was a big part of the mechanism by which David became king. Had David not become king, Jonathan himself would have ruled. Jonathan chose friendship over the kingdom.

The Mishnah expounds:

Whenever love depends on some selfish end, when the end passes away, the love passes away; but if it does not depend on some selfish end, it will never pass away. Which love depended on a selfish end? This was the love of Amnon and Tamar. And which did not depend on a selfish end? This was the love of David and Jonathan. (Avot 5:15)
When have you placed your friends above yourself? How did you meet your friends? Do you think God was involved in the process?

“A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.” - Arnold H. Glasow (1905-1998)