Friday, October 28, 2011

Goshen: What Difference...(Exodus 8:22)

What is the name of the area in Egypt in which the Israelites lived? Goshen (Exodus 8:22)

Indebted to the help provided by Joseph, Pharaoh graciously granted the Israelites their own Egyptian settlement, a place called Goshen.

You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children and your flocks and your herds and all that you have. (Genesis 45:10 NASB)
It has been speculated that Goshen was somewhat isolated from Egypt proper based upon Pharaoh’s comment that “every shepherd is loathsome to the Egyptians (Genesis 46:34 NASB).” Colin J. Humphreys (b. 1941) speculates that the Israelites “lived in their own separate geographic location...which almost certainly was not in the prime property market area next to the highly desirable waters of the Nile, which the Egyptians would have kept for themselves. Thus the ancient Israelites were probably living a few miles away from the Nile and its main branches–close enough to where the Egyptians lived to walk to work, but far away enough away to be a distinct community (Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: a Scientist Reveals the Extraordinary Natural Causes Underlying the Biblical Miracles, 146).”

Although not uncontested, in 1885 Swiss Egyptologist Edouard Henri Naville (1844-1926) identified Goshen as the 20th nome of Egypt, located in the eastern Delta, and known as Gesem or Kesem during the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt (672-525 BCE).

Goshen would become significant several centuries after it was bequeathed to the Israelites when a new ruler who “knew not Joseph” assumed power (Exodus 1:8 KJV). The Egyptians had forgotten the blessing the Israelites had one been and perceiving their increasing numbers as a threat, enslaved them (Exodus 1:9-14).

In the process of liberating the Israelites, God famously sent ten plagues upon Egypt (Exodus 7:14-11:10). The only place unaffected by the disasters was Goshen (Exodus 8:22, 9:26). God spared Goshen while the rest of Egypt suffered. Goshen stood out like a sore thumb or perhaps more accurately as a healthy thumb in a sea of sore thumbs.

Though no longer prevalent, “Land O Goshen” entered the Southern lexicon as an exclamation of amazement or frustration presumably due to the unique qualities it displayed in Exodus.

Have you ever been in an area that was inundated with inclement weather while it was sunny just a few miles down the road? Why does God not always give his followers the reprieve he gave the Israelites?

These were special circumstances. The dramatic difference between Goshen and the rest of Egypt left no doubt as to the reason for the calamity. The enslaved Israelites received sanctuary

While modern day believers may not always receive a reprieve from calamity (Matthew 5:45), they should in some ways be set apart from the world around them.

If you are a believer, in what ways does this make you different than those who do not believe? What difference does your faith make?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Please Don’t Give (Exodus 36:6)

When did people give so much they had to be told to stop? When the tabernacle was being constructed (Exodus 36:6)

In the era between the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land, the Israelites were nomads. In the interim, God outlined specific plans as to the creation of a tabernacle, a portable representation of the divine presence (Exodus 25:9; Acts 7:44). The Israelites’ God would not merely reign distantly from the heavens but was willing to move with them in their uncertainty in the wilderness.

As with all building projects, this venture needed capital. Amazingly, the Israelites gave so much that Moses actually needed to issue an edict to restrain the giving! (Exodus 36:6)

So Moses issued a command, and a proclamation was circulated throughout the camp, saying, “Let no man or woman any longer perform work for the contributions of the sanctuary.” Thus the people were restrained from bringing any more. (Exodus 36:6 NASB)
Over giving was and is a highly unusual problem (and one as pastor I would like to have). Reuven Hammer (b. 1932) quips, “This may be the only instance in the entire history of fund-raising that the campaign was so oversubscribed that it had to be brought to a halt. Never before or after did we have to be told to stop giving (Hammer, Entering Torah: Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion, 133).”

Has a religious group ever said no to money? Why did Moses halt the cash flow? Should he have ceased this activity? Could he have not saved the funds for a rainy day? Why did the Israelites give so freely?

The Israelites gave because their hearts were moved to do so (Exodus 35:29). The campaign was successful and the tabernacle was built to specification (Exodus 40:17-19). It was erected exactly one year after leaving Egypt (Exodus 40:17). Throughout much of the preceding year, the Israelites rebelled against Moses (and ostensibly against God), but the building of the tabernacle was one instance where the community united together for a common good.

What projects have you witnessed that united a body of believers? Where do you give? Can you be accused of giving too much?

“Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” - II Corinthians 9:6 NASB

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Church’s 1 Foundation (I Corinthians 3:11)

Complete: For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid ______________.” Which is Jesus

Paul wrote to a divided Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:10-12, 3:3). Its members exhibited varying allegiance to Paul, Apollos, Cephas [Peter] and Christ (I Corinthians 1:12). Paul drew upon the imagery of construction to help ease the tension. He drew them back to the bedrock:

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 3:11 NASB)
Paul reminded the Corinthians that their allegiance was owed to Jesus and not any particular minister as Christ is the foundation. The analogy has stood through the centuries. The Catholic Church teaches, “Often, too, the Church is called the building of God (I Corinthians 3:9). The Lord compared himself to the stones which the builders rejected, but which was made into the corner stone (Matthew 21:42; cf. Acts 4:11; I Peter 2:7; Psalm 118:22). On this foundation the church is built by the apostles (cf. I Corinthians 3:11) and from it the church receives solidarity and unity (The Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition, 216).”

When updating a building, it is essential to do so in deference to the structure’s foundation. Richard B. Hays (b. 1948) summarizes, “The superstructure of the building (church) must conform to the pattern of that foundation. Otherwise it would be crooked and unstable (Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 54).” Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) adds strongly, “Any other foundation would not merely make the building precarious, it would cease to exist as that building (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 310).”

What is the foundation of your spiritual belief structure? What are the non-negotiables of your faith?

The division that the Corinthians church experienced two thousand years ago has characterized much of Christian history. In dealing with conflict, Paul points back to the foundation, the unifying principle - namely Jesus.

If you believe that a man died, was raised and because of that you have been granted salvation, what other common ground is needed? Are there any branches of Christianity’s tree that should not be able to cooperate with one another? If so, under what circumstances?

“Christ was called the foundation-stone (I Corinthians 3:11) because he bears everything and holds it.” - John Chrysostom (347-407), “My Father’s Working Still”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What to Pray? (Romans 8:26)

Who intercedes for us when we do not know how to pray as we ought? The Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26)

In Romans, Paul readily admits that there are times in which the Christian does not know what to pray (Romans 8:26). He then encourages the reader by informing that help is readily available:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NASB)
Paul was so adept at prayer that his prayers led to an out of body experience (II Corinthians 12:1-4) yet even Paul confessed to not always knowing what to pray.

In these instances, the Holy Spirit intercedes on behalf of the intercessor (Romans 8:26-27). The word used for “intercede” in Romans 8:26, huperentugchano, is a compound word comprised of huper (“over” or “on behalf of”) and entugchano ( “to turn to” or “to appeal”). It is a legal term used to express what an attorney does when speaking on behalf of a client and carries with it a connotation of “to make petition” or “to plead on behalf of another”. As the word is only used in Romans 8:26, it is never used of humans but rather only of the Holy Spirit. A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) explains that huperentugchano is “a picturesque word of rescue by one who ‘happens on’ who is in trouble and ‘in his behalf’ pleads with ‘unuttered groanings’... or with ‘sighs that baffle words (Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament, 377).’” God is like a seasoned dentist who can interpret even our “groanings” when no one else can.

When have you wanted to pray but not known what to pray for? Why do we not know what to pray?

One of the keys to prayer is to align the intercessor’s desires with God’s. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prays “your [God’s] will be done” (Matthew 6:10 NASB). Praying God’s will is often easier said than said as sometimes we do not know what God’s will is. Commenting on Romans 8:26-27, Douglas J. Moo (b. 1950) reminds “our failure to know God’s will and consequent inability to petition God specifically and assuredly is met by God’s Spirit, who himself expresses to God those intercessory petitions that perfectly match the will of God (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT), 526).”

Our uncertainty when praying does not mean we should not pray or even that our prayers will be ineffective. Stormie Omartian (b. 1943) simplifies, “The Holy Spirit guides our prayers so that they are aligned with the will of God, and that makes them far more powerful and effective (Omartian, The Power of a Praying Life).”

What situations have you been in where you honestly did not know God’s will? Did you sense the Spirit interceding on your behalf?

“We don’t have to know how to pray in order to pray; we just need to know whom we seek.” - Janet Holm McHenry (b. 1951), Daily PrayerWalk: Meditations for a Deeper Prayer Life), p. 120

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Prophet Who Lost His Head (II Kings 6)

Who lost a head of an ax in a stream? The sons of the prophet (II Kings 6:5, 6)

In the midst of a series of miraculous stories featuring Elisha, the prophet made iron float (II Kings 6:1-7). Though living in a tumultuous time spiritually, Elisha was developing a following, so much so that the prophets had a housing problem. There was not enough room for all of them (II Kings 6:1). (This is a good problem to have.) Elisha accepted his protégés’ recommendation and agreed to join them in building a new settlement along the Jordan River (II Kings 6:2-3).

While cutting trees, one of Elisha’s pupils’ ax heads plunged into the river (II Kings 6:4). The fact that the tool had been borrowed made matters worse. The (literally) poor man turned to Elisha and explained his plight, presumably to evoke empathy, not a miracle (II Kings 6:5).

Mark Batterson (b. 1969) writes:

Notice the verb tense. This apprentice uses the past tense. As far as he’s concerned, this ax head is gone. It reminds me of one of Jack Handey’s deep thoughts: If you drop your keys in a river of molten lava, let ’em go man, ’cause they're gone! If you drop your iron ax head in the river, let it go man, ’cause it's gone! (Batterson, In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day, 31)
Undeterred, Elisha asked where the ax head fell and successfully defied the laws of nature by throwing a stick where his student indicated which signaled the iron to float (II Kings 6:6). The story ends with the prophet instructing his pupil to procure the lost object (II Kings 6:7). The narrator supplies neither explanation nor interpretation. The story ends with no moral, object lesson, life application or even a suggestion to be more prudent.

In many ways, the story is typical as Elisha often saved his fellow prophets from physical want or financial disaster (II Kings 4:1-7, 38-41, 42-44) and Elisha stories often involve water (II Kings 2:18-22, 3:16-20, 5:10-14, 6:1-7). The two halves of the story are unified by the term: maqowm. This word is used for both the “place” where the prophets wish to build (II Kings 6:1, 2) and the “place” where the ax head fell (II Kings 6:6) The floating iron verifies the prophet’s true identity - what Elisha does can only be done by God working through him.

The story’s trainee prophet is in a difficult position. As evidenced by the fact that he had to borrow the tools, he was poor. The law was clear - he would be obligated to make restitution for the lost tool (Exodus 22:13-14). He likely could not. It was the Iron Age and an ax head represented the height of technological achievement. Unlike copper and bronze, iron had to be molded while hot which required a significant amount of fuel. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943) summarizes, “iron was expensive in Bible times and the student-prophet was very poor (Hubbard, First and Second Kings (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 157).” The student prophet became another in a long line of poor, hard working religious workers who could not afford to lose a borrowed tool.

Have you ever borrowed anything you could not afford to replace? Have you ever lost or damaged a borrowed item? When has God bailed you out of a predicament as is the case with this young prophet?

Though the event meant a great deal to Elisha’s student, the episode is strikingly mundane. Commentaries devote little space to it. It is overshadowed by most all of the incidents that precede it: saving a widow and her son from slavery (II Kings 4:1-7), raising a child back to life (II Kings 4:8-36) and curing a Syrian of leprosy (II Kings 5:1-27). Retrieving an ax seems insignificant in comparison. If Elisha were going to utilize divine power, why not simply erect a structure for the prophets?

Critics might even say that Elisha exploits his divinely granted power for pedestrian purposes. The incident is nothing if not a miraculous. Though a few have speculated that Elisha thrust the pole into the water to spear the ax head through the haft-hole or that he simply maneuvered the ax head into shallower waters this was certainly not the author’s intent. Iron, like any mineral with a density greater than one gram per cubic centimeter, does not float. (The density of cast iron is approximately 7.2 grams per cubic centimeter). Elisha performed a miracle in making an iron ax head buoyant. Was this incident worthy of a miracle?

Perhaps the triviality of the story is its significance. Batterson concluded, “God is great not just because nothing is too big for him. God is great because nothing is too small for him either (Batterson, 32).”

In 1980, William J. Krutza (b. 1929) published a book entitled How Much Prayer Should a Hamburger Get?.

How much prayer should a hamburger get? Do you ever opt not to pray for something because it seems too inconsequential? Is anything too trivial to pray about? If something bothers you, why would you not take it to God (Philippians 4:6-7; I Peter 5:7)? How many ax heads lie lifelessly upon river bottoms because no one attempted to retrieve them?

“God may not play dice but he enjoys a good round of Trivial Pursuit every now and again.” - Federico Fellini (1920-1993)