Thursday, December 1, 2011

Israel’s Ouija Board? (Leviticus 8:8)

Who wore the Urim and Thummin? The high priest (Leviticus 8:8)

Among the description of the high priest’s vestments are esoteric items called the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:27; Deuteronomy 33:8; I Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65). Stored in the high priest’s breastplate, these two items, presumably stones, were a means of revelation in ancient Israel that could be labeled divination or more specifically, cleromancy.

You shall put in the breastpiece of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD; and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually. (Exodus 28:30 NASB)
In all major translations, even paraphrases like The Message, Urim and Thummim are left untranslated. They were unique items with no exact modern equivalent. Little is said of the Urim and Thummim and no description is provided. This indicates that either its properties were assumed or unknown even by the Biblical writers. Peter Enns (b. 1961) surmises that “the Urim and Thummim must have predated Moses. The people must have known what they were and how they were to be used, since they simply appear...without any explanation (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 531).”

Though their etymology is uncertain, based upon their consonantal roots, Urim and Thummim have traditionally been understood as lights and perfections. In cases of guilt or innocence, Urim would represent guilt and Thummim innocense. Though they represent two separate words, they have a singular distinct meaning as one’s meaning is attached to the other, like a yin-yang. A yin can only be a yin if there is an equivalent yang.

It has been speculated that the Urim and Thummim were a divinely authorized game of chance which utilized a binary system. The phenomena would equate to a divinely endorsed coin flip. It would also function much like a Magic 8 Ball with the priest formulating questions whose answers would be limited to a scripted number of responses. An incident in which Jonathan is exposed for violating his father’s foolish oath is seen as a case study of the Urim and Thummim (I Samuel 14:40-42). Though the Urim and Thummim are not mentioned by name in the text, a binary system using stones was implemented to reduce suspects.

An alternate theory from Talmudic rabbis and corroborated by Josephus (37-100) follows the belief that Urim meant lights. This theory espouses that rays of light reflected off jewels on the breastplate, each corresponding to different letters. The sequence would spell out an answer like a modern-day Ouija board.

Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) summarizes, “We have no indication from biblical material that allows us to sort among these options and understand what the Urim and Thummim looked like and how they were employed physically. What we do know is that God sometimes chose to reveal his will in this manner rather than speaking directly to the people (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 612).”

How do you determine God’s will when you do not know it? What is the modern equivalent of the Urim and Thummim? Have you ever used a game of chance to make a decision? What are the limitations of such a system?

Any binary system limits God’s options to those inputted by a human. A human’s options could all be inappropriate - “Should I murder person A or person B?” The system is only as good as the person inputting questions which may be why only the high priest was equipped with the objects.

Despite being an officially licensed product for determining God’s will, the Urim and Thummim are seldom mentioned in the Bible. Though they are referenced seven times (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:27; Deuteronomy 33:8; I Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65), there is no explicit Biblical instance where the Urim and Thummim were used to determine God’s will. They are like the bat repellant in Batman’s utility belt - it is at his disposal but it is almost never used. It appears functionally, the Urim and Thummim were ornamental in nature.

Why do you think the Urim and Thummim were used so infrequently? Were they perceived as a last alternative resort, an act of desperation?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Foolish Heart (Psalm 14:1)

What did the fool say in his heart? There is no God (Psalm 14:1)

Psalm 14 is an individual song of lament. It is repeated almost verbatim in Psalm 53 (Psalm 53:1-6) and Paul quotes the Psalm prominently in Romans (Romans 3:13-18). The song encourages the righteous in the face of prevalent wickedness. It famously begins by empathizing with God over humanity’s corruption:

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. (Psalm 14:1 NASB)
The two words “there is” are supplied by translators and are not in the Hebrew text. The verse literally reads “The fool has said in his heart, ‘No God.’”

The psalmist asserts that the atheist is a fool, (Hebrew: nabal). James Luther Mays (b. 1921) explains, “In the society that this psalm describes...nabal does not mean things like dumb, inept, silly, clown, buffoon. Rather the term designates a person who decides and acts on the basis of the wrong assumption (Mays, Psalms (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) , 81).” Psalms is part of the wisdom literature and to a book espousing wisdom there is little worse one could be than a “fool”.

In contrast, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). Wisdom begins and ends with a belief in God. The Bible does not set out to prove God’s existence, it operates under the assumption of it. When the Bible begins, God exists (Genesis 1:1).

Despite being deemed foolish by the Bible, atheism occurs. A 2009 study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that 1.6% of Americans self identify as atheist. Many atheists are far from whom the world would deem foolish. In the last century, A.J. Ayer (1910–1989), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Albert Camus (1913–1960), Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Ayn Rand (1905–1982), Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) are just a few of the renowned philosophers who were also avowed atheists. By the Bible’s standards, these people were fools.

In your opinion, what is the most foolish thing a person can believe? Why? Is God’s existence self evident? If so, why are there so many atheists?

While the psalmist would no doubt object to the intellectual atheist, that is not what is referenced in this hymn. The song references those who make a claim in their hearts, not with their minds or lips. It is about those who profess to be believers, but whose actions (an extension of true belief) show otherwise. The song refers not to the intellectual atheist who denies the existence of God, but to the practical atheist who lives as if there were no God. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) writes, “In its main theme the psalm is a statement about ‘practical atheism.’ It reflects on one whose conduct is disordered and without focus, because it is not referred to God (Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, 44).”

“Fool” describes everyone who has no place for God. It is not that the fool does not believe in God but rather that for the fool, God is unnecessary. John H. Eaton (b. 1927) expounds, “The ‘fool’ is everywhere – prominent persons, of hard and ruthless disposition, who act continually as though they were their own sufficient god; that they ‘say in their heart...’ means that in practice this is how they behave, irrespective of what they profess (Eaton, Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation, 93).”

The Psalmist is not lamenting the intellectual atheist but the practical one. The song mourns not for the intellectuals but for the common people. People like us.

Do you profess a belief in God? Do your attitudes reflect that belief? Is God the reference point in your life? Which is preferable, being an avowed atheist or a professing believer who behaves as if God did not exist?

“The Bible says radical things about the stream of consciousness that talks inside us: ‘Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the days’ (Genesis 6:5); ‘All his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 10:4). This does not only refer to vile lifestyles. It includes the everyday ways our minds operate without reference to God. Functional atheism is our most natural state of mind.” - David Powlison (b. 1950), Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community, 17-18

Monday, November 28, 2011

Aaron’s Magic Rod (Numbers 17:8)

Whose shepherd’s rod grew buds? Aaron’s

After disciplining Korah for leading a rebellion challenging Israel’s leadership (Numbers 16:1-50), God reiterated his decision for the Levites to inherit the priesthood by holding an open casting call (Numbers 17:1-5). Each of Israel’s twelve tribes submitted a personalized rod to be housed over night in the tent of meeting. The location is significant because it was “where I [God] meet with you” (Numbers 17:4 NASB). God would be making the decision as to who would lead the people and the tribe whose rod bloomed would guide the priesthood (Numbers 17:2-5).

In Israel, the rod was much more than a walking stick. It was a symbol of power and authority (Psalm 2:9, 89:32; Isaiah 10:24, 11:4; Ezekiel 20:37). Leaders would even take oaths by means of their staffs. In fact, in Hebrew the word for “staff” (matteh) is the same as “tribe” as a tribe’s chief would lead via the staff.

At God’s invitation, Aaron donated his rod to the cause and it was selected (Numbers 17:3, 8).

Now on the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. (Numbers 17:8 NASB)
Specifically, the rod bloomed with buds, blossoms and almonds (Numbers 17:8). Timothy R. Ashley (b. 1947) comments that “the text describes the stages of growth of the plant. It is not clear whether it means all these stages were present simultaneously on the rod or only that the rod went through these stages, but the former is not impossible (Ashley, The Book of Numbers (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 335).”

Regardless of how the buds developed, they were a miracle. Life sprung forth out of death. In the Iliad, an enraged Achilles swears an oath against Agamemnon exclaiming:

“But I will speak out to you, and will swear thereto a mighty oath: by this staff, that shall never more put forth leaves or shoots since first it left its stump among the mountains, nor shall it again grow green, for the bronze has stripped it on all sides of leaves and bark, and now the sons of the Achaeans carry it in their hands when they act as judges, those who guard the ordinances that come from Zeus; and this shall be for you a mighty oath (Homer [800-701 BCE] & A.T. Murray [1866-1940], Iliad, Book I, 233.)”
Achilles makes an oath with a rod claiming that he will go back on his word when the staff blossoms, which to him was an impossibility. It was an ancient equivalent of “when pigs fly”. Yet in the case of Aaron’s rod, pigs did fly.

After the rod blossomed, Moses had each tribe’s representative withdraw their rod, save for Aaron’s whose was put back in the place of testimony (Numbers 17:9-11). As the heads of each tribe retrieved their own staffs, they were witness to the affirmation of Aaron’s leadership. God had intentionally drawn Aaron’s straw. The blooming staff was a tangible sign of Aaron’s selection and was preserved as such. Hebrews states that the budding rod was even one of the contents of the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrews 9:4). The preserved rod was to serve as a preventive measure against further rebellion.

When has your authority been validated? Have you ever felt chosen by God? Why was a blossoming rod an appropriate sign in this situation? What sign would you have given to select the priesthood? Did Moses reimburse Aaron for the rod? Did the rod choose the owner or the owner the rod (a very bad Harry Potter reference)?

Throughout the ordeal, Aaron never defended his own honor and left the response to God.

Aaron’s rod had previously demonstrated miraculous powers by transforming into a serpent and swallowing all of Pharaoh’s magicians’s rods who coincidentally had also transformed into serpents (Exodus 7:8-12). Interestingly, both times Aaron’s rod performed supernatural feats, he was not holding it. Perhaps he had to let go of it for it to do its job.

In what areas of your life do you need to “let go and let God”?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niehbuhr (1892-1971), “The Serenity Prayer”