Friday, January 20, 2012

Jacob: Burial and Growth (Genesis 35:4)

Where did Jacob bury his household gods [idols]? At Shechem (Genesis 35:4)

In what many see as the climax to Jacob’s life story, God instructed the patriarch to move to Bethel and erect an altar (Genesis 35:1). Before embarking on this new stage of his life, Jacob took care of some unfinished business. He ordered his entire household to “put away” any “foreign gods” they might have accrued, to purify themselves and to change clothes (Genesis 35:2 NASB). Of the three directives, the first was the most important as evidenced by the fact that it alone is explicitly said to have been followed (Genesis 35:4).

So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. (Genesis 35:4 NASB)
This incident marks the first of four burials in Genesis 35, a chapter of prominent transitions (Genesis 35:4, 8, 19, 29).

The buried items are most commonly rendered “foreign gods” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) but are also translated “alien gods” (MSG), “idols” (CEV), “pagan idols” (NLT), and “strange gods” (KJV). Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) speculates that they were pagan icons based upon the verb Jacob uses - “‘Get rid of’ (sûr) elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g. II Kings 18:4; I Chronicles 30:14) describes moving cult objects (Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 617).”

There has been debate as to how Jacob’s household came into possession of these artifacts. It has been suggested that Jacob’s family acquired some of them in their pillage of Shechem in the preceding chapter (Genesis 34:27-29). The patriarch’s edict would also include the “household gods” (teraphim) that his wife Rachel had stolen from her father (Genesis 31:19, 32).

Some have questioned why Jacob buries these idols instead of destroying them. Jacob does not grind them to powder as Moses later did to the idolatrous golden calf (Exodus 32:20). Is Jacob hedging his bets, taking measures to reacquire these gods if need be?

Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) writes:

What is the significance of burying gods? Is it a black magic ritual of interment of guardian figures? Is it a preparatory rite in holy war to activate the “terror of God” against the enemy, and thus not a real burial, but a laying aside of religious figurines? Or is it a forsaking of the father gods?..The best parallel to Jacob’s actions seems to be that of Joshua, who (also at Shechem) commanded the elders “to put away the gods...that your fathers served” (Joshua 24:14). The presence of such “other gods” will be a barrier preventing legitimate service of Yahweh. The language of Jacob also matches that of Samuel, who calls Israel to the ancient covenant ritual of renouncing foreign gods. (Hamilton, Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 375).
Shechem is the place where idols are tossed aside and though our “foreign gods” are likely not in statuette form, we still create them today.

What idols do you house? What do you need to bury to better serve God? What unfinished business do you need to complete? Have you ever had a Shechem moment where you rededicated your life to God? Why did Jacob not simply destroy the idols?

Jacob realized that he could not serve God fully while in possession of idols. Jacob’s situation is a microcosm of his descendants’ spiritual predicament. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) explains:

Israel cannot either leave the land or kill all the Canaanites. Israel must find a way to stay in the land with the Canaanites and yet practice faithfulness. The way chosen to do this without either destructiveness or accommodation is by way of radical symbolization. Israel engages in dramatic ritual activity as a mode of faithfulness. It is apparent that this ritual (later used at Shechem, cf. Joshua 24:23) permits Israel to be Israel in the land. (Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 283)
Jacob’s act of religious exclusivism would become a precursor to the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8). James McKeown compares, “Another traditional feature of Israelite faith already observed in patriarchal worship is the absence of images of Yahweh. Images of gods other than Yahweh are mentioned, and they seem to have been greatly valued (McKeown, Genesis (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary), 358).”

Shmuel Klitsner adds:

Though later in the Bible, idol worship warrants the death penalty, in pre-Sinai narratives this is not the case, as explicit in Genesis 35:2-4, where Jacob himself instructs his household members to rid themselves of ‘foreign gods.’ There, the only consequence is the need for the offenders to purify themselves and change their clothing. (Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, 115)
Significantly, this religious precedent was set at Jacob’s own initiative as the mandate to remove the idols was not part of God’s instructions (Genesis 35:1). Jacob instinctively senses that possessing foreign gods is not conducive to the new life that he was preparing to live for God. With this pronouncement, Jacob finally makes a commitment to God alone. This represents dramatic spiritual maturation. John H. Walton (b. 1952) concludes that “God’s patient work in his life has resulted in a transformation of character that may have seemed beyond reach in the earlier chapters (Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, 636).”

Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) explains, “Jacob understands immediately that he has been called not just to physical relocation but to spiritual repurification. He leaves off thinking about matters of international trade, safety, and justice, and focuses on his orientation to the divine. He sees for the first time that the central question is the question of false or foreign gods (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 501).”

What steps have you made in your spiritual progress? Is it ever too late for a new spiritual beginning? How do you know if you are growing?

“Growth is the only evidence of life.” - John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Revelation and Recession (Revelation 22:2)

How often does the fruit ripen in heaven? Once a month (Revelation 22:2)

A description of the New Jerusalem is one of the Bible’s final topics (Revelation 21:10-22:5). In detailing the end, John reverts back to the beginning as he incorporates old imagery from Eden (Genesis 2:8-17) in his presentation of the New Jerusalem. Among the interesting details that John records is the presence of trees that yield fruit on a monthly basis (Revelation 22:2).

Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2 NASB)
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) summarizes:
This river apparently goes down the middle of the golden street, and on either side of its banks are trees of life (or is there only one tree?), which bear twelve different kinds of fruit year-round, some each month. (Witherington, Revelation (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 272)
In the New Jerusalem, crops will not experience seasonal interruption. This pronouncement is not original to John as Ezekiel shared a similar revelation (Ezekiel 47:12).
“By the river on its bank, on one side and on the other, will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither and their fruit will not fail. They will bear every month because their water flows from the sanctuary, and their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.” (Ezekiel 47:12 NASB)
Though obviously quite similar, John’s account is actually more encouraging than his prophetic predecessor’s. Grant R. Osborne (b. 1942) writes:
This goes beyond Ezekiel 47:12, where the fruit trees bear fruit every month but not twelve different kinds of fruit...The mention of ‘twelve kinds’ certainly alludes to a twelve-month calendar and especially to the seasons for growing crops. Normally, fruit appears at its proper season, but in the final Eden there will be no seasons, and abundant fruit will be available every month, an incredible promise for those of us who live for seasonal fruit crops. (Osborne, Revelation (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 772)
Many commentators interpret these images metaphorically noting that perpetual produce is merely symbolic of the abundance that characterizes the holy city. Leon Morris (1914-2006) deciphers, “As there is neither sun nor moon [Revelation 21:23] there is of course no ‘month’. But John’s expression is perfectly intelligible. He is using the imagery to bring out his point that there is an abundant supply (Morris, Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 249).”

James L. Resseguie (b. 1945) expounds:

There are no seasons of scarcity in the new Eden, only seasons of plenty, for the tree produces twelve kinds of fruit, presumably one for each month of the year. It is a perpetual source of nourishment that sustains the inhabitants of the city forever, and the leaves of this tree are meant “for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2; cf. Ezekiel 47:12). Similar to the crystal clear water, which is an inexhaustible source of life, the healing leaves provide physical and spiritual wholeness. (Resseguie, The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary, 257-8)
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) summarizes succinctly, “One crop per month from each tree produces a never-ending and therefore sufficiently large and eternal supply of life (Gundry, Commentary on Revelation).”

What is your favorite seasonal fruit? Do any contemporary fruits ripen as often as those in the New Jerusalem? What would the ramifications of having monthly crops be?

One of the benefits that comes with the assurance of continuous crops is stability. This constancy extends to many realms of life as the stoppage of seasonal cycles corresponds to the end of a cyclical economy. The New Jerusalem is devoid of droughts and the uncertainty that plagues the old age. The continuous food supply assures that the New Jerusalem will also be without economic downturns.

This is no small comfort in the present economy. The United States’ relatively short history has been spattered with countless recessions, depressions and panics to varying degrees of significance: 1797, 1807, 1815-1821, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1920-21, The Great Depression, 1948-49, 1953-54, 1957-58, 1960-61, 1969-1970, 1973-75, early 1980's, 2001-2003, current recession. Among the many hopes that the New Jerusalem provides is a recession proof existence. Revelation was above all meant to provide hope for its readers and this segment of Revelation is worthy of a reminder at a time when so many are experiencing economic hardship.

Compare and contrast Eden (Genesis 2:8-17) and the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10-22:5). How has the current recession affected your life? Can you even imagine a recession proof existence? Who is more affected by a recession, the rich or the poor?

“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.” - Harry S. Truman (1884-1972)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Amos: Calling them Cows (Amos 4:1)

What prophet called the women of Samaria “cows” or “kine”? Amos (Amos 4:1)

Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1). In imploring his audience to listen, Amos famously used the politically incorrect designation “cows” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or the more antiquated “kine” (ASV, KJV) (Hebrew: parah) to describe the pampered citizens of Israel (Amos 4:1).

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on the mountain of Samaria, Who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, Who say to your husbands, “Bring now, that we may drink!” (Amos 4:1 NASB)
Charles L. Aaron, Jr. (b. 1956) admits that Amos 4:1-5 contains “two oracles that employ a rhetorical strategy that contemporary Christian preachers would likely reject. Both oracles use mockery and insult to make their point (Aaron, Preaching Hosea, Amos, and Micah (Preaching Classic Texts), 58).”

The expression is not arbitrary nor are the cows that the prophet describes. Amos does not merely call his listeners kine but “cows of Bashan”. This designation represented the prize cattle of the day. Comparing the moniker to the terms of endearment used in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 1:9, 2:9, 4:5, 7:3), James Luther Mays (b. 1921) does not see the term as demeaning:

The epithet was not in itself an insult. Bashan in Transjordan was noted for rich forests and pastures, and particularly for fine cattle (Deuteronomy 32:14; Psalm 22:12; Ezekiel 39:18); Bashan was a hallmark of quality. Nor in the idiom of ancient eastern flattery would women be offended at being called ‘cows’; one has only to remember the terms used for compliments in the Song of Songs. The Bashan-cows are the women of quality in Samaria, the pampered darlings of society in Israel’s royalist culture.” (Mays, Amos : A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 72)
Bruce C. Birch (b. 1941) counters, “While it is true that ancient terms of flattery sometimes seem strange in our ears (many mention the endearments of the Song of Songs in connection with this passage), it is evident that Amos’s purpose here in not flattery but sarcastic indictment. Amos intends to be rude. The high-born, well-bred women of Samaria with their luxurious and decadent lifestyles are addressed as fattened and pampered beasts (Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Westminster Bible Companion), 201).”

Many interpreters read Amos as categorizing women with a term that is degrading to the modern ear. Thomas J. Finley (b. 1945) defends, “Interpreters mostly understand Amos to be singling out the wealthy women in Samaria, but the female element may also be figurative, making it the wealthy of Israel who were trampling the poor and, therefore, included in the condemnation. According to this interpretation, the subsequent reference to ‘husbands’ would be part of the image (Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah - An Exegetical Commentary, 176).” As such, “cows of Bashan” refers at least to women but may not limit itself only to women.

In The Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, Carol Ann Newsom (b. 1950) and Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) explain:

Two aspects of these verses may sound more misogynistic to modern readers than they were originally intended. Amos may well have meant to deliver a stinging denunciation of what he understood to be the women’s attitudes and behavior toward the poor, but yet without any intent gratuitously to insult their bodies or their relationships with their husbands, as commentators often assume. “You cows of Bashan” was almost certainly not meant as derogatorily as it sounds in English, though the precise nuance in Amos’s mind is not clear. (Newsom and Ringe, 221)
“Cows of Bashan” should be interpreted proverbially, not as a sexist barb. Amos uses the expression because the shoe fits. Gary V. Smith (b. 1943) expounds, “‘Cows of Bashan’ is a fitting symbol for these wealthy women...These pampered self-indulgent, and bossy ladies maintain their lifestyle by exploiting the poor, crushing the needy, and speaking demandingly to those around them (Smith, The NIV Application Commentary: Hosea, Amos, Micah).”

Amos called them like he saw them and he saw cows of Bashan. That being written, I would advise not calling modern women “cows”.

Do you think being dubbed Bashan cows was offensive to the original audience? What region today is known for its quality cattle? What politically correct analogy would you have used in lieu of “cows”? Should preachers always be politically correct?

The potentially insulting epithet the prophet invokes should not distract from the real issue - what the metaphor represents. It is significant that the proclamation is written to Israel’s lush northern kingdom (Amos 1:1). Contrary to many misconceptions of the area, the region east of the Sea of Galilee is choice.

Jörg Jeremias (b. 1939) points out:

The high plateau of Bashan (500-600 meters elevation) east of the Sea of Galilee (modern en-Nuqreh in Syria, though it probably includes the Golan Heights) is an extremely fertile pastureland because of its basalt soil and plentiful rainfall and was famous for its ‘fatlings’ (Ezekiel 39:18; Deuteronomy 32:14) and its mighty bulls (Psalm 22:12). (Jeremias, The Book of Amos: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 63)

This fertile region was enjoying great prosperity under Jeroboam II (Amos 1:1, 7:9, 10, 11). It was the best of times. But not for everyone. Not only did the worldly blessings not trickle down to the poorest members of society, but the rich trampled on the poor to attain their wealth (Amos 4:1). Amos is not necessarily preaching against being rich but rather the selfish means by which Israel’s wealthy acquired their abundance. As Jesus asked, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (Matthew 16:26 NASB; cf. Mark 8:36)?”

James Luther Mays (b. 1921) clarifies:

The luxury and debauchery of urban affluence in Israel was a scandalous offense to the God for whom Amos spoke (Amos 6:4-7; 3:10, 15). The offense lay not just in its stark contrast to the condition of the poor, but in the fact that the affluence was built on the suffering of the needy. (Mays, Amos : A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 71)

Who today lives high on the hog at the expense of those less fortunate? Is this sin perceived as grievous in the United States as it should be?

“The man who has won millions at the cost of his conscience is a failure.” - B.C. Forbes (1880-1954), founder of Forbes Magazine