| Where Recherche duTemps Perdu|
---- meets Kirchliche Dogmatik
It's a wonderful sunny day, and it looks like it's going to be pretty hot. I'm writing this sitting at Seth and Amber's while June is helping with some organizing. I have a feeling that there may be a stop at the public swimming pool in the near future.
Two quick points:
Let's head on to Luke and his passage describing how Jesus emphasized his identity.
Bible Reading: Luke 7:31-35
v. 35: Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.
Oh, how I remember the interpretation of our marquis verse for the day! Wisdom is vindicated by her children. This, I was informed, was a reference to a common myth abounding in the Near East at the time. It featured Wisdom in the form of a maternal woman and her various children. --- What, you can't find evidence of such a myth in widespread usage? ---- Here we have one of those ubiquitous examples of someone inventing a literary category, such as a genre or an alleged contemporary parallel, that all people are supposed to recognize as such, though we do not even have representative occurrences available to us. --- In fact, my New Testament professor in my Ph.D. program had no hesitation to call it a "synthetic" myth, viz. a myth that scholars have created, which must have been in the background of this passage, though there is no particular evidence for its occurrence, certainly not as common property of "Near Eastern culture," if there is such a thing. The professor even likened this synthetic myth to Rudolf Bultmann's advocacy of a pre-Christian gnosticism. In other words, he admitted that there was no evidence, but it was such a nice idea to explain the acceptance of the "Christ myth," that one simply had to hang on to it.
There's no question that Jesus is personifying wisdom here as a mother figure complete with children. The reality is that he was not reiterating some general myth, but that he was making a point with regard to true wisdom vs. the pseudo wisdom of that part of his audience who sought to find fault with him. The "children" are the actions that are engendered by various forms of wisdom. Jesus had provided a lot of help towards clarifying his identity by healing the centurion's servant, raising the young man at Nain, and calling attention to his fulfillment of messianic prophecy. But there was another dimension to him: He was the one who would be rejected by his people.
So, just after having praised John the Baptist he addressed himself specifically to the folks in political and spiritual authority who were not all that keen on John. They were those who did not feel that they needed to repent, let alone subject themselves to John's baptism (and recall that some who did get baptized were only motivated by the hypocritical desire to be seen as pious). He pointed out the dilemma. To paraphrase, John appeared in rather dramatic garb, wearing a coat of camel's hair and dining on honey, preaching a message of righteousness and judgment. "This guy is just a little overboard," they reacted. "He's not exactly keeping up with the program. This guy is crazy." But then there was the other horn of the dilemma. When Jesus showed up on the scene, miracles and all the other supernatural signs notwithstanding, he turned out to be anything but an ascetic remarkable for his minimal dress and diet. Jesus acted like one of the regular people; in fact he had meals with those who were on the fringe of society and beyond the fringe of acceptability by Pharisees of the House of Shammai: sinners and tax collectors. In their mind, he was supposed to be condemning those people and their actions, not have banquets with them. What kind of messiah keeps fellowship with those who do not keep the Law?
Jesus summarized his rhetorical point with what sounds like a children's nursery rhyme:
We played the flute for you, but you wouldn't dance;
we sang a lament, but you didn't weep. (v. 32 HCSB)
In other words, regardless of how God addressed the people (whether with the strictness of John or the grace and love of Jesus), they did not find it suitable. They wanted something in keeping with their own preferences.
Now, doesn't that sound familiar? It certainly does to me. I find that one of the most widespread objections to Christianity these days is not necessarily one specific point of doctrine, but the whole idea of accepting revelation on authority rather than exercising one's supposed right to approve of each particular doctrine and to cut-and-paste together a religion of one's own making. This is the case for Christianity, to be sure, but I find it to be true just as much for Buddhism or Hinduism, for example. I've gotten lots of comments with regard to various presentations on Buddhism where the basic intent was for me to tell the person that they could be good Buddhists, but still be exempt from some obligation or other. Well, I'm hardly in a position to legislate to anyone what they should do as Buddhists, and my standard response has fallen along the line that I'm a Christian, and that, consequently, I can't tell them what they should do one way or the other. However, if they wanted to be Buddhists in the received sense, they couldn't just leave out a point that didn't fit in with their preference. If possible, I try to show that the issue in question is dealt with in a much better way by Christ and the gospel.
What is particularly intriguing is when non-Christians judge Christianity on the basis of non-Christian standards. "I would respect Christianity and maybe even become a Christian if ..." What then follows is frequently something along the line of "...Christianity mandated vegetarianism" or "Christianity permitted moral relativism (in so many words)" or "Christianity did not say that Christ alone is the way to salvation," etc. Obviously, that's where a Christian cannot make concessions, and we certainly dare not revise Christianity merely in order to get some people to allow themselves to get added to the sizeable role of people who call themselves "Christians," but for whom the Lordship of Christ means nothing.
And yet, "wisdom is vindicated by her children." The actions that flow out of self-designed religions speak for themselves. Once people start to give themselves exemptions from various Christian doctrines, they have put themselves into the position of thinking that their wisdom that is greater than that of God.
Obviously, there's a problem with that attitude, and it's not just the matter of placing yourself into a contest with God, which is never a good plan. It is that God can do things that you cannot, such as save yourself from sin. Mother Wisdom instructs her children, so to speak: "Go with the one who has sent his son to die for you, not with something out of your own ideas that cannot take you any further than your own finite concepts."
Happy Father's Day to all who have attained that stage and have demonstrated that fatherhood has been more than an inadvertent physiological event for them.
A good two days. Feeling good physically and emotionally.
Yesterday (Saturday) it was once again time for the #14 Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt Sears Craftsman Silberpfeil tractor. I had done some serious weed-eating the day before. We have several poison ivy patches this year, and I'm happy to report that so far I haven't contaminated myself with it. Then I undertook my first visit to the Alexandria Public Swimming Pool. Given the headaches of the last couple of weeks,I didn't know whether I should start out by diving in head first off the board, as had been my custom in previous years, but I did, and it didn't seem have caused any problems. The water is still very cold; we haven't had too many really hot days yet around here.
Then some reading on Tibetan history, followed by Cowboy Church. I get so tickled when somebody says something nice about my bass playing. After the program one lady mentioned that she can see how the music goes all through my body, and, boy, is she ever right! It takes me into a different realm of existence, speaking with just a smidgeon of exaggeration. I think that if I could do nothing but swim and play my bass I would be the healthiest, psychologically most adjusted person on earth. --- Actually, as I'm reevaluating that comment, if I were to do nothing but swim and play my bass, I'd probably be somewhat maladjusted, particularly if I did both at the same time. --- Seriously, I must thank God for those two outlets. Some long-term readers will remember how hard it was when I could no longer play and perform as I had been used to, and how exciting it was when I first rediscovered the harmonica, and then slowly had the courage to try the guitar again--with limitations to be sure, but perhaps with greater love for it than ever, and thanking the Lord for letting me find a way back to playing music.
Today Seth came over for the afternoon with Anna (the whippet) since Amber was doing lure coursing with Haven (the youngest Great Dane). Then, later, Nick and Meghan stopped by, and we cooked hamburgers. I spent quite a bit of time today, when not conversing, chasing down various country singers on YouTube. I assume if you look at my "history," you can retrace my steps. --- Woops! I just erased it. How did that happen? --- It's really interesting to see which one of my own videos have been fairly successful and have been reposted on YouTube under some other person's or organization's name. It's a good thing that I start them all with that banal "wincorduan.com presents," so that there can be no confusion on their origin, unless someone were to do some serious tinkering.
Bible Reading: Luke 7:18-30
v. 19: [John] sent them to the Lord, asking, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”
I will keep my comment fairly short tonight. One can take a life time fleshing out what Jesus says here. I have been asked so many times, Why don't Jews accept Jesus as the messiah? My students have asked visiting rabbis the same question, most likely on the assumption that the rabbi had considered it seriously. Those who had, usually responded with something along the line of: For the same reason that you are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Not all of the messianic prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.
That's a pretty good answer. However, I perceive two shortcomings. For one, it's not convincing when it comes from a theological liberal, such as a Reform Jew, who does not actually believe in the verbal inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). Somehow for someone who does not believe in the supernatural character of the Bible, let alone in predictive prophecy, to base his answer on the supposed lack of fulfillment of predictive prophecy concerning the messiah strikes me as special pleading. Second, we can certainly acknowledge that there are messianic prophecies yet to be fulfilled at the second coming. Now, we can use that fact to simply dismiss all of the other fulfilled scriptures, or we can bring our question to greater refinement: Is there good reason to believe that Jesus is the messiah, and has he shown convincingly that he will return and complete those passages that still seem to be unfulfilled? Well:
The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news.
This is a conflated prophecy based on Isaiah 29:18 and 35:5-6. And it is, indeed, a messianic prophecy that Jesus is fulfilling. The centurion's servant has been healed; the young man from Nain has been restored to life. Jesus has done many other miracles, and his gospel is reaching the poor. Now, where we could spend a life time is on further prophecies that he has fulfilled.
Thus, my answer to the question from John the Baptist and my response to those who do not see Jesus for who he really is has to be: Study the Old Testament carefully. Study Jesus carefully without explaining away what he did or said. You will find that he not only is the messiah, but that it also makes perfect sense that he will return to finish his mission.
So, why is Jesus waiting so long before coming back? The answer is easy: For your sake, so that you can still avail yourself of the opportunity to receive him as messiah and savior by faith before the chance is gone. We read in 2 Peter 3:9 (HCSB):
The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.
So, yes, he's the one who has come. Don't look for anyone else. Come to him in faith while you have the chance to do so.
Last time I talked about the resurrection of the young man at Nain (Luke 7). I emphasized that in performing these miracles Jesus was not only acting out of compassion for the grieving survivors, but--more importantly--he was demonstrating that his authority even went so far as to conquer death. I also promised you a story that we can hold up in contrast. It is a Buddhist story.
There is no official version of this story according to scholarly or lay standards. A very similar story, though greatly enriched with much more detail, is found in the Pali Canon (ThigA X.1, trans. by Thanissaro Bikkhu), whereas an ancient commentary (thereby not canonical) on the story, translated by Andrew Olendzki, recounts one of the more commonly heard version. For my telling of it, I will also rely on, among other sources, The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus (Open Court, 1894). The latter volume is a shameless attempt to imitate the New Testament, which in this case is actually somewhat helpful because it'll be easier to see the differences. In the absence of mandatory formulations, I am retelling the story in my own way, though all but the tiniest details are found in the various Buddhist versions.
In the region called Savathi there was a young woman named Gotami. Actually, her full name was Gotami-tissa, but everyone called her Kisa Gotami, which meant "Skinny Gotami." She came from a very poor family of low social standing. However, she had unusually deep spiritual insights, which she had developed over uncountable previous lifetimes, though, of course, she did not know that.
One day she went to the market of her town and there, to her great surprise she saw a man, who had the reputation of being one of the wealthiest people in the area, sitting on some rugs surrounded by piles and piles of gold, trying to sell it for a pittance, and nobody was buying. You see, the man thought that he was selling ashes, and the potential customers had bought into his illusion.
Let me explain a little more. The man had been extremely rich and had been hoarding mountains of gold all around his house. Then one day he woke up, and all of it had turned to ashes. He was greatly distraught because suddenly, after a lifetime of having more riches than he knew what to do with, he found himself a pauper.
A friend minced no words in bringing the lesson home to him, "When you have something just sitting all over your house, what difference does it make what kind of material it is? You're not doing anything good with it; so, it may just as well be ashes as gold. It all comes down to the same thing if it's just sitting there taking up space."
“But what can I do?” The man whined. “Now all these mounds of ashes are all over my big house, and I've got nothing left to live on.”
The friend provided him with the obvious answer. “Well, you just happen to have this abundance of ashes. The best thing I can advise you to do is to start selling them on the market. Get yourself some rugs, pile on heaps of these ashes, sit next to your merchandise, and see if anyone wants to buy any from you. ”
And so he did, and that is how Gotami found him that day. Except that she saw what nobody else could, namely, that the supposed ashes were really still gold. So she inquired politely,“Excuse me, Sir, but might I just ask why you are selling all of this gold, and at such a cheap price at that?”
The man was vexed by what he took to be sarcasm. “'Gold,' you say. Gold! That is not funny. I wish it still was gold, but, as you can see, it's nothing but ashes. Why don't you reach into one of the piles and look more closely at the stuff. 'Gold' indeed."
So, Gotami went up to one of the mounds of apparent ashes and filled her hand, and suddenly everyone saw that she held several pieces of gold.
Needless to say, the people in the market were surprised. And then the man also recognized that these ashes still were his gold. He had learned that if you don't treat something the way that you should, it loses its value. If you treat gold as though it were ashes and don't put it to use for good, it might just turn to ashes. He was truly thankful to Gotami.
"Thank you, young girl. You have just taught me a very valuable lesson, not to mention that you have restored my wealth to me. I shall give you my son in marriage." (Arranged marriages were definitely the custom at the time.)
And so it was that Kisa Gotami, the young, undernourished woman from a poor family, suddenly found herself as a member of one of the richest and most prestigious clans in the area.
However, the rest of the family was not all that pleased with the arrangement. It appears that her new husband loved her, and that their marriage was a happy one, though apparently he had died before the events with which we're concerned. [In some versions he died on the same day.] In any event, he does not figure in what ensues. Many of the other family members thought that it was a disgrace to have a woman of such low standing be counted among them. Gotami felt that a number of them were just looking for a reason to be able to send her away.
But all of that changed when Gotami gave birth to a baby boy. She had provided an heir to the family, a boy whose father, at least, was of a proper lineage, and so the feelings toward Gotami warmed up. Suddenly everyone was nice to her; no one made her feel bad by whispering behind her back or making various insinuations. The whole family was kind to her and her son.
The versions vary as to the boy's age for what happened next, but he must still have been small enough to be easy to carry, yet old enough to have been able to walk on his own. One day when Gotami had her back turned, the boy walked a few steps away, and a snake bit him in the foot. It left just a little mark, but that didn't matter; the boy was dead. Gotami saw him lying on the ground and let out a horrendous scream. "He can't be dead," she tried to calm herself. "Such a small red spot on his foot couldn't possibly be that fatal. He must still be alive. There has got to be a medicine to revive him." She picked him up and went to the nearest house to ask if by any chance they had a medicine to cure a condition such as her son's.
"No," the people said politely. "I'm afraid we don't." And they gave Gotami a look of pity because they recognized the boy as dead, while she thought he was still living and just sick.
So, she went to the next house, and got the same result. Now panic started to overcome Gotami. She just had to find someone who had the right kind of medicine. It occurred to her that without her son, she would once again mean nothing to her in-laws. Undoubtedly they would deposit her boy's body on the charnel grounds (where corpses are left in the open air and wild animals feed on the bloated remains) and send her away with nothing, back into a life of dirt and poverty. Surely someone had to have a cure for her son.
And so she raced from house to house, holding the boy in her arms as though he were still alive, asking if anyone knew of a way to treat him. The people indulged her fantasy and spoke kindly to her, but the answer continued to be negative. Everyone thought that she had gone mad, and she certainly was beside herself with grief. Finally, in her frenzy she ran into a wise man who managed to provide her with a lead.
"Just a short walk from here in the next village Sakyamuni is teaching. Why don't you take your son to him? If anyone can provide you with the right kind of medicine, surely it is Sakyamuni."
"Thank you. I will rush over there to see him immediately." And without any further pause she set out for the neighboring village, where she did indeed find Sakyamuni, the Buddha, and she gained an audience with him.
"Please, Lord. They say that you would know a medicine to revive my boy. Please, I will be eternally grateful. Could you make such a medicine for him?"
"Indeed, I can," the Buddha replied. "And all it takes is a mustard seed (the cheapest common spice in India). But I need you to fetch it for me. Go to any house in the area and ask the people living there for a mustard seed. If they are willing to give you one, you need to ask them if anyone connected to the house or the people living in it has died. If they have been subjected to the tragedy of death, you may not accept the seed, but you must go on to another house. I can only prepare the medicine if the seed comes from a house into which death has not intruded."
Gotami was pleased by that response. There was hope after all. Still holding the boy's body she set out on her quest. In a few moments, she knocked on the door of the closest house. The residents opened the door and asked why she was calling on them.
"Oh, it's really nothing. My name is Gotami, and Sakhyamuni is going to make a medicine for my boy, and I was just wondering if you might have a mustard seed you could spare, but ... "
"A mustard seed? Sure. We got plenty of those. Here you go."
"But wait. Thank you so much, but it's not that easy. Before I can take the seed, I'm supposed to ask you if anyone has ever died in this house."
The people stared at her incredulously. "Has anyone ever died here? Of course they have. Quite a sizeable number of people, actually. Let me think. Yeah, I would go so far as to say that more people have died in this house than are living here right now."
"Thank you anyway, then. I'm afraid I can't take your seed." And Gotami scurried off to the next house.
At the second house, the conversation pretty much repeated itself. There were plenty of seeds, but the house had been touched by death multiple times. And so it went at the third house, and the fourth, the fifth, and so on.
Finally, Gotami got the idea.
It was more than the fact that death comes calling on everyone sooner or later. It was a whole new way of understanding the world. She took the corpse of her son, deposited him on the charnel grounds herself, and returned to the Buddha.
"Thank you, Lord Buddha. Your 'medicine' has worked. I now understand. All of life is filled with impermanence. There is birth and there is death, and we need to accept that they both come and go without getting stuck on either. Nothing stays the way it was, and the more we let ourselves get attached to something or someone, the more we will grieve when the inevitable happens and our circumstances change. -- I would like to be ordained as a bikkhuni (a nun) and be a member of your order from now on."
Her wish was fulfilled. She joined the order. I'm leaving the rest of the events for some other time, except to say that it was not too long thereafter that she found enlightenment. That's why her official title became Kisa Gotami Theri, "Skinny Gotami, the Holy Elder."
So, obviously no resurrection is claimed to have occurred. In fact, the whole point of the story would be lost if the Buddha had actually concocted a medicine that would have brought the boy back to life. Furthermore, a few versions of the story insert a more formal funeral for the boy combined with continuing signs of endearment and care by Gotami. Maybe they just added those parts to make it more palatable for non-Buddhists, but I think it's important that Gotami simply dropped him off at the charnel grounds or, in other versions, left him in the jungle to be buried by some strangers. The corpse had lost all meaning for her, and she needed to liberate herself from it as soon as possible.
The importance of this attitude is underscored by other passages in early Buddhist writings that address the same matter. The prominent scholar of Pali texts, Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids (1857-1942), translated a volume out of the Tripitaka called the Therigatha, whose title she rendered as Psalms of the Early Buddhists. Vol. 1. Psalms of the Sisters. In Canto 6, number 50 (L), there is a chant attributed to 500 women, all of whom had lost sons, and all of whom, like Kisa Gotami, had overcome their grief thanks to the Buddha's teachings. In this case it was conveyed to them by a woman named Patacara, who had also lost a son. Note the negative light in which they speak of their grief for their lost sons.
Lo! from my heart the hidden shaft is gone,
The shaft that nestled there she [Patancara] hath removed,
And that consuming grief for my dead child
Which poisoned all the life of me is dead.
To-day my heart is healed, my yearning stayed,
Perfected the deliverance wrought in me.
Lo! I for refuge to the Buddha go–
The only wise–the Order and the Norm. [Emphasis mine.]
Now, it is interesting to me that Mrs. Rhys Davids, who makes a case for the plausibility of both the events and the doctrine here, held séances to communicate with her own son after he had died. She certainly was not willing to accept his death as final and accept his impermanence as a simple matter of fact. To be sure, that was much later in her life, but the point still stands that the Buddhist philosophical comfort clearly did not work for her, though earlier on she had endorsed it.
To return to the "psalm," grief for a departed son has supposedly poisoned these women's lives. I must be honest here. I know of more than one woman whose son had died, and who spent the rest of her life entirely occupied with worshiping the memory of her son, complete with maintaining a "shrine" for him (often his former room). This is unhealthy and "poisonous," and I shall let the psychologists take over from here.
Nevertheless, I understand that it would be less than human ever to simply discard the grief that you have felt from losing someone to whom you were close and acting as though that person had meant nothing to you. You can't bring back the person; you must go back to living your life; you accept his or her death; but there will always be a tiny little scar that won't ever close up entirely. Come to think of it, all of the above story happened within the first 36 hours or so after Gotami discovered her boy's death, and somehow I can't really blame her for going bananas, given the circumstances. So, we're hardly talking about the scenario of a permanently paralyzing grief to which I alluded above.
Now let us ask: What did the Buddha do? We might answer that he played a ruse on her, which brought her back to sanity and acceptance of reality. Thereby he comforted her, and she was grateful to him. --- But did he really bring her back to reality? It seems to me that actually he got her pendulum to swing into the opposite extreme direction towards another unreality. To discard the corpse and declare that all is well because one has learned that all is impermanent is no way to deal with the situation either.
Furthermore, the Buddha happened to have caught Gotami at a time of crisis, and so we see her situation and his teachings in extreme dimensions. But this is not just a matter of proper grief-counseling from a Buddhist perspective. This is a highly visible instance of what is supposed to be everyone's perspective. If Gotami had not allowed herself to become attached to her son, she would not have grieved his loss so severely. Or, to go back to the beginning of the story, if the rich man had not allowed himself to be so attached to his social and economic standing, he would not have been in such turmoil when the gold turned to ashes. This is, after all, Sakyamuni's prescription for life: recognize the impermanence of the world and that there is no "self" with which you can cling to it. When you have completely divorced yourself from all of your circumstances, when "loved ones" mean no more to you than strangers, when you see the futility of thinking that anything good or evil will last, you are approaching Nirvana.
So, to repeat the question, what did the Buddha do? He comforted the woman by getting her to see life in a way that denies life. Why did he not perform a resurrection, assuming a historical core to the story? Quite simply, because he could not. It was not in his power. He taught her a way of accepting death in a way that trivializes it, and he led her to embrace his doctrine of impermanence. Now, I don't want to be disrespectful, but other people could have taught her the same thing. Buddhism, even in its earliest forms, teaches that there were other Buddhas who promoted the same beliefs. Actually, Buddhism even recognizes a category of Buddhas who discovered the dharma independently through their own study and contemplation (the Pratyeka Buddhas). With all due respect to one of the intellectual giants of human history, Sakyamuni exemplified his great persuasiveness on behalf of his point of view, but he did nothing else for her, and, frankly, his point of view is dubious. It instructs us to give up some of the most important virtues that are a part of our nature, such as love and devotion to our family.
Jesus taught us not to let the things of this world dominate us, but he also encouraged us to devote ourselves in love to others. This love of others is ultimately based on his love for us and the love he engenders in us. (John 17) As I keep saying, when it comes to Jesus Christ, you cannot separate the teachings from his work, past and present. His teaching was ultimately about himself because he alone is the Savior, the Son of God incarnate. And thus, as we saw in the last entry, he did not preach some unrealistic way of looking at the world to the widow at Nain, but he showed who he really was. The young man of Nain came back to life, a down payment increased a thousand times by Christ's own resurrection, on the fact all of us can have eternal life with Christ simply by trusting him. This is what we can look forward to (Rev. 21:3-4):
Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:
Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity,
and He will live with them.
They will be His people,
and God Himself will be with them
and be their God.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will no longer exist;
grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer,
because the previous things have passed away. (HCSB)
Death will not have been covered up by philosophy; it will have been conquered.
Feeling just a little better every day. The headache and other distractions beyond the "normal" are slowly receding. I'll take that. Gratefully.
That reminds me of a young man, who wasn't so fortunate. He didn't make it and died. Oh yeah, come to think of it, that's our Bible passage for tonight.
Bible Reading: Luke 7:11-17
v. 14b: And He said, “Young man, I tell you, get up!” (HCSB)
We don't even know the name of this particular recipient of one of the most amazing miracles Jesus performed. There are three people whom Jesus resurrected: Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus (at least we can guess at her last name, "bint Jairus"), and this young man, who, along with his mother, are otherwise totally unknown to us. Nor can we ask them personally because the resurrections that Jesus brought about were not a bestowal of perpetual physical immortality. They eventually died in some other way.
Which brings up the obvious question, "Why bother with a resurrection that does not last?" The answer is, first of all. that Jesus was apparently overcome with compassion and pity for the grieving widow. Let's backtrack for a minute. Here was this woman, whose husband had already passed away, and who had no one left except her one son. We can infer, since he is described as a "young man," that he was old enough to support her, but I imagine that the relationship went deeper than that, and that she was very much emotionally attached to him. I don't think the widow was crying merely because her source of income had vanished (though you'd think so, looking at some commentaries). And then, for reasons that are not specified, he died. The woman could anticipate nothing but a bleak and lonely future. There's no reason to think that she must have been older than, say,in her early forties, so we'd be looking at the possibility of many decades of poverty and (at least perceived) ostracism.
So, Jesus came down from Galilee to the town of Nain. He had a large group of people in tow, watching him, listening to him, and--one assumes--hoping to see a miracle. As they got close to Nain, they were met by another mass of people; this time it was a funeral procession, carrying the young man's corpse to the cemetery. Jesus saw through the situation immediately, and, while the parade kept on walking, he told the grieving woman. "Don't cry." My first reaction is: "Yeah, right." If anyone was entitled to cry, surely it was this woman. But Jesus, in contrast to many a well-meaning doofus, was not just throwing words around.
The next thing Jesus did was to touch the open coffin, which stopped the pallbearers in their tracks. Then he told the corpse: "Young man, I tell you, get up!" (I have to admit that this sounds an awful lot like a parent admonishing a soporific teenager.) The young man complied. He immediately sat up and started talking. Then Jesus presented the son back to his overjoyed mother. And that's the last we know about these folks.
The surrounding crowd was awestruck. They experienced that feeling that Rudolf Otto described so well in The Idea of the Holy despite its many other flaws. There was the fear of being in the presence of God, the Wholly Other (mysterium tremens) as well as the attraction of wanting to be close to this transcendent power (mysterium fascinosum). "God has visited his people!" they shouted. Others proclaimed, "A great prophet has come in our midst!" Word of this miracle spread far and wide. Jesus surely had acted out of love and compassion.
But then, Jesus' miracles are ultimately about him, not about the people who profited from them. Everyone who was healed, as well as the few people whom he raised from the dead, ultimately died again. Only his own resurrection conquered death once and for all, guaranteeing us eternal life with him at his coming.
We see more of his motivation in raising people from the dead in connection with the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11:36-44. When Jesus showed up at the tomb of Lazarus four days after the funeral, a point in time where there could no longer be any doubt about his death, some people were bringing up an important question. Maybe some of them were mocking him; maybe it was honest curiosity for others (and I'm paraphrasing the dialog a little bit from here on out): "If he could heal the man who had been born blind (John 9), couldn't he have healed his personal friend Lazarus as well?" Be sure you get this point. Here was the same man who had been healing people left and right overcome with grief at the death of someone who had been close to him. But Jesus shouldn't have had to grieve. Why hadn't he taken care of Lazarus the way he had of so many strangers? Jesus was not happy to hear these skeptical remarks that, regardless of their intention, revealed a lack of understanding of who he was.
"Remove the stone!" he commanded. And we wouldn't be wrong to read a little impatience into these words.
Pragmatic Martha had the temerity to raise an objection. "Uh, Jesus, I think I need to remind you, just--uh-- in case you've not kept count. It's been four days. And, you know, that's a little bit of a stretch of time for a corpse. He's already started to decompose, and there's gonna be--uh--an awful smell, and I'm just wondering about removing the stone . . . "
Jesus responded to Martha with a rather enigmatic comment, which I quote verbatim. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (HCSB) Oh, how my heart hurts when I contemplate that the 19th-century Iranian self-declared prophet, Husayn Ali, chose "Glory of God" as his epithet! [Who am I talking about? Anyone? Five extra points!] Whatever else Martha or the other people may have understood by the term, it was certainly not a bitter man under house arrest wanting to rule the world and writing acerbic letters in support of his cause! It was the transcendent God displaying himself in the world by doing what no earthly being could even contemplate.
That matter out of the way, the people followed Jesus' direction and pushed aside the stone. Then he said a little prayer for the sake of his audience, emphasizing his identity. I shall paraphrase again, for the sake of emphasis:
Father, I know that you always hear me, and of course I'm grateful for that fact. But I want to underline that point here for a moment as I'm talking to you out loud because there are some people around here who just won't recognize who I really am. Perhaps now they will finally catch on and come to believe in me.
A strange prayer. Don't you dislike it when people supposedly say a public prayer, but in reality are preaching to the people around them? -- "Lord, help us all not to play our stereos too loud." -- I don't care for that technique, but I have to make an exception here because that's certainly what Jesus was doing, and he even said that he was doing so, and I can't criticize Jesus. Then he uttered the simple words, "Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus complied, shroud and bandages and all. The people were so shocked that Jesus had to remind them that it might just be a good idea to cut off all of that material from Lazarus and let him go home.
My point, then, is simply this: Jesus not only performed the resurrections out of compassion and pity, he also clearly demonstrated that he had power over death. There was no limit to his authority because it was the authority of God himself. Having made this authority obvious, he didn't need to provide physical immortality for people at the time. That's guaranteed at his second coming to all of us who believe in him. But he made a point that put him beyond any other human being.
Well, this is half of what I wanted to write in connection with this passage, but, once again, time and energy are getting away from me. So, tonight we have considered a young man; next time I'll make a contrast by telling you the story of a skinny young woman.
Today was the first day in over a week that I didn't wake up with a killer headache, which is not to rule out that on most of those occasions I did not go to bed with one also. This is the kind of thing that really puts a crimp into one's creativity and industry. -- "Hey," someone reminds me, "I thought you were the 'King of Imitrex,' the wonder shots? What happened?" -- Well, for one thing, I haven't had any in the house since Medicare prefers to have me pay for them. For another, this hasn't been the typical cluster headache for which Imitrex works so marvelously, so I wouldn't want to spend all that money on something that's probably only going to work temporarily. Anyway, I just wanted you to know where I've been hiding, or rather, that I haven't been deliberately hiding. I've given a few signs of life here and there, but usually about fifteen minutes on the computer has been it.
Bible Reading: Luke 7:1-10
v. 4: When they reached Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this." (HCSB)
I don't blame the Jewish elders for what they said when they came to Jesus to plead for the centurion, even though they missed out on a deeper theological level. The centurion had sent them to Jesus to ask him to please heal a servant of his, someone to whom he was obviously very close. They clearly thought very highly of this Roman soldier, so they did their very best job at "selling" the centurion to Jesus. They underscored how much he deserved this favor; he had been supportive of the Jewish people, even going so far as to build a synagogue for them.
[Stack] By the way, should you ever have the opportunity to visit Capernaum, here are a couple of things you should know. 1) Eating is not permitted in the parking lot outside of the archaeological site. I don't know why not, but an irate guard told us so and pointed us to the sign (in Hebrew) that said so. But that was long ago, and perhaps that rule no longer applies. 2) The synagogue that has been discovered and partially restored is not the one for which the centurion sprung the shekels. It dates to the Byzantine era, perhaps the fourth or fifth century AD. There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other whether the centurion's synagogue was located in the same place or somewhere else. [Pop]
The Jewish elders emphasized how worthy the centurion was of having his slave healed. A very commendable sentiment, but they didn't quite understand how and why Jesus did miracles. He did not dispense them as rewards for being good people.
The centurion saw things differently. He did not feel worthy of Jesus entering his house and performing a miracle there. His attitude may seem a little confusing. One might almost think that he changed his mind, but he did not. As he himself clarified, having Jesus miraculously heal his servant and have him enter his house were not necessarily conjoined. We can only speculate why the centurion thought of himself as unworthy of having Jesus cross his threshold. There is the obvious idea that he was conscious of his sinfulness, but as overpowering as that feeling may have been, he still did ask for the miracle. I suspect that his house was filled with various Roman pagan idols and other decorations that would have been offensive to Jews, and he did not want Jesus to see them. But, as I said, we can only speculate. The sentiment was real.
So, the centurion, while pleading his unworthiness, asked Jesus to heal his slave at a distance. After all, he clarified, he knew from his own life that all it took was for him to say the word, and his underlings would have to do as they were told. In the same way, he reasoned, Jesus could simply heal the man with a command from afar. And, unsurprisingly, Jesus did just that.
What does surprise me just a little bit is how the centurion was willing to dispense with any theater. Whatever the reasons may have been for his feeling so unworthy must have been really strong. After all, most people love to be in the center of attention and be associated with a celebrity. Wouldn't you love to be photographed with, say, Billy Graham and the pope on either side of you? Furthermore, wouldn't you love it if people asked who were the other two guys in the picture with you? For the centurion this was no time for a demonstration of his importance or religiosity. His concern was for his servant, and he was convinced that it didn't take a personal house call from Jesus to have him healed.
The Jewish elders had attempted to convince Jesus that the centurion was worthy of his miracle. The centurion knew that he was not worthy of it--and asked for it. This attitude, as Jesus commented, exceeded any faith he had seen in Israel heretofore. Jesus' miracles were a part of his work of grace, and no one is worthy of God's grace.
Now here is what is so great about God's grace. He does not give it grudgingly. In the story, Jesus did not say, "Well, the centurion certainly understands his own reality. He certainly is not worthy of receiving my favor. Nevertheless, despite his sinfulness, I will help him out." It is precisely because he confessed his lack of worth that Jesus praised his faith and healed his servant instantaneously.
Jesus did not die for our us despite our sinfulness. God does not love us even though we are unworthy. He did not bring about our salvation despite the fact that we could never do enough to deserve it. Jesus died for us because our sinfulness had created a distance between us and our creator that we could not bridge. God has shown his love for us in that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). He brought about our salvation because we were powerless to do anything on our own to reconcile us to him. In short, God does not take care of us even though we don't measure up to his standards; he does so because he is fully aware of our shortcoming and our inability to take care of ourselves. As an illustration, we don't feed and bathe and diaper infants despite the fact that they cannot do so themselves; we do so precisely because they are unable to care for their own basic needs.
A very consistent human delusion is that if we just really try to please God, then he will acknowledge our efforts and, since we really cannot do enough in our own power, he will supplement what we do with his grace. Then, thanks to God's grace, we are enabled to do all that's necessary to complete our reconciliation with him. So, our salvation is a cooperative venture between God and us, and we thank God that he has provided his grace for us to make it possible for us to become worthy of his love.
Fortunately, things don't work that way.
I say "fortunately" because if the above were correct, we would be stuck in a rather undesirable state of uncertainty. When would we have prepared ourselves sufficiently that we could be sure that we could be assured of God's initial helping grace? Could we ever know whether, even if we considered ourselves to be empowered by God's grace, that we had reached the point of being worthy of his salvation? We could never know when we had actually fulfilled all of the requirements. God's grace would be a welcome aid to give us hope, but we could not rely on it with full assurance because so much had been left in our hands. In fact, it wouldn't really be grace but a reward or a stipend for which we qualified at various stages. Hopefully.
But God's grace is premised on the fact that we are unworthy of his love and salvation. As hard as it may be for us to acknowledge that fact, it is also the best thing that could happen to us. Since God has taken the initiative in loving and saving us, we can have complete assurance of our salvation. If my destiny is in his all-powerful hands, rather than in my shaky unreliable fingers, I know that I am safe. Don't you think it's a good idea to trust him and let him take over?
A good day. The weather was nice. I took the red no. 14 Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt Sears Craftsman Silberpfeil tractor around the yard and managed to avoid the computer all day long.
As I'm writing this I'm playing in the background a DVD of Judy Collins' Wildflower Concert (2002). I may have mentioned it before. It's Judy, Tom Rush, Eric Andersen, and Arlo. If you have to ask "Arlo Who?," I'm sorry, but this paragraph is lost on you for the moment. For some reason the DVD box says "90 min's," but it's much longer than that, more like 2 hrs. and 16 min's. The thing is that after every number, I just think, "Wow! That was unreal." Then the next song bowls me over as well. And the next one. What an incredible gift music is, as well as those people who play it well!
According to her web site, Judy is now 71 years old and still plays up to 100 dates a year. For a part of this concert, she simply played the twelve-string, a good thing to do when your days of picking intricate patterns are over; a strategy I have adopted from her. But then she went over to play the piano while she was singing, and she was incredible on it. I remember seeing her in '69 in a concert with her little back-up group. She snapped a string on her guitar and without any problem just headed over and played the ivories; her piano player got the rest of the evening off. If you ever get a chance to listen to her "Wildflowers" album ((1968?) -- not to be confused with this concert DVD), you'll notice that she was deeply influenced in her music by Claude Debussy. You can see parts of this concert on various YouTube clips.
Needless to say, the best part is when the four of them get together at the end, joined also by Arlo's son Abe on the electronic keyboard for a bass sound and by Judy's musical director on the piano when she wasn't not playing it. Their first number together appropriately was Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans."
June and I will be on the road again for a few days starting tomorrow, but not off the face of the earth.
Ah, as I keep saying, much of the time I have no idea where this blog is going on any given night, and so neither could you. That's all for tonight. Go listen to some good music!!!
As I'm starting to write, the Coke 600 in Charlotte is about to start. Darel Waltrip has just uttered the second-most famous words in racing, not "Drivers, start your engines," but "Boggety, boogety, boogety--Let's go racing, boys!" That means, among other things, that this blog has survived just about another year. It's around eight years now. And I've kept to the basic principle with which I started: There is no single central issue, but the blog goes wherever my mind goes, and that's rather unpredictable, possibly scary, territory. So, it's still from Recherche du Temps Perdue--reflections on life in its many facets--to Kirchliche Dogmatik--didactic pieces on multiple subjects, many of them connected to theology, apologetics, philosophy, and whatever. In short, as I say, it's opinionated and mercurial. The format has remained roughly more or less the same, trying to conclude each entry with a Bible exposition. At times, those have pretty much taken over; at others they've fallen into the background, taking the backseat to other topics. The two central characters providing the illustrations for quite a while, the Owl and the Ducktor, haven't made many appearances lately. So, the least I can do is to let them lead the celebration.
Thanks to all of those who have stuck with me all of this time, as well as those who visit me here occasionally!
The race has had a somewhat unusual disruption with a cable supporting a Fox Sports camera becoming dislodged and creating havoc on the track. After a lengthy red light, followed by an extended competition yellow, the cars are running again.
Bible Reading: Luke 6:39-49
v. 43: “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit." (HCSB)
Let's get this straight. When Jesus said that we should not judge others, he did not mean that we should be totally undiscerning in following what others are teaching. As we said, the point of the "no-judging" statement was that we should not pass moral judgment on other people before we have examined ourselves. But that exhortation certainly doesn't mean that we should simply accept whatever people are teaching as true as long as they appear sincere to us. Unfortunately, there's a strong tradition in Christendom that theologians in error, not to mention heresy, present the most sympathetic face possible to the church, making those who point out the problems look like heartless inquisitors. Furthermore, the common practice is that the people with doctrinal problems and those who follow them give themselves the freedom to substitute ad hominem arguments for discussing the issues.
I'm thinking, for instance, of the ETS national convention in when open theism was the topic of debate. Specifically, the issue was whether open theism is evangelical. Bruce Ware gave an exposition on why he thought it wasn't. John Sanders, in his opening remarks, stated that this topic really should not need to be debated, and he never addressed it directly. Instead, he launched into a diatribe that Dr. Ware was only pursuing the issue so that he could sell more books and make more money. I was flabbergasted at this silly rhetorical device, which lacked both plausibility and decency, but apparently a number of people were not and felt sorry for him. I can think of other times when supposedly evangelical theologians have steadily avoided responding to doctrinal questions and, when finally pushed, have resorted to personal attacks, some of them indiscriminately hurtful to people attempting to mediate. That, in itself, seems to me already to be an indication of the status of their doctrine. If they refuse to discuss or defend it objectively, my alarm bells certainly go off.
Clearly, we need to stand up for what is right in Christian doctrine, repudiate falsehood, and--depending on our particular position in an organization--keeping the group biblical. That does not mean that we become heresy hunters or run an inquisition, but it means maintaining what is biblical even if we are made to look like "the bad guy." And what Jesus is saying here gives us some help. Now, I certainly don't ever want to gloat over anyone's misfortunes or be smug about someone's personal problems. (And I have no idea how the aforementioned J. S. is faring today; I have no personal animosity and wish him well.) But here's the thing: A faith that is contrary to scripture is not a faith that can provide power over sin. Please make sure you understand that I'm not talking about bad events, such as sickness or catastrophes, happening to people. I'm referring to the actions of people. It's just not by accident that so many twentieth-century theologians who denied the full inspiration of scripture had various moral problems. Jesus is telling us that these are things that we should take into account.
Not everyone who gets himself into some sort of trouble is a false teacher. For all that we know, not every false teacher necessarily does objectionable things. However, when someone's teaching is questionable, it is certainly legitimate to ask how his teaching is working out in his or her life and in those of their followers. Mistaken teaching will produce stagnant spiritual growth. "Liberating the spirit from the letter," a nice misuse of Paul's phrase, actually incarcerates the spirit in the prison of human subjectivity. Please don't think for a minute that the institutions (schools, churches, various associations) that have forsaken orthodoxy or fidelity to scripture for the sake of greater spirituality have attained the desired greater spirituality. Or let me put it this way: They will have attained it only insofar as they redefine it away from what their original goals were supposed to be. Most of such organizations lose their Christian witness within a generation.
---Okay, Win, come clean: Whom do you have in mind as you're writing this? --- The answer is the usual: In terms of who may be a false teacher in the present, whoever has the right shoe size. My point is not to pick on anyone specific now, but to underscore the words of Jesus that to look at a tree's fruit in order to assess its quality is legitimate. And that means that whom I have in mind is you.
This goes back a week. Amber just sent me some pictures from Saturday evening at the Gray Barn a week ago yesterday (May 11). The theme of the evening was "Ace and Friends," Ace being the featured performer, the brother-in-law of Gary F., the regular emcee. So, I lifted his image, so to speak, out of the picture of his traditional finale when all the performers gather around him on stage and participate in a medley of gospel songs. Next, I selected from Amber's set one picture of your bloggist playing the introduction to Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind." Of all the dozens of Lightfoot songs I do, for some reason I had never learned that one, so I decided it was about time to do so, and this was the first time I performed it. [No, I do not do "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," but I've seen the inscription on the church in Detroit to which the song refers.] Then you see a number of people in the gospel medley closing; most of the ones around me on the stage are members of a gospel sextet (or septet?), called Men of Mercy. They were fabulous.
Bible Reading: Luke 6:39-49
v. 39b: “Can the blind guide the blind? Won’t they both fall into a pit?" (HCSB)
And we're finally back to Luke. As always, I'm going to package the series of the last little while on Egypt into a single web site, and it'll be available in that form fairly soon. I may also add some more surrounding context to it; we'll see. In the meantime, here we are back at "The Sermon on the Plain" as recorded by Luke. If you may remember, similar to the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew, Luke records some beatitudes spoken by Jesus, though he also adds some condemnations. As in Matthew, we read Jesus praising those who are suffering on his behalf. In Luke we also have Jesus exhorting us not to judge without first judging ourselves as well as telling us to evaluate a person's teachings by the quality of the fruit he produces. I believe I mentioned that Jesus was probably directing himself particularly to the Pharisees of the House of Shammai, who were quick to put their legalistic standards on others, while rationalizing their own compromises.
The part of the verse I've selected for tonight has become a proverb. Everybody talks about the "blind leading the blind." I wonder how many people realize that this expression comes from Jesus in the gospels (assuming that it has not worked its way into our common expressions from either Sextus Empiricus or the Katha Upanishad, who also use it, and from whom Jesus did not pick it up.) The picture on the right is a portrayal of such a scenario as depicted by Sebastian Vrancx (1573-1647), courtesy of Wikimedia. I love the vivid colors, which the poor people in the picture cannot see. Nor, I guess, can the dog who has his back turned on the whole debacle. The people still on the path across the brook have no idea yet, what's awaiting them in just a few steps. Then again, what kind of a bridge is that supposed to be? Who would build a trap like that? And what's the use of carrying a walking stick if you're not going to use it to test the ground as you walk? But I digress.
We need to interpret this expression in its context, which first of all has to do with not trying to instruct other people as to their moral problems without being aware of our own. If it weren't so sad, it would be incredibly funny how many people one hears express their moral outrage about someone else at the same time as their own lives are blatantly filled with sin, just of a different slightly different variety. I can't help but think of all of the members of various churches who have been unable to keep their lives together, but have laid out in detail what is to be expected from the pastor and his family, even in areas that have nothing to do with Christian living or morality. Perhaps by expressing their opinions on someone else, they are subconsciously letting the world know that they are actually better than their own record might lead us to believe.
The context also includes the relationship between teachers and disciples, specifically the disciples acting as teachers and judges before they are qualified. I need to express something here without intending to be hurtful, but without apology. With all of the opportunities for education in seminaries and other Christian schools today, it appears to me that the Christian teachers and leaders of this coming generation are less prepared theologically and biblically than those of the previous one. I don't want to go into details because I really don't want to do any singling out, but I'm pretty sure that my generalization holds (and I will provide details if challenged).
Well, okay, I'll say just this much: The internet certainly has provided a forum for virtually anyone--including your opinionated bloggist--to express their ideas. One can use it to teach the Word of God and truth, but one can also use it to promote dubious causes, and too many readers are in no position to tell the difference between one and the other. The fact is that often one of the first things to go in much popular teaching on the web is the acceptance of authority. ---- But wait! Isn't it a good thing not to follow authority blindly? ---- Of course it is. That's the point. But I'm not promoting following any authority blindly. I'm talking about not accepting any authority at all and consequently speaking out of blindness. I'm thinking of writers who feel free to turn their backs on two thousand years of Christian doctrine and substituting for it an opinion that they thought up last week. My thoughts focus on "teachers" who are caught up in the latest trends in the ephemeral world of scholarship and don't take the time to study the reasons for what the church has accepted as true heretofore. What comes to my mind, to be really specific, is the young man who presented a paper on Christology at ETS a few years ago, who was not familiar with the Council of Chalcedon. I apologize in advance if he should be reading this and has become theologically literate since then. I'm guessing that he has probably finished his doctorate by now, that he's teaching somewhere, and that his students probably admire how his teaching is filled with references to contemporary articles, not having a clue that they're being cheated on what they're getting for their tuition money. This is only one of the areas in which I'm afraid the Christian church is losing ground where it could make gains. (Please remember one of the guiding principles of this blog: I'm not asking anyone to wear a shoe that does not fit them.)
Well, maybe I'm the one who's blind, not that I think I'm leading all that many people. Still, if it's possible to bring these thoughts to a conclusion, let me try to do so this way. The Bible is readily available. If you're reading this, you can, at a minimum, read the Bible on the web. No human being is perfect or omniscient, but we can all check our beliefs against the same Bible. As opposed to many cases of physical blindness, spiritual blindness is something that can be cured as we study the Bible and allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to God's truth. We need not be blind, and we should make sure that those who are blind are not leading us. And I mean it that way around, which is also in keeping with the way Jesus expressed it: we don't expect our leaders to become educated, but we expect those who are educated to become our leaders. (And keep in mind another standard expression on this blog: Nobody said it was going to be easy.)
I hope Cowboy Church went well tonight. Your somewhat disappointed bloggist found himself unable to go. Without going into details unnecessarily, as he was loading his guitars and amp into the Dakota, he realized that his departure would be somewhat delayed by a trip or two to the bathroom. The need to delay persisted until it was too late to still get there on time. Make that "quite disappointed." Cowboy Church has been the highlight of the month for me for the last few months. Needless to say, missing it is not one of life's real tragedies, of which there are plenty enough around the world, but I still would have preferred to be there playing music.
It did occur to me that, over the last few weeks, as I have been preoccupied with pharaohs and their neighbors, I've not posted any pictures of springtime in our yard. So, I will take this opportunity to brighten our lives by showing you some of our Father's wonderful handiwork that has witnessed to his creativity this spring.
Apple Blossoms with Redbuds showing through.
Then there are these round onion-like flowers, whose name I don't remember; there are actually several varieties on display here. We haven't seen them in years. There were some areas in the yard that used to have flowers, but then got covered with grass. This year, I hadn't been able to get to them with the mower and--surprise--those gorgeous fireworks showed up!
We're back home after a quick out-of-state excursion. Glad we made it back before last night because on returning I found out that my interview on "Theology Matters" with Melissa and Devin Pellew was scheduled for last night; for some reason I had it down for next week. It was a radio/podcast interview on the topic of "Radical Islam." We had a good conversation covering a lot of ground. To hear it or download it, please click on the picture of our good friends from Charlotte.
So, Anson F. Rainey states that
"the plethora of attempts to relate apiru (Habiru) to the gentilic ibri are all nothing but wishful thinking."
Let me explain that ibri is "Hebrews" in Hebrew ( though strictly speaking it should be ibrīm), and that the word "gentilic" has nothing to do with being either gentle or a Gentile, but that it refers to the regular residents of a particular area. His point then, if I understand it correctly, is that the Hebrews were already resident in the Levant prior to the Amarna era, and that, therefore, they do not qualify as "Habiru." If they came after the Amarna era, "gentilic" would be just plain a wrong word.
This statement illustrates nicely my advice for writing scholarly papers (which blog entries are not): one is better off understating one's conclusions than to state a conclusion with so much weight that it becomes indefensible. Here we have a case in point. The evidence for a Hebrew presence in Canaan prior to the Exodus and Conquest is minimal, and if it can even be demonstrated (of which I'm not sure), it can easily be accounted for by the fact that, once having come down to Egypt during the drought under Joseph, not every Israelite stayed tied down there. It would be a while before they were enslaved, and, prior to that time, some Hebrews moved back and forth between Canaan and Egypt (see 2 Chronicles 7:20-23). But furthermore, this is a good opportunity to consider a "heads-I win; tails-you lose" argument. This is the kind of argument in which you grant the skeptic all that he asks for that is not just plain absurd--hypothetically and for the sake of the argument. Then you show that, even on such a minimalist basis your case still stands up. Gary Habermas, from whom I'm borrowing the name for this kind of argument, has applied it to confirm the historicity of the resurrection, as has Mike Licona, though (without wanting to rehearse the entire debate at this point) unfortunately Dr. Licona did not distinguish sufficiently between what should have remained hypothetical and what is actual. But, having acknowledged others who have used a similar form of argumentation, let's see what minimal information we have that still shows that the people who defend the classification of the Hebrews among the Habiru are not simply engaging in wishful thinking.
Now, of course, I'm willing to go much further in my belief that the Amarna tablets, among other things, provide a rather graphic Canaanite record of the Hebrew conquest, but even a minimalist assessment cannot get away from the fact that the Israelites were among the Habiru of Amarna fame.
Now, I said in the last entry that I wanted to show how "debatable assumptions" had "metamorphosed into axioms," and I also promised not to flog that horse too badly. What I meant is that I'm not going to bring up example after example of how Egyptologists have either ignored or even sought to undermine the biblical record. That's a "dog-bites-man" story, which we don't need to expand on. I'll just mention one really minor item that struck me in Cyril Aldred's Akhenaten: King of Egypt (1988), and it is probably as much subjective as objective. Aldred, once one of the leading scholars of ancient Egyptian culture, lamented extensively about the way in which grave robbers--ancient, modern, and in-between--have destroyed so much of Egyptian art. He minces no words in condemning those who did it and what they did. Still, it caught my eye when he described the modification of an ancient tomb by Coptic Christians into a church building as a "desecration," a word that he does not use for the senseless immolations and acts of destruction carried out by others. I cracked up laughing when I saw that. Robbers apparently are bad, but Christians who convert a pre-robbed tomb into a church are worse; they are desecrators.
But for this moment I'm most interested in the scholarly theories that may be religiously or ideologically neutral that still take on a life of their own and persist as given assumptions even after their usefulness as scientific hypotheses has been exhausted. Let me give you an example as a chip from the article I wrote; for details, you must wait for the article. A few entries ago I gave you a chart of the pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty. According to that chart Akhenaten was succeeded by Smenkhkare, who ruled for a few years before passing on and leaving the throne to Tutankhamun. The debate about Smenkhkare's identity is going to go on for a long time. His existence as a young man who ruled Egypt for a few short years has, indeed, become axiomatic in some circles. But there is now more evidence than there had been, oh, last year around this time, not to mention thirty years ago. In my comments in the chart I said, "Mysterious successor to Akhenaten and possibly co-regent. He and the appearance of his mummy have long been a puzzle to Egyptologists. I can't wait to tell you about him!" Now I get to tell you about him. Reading about Smenkhkare is like reading about Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews: "without father, mother, or genealogy, having no beginning of days . . ." (Heb. 7:3, amended) We know that he had an "end of days" because we know that he died, and his mummy has been found and identified, or so many people have thought. But, other than that, he's a ghost-like figure who suddenly apparates next to Akhenaten, and even becomes pharaoh for a time. I cautioned you not to take the chart as final, which no chart of the eighteenth dynasty can be, realistically speaking, even after the addition I'm providing here.
Let me tell you the direction into which scholarship is heading with Smenkhkare. First of all, the name will not be eliminated from the succession of pharaohs. However, we need to rethink the identity of the person behind the name. Let me give you a clue: Nefertiti, Akhenaten's Chief Wife, disappeared from the records around the same time as Smenkhkare began to appear. First we see him under a different personal name (Nefertuaten), which he just happened to share with Nefertiti; then he became ruler under the epithet of Smenkhkare along with the very names that Nefertiti had also held previously. So, saving the evidence for what will be in print (or in response to personal questions), this is the theory that is becoming increasingly accepted. Smenkhkare is none other than Nefertiti herself. Contrary to what was conventional wisdom for a long time, she did not disappear in Akhenaten's last five years, but became co-regent and pharaoh herself, ruling alone for approximately four years after Akhenaten had died. During that time, the duties of "Chief Wife" befell her oldest daughter Meritaten, while Nefertiti (now Pharaoh Smenkhkare) was fairly desperately looking for a man of appropriate standing for her and Meritaten, even appealing to the King of the Hittites to send a prince. Alas, the Hittite prince was assassinated on his way down to Egypt, Nefertiti died, Meritaten became superfluous, and the throne went to the new pharaoh, Akhenaten's son Tutankhamun ("King Tut") and his lovely bride, the new Chief Wife, Ankhesenamun.
And, oh yeah, the mummy of which many people were convinced that it belonged to the mysterious Smenkhkare is most likely that of Akhenaten himself.
Please, remember once more that this is the short-short version, arising out of debates on minuscule points, and including data that are less than a year old. I trust that you have enjoyed this set of "chips from my workshop." This concludes this series unless there are questions of sufficient weight or number to warrant extending it some more.
Next time, we'll get back to Luke and other aspects of life--past, present, or future. In the meantime, if you live in north-central Indiana and don't have your weekend all planned out yet, come out to see and hear your bloggist at Cowboy Church on Saturday at 7 pm at Trinity Methodist Church in Hartford City!
Anson F. Rainey, "Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society," in Pomegranates and Golden Bells, ed. David Pearson Wright, David Noel Freedman, Avi Hurvitz, (Eisenbrauns, 1995), 483