Saturday Night Theologian
11 November 2007

Job 19:23-27a

Job's ongoing complaint against God leads to one of the most enigmatic passages in the book. The traditional rendering of Job 19:25 is "I know that my redeemer lives," and the traditional understanding of the passage is that the redeemer is none other than God. It is true that God is sometimes referred to as a redeemer in the biblical text (e.g., Exodus 6:6; Psalm 103:4), but it is questionable whether God is to be understood is this passage. First, it must be noted that the term "redeemer" is probably not the best translation of this word; in the Old Testament the idea of Vindicator or Defender is generally closer to the meaning of the word in context. Second, Job's expressed attitude toward God in this passage, as in others, makes it doubtful that Job would want to rely on God to be his vindicator. It seems more likely that Job has in mind another (semi-)divine being, perhaps a member of the heavenly council, who would stand before God and plead his case (cf. the "angel of the Lord" in Zechariah 3:1-5, and Jesus in 1 John 2:1). This being is alluded to elsewhere as an umpire (Job 9:33-35) and a witness (Job 16:19-21). Perhaps the author of the book imagines such a being as the logical counterpart to the adversary ("the satan" of chapters 1-2; "Satan" is not a proper noun in Job). Christians understand our advocate with God to be Jesus Christ, but Job, of course, had no such knowledge. All he could do was hope beyond hope that ultimately God was just, even though he couldn't see how that was possible in his present circumstances. Sometimes life seems unfair to us. We don't get that job we want, we don't get the promotion we deserve, or we don't get credit for our hard work. Sometimes bad things happen to us or our families, and we don't understand why. When life is unfair, our best course of action is to put our trust in the God of justice and mercy. It is instructive to note that although Job doesn't understand God, and although he even blames God for his suffering, he never stops seeking God. That's a lesson for us as well.

Psalm 98 (first published 25 May 2003)

In response to the U.S. military's victory in Iraq, General Jay Garner said a few days ago, "We ought to be beating our chests every day. We ought to look in a mirror and get proud. We ought to stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say, 'Damn, we're Americans!'" Many people no doubt interpret the U.S. and British victory over Iraq as a sign that God was on our side and gave us victory. The psalmist urges others to "sing unto the Lord a new song," and he says that God's "right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory." Some would even go so far as to notice that in this psalm God has remembered his promises to the "house of Israel," equating the modern state of Israel with the biblical people, so that whatever that state does (and, of course, whatever the U.S. does) is almost by definition blessed by God. However, the last verse of the psalm should give all those who rejoice in military victories of the strong over the weak reason to pause: "God is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity." God's judgment is based not on how strong a nation's military is but on how just it is toward the peoples of the earth. Equating earthly power with God's favor is as old as civilization itself, with rulers of cities proclaiming themselves chosen by their god. Although people are usually convinced of the rightness of their own actions, some leaders have been wise enough to know that might is no proof of right. If we join with the psalmist in singing to God a new song, it should be in response to advances in justice and peace around the world. These victories might not be as well-publicized, but they are ultimately more important than military conquest. God's kingdom is advanced by those who "do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God," not those who flex their military muscles in the face of an inferior fighting force.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 (first published 7 November 2004)

This passage in 2 Thessalonians is one of the more confusing in the Bible. Paul probably assumes that his readers are familiar with his own teaching about the coming eschaton and are thus knowledgeable about his oblique references to "the man of lawlessness" and "the son of destruction" (the same person), as well as to "that which restrains him" (a neuter participle) and "the one who restrains him" (a masculine participle) (could one of these be a primitive textual error?). Many ingenious interpretations of this passage have been offered over the years, and many today claim to be able to tie these obscure references to historical or eschatological persons or events. However, in the words of commentator Leon Morris, "The plain fact is that Paul and his readers knew what he was talking about, and we do not." Having admitted that, what can we say about this passage? Despite our ignorance of the specific historical references Paul was making, we can see that the antichrist character in this passage is one who is characterized by a life, or more likely a philosophy, of lawlessness, opposition to the law of Christ (as opposed to the Old Testament sacrificial law, for example). This person exalts himself and takes his seat in the temple and declares himself to be God. This statement should probably not be taken literally; instead, it refers to a person who seeks to supplant the role of God for those who follow him (as did the emperors Caligula and Nero). Paul may have had a specific historical figure in mind, or he might have been referring to a now-lost apocalyptic tradition. Either way, the message for today is clear enough, and it is supported by the overall teaching of the Bible. God opposes the proud, and he expects leaders of all kinds, whether political leaders, religious leaders, or corporate leaders, to act in accordance with divine standards. Those who arrogate to themselves the mantle of infallibility, as though they had a direct channel to God that common mortals don't possess, are in danger of being judged by God as antichrists. To clarify, although I disagree with the doctrine of papal infallibility, I'm not talking here about the pope or about that specific doctrine. I have in mind all those who assume the mantle of wisdom and expect their followers to accept what they say without dissent. David Koresh fits the bill, as does Jim Jones. Certain political leaders might also qualify, to a greater or lesser extent. Some leaders of industry might qualify as well within their own spheres of influence. All those who claim special divine insight are suspect. If they insist that others agree with them or be condemned (or be kicked out of the group), they are even more suspect. God's followers should certainly respect proper authority, but they should not kowtow to individuals. We must learn to think on our own and follow our thoughts to their logical conclusions. This is not a call for unbridled individualism, but it is a call for all of us, particularly those of us who are leaders, to admit that we don't have a corner on the truth. God just might have an insight to teach us through a most unlikely source. God might even have something to say through a person who lacks a formal education but is wise in the ways of God, a person who is poor in wealth but is rich in ideas, a person who lacks political or religious clout but who exudes the spirit of God, maybe someone a lot like a certain Jewish carpenter.

Luke 20:27-38 (first published 7 November 2004)

I recently asked the students in one of my classes about the passage in Joshua where God instructs the Israelites to kill all the inhabitants of Jericho--men, women, children, and even animals. I asked, do you see an ethical problem here? Does God condone genocide? Every one of them who answered the question attempted to justify slaughter of the Canaanites by appealing to the fact that the Bible attributes the command to God. They were reading the Bible as if it were a literal record of events, including divine-human conversations, instead of an interpretation of those events. Furthermore, they failed to grasp the point that protecting the integrity of the Bible (i.e., by insisting on a literal interpretation) is less important than proclaiming the integrity of God (i.e., by acquitting God of the atrocity of genocide, shifting the blame instead to a human misunderstanding of God). If you read the Bible in an excessively literal fashion, you will frequently encounter problems like the one in Joshua. Jesus ran into the same sort of problem with the Sadducees. Since they didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead, they tried to trap Jesus with a conundrum based on a literal reading of the Law of Moses. They expected Jesus to interpret the Bible the way they did, in an extremely literal manner, so they expected him to be forced to agree that they had found a logical problem with the doctrine of the resurrection (because of the problem of a woman with many husbands in heaven, as opposed to a man with many wives, which was tolerated in the Hebrew Bible). To their surprise, however, Jesus went beyond the literal meaning of the text to proclaim that in the next age marriages contracted in this age will no longer be meaningful, because the state of marriage no longer exists. Furthermore, Jesus went on to demonstrate the veracity of the resurrection by drawing on another passage, the story of the Burning Bush, and going beyond the literal meaning of the text to get at a deeper truth. Fundamentalists claim to value the Bible because they interpret it literally, but in actuality they often devalue it by reading it in such a way that it contradicts the overall message of both the Old and the New Testaments. If genocide is wrong today (and it is) then it was wrong in Joshua's day (and it was). If the Bible says that God commanded the people to kill the children of Jericho, then either the Bible is right and God advocates the slaughter of the innocent (at least on occasion) or the Bible is wrong and God is still a God who cares about people of every sort, "chosen people" or not. That's what the book of Jonah is all about. The Hebrew Bible is the sacred scripture of Jews and Christians alike, but it must be read in the context of the whole (for Christians, including the New Testament). Jesus understood that. He was not afraid to contradict a specific biblical passage directly if he thought it contradicted the overall teaching of the whole Bible or if he thought a literal interpretation missed a more fundamental truth. Fundamentalists will say, "Oh, but he could do that because he himself was God," but they don't understand that if Jesus contradicts a passage in the Old Testament, the whole concept of inerrancy goes out the door. The Bible continues to be an important, indeed an essential part of modern Christian understanding, and it continues to inform our beliefs, but we must follow the example of Jesus and seek the larger meaning inherent in the text, particularly when we run across passages that are ethically problematic. We would do well to listen to the advice of C. S. Lewis. He said, "The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible."