Saturday, February 20, 2010

February 20

Oh, my. It is time for the death talk. I didn't intend for it to be now, but the text sets it up so well. And I've been needing to get these thoughts on paper (or on screen) for awhile. Too bad it happened on a Saturday when no one reads. Pity.'s the time.

I really don't feel compelled to find "themes" for the readings, but the OT and NT definitely have one today. The theme is, to paraphrase words of the apostles, "Don't you care if we die?"

OT: Lev. 9:7-10:20

Let's first take a minute to absorb the full impact of what happens in today's reading. The elaborate seven day ordination ceremony is coming to a close. Israel has just ordained its first three priests as all the people watch, perhaps with a mixture of fascination and fear. And now, it is time for the first sacrifice for the people. Before everyone's eyes, five animals are ritualistically slaughtered, dismembered, and burned. And then, the glory of the Lord appears to all the people in the form of a fire that comes out (from the cloud?) and consumes the offering. The people react appropriately: they "shouted for joy and fell facedown" (9:24). What an amazing moment. What a time for celebration and awe and hope and reverence. Seizing the moment, the newly minted priests, Nadab and Abihu take their censors, put fire in them, and add incense. Apparently, this is the wrong thing to do. Apparently, it breaks one of God's rules. To be honest, I have no idea which one it breaks, and I'm not looking back to check b/c it's kinda beside the point. All I remember about the incense is that it had to be an exact mix and that no one else could replicate it for their own use. The problem doesn't seem to be with the incense anyway here, but with the fire. Oops.

So what happens? Fire from the Lord comes out and consumes them. They burn to death in front of their father and all the people. Talk about a change in tone! The mood quickly changes from joy and awe to horror as the two men probably run, roll, and scream until all that remains of them are charred, lifeless bodies. What does Aaron do during all that, I wonder? Does he try to put them out? Does he stand there in shock? Does he scream and wail? What's even worse is Moses' reaction. Aaron has just watched his sons burn to death, and Moses' first words are essentially, "See? That's what God meant when He said He was holy" (paraphrase of 10:3). All Aaron can do is remain silent. Stunned into shock, no doubt. Moses continues to be harsh, strictly warning Aaron that while he could mourn for his sons (thanks, Moses), he could not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes or move from the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And then he decides it is a great time to let Aaron know about a few more rules for priests, namely that they can't drink wine when they go into the tent. Maybe Moses chooses this time to tell Aaron that because he knows that Aaron would like nothing more than to go into the Tent and get hammered right now. Undoubtedly, Aaron is probably wondering, "What have I done? What have I gotten myself into?" He has got to be absolutely horrified by this God that he is now commissioned to serve.

Pondering that scene brought all my "death thoughts" to the surface. I mentioned in an earlier entry that I believe that there are two erroneous reactions to shocking, God-sanctioned death. One is to be unfeeling, to think, "Oh well, God is God. They had it coming." Yes, great introspection. Do you have any idea what we all "have coming" to us? This might be a good time to explore those implications! My own reaction veers not to that extreme, but to the other extreme. I tend to see such a wanton destruction of sacred life and get angry. I ask God, "Why did you do that?" How can you just take life away like that, for nothing? (And yes, I know it wasn't "nothing," but it seemed like "nothing" to me.)

And to me, that is a good question to ask God. I think we need to explore that, if not for ourselves, than for the many, many people who are "turned off" to God because of the pain and suffering and death they see all around them. It is our job to witness to those people, to spread the Truth in a way that they can understand. But first, we have to try to understand it ourselves.

I think the issue is complicated for Americans (and I guess to most Westerners) because of the influence of Enlightenment philosophy on our thinking. Since we were schoolchildren, we have heard repeated a very powerful thought: "We hold these truths to be self-evident...that [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." I have to hand it to Jefferson--that sentence sounds amazing. So simple. So powerful. And, the more I think about patently ridiculous. We are endowed by our Creator with an inalienable right to life??? Do you know what inalienable means? It means incapable of being alienated. It means something that you can't take away. Friends, our "right to life" is alienated all the time. And our "right to life" is not just alienated by other people, like murderers or judges or soldiers or what have you. A person's right to life is alienated every time they have a heart attack. Or die of cancer. If we have an inalienable right to life, then every fatal car accident, every terminal disease, is a violation of our rights, a crime against humanity, perpetrated by our Creator.

There is no such thing as the "right to life." Life is not a right. It is a sacred, precious gift from God. And as such, the Bible tells us that in general, we have no right to take others' lives. (In general, mind you.) And as such, we have a duty as humans to seek to protect life, to pass laws securing life. But the basis of such laws is not "self-evident" ridiculousness. The basis of such laws is God's revelation to us about the sanctity of life. (And as such, when we see God take life away, as in the case of Nadab and Abihu, we need to understand that as a serious message from God. It should drive us to our knees!)

"There is no right to life," is part one of my thoughts. Part two is, "God looks at life much, much differently than we do." Our natural instincts, our desire for self-preservation are so strong that we see life as a "self-evident" right. For our life-loving selves, anger is a natural reaction to death, either our own or others'. After all, life is a sacred and beautiful gift, and having that gift taken from you (like Aaron did, not to mention Nadab and Abihu themselves) will rock your world. Take it from me, it will not be a cool experience for you. But in God's eyes, physical life is not something to which we should cling. God came to give us life, but by that, He didn't mean air in our lungs. Whether we have a beating heart is not God's chief concern. Real life is not found in the functioning of your vital organs. Rather, the life God wants His people to have is found in Him. How many times have we read in Psalms and Proverbs this year that wisdom is life, that God's words are life, that God is life? How many times do the Gospels call Christ "life"? How many times does Jesus say that He has come to bring life? Life is a relationship with God. Strictly speaking, the functioning of your vital organs is irrelevant. That is in God's hands. And if it is best for His plan that you get publicly immolated, that you get slaughtered with your whole city, that you get your head chopped off because of a vindictive queen, that you get crucified upside down, or sawed in two, or used as a human torch...well, then that's what is going to happen. And those things aren't tragedies or crimes against humanity. No, those things are part of a glorious, divine plan. And for God's saints, they are merely a prelude into the full, complete version of real life.

Wow, there is so much more to say. I have verses about how God views the deaths of the wicked and righteous, respectively; thoughts about the dramatic shift in perspective on life b/t the OT and NT (seen, for example, in David's groveling v. Paul's "for die is gain" pronouncement); and caveats galore about our attitude toward the pain of others and about the eternal implications of OT deaths like Nadab and Abihu...but I have a feeling that we will have plenty more time to continue this discussion when the Israelites start clearing out Canaan. For now, my brain is satisfied with unloading that portion of my thoughts:). I welcome feedback! Really--I would like nothing more than to have a discussion with someone who disagrees with or is bothered by this line of thinking. Such discussion serves to refine my thoughts, and I would hope it would be beneficial to the other person, too.

NT: Mark 4:26-5:20

This passage starts off with some great little parables highlighting the power of the kingdom of God. In the first, the kingdom of God continually grows and expands on its own, regardless of man's intervention. In the second, the kingdom of God flourishes from a tiny seed into "the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade" (4:32). Nice.

In verse 33-34, it is reemphasized that Jesus is using only parables to teach and that he is only explaining them to His disciples. More mystery.

In light of Nadab and Abihu, I found 4:35-41 to provide a fascinating contrast. In the OT passage, God is frightening and awe-inspiring, and He kills at will if one misstep is made. In the NT passage, foolish, faithless apostles are literally shaking God and yelling at Him, "Don't you care if we drown?" And then the Holy One wakes up, calms the storm, and asks the disciples, "Why are you so afraid?" many answers to that question, especially in light of our OT reading:).

Of course, it is also interesting to keep in the back of your head how the lives of all these apostles ended. I think that historical records indicate that all of them, or almost all of them, were martyred. And the last chapter of John indicates that Jesus definitely knew at least of Peter's fate. So..."do you care if we drown?" Well, yes, b/c it is not your time. But your time will come. And it will not be pretty. But it will be part of the Plan.

It's amazing to me when it starts to sink in how much our physical lives are merely tools for God to use to spread His kingdom. We are His instruments, to use as He sees fit. And He may see fit to calm the sea for us. Or He may see fit to let us be crucified upside down. It all depends on what is best for God's kingdom at the time. His Kingdom is the reality. Our physical lives are not. They are only real to the degree that they are used in service to the reality of God's kingdom.


And...we also have Legion in this passage. Hmmm.....oh, what the heck, I'll try to tie it in, too. What struck me today was that Jesus brought new life to the demon-possessed man...and the townspeople reacted with fear. Even after the man explained it to them, they begged Jesus to leave (15-17). Similarly, I think that the"true life" that we've been talking about is scary to people. And why wouldn't it be? It is scary to hand over your physical self to God, to see your human existence as a tool. Yes, it is the only real existence, but it is so different from what we are used to--just like that sane, dressed man in the eyes of the townspeople. It should have been a wonderful sight, but it was just so different from their expectations, that they freaked.

Oh well, that was kind of weak:). But I was intrigued by the townspeople's reactions today.

Psalm 37:30-40

There is some good, encouraging stuff in here. But my brain has already emptied itself, so I've got nothin'.

Proverbs 10:6-7

Some contrast between the righteous and wicked. The righteous gain blessings and leave legacies; the wicked will be brought down with violence and forgotten.


  1. Wow. I logged in intending to vent on old Nadab and Abihu (and I will in a minute), but your "life" comments struck a chord. I struggle all the time with trying to balance my faith with my patriotism--you have heard me say before, "I'm not a democrat or a republican, I'm a monarchist." So I will preface my comments with the obvious: Thomas Jefferson was not (in a Biblical sense) inspired by God. However, I DO believe, with my renaissance/enlightenment/classical-liberal brain, that Jefferson was right about the "right to life," although he comes at it sideways. Life, and liberty, and equality, and many of the other "human rights" we squawk about, really are gifts given to us by our Creator. And to mis-appropriate a different scripture, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder. In other words, God, as the giver of these gifts, has the right to demand them back from us, and we've got zero recourse. But, in the world of "ought to" (which sadly, differs remarkably from the world of "is"), no other creature should have a claim on our lives, liberty, etc. Of course, we live in a broken and sinful world, where what God intends for us is rarely what we choose, individually or collectively. But I have no problem invoking God-given or "natural" rights, within this context.

    OK. Back to my peeve on old Nadab. These two poor crispy priests, along with Uzzah touching the ark, are among my least favorite stories in the Bible. They have been used to justify so much legalism--Look! They used unauthorized fire, and God burned them up! See! If you don't do it EXACTLY the way the Gospel Advocate has decided is the authorized way (whatever "it" is this week), you're in danger of hellfire!

    I struggle with this a lot. I want to reject that legalism and embrace relationship with God over rules. But at the same time, I read Jesus telling the pharisees "these things you ought to have done, WITHOUT NEGLECTING THE OTHERS," and worry about slipping into an "anything goes" view of grace. What I really, really want, is to have a heart that obeys out of love. Easier said than done!

  2. First of all, I have quoted/paraphrased that last verse you refer to at least four to five times since I read it this year. The "without leaving the former undone" (or whatever) really struck me, too, and has found its way into many a conversation about grace v. "works."

    I think I am right there with you on the spectrum. If anything, I probably tend to veer toward the fear/legalism side, due to my natural composition. Greg veers slightly the other way, so we make a good pair:).

    As for Jefferson, historically, I understand exactly where he is coming from. In light of the history to which he is reacting, I would say that his PURPOSE is right on. But his WORDS are off. No matter what he meant to say, those words, strictly speaking, are untrue. Life is a "right" from the human perspective in that we have no "right" to take life (technically. I would even split hairs with that statement. Even as far as "self-evident, natural rights" go, I think a case can be made that certain people deserve death because of their actions.) But Jefferson does not appeal to that human perspective; he appeals to the divine perspective. And I just can't see how the God in the Bible views life as an inalienable right. If Jefferson wanted to say what was strictly true, he should have said something like, "We hold these truths to be biblically evident, that man has been endowed by his Creator with certain sacred gifts, that among these gifts are the gifts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of God. And thus, that no man has the right to deprive his fellow man of these gifts."

    I know, I know, that those words would in no way have accomplished Jefferson's purposes (and they don't have as much zing:)), but those would have been true(r) to me.

    My issue is with the semantics of it. I think they are important here, b/c, due to the historical importance of the sentence, many people have heard and ingrained the words themselves, separate and apart from the intentions of the document. And those words, while they make a fine intro into the Declaration of Independence, are not, in and of themselves, philosophically sound.

    I am really not trying to start an argument, nor do you have any obligation to keep coming back. I am honestly trying to work out these thoughts for myself. As such, it is nice to hear opposition from a brain that isn't mine. So I will take any scrap I get and work through it thoroughly:).

  3. Kim, I think we agree a lot more than we disagree about old TJ. He himself was definitely no Christian, and the small-t "truths" that we hold to be self-evident as Americans are not big-T truths like those in the Bible. I can see "natural rights" through the lens of my Christianity, but have no illusions about Jefferson intending it that way.

    To a certain extent (and I'm about to geek out on you, sorry) I see lots of "natural law," not just things like rights, but also the laws of science, sort of like Newtonian mechanics. They SEEM to work, but then you take a step back and see that they exist within a bigger and more complex Einstinian reality. We can teach in science class that the acceleration due to gravity is however-many meters per second squared, and that "works." But on a macro level, that's only true because God wills it to be so. And to the extent that our democracy "works" (which is sometimes debatable), it only does because God allows it to.

  4. Okay, I had to stop in the middle of washing dishes and run upstairs to type this. I have been mulling over Larry's responses, and they have helped to refine my thoughts. And now, I think I get what I am trying to say about Jefferson (whom I like very much, btw):

    In practical execution, my beliefs and Jefferson's statement look exactly the same. However, he approaches it from a positive perspective, and I approach it from a negative perspective:

    Jefferson says, "You, as a human, have a right to live."

    I say, "You, as a human, have no right to destroy life."

    J says: "You, as a human, have a right to be free."

    I say: "You, as a human, have no right to deprive other people of freedom."

    Now, like I've said, this may sound like semantics. But my argument is that it is SO much more than that. I looked up the word, "right" yesterday. According to Merriam-Webster it is something "to which one is justly entitled." My argument is that, biblically speaking, we are justly entitled to nothing.


    And when we as humans, start thinking that we ARE justly entitled to things, when "just entitlement" becomes in any way part of our core identity, it only serves to separate us from God. No good can come of it.

    After all, if we are justly entitled to life, who is God to take it away so arbitrarily? If we are justly entitled to liberty, who is God to put rules and restrictions on us? If we are justly entitled to the pursuit of happiness, who is God to stand in the way of our earthly dreams? In America, we tend to worship our own dreams, our own comfort and happiness. We are offended by the idea of a God who would tell us to give all of those things up, to deny ourselves. Aren't those things our RIGHTS, after all? Aren't we "justly entitled" to them? Shouldn't God want us to be "happy," however we define "happiness?"

    When I was a teenager, the idea that the whole purpose of my life was to serve and worship God was, honestly, kind of offensive to me. I was raised, after all, in a culture that prized human liberty and the pursuit of personal happiness. It seemed like even most of the movies I had seen taught me to value my dreams and to pursue them at all costs.

    And when those concepts are so ingrained in us, when the idea of "just entitlement," becomes part of how we view ourselves, when we get the idea that we "deserve" to be here and "deserve" to be free and "deserve" to pursue our own happiness, then our lives and desires start to become our true gods.

    And because of the growth and expansion of the idea of "just entitlement" throughout our country's history, God is becoming more and more offensive to our populace. The seeds planted in the Declaration of Independence have flourished in ways that the founding fathers would have never dreamed.

    And that's my final draft:).

    J/K--that's where I am right now. If anyone has any further thoughts or objections to help refine these ideas, please let 'er rip. You won't offend me--promise:).

    (And, it must be said, that I am very thankful for the practical results of the Declaration of Independence, and I do love Thomas Jefferson, and I am proud to be an American, etc. I can't help that these thoughts are where my logic has led me:), and I honestly don't mean it as a stance on our country per se, but as a critique on any society that values "self" over God.)

  5. Oh, and Larry, I liked the Newton/Einstein analogy (though I am sooo not a science person). I do believe that because the practical execution of the ideals WERE close to God's truth, they have worked well. Especially when you look at America in relative terms to the rest of the world. But the degree to which our ideals have DIFFERED from God's truth has led to many problems, also.

  6. I'm no science guy either. I just drop those names to look smarter than I am. :-) I find myself thinking more and more about what our world would look like were it not so broken by sin from day one. It seems like so very many of the things we think of as "good" or even "best" are only good when seen through that cracked lens. Like democracy, and checks & balances, all of which serve as reasonably-good hedges against tyranny. Yet we were created to live in utter voluntary slavery to an all-powerful Lord. I'm torn between trying to do the best I can within today's realities and also having a heart for Eden.

    On another note--this notion of "rights" and entitlement is a pet peeve of mine. I'll be blogging (perhaps) about some of that soon. The original Bill of Rights was all about things the government could not take away from you. Nowadays, there seems to be a lot of stuff that we feel others (whether through the agency of government or otherwise) owe us. There's a heart thing there--my family receives huge amounts of financial aid for private school, which partially comes from other folks' tuition payments. I'm happy the program exists, and couldn't make it otherwise. But I try to have a heart of gratitude rather than one of entitlement. I wish people in general were more cognizant of how much grace and mercy and generosity are shown them (whether it be poor people on welfare or rich kids who don't appreciate the sacrifices their parents make). That change in attitude would make a ton of difference... but that takes us back to our broken world again.

  7. 2012 Thoughts:

    I still remember this day's reading so clearly from 2010. Thus, I was prepared for Nadab and Abihu. What stood out to me THIS year was Leviticus 10:10-11. Moses has just commanded the priests not to drink wine while in the Tent of Meeting, and his rationale apparently follows his command: "You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses." That idea of distinguishing b/t the holy and common, the clean and the unclean seems to me to be a distinctly OT concept. I am reminded of the curtain being torn in two at Jesus' death, and the big sheet of animals that Peter saw in the vision. It seems that the new covenant erases those lines between holy and common, clean and unclean. And I theorize that part of our duty as Christians is to find the holy even in the common. Or perhaps, through our intervention, to make even "common" things holy. I don't mean things that are inherently sinful, but simple things like changing diapers or mowing the grass or eating meals. I haven't fleshed all this out, but for a couple years now, I have been drawn to the idea that our entire lives, our every action, can be lived in worship and communion with God. Thus, I am very thankful that there are no longer those seemingly arbitrary lines between holy and common, clean and unclean, anymore. The new covenant opens up the possibility to live our entire lives as holy and clean. Whether we choose to do that is a different story...