Bathsheba, Matthew, and #MeToo

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Bathsheba is the fourth and final woman in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Although she is not explicitly named, she is implied in the reference, “the wife of Uriah.”

If you recall the story in 2 Samuel 11, David woke up late one day while his troops were off to war. The brief explanation may serve as a set up for the story and explain why Uriah, one of David’s “mighty men,” was not at home and why his wife was alone.

In the following verse the narrator skips ahead and describes an evening when David was lounging on the roof of his house and saw a “beautiful woman” taking a bath. Filled with desire, David asked who she was, and his servants responded “Isn’t this Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”[1] Without blinking, David sent emissaries to bring Bathsheba to him, and he had sex with her.

As a result of their rendezvous, Bathsheba became pregnant and David had to think of a way to cover his tracks. David’s solution was to bring Uriah home from battle so that Uriah could have intercourse with his Bathsheba and make it appear that the child was his. However, the contrast between David and Uriah’s character is revealed when the latter is unwilling to sleep inside his home while his comrades are at war; instead, Uriah slept on the doorstep.

Consequently, David had to come up with plan B, which was to strategically place Uriah in a battle plan with the odds stacked against his survival. Old Testament scholar John Walton says,

As one of David’s ‘mighty men,’ Uriah would have regularly been placed at the head of a contingent of soldiers and may have been expected to hold a strategic position in the battle plan. In this case, however, he was intentionally placed opposite an elite force of Ammonite troops and badly outmatched. Uriah’s portrayal as the immaculate soldier suggests that he would accept this assignment without question, but he must have wondered at the tactics.[2]

David’s plan B was successful, and Uriah was killed in battle. Therefore, David took Bathsheba into his home and she became his wife. As a consequence of their sin, David and Bathsheba’s child was stillborn—but eventually Bathsheba experienced some redemption in the fact that she gave birth to David’s wise successor, King Solomon.

This is traditionally how the story is told and understood, but when we dig a little deeper we discover that there might be a little more to add.

The Other Side of the Story

David and Bathsheba have often been portrayed as co-conspirers of an epic love affair, but at times Bathsheba has taken the largest share of the blame while David’s actions have been justified. Centuries after the events recorded in 2 Samuel, the rabbi’s suggested that there were military vows that Uriah would have taken that would technically undo Uriah and Bathsheba’s marriage making Bathsheba fair game for David. The rabbis went a little further with their interpretation and suggested that Uriah’s death was justified since his disobedience to David by not sleeping with Bathsheba was equivalent to treason.[3]

Others have suggested that Bathsheba was trying to lure David into her web of sexual seduction by bathing in a visible place with the hopes that he might see her, but the author of 2 Samuel tells us that it was her time of purification, which means that she had just completed her menstrual cycle and was following the protocol outlined in the Levitical law.[4] It is a bit presumptuous for us to think that she is trying to get David’s attention when it is completely plausible that Bathsheba simply wanted to allow the air to dry her skin, which seems to have been a fairly common practice in that time period.[5]

When we move beyond assumptions and the incredibly biased history of interpretation, we discover the verbs in the story confront our presuppositions. David sent royal officials to Bathsheba’s home, and the NASB says they “took her,” which is a good translation of the Hebrew verb lakach. The same word could also be translated “seized.”[6] Furthermore, the grammar suggests that David was the aggressor from start to finish: “she was brought to him” and “he lay with her.”

Commenting on the passage, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “There is no hint of caring, of affection, of love—only lust. David does not call her by name, does not even speak to her. At the end of the encounter she is only ‘the woman…’”[7]

It has been observed that both Bathsheba and Uriah are portrayed as completely passive within the entire narrative.[8] Perhaps they are both being portrayed as victims of David’s abuse of power. If so, the narrative raises several ethical questions.

Did David use force in order to sleep with Bathsheba?

Was their sexual encounter consensual?

Even if a woman had the right to turn down the king, given what happened to Uriah, would Bathsheba have survived if she had refused David?

In addition to all the other evidence that Bathsheba was a victim of sexual assault, we’re told that after Uriah’s death, Bathsheba went through a time of mourning. Although this may have simply been a ritual that allowed Bathsheba to go through the proper process of purification before remarriage, it could also reflect authentic grief after the loss of her husband. The biblical text seems to indicate that David did not allow much time to elapse between her mourning and their marriage. Instead, once again David uses officials to send for Bathsheba, and they bring her to the palace for her to officially become David’s wife. Instead of describing their marriage, the narrator describes Bathsheba as passively becoming David’s wife.

What is Matthew trying to tell us by including Bathsheba in the list of Jesus’ genealogy alongside of other women like Tamar and Ruth?

Why does Matthew refer to her as “the wife of Uriah” instead of “Bathsheba”?

It’s too soon to answer.

We have to keep reading.

I hope you’ll stay tuned until next time.

[1] 2 Samuel 11:3, CEB; Brueggemann notes, “She has no existence of her own but is identified by the men to whom she belongs”(Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 273).

[2] Walton, Bible Background Commentary, 338

[3] McCarter, II Samuel, 288

[4] Leviticus 15:19-33

[5] Walton, Bible Background Commentary, 338

[6] Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, 179

[7] Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 273

[8] McCarter, II Samuel, 288

Ruth, Matthew, and #MeToo

If you’re looking for a good love story, I’m sorry to tell you that the Bible is the wrong place to search. In a world where women were treated as property and marriages were pre-arranged as a business transaction, there was not a lot of room for romance.

Unfortunately, the story of Ruth is often chalked-up as a sweet love story. If you’re not familiar with the basic premise, here’s a synopsis of how the story of Ruth is often generalized:

Ruth’s first husband dies, she meets Boaz, and he saves her like a damsel in distress. Therefore, Ruth and Boaz get married and live happily-ever-after.

Unfortunately, I have heard married women tell young, unmarried women, that they are praying she “will find her Boaz.”

Ugh.

If that’s not bad enough, let me tell you the other, non-Disney princess version of the story.

Ruth

The Book of Ruth begins with a backstory about a man named Elimelech and his family. Due to a famine in Israel, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and two sons, Mahon and Chilion, move to the land of Moab.

While in Moab, Mahon and Chilion marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.  But eventually Elimelech and his two sons die, leaving Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth as widows.

Like Tamar (check out my last post “Matthew’s #MeToo”), Ruth is childless, and her deceased husband has no living brothers to marry and reproduce on his behalf.

When the famine ends, Naomi prepares to go back to Israel, and Ruth insists on going with her. But it is obvious that Naomi, who is also a widow, will not be able to financially support herself and her daughter-in-law; therefore, they have to come up with a plan.

Although Ruth’s strategy for security is more subtle than Tamar’s, her story also involves the art of seduction.

When Ruth arrives in the land of Israel, she begins gleaning wheat from a field, and that is where she meets Boaz; in fact, Boaz is the owner of the field. While gathering wheat in Boaz’s field, Ruth learns that he is a close enough relative that he can “redeem” her.

In this particular situation, redemption would mean purchasing a piece of land that belongs to Naomi—and in addition to the land, the owner would get Naomi’s daughter-in-law, Ruth, as a wife. (Ugh again)

Naomi tells Ruth to get freshened up in order to spend the evening with Boaz. Naomi instructs Ruth to “uncover his feet, and lie down.”Whether we like it or not, in the Old Testament, the term “feet” was used as a euphemism for sexual organs.

The Bible says, “Boaz ate and drank, and he was in a good mood. He went over to lie down by the edge of the grain pile. Then she [Ruth] quietly approached, uncovered his legs, and lay down. During the middle of the night, the man shuddered and turned over—and there was a woman lying at his feet. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. She replied, ‘I’m Ruth your servant. Spread out your robe over your servant, because you are a redeemer.”[1]

One biblical scholar writes,

Ruth is to uncover his ‘lower limbs’ and go and lie down herself. Few texts in the book have generated as much discussion as this command. There is a line of interpretation that treats it as a command to engage in risqué and seductive behavior. It seems that in this cultural context, at winnowing time the threshing floor often became a place of illicit sexual behavior. Realizing that men would spend the night in the fields next to the piles of grain, prostitutes would go out to them and offer their services. As a Moabite Ruth might not have had the scruples about feigning the role of a prostitute to secure a sexual favor from a ‘near relative’ any more than Tamar did in Genesis.[2]

Needless to say, Boaz seems to be quite receptive to her offer, but he does inform Ruth that there is another relative that has the right to redeem her first. Therefore, after their night of passion, Boaz approaches the closest relative and tells him about Naomi’s field.

At first the relative wants to purchase the field, until he learns that it also comes with a wife. The closest relative says, “Then I can’t redeem it for myself, without risking damage to my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself. You can have my right of the redemption, because I’m unable to act as redeemer.”[3]

Therefore, Boaz “redeems” Ruth.

As far as I can tell, this is the only way for Ruth to survive without having a son.

In order to understand how this fits into Matthew’s portrait of Jesus, we have to keep reading.

I hope you’ll stay tuned.

[1] Ruth 3:7-9, CEB

[2] Block, Judges and Ruth, 685

[3] Ruth 4:6, CEB

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Matthew’s #MeToo

For the last year I have been slowly working on a book project about Jesus’ early years (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that one day I will bring it to completion!). One of the earliest chapters I wrote was on Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.pexels-photo-208278.jpeg

I realize to the average person, reading a chapter in a book about Matthew’s genealogy  might sound painful, but it is actually fascinating and relevant.  I believe in his creative Jewish style, Matthew is telling us a story about the four women he mentions by name. In the chapter I proceed by unpacking Matthew’s story.

However, once I completed multiple chapters of my book, I was able to see the big picture a little better, and realized that 1) the chapter on Matthew’s genealogy was too long for my target audience (over 5,000 words), and 2) the scope of the chapter was too narrow for what I am trying to accomplish with my book. Therefore, I had to make the difficult decision of omitting it from the project.

Nevertheless, I think what I wrote is too important to simply throw away. In all the research I have done on Matthew’s genealogy, my interpretation appears to be somewhat original. Therefore, I am either way out in left field, or I might be on to something.

I figured my blog was the best way for me to share my ideas about Matthew’s genealogy and also talk a little about my forthcoming writing project “Growing Up in Galilee.”

Because of the length of this chapter, I will be sharing in shorter installments. I hope it is helpful in some way and makes Matthew’s genealogy seem more exciting.

I begin today with an introduction to the genealogy and discussion about the story of Tamar.

Matthew’s #MeToo:

Introduction and Tamar

If you’ve ever been inspired to read the New Testament you may have noticed that it gets off to a pretty slow start. The first chapter in Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus, which includes lots of strange names (e.g. “Zerubabbel”) linked together by the antiquated verb begat. But beneath what seems to be a monotonous rhythm there is something important happening.

Some of the names Matthew mentions in his genealogy are intended to evoke stories recorded in the Old Testament. Stories about people like David, Hezekiah, and Josiah, but also stories about four named women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.[1] Although it was not unheard of for women to appear in a Jewish genealogy,[2] it was certainly uncommon,[3] especially since these women had gained a negative reputation for being involved in sex scandals.

For decades biblical scholars have been puzzled by why Matthew includes the named women in his genealogy, and as a result, many explanations have been offered. For instance, some have suggested that because Jesus included women in his ministry, Matthew wanted to continue to emphasize their importance in the Church.[4] While it is true that Jesus valued women more than any other Jewish teacher of his era, it doesn’t explain why Matthew chooses these women, opposed to the more popular female figures, such as the wives and mothers of the patriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel).

Others have suggested that Matthew includes the named women, because, like Mary, they all have somewhat unusual pregnancies that end up being a part of the divine plan.[5] One interpretation that is similar but slightly more nuanced is the idea that there was suspicion of illegitimacy with each of these women’s pregnancies.[6]

Currently, what seems to be the most popular view, is the argument that Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba were all gentiles.[7] The rationale is that gentiles are incredibly important to Matthew’s overall theology, and Matthew includes gentile women to point out that they are a part of Jesus’ ancestry.

It doesn’t seem like any of these explanations are mutually exclusive; in fact, it seems that each of the proposed interpretations could be related and pointing to a more unified theme. My personal interpretation is that the women are mentioned because they are prime examples of individuals who have been subjected to a broken system of social injustice in order to survive. I believe Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba represent Matthew’s version of #MeToo.

Women in the Ancient World

In the ancient world, women were treated as property. A man had to pay a “bride-price” to purchase his fiancé from her father, and if he died, his wife was treated as an item in his estate.[8]

If a married couple could not conceive, it was assumed that it was a result of sin in the woman’s life. One biblical scholar says, “Most people assumed that barrenness was a defect of the wife, and Jewish teachers generally insisted that a man divorce a childless wife so he could procreate.”[9]

Furthermore, if a man divorced his wife in the ancient world, there were no laws or systems in place for the woman to be supported financially—she would become destitute.

In essence, it was believed that the primary purpose of a woman was to give birth to children—especially male children. If she could not deliver on this expectation, she was cast aside like an old shoe.

Unfortunately, the women that are mentioned by Matthew are known historically as being scandalous, but if we dig a little deeper, it appears that they are merely trying to survive in a world dominated by men who use force to get what they want. As we will see, Matthew tells a redemptive story about how even in his birth, the Messiah came to break chains, “for the slave is our brother” and sister.

Tamar

The first woman Matthew mentions is “Tamar,” who is noted because she conceived Perez and Zerah by Judah. Tamar’s story functions as an aside in the larger narrative of Joseph and his brothers, in Genesis 38.[10]

At the beginning of the story, Tamar is married to Judah’s son, Er, but before they are able to conceive and bear a child, Er dies. Although the “levirate law” was not legally constituted in Israel at the time of Judah, the concept was already commonplace in the Ancient Near East.[11] This practice simply gets its name from the Hebrew verb levirate (“יָבָם”) which appears in this passage,[12] and is thus translated, “to perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her.”[13]

The levirate concept grew from a more generic practice to a codified law for the Hebrew people prior to their entrance to the Promised Land.[14] The basic premise was that if a man died without conceiving a male heir, it was his father’s responsibility to select one of his brothers to become “a surrogate for the deceased husband who posthumously gained a child, socially acknowledged to be his progeny and heir.”[15]

In the story of Tamar, after the death of Er, she marries Onan, the next brother in line. But the Bible says, “Onan knew the children wouldn’t be his so when he slept with his brother’s wife, he wasted his semen on the ground, so he wouldn’t give his brother children.”[16] In all likelihood, Onan did not want to have a child with Tamar because this would ultimately reduce his own share of the inheritance;[17] therefore, the Lord found Onan’s behavior displeasing and Onan died.

According to the levirate law, Tamar would marry the next brother. (Perhaps now the question that the Sadducees ask Jesus, “whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” makes a little more sense!).[18] But Judah only had one more son (“Shelah”), and Judah was unwilling to arrange a marriage between him and Tamar. Instead, Judah told Tamar that she should just go back to her father’s house. The implication is that Judah is washing his hands from any legal obligation—Tamar already had a shot with two of his sons and missed it.

According to Hebrew scholar Nahum Sarna, Tamar “was not free to remarry but could return to live with her parents, although still subject to the authority of her father-in-law.”[19] In other words, Tamar was being subjected to social limbo, and without some kind of intervention, she would be forsaken.

Although what Judah was doing was technically legal, it was not just. In the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, “In ways apparently congruent with popular morality, Judah had spurned the claims of his daughter-in-law. By his indifference, he has violated her right to wellbeing and dignity in the community.”[20]

But this isn’t the end of Tamar’s story; instead, she returns to her hometown where she takes on the identity of a widow. Meanwhile, Judah’s wife dies, and as a result of his new-found freedom, he decides to go on a business trip which just happens to be near Tamar’s hometown.

When Tamar catches wind of the news, she changes out of her widow’s clothing and into the attire of a prostitute. And just as Tamar suspected, when Judah comes through town, he propositions her to sleep with him.

Tamar and Judah agree that the payment for her services would be a kid goat from his flock, but since the goat was not with him, Tamar demanded some form of collateral. In the heat of the moment, Judah made the unwise choice of leaving his seal, cord, and staff with Tamar for good measure—all of which would have been like a modern person temporarily entrusting a prostitute with his driver’s license, debit card, and social security number. In essence, the seal, cord and staff were Judah’s primary forms of identity.

After they sleep together, Tamar takes Judah’s property and escapes.

Later when Judah returns with Tamar’s payment and to collect his property, he can’t find her so he leaves. In fact, he says, “Let her keep everything so we aren’t laughed at…”[21] In other words, Judah is willing to forget his incredibly valuable property because he is afraid that if he digs too deep, his indiscretions will come to light.

But three months later, someone tells Judah that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, has become a prostitute and is now pregnant. Judah’s response is to bring her out so that she can be publically executed by burning.[22] But when Tamar is brought out she is clinging to Judah’s seal, cord, and staff and announces that she is pregnant by the man who owns them. Immediately taken back by the surprise, Judah confesses that Tamar is more righteous than him.[23]

Conclusion

There is no doubt that what Tamar has done is deceitful…but did she have any other choice?

If we give the entire narrative much thought, it doesn’t seem that Tamar seduces Judah in order to have her way sexually with her father-in-law. Rather, Tamar is simply trying to survive. By conceiving male children by Judah, it means that she has provided legal heirs for her deceased husband, Er. Now she is entitled to a portion of the inheritance and can live out her days without being a rejected piece of property.

Perhaps there is a tinge of poetic justice in the story since she conceives twins. Not only does Tamar provide one male heir, but two. Therefore, it is assumed that Judah would be responsible for including double provisions for Tamar and her sons.

As we will read each of these accounts in light of the birth of Jesus, we will see that neither Tamar nor Judah did what was right, but it seems that Tamar’s hand was forced in order to survive. This story, along with the stories of Ruth, Rahab, and Bathsheba, all raise ethical questions. In each scenario we might be prompted to ask, “Was there a better way?”

For now I will say that it is too messy to provide a simple answer. We have to read more. I hope you will tune in next time.

[1] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 77

[2] According to Brown, Matthew’s sources for his genealogy are Ruth 4:18-22 and 1 Chronicles 2:5, and both include women (Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 69-70).

[3] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 36

[4] Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 42

[5] Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 73

[6] Blomberg, Matthew, 56

[7] Luz, Matthew 1-7, 83-85

[8] Sarna, Genesis, 266

[9] Keener, Bible Background Commentary, 188

[10] Judah was one of Joseph’s brothers

[11] Sarna, Genesis, 266

[12] Speiser, Genesis, 297

[13] Genesis 38:8, New Revised Standard Version

[14] Deuteronomy 25:5-10

[15] Speiser, Genesis, 297

[16] Gen. 38:9, Common English Bible

[17] Walton, Bible Background Commentary, 69-70

[18] Matthew 22:28

[19] Sarna, Genesis, 267

[20] Brueggemann, Genesis, 311

[21] Gen. 38:23, Common English Bible

[22] Gen. 38:24

[23] Gen. 38:26

Together

communion

So, it has been a few weeks since my last post, but I want to pick it back up where we left off: Why is it important to go to church?

It is easy to stop going to church when we think it is all about us.

If we aren’t getting anything out of the pastor’s messages or the music doesn’t speak to us, we can just watch Charles Stanley on T.V. or listen to Matt Chandler’s podcast. We can read our Bible on our own, pray as we go about our daily lives, and listen to Christian music in the car.

Sometimes these alternatives sound tempting when we think about the messiness and drama of our local churches. Trust me, I’m a pastor who serves two congregations and my least favorite part is spending weekday evenings in administrative meetings…so I know how you feel.

But if we stop going to church because of the messiness and we try to supplement corporate worship with an exclusively “private practice,” most likely it’s because we believe that church is about MY own personal enrichment.

In other words, a common misconception is that going to church is primarily about receiving a blessing from God or having some kind of meaningful experience. But when we read Scripture and look at the history of the Church, it seems that the focus of the Christian life is to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus so that we can be a blessing to others.

It would be really easy to live the Christian life in isolation–we would never have to forgive, reconcile, serve, or love someone who is different than us…but that’s kind of the point. We can only truly live out the Christian life in community.

In the remainder of this blog I’m going to highlight the importance of corporate worship, and we will unpack each of these in more detail in future posts.

  1. We are each given spiritual gifts, but Scripture is clear that our gifts are not for our own benefit, but for the building up of the body of Christ. My gifts are supposed to compliment your gifts and serve you, and vice versa (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  2.  We can’t celebrate the Sacraments alone.  I cannot baptize myself, I can only receive baptism. I cannot take communion, I can only receive communion. The sacraments initiate us in the body of Christ and give us grace as we continue the Christian journey.
  3. The Bible instructs us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). Living in Christian Community establishes a level of accountability that we can avoid otherwise.
  4. Repentance. Yes, we can repent anywhere and we often need to repent for our own individual sins, but we also need to repent of our collective sins: “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves and we haven’t heard the cry of the needy”
  5. Fellowship. Acts 2:42 says that the earliest Christians devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. The word fellowship comes from a Greek word that means commonness. We need each other! Fellowship means laughing together, crying together, checking in when things are rough, and celebrating life in Christ together.
  6. Teaching. The United Methodist Church, along with most other mainline denominations, requires pastors to earn a Master’s of Divinity. My program was 96 credit hours and required three years of full-time study. It’s not that a person needs a master’s degree to understand the Bible, but it helps to have a working knowledge of biblical languages, textual criticism, a grasp of the history of interpretation, and other methods for interpreting and applying Scripture. Furthermore, if we do not go to church regularly we don’t get the opportunity to be wrong…we rarely disagree with ourselves! Even pastors with master’s degrees need to be challenged to see things from different perspectives.
  7. Service. Sure, we can serve alone, but we can do much more together than we can do apart! I’ve been on mission trips, and while I’ve done my share of hanging sheet rock, I’ve sensed my purpose is to listen to hurting people and pray with them. We are many members but one body!

 

 

 

“The Church”: DNA

communion

Today I begin a new blog series entitled, “Church.”

I know, creative, right? (This series was requested by a friend several months ago and is one of the reasons I decided to start a blog in the first place).

In our culture it is becoming increasingly more common for individuals and families to drop out of church out of disgust for organized religion. As a pastor, I frequently hear things like, “I don’t need to go to church in order to worship God…I can do that at home.”

Trust me—I understand. I’m reminded of the old illustration of the person who is no longer willing to eat meat because they worked in the slaughter house for too long. Friends, April marks 13 years of vocational ministry for me. More than a third of my life I have been working as a paid staff member or pastor in churches and I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly…so you don’t have to explain. Churches can be unhealthy, and downright toxic.

But I feel like it’s important to share why this increasingly popular attitude is unique to the last 2,000 years of church history, and why it is important to be a part of faith community. My commitment in this series is to be short, simple, and frequent…because there is actually a lot here to discuss and I don’t want to be going on and on for months.

The New Testament

I remember as a young pastor wishing there were more passages of Scripture that talk about the importance of being connected to the church. There is one verse in Hebrews that is usually the “go-to” passage for many pastors and teachers,

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25 NRSV, emphasis added)

While the passage in Hebrews is a solid biblical text instructing believers to gather for worship, I’ve grown to have a deeper, (hopefully) more mature understanding of Scripture in more recent years. Therefore, my proposition for today is that Scripture doesn’t provide more explicit instruction for gathering for corporate worship and being a part of a faith community simply because in the first century it was an assumed part of the Christian journey.

With that being said, it is important to note that the New Testament is more descriptive than it is prescriptive in regards to being a part of a faith community. In other words, there are far less instructions in the New Testament to be a part of a church, and many more descriptions of the church gathering together on a regular basis because it is a part of our DNA. One of the best examples comes from the Book of Acts. Luke says,

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Act 2:46-47 NRSV).

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One of my favorite examples are Paul’s letters. If we read Paul’s letters carefully we can make some important observations. First, ten out of thirteen of Paul’s letters are addressed to communities and not to individuals. Second, Paul writes his letters because he is unable to physically be in attendance and deliver a message specific to a particular church (e.g. the Galatians); therefore, he intends his letters to be read to the entire Christian community in corporate worship. As a result, Paul structures his letters to help format the worship services by including doxologies and benedictions—instructions for fellowship, holy communion, listening to the public reading of Scripture, and singing hymns and spiritual songs. A third important observation is that when Paul uses pronouns, more often than not, they are plural rather than singular.

My eyes were opened a few years ago by this particular truth while reading Philippians 2:5-8. Here Paul says,

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross” (Phi 2:5-8 NRSV, emphasis added).

What is particularly profound to me is that the pronoun “you” in v. 5 is plural. In WV we might say “Let the same mind be in ya’ll…” This has massive theological implications, because it tells us that we as believers are supposed to be formed together in having the mind of Christ in order to collectively live out his passion and mission in the world. AS we will see, this is just one of many examples. The truth is that this mind of Christ stuff is messy business—Paul never said it would be easy or that it would always be fun—but it’s our DNA as the church.

I think there are a lot of reasons we might stop going to church: we might feel like it is no longer relevant , or that it is too complicated. Honestly, we might not like the inconvenience of fitting it into our schedules or we might feel like the commitment outweighs the benefits. We might not like being under the authority of someone else, or maybe we simply get upset when things don’t go our way…but we were intended to live out the Christian life together.

In my future posts I will discuss what it looks like to be an authentic Christian community. I hope you will stay tuned.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Jonathan

Beyond Superstition

walk

Right after college I remember reading various passages from a world renowned Danish philosopher named Soren Kirkegaard. From what I could gather, Kirkegaard did not claim to be a Christian, but he was sympathetic to the ways of Jesus. Perhaps more than anything, Kirkegaard was a critic of the state of Christianity in Denmark during his lifetime.

Unfortunately I can’t remember which book or pamphlet it was in, but Kirkegaard questioned whether Christianity even existed in Denmark. The question rattled me to the core. It prompted me to ask, Does Christianity exist in America?

I had never taken the time to ask the question because I grew up in the Bible-Belt with a church on each street corner. It was obvious that Christianity existed in America.

And from a sociological point of view, I was right. Christianity existed in America and it was flourishing; but I failed to realize it was a very specific kind of Christianity. I hadn’t taken the time to ask an “outsider”– someone like Kirkegaard, if the essence of Jesus’ teachings and movement was still alive in the modern, western world.

I believe that Christianity still exists in America, but there are certainly competing versions. In America there is a brand of Christianity that is largely superstitious, and it is built on the paradigm of consumerism. This version of Christianity has endless benefits and little sacrifice.

Superstitious Christianity is primarily individualistic, and is cut off from the narrative of salvation history as revealed in Scripture (i.e. the focus is primarily on me as an individual rather than what God wants to do in human history). The focus is on me, God answering my prayers, my personal salvation, my rights, and my personal fate. For those of us who (unintentionally) subscribe to this version of Christianity, we feel persecuted when any of our rights (or benefits) are challenged.

To put it simply, superstitious Christianity is about winning, and the way of Jesus is about losing. Jesus says his way is about losing our lives instead of gaining the world (Matt. 10:39). Jesus says his way is about being last, rather than being first (Matt. 20:16). Jesus says his way is about loving our enemies rather than simply loving those who will love us in return (Matt. 5:44). The way of Jesus is about turning the other cheek rather than seeking retaliation (Matt. 5:39). The way of Jesus is about giving rather than receiving (Acts 20:35). The way of Jesus is about going the extra mile (Matt. 5:41), and praying for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). According to Jesus’ brother, James, who I focused on in my last post, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jam 1:27 NRSV).

Does the way of Jesus still exist in the world?

Yes.

It is a life of devotion to one another, Scripture, accountability, prayer, Sacraments, and service to God’s kingdom. It is a concrete kind of faithfulness, that regardless of whether things go my way or not, I will keep allowing my life to be patterned after the crucified and resurrected Lamb.

Before I close, I need to let you know where this is coming from.

lamb and cross

Yesterday I was reading the Book of Revelation and I made an important observation. Living in a primarily consumer based culture, we love the last few chapters of Revelation that talk about a new heaven and new earth, streets of gold, our tears being wiped away and there being no more sickness and dying. But we need to read about the new creation in context.

Right before Revelation chapters 20-22, which talks about the New Jerusalem, are chapters 17 &18. In Revelation 17 & 18, John writes about the downfall of Babylon. Most biblical scholars believe that Babylon in the Book of Revelation is the code word for Rome, the leading empire at the time Revelation was written. Here John writes about the end of commercialism and the systems of power and wealth that sustain the status quo, protect the majority, and oppress the marginalized.

The message of Revelation is that we have to choose which kingdom we are going to embrace. In order for the kingdom of God to prevail on earth, we have to be willing to let go of the kingdoms of this world–the kingdoms that often provide us with safety and security at the expense of others.

Sometimes Revelation 17 & 18 is interpreted as a one-time thing that happens at the end of the age, but I believe the message of Revelation is about the consistent cycles in history. We are faced with the choice of Babylon or the kingdom of God every day. Which kingdom will we choose?

Will we embrace the kingdom that offers us the most security and benefits, or we will choose the kingdom that teaches us to value our neighbor as much as we value ourselves? Will we choose the kingdom that is fueled by force, or the kingdom that resembles the mustard seed?

Christianity can be built on the paradigm of both kinds of kingdoms in the sociological sense. In fact, Christianity can masquerade in a lot of different forms. I believe the question we have to ask is whether we are being faithful to the way of Jesus.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Jonathan

Jakob of Nazareth

James' Ossuary

Some are surprised when they learn that Jesus had four brothers, and at least two sisters (Mark 6:3). Unfortunately, Jesus’ sisters remain unnamed, but his brothers are James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. All of these names, including Jesus, were common Jewish names in the first century.

Jesus, the eldest, was the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua. Joshua was a strong Jewish name, originating with Moses’ successor who led the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament. Jesus’ name would have been pronounced something like Yeshua or Hoshea, and means “the Lord saves.”

The name James is a little bit tricky; it is the product of being translated from one language to another over and over again. But if you open up a Greek New Testament and read the name it is pronounced Yacob, which comes from the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob. If you are a student of the Bible, you might remember that Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel,” which means “one who strives with God.” Therefore, throughout the Old Testament, it is not unusual for the prophets to refer to the nation of Israel as “Jacob.”

Joses is named after their father, Joseph of Nazareth, but ultimately they were both named after Jacob’s son, Joseph, who rescued their tribes from famine in Genesis.

Judas is named after Judah, another one of Jacob’s sons in Genesis. Judah is an important tribe in Israel because it is the home of David and is the territory that includes Jerusalem.

Simon comes from the name of Jacob’s other son, Simeon; but in times closer to Jesus it took on new meaning as it was the name of one of the Maccabees that led the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and brought independence to Israel for approximately 100 years.

Growing Up with Jesus

When we read about Jesus’ brothers in the Gospel narratives, we do not get the impression that their relationship was great. Because there is no mention of Joseph after Jesus’ infancy narratives, it can be assumed that he died prior to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Because Jesus was the eldest, he had special responsibility to care for his mother. In fact, Jesus had most likely received the largest portion of the inheritance in order to care for Mary…but as we read in the Gospels, it appears that Jesus relocated to another village in Galilee known as Capernaum.

Had Jesus forsaken his familial duty and subsequently brought shame upon his family? In Judaism it was a punishable offense; after all, one of the Big TEN was to “honor your mother and father…” Yet, when Jesus was pressed on the issue of familial allegiance, he responded by redefining family on religious, rather than biological, grounds (Mark 3:35).

In the same narrative Jesus is back in his hometown of Nazareth when the locals claim he is “filled with an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:30). Undoubtedly Jesus’ erratic behavior was drawing unwelcome attention to the Joseph of Nazareth family. Once again, Jesus was presumably bringing shame on them. As a result, it appears that Jesus was disenfranchised by his own brothers.

Perhaps Jesus always seemed a little off to everyone in his family—maybe perceived as an eccentric. There is no mention that he was ever married which was very unusual in first century Palestine. Perhaps it was difficult for Mary and Joseph to arrange a marriage for Jesus because of his known idiosyncrasies. Maybe he wasn’t considered “marriage material” because of all the mysteries surrounding the legitimacy of his birth which would have made him a mamzer, a person who was socially outcast because of uncertain origins. Needless to say, it seems that Jesus did not bring the best publicity to his family in a culture where you lived or died on the basis of honor or shame.

In the Gospel of John the evidence that Jesus and his brothers did not get along only becomes clearer. In John 7, it says,

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.  (Joh 7:1-10 NRS)

Before and After

What’s interesting is that things seem to have radically changed after Jesus’ crucifixion. According to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that I mentioned in my last post (link), after Jesus was raised back to life, he appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7). As a result, James became the most important leader of the Church in Jerusalem. In fact, by the time Paul came on to the scene, James was considered one of the three “pillars” of the Church, in addition to Peter and John (Gal. 2:9).

Unfortunately James’ significance in the early Church has been underestimated because the Acts of the Apostles is primarily focused on the gospel moving from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. We are blessed to have a writing in the New Testament from his own hand which most biblical scholars believe is authentic. Likewise, Jesus’ brother Judas/Jude came to faith and is the author of the letter bearing his name (Jude), located right before the Book of Revelation.

Outside the New Testament

James’ influence in the early Church became so great that his death is documented in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the most important Jewish historian of the first century. Josephus claims that James was martyred by stoning.

In more recent years an archeological discovery was made that raised new interest in James the brother of Jesus. When first century Jews died they underwent two stages of burial. First, their bodies would be laid in a tomb in order for their flesh to decompose. Second, their family would take their bones and place them in stone cases called ossuaries and then put them inside of a common family tomb. An ossuary was discovered with the inscription “Yakob Ben Yosef, the brother of Yeshua.” In a patriarchal culture, traditionally a person’s epitaph would only relate them to their father (i.e. “Yakob ben Yosef”), but because the early Church wanted to honor James, they inscribed the name of his brother, Jesus. One of my New Testament professors in seminary, Dr. Ben Witherington III, is one of the scholars who helped authenticate the discovery of James’ ossuary. You can read more in his book: https://www.amazon.com/Brother-Jesus-Dramatic-Meaning-Archaeological/dp/0060556609/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1524007645&sr=8-1&keywords=Ben+witherington+Hershel

James' Ossuary

Conclusion

The radical change from unbeliever to martyr shortly after Jesus’ death speaks volumes about what James claims to have witnessed during the season of Easter. It also speaks to the fact the resurrection is not only a historical event, but something that brings transformation to our lives, and gives us unshakable hope.

In my next blog I will be posting about the women who showed up at the tomb on Easter morning. I hope you will stay tuned!