Tag Archives: Jonah

Adventures in Hebrew, episode one

God’s RocketShip

One of the most exciting elements of my Divinity School work this semester has been the opportunity I’ve had to study Hebrew with Dr. Barry Jones. I’ve never been very good in the foreign language skills department. In high school and college I dabbled in a couple of different languages, but simply trying to get a handle on the nuances and grammar of my own native tongue has been more than enough to push my linguistic abilities. For brevity’s sake, however, let me simply say that Hebrew is fun.

Working through scripture in its original language has been challenging and invigorating. Each little gain in understanding of these sacred texts opens up new truths and insight for me, but I still have a very long ways to go before reading a book, or even a sentence, in Hebrew is as natural and clear as it is in English. So why bother with trying to read the Bible in its original language? Aren’t there already enough English translations available? Haven’t hundreds of translators and scribes been pouring over these texts for thousands of years already? What can I possibly find in the original languages that hasn’t already been identified, dissected and translated by other, more qualified biblical scholars?

Probably nothing.

But that’s not really why we read the Bible, is it? It’s true that some people spend great amounts of time and effort scouring the letters and phrasings of scripture for secret codes, looking for hidden messages that supposedly reveal everything from the date of the apocalypse, to which candidate will win the 2012 presidential election in the United States of America. Others aren’t searching for secret codes, but they are reading the texts in hopes of finding a special verse or word that supports their own presupposed view of God and what he deems to be right behavior, as opposed to reading the lessons and stories of scripture with fresh ears, trying to understand them within the context of the overarching message of the gospel.

Whenever I move through the pages of the Bible, I know that I am walking down a path that many, many people have tread before me; I take comfort in that, and I do not for a moment hope to go one step further than anyone else has already gone. At the same time, I believe that God’s truths aren’t simply passed down from one generation to the next like genetic characteristics or inherited wealth. For scripture to have any real value for an individual, it must be read and understood by that person. If we hope to gain even a glimmer of understanding into the nature of God, we must, each one, seek him out. Knowing how God has worked among the human race in the past is a good place to start. The better informed we are as to the nature of God, of his relationship with mankind, of his movements in history and how he has revealed himself to others, the better equipped we are to identify his presence in our own lives as we seek to live within his will. This is the primary reason that I read the Bible — to know God.

One of the simple benefits of understanding the original language of scripture came through this week’s vocabulary lesson. Among our list of new words to learn for the week was the verb נשא (pronounced: nă•sá) which means to lift or to carry. This is the verb used in Exodus 20:7, the third commandment, translated in the NET (and similarly in the KJV) as “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. In my experience, most people have understood this to be an admonition against using a name for God as a frivolous slur or in conjunction with obscene language. The verb נשא certainly does support this interpretation. The commandment makes it clear that “lifting up” the Lord’s name to invoke a curse is a sordid thing to do — unless of course, you really, really mean it. However, נשא has another meaning here that, at least in this case, seems to fit this context better than the traditional understanding of “lifting up” God’s name alongside other language that is in poor taste.

The second meaning of the verb נשא, “to carry,” seems to fit in well with the rest of the Exodus story, and even with the rest of the Biblical narrative. Beginning with the exodus and continuing on for much of history, God’s people were not associated with a particular place; they were not known for their great wealth and possessions; they were not known for military superiority or for their hold on a valuable resource. They were known by the law they had been given, and by the God, Yahweh, who gave them that law. As they roamed through the wilderness, carrying all of their few possessions with them, they always found themselves to be strangers in foreign land. What kept them together — what set them apart from the other nations that surrounded them — was their identity as a people chosen by God, called by his name. This act of “carrying” God’s name was not a small thing for the Israelites — it was the most important thing they had!

In 2 Chronicles 7, during a relatively brief period of prosperity and national wealth in the history of Israel, God reminds Solomon, the great king, of this first treasure the Hebrew people had claim to, saying:

“If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

When the prophet Jonah was sleeping onboard a ship in peril, the ship’s crew woke him up and asked him who he was. Jonah didn’t tell them his name. He didn’t tell them which town he was from, who is parents were or what he did for a living. He simply said, “I worship Yahweh.” This statement, of course, wasn’t entirely true. It was simply the latest in a string of mistakes Jonah had made. He claimed to be a worshipper of Yahweh, but in reality, he was caught in the act of fleeing from the Lord, of ignoring his responsibilities and following his own desires. Jonah was “carrying” the name of the Lord, but he was not living as one who truly belongs to God.

As Christians, we often divert our attention and make known our disapproval when we hear the name of Jesus used as a statement of anger or frustration, but are we as quick to hold ourselves accountable when our actions or words — though they may be perfectly acceptable by society’s standards — are not worthy of one who carries the name of Christ? How many Christians today pay lip service to God when it’s convenient, but don’t put forward any real effort to follow his commandments to honor the Lord in all we do, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Is it worse to ignore God altogether, or to acknowledge him in word but not in deed?

Let us strive to never carry the name of Christ in vain.

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Preaching Brimstone and…. Water?

Out of the Depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

Psalm 130:1-4 (NRSV)

Do you ever hear something that just makes you cringe?

Maybe it’s simply a word that seems vile to your ears. Maybe it’s a harsh truth that stirs up strong feelings when you hear it brought up in casual conversation. Or maybe its a lie; you just get sick at the thought of dangerous untruths digging deeper and deeper into the social consciousness of the people you care about.

I’m not sure which category of cringe-inducing remarks this fits into, but the end result is the same: I can’t help but wince whenever I hear people, especially Christians, talk about the “Old-Testament-god of wrath and vengeance, of fire and brimstone.”

Some people I know who identify God this way are individuals with no real interest in the Lord. They have an image of a God that is cruel and vindictive — often because that is how he has been portrayed by their Christian friends — and they have made up their minds that they want nothing to do with that type of God, so they give up on him all together. My heart breaks for these people. I pray for them, and I hope that I can find a way to show them some portion of the true love that God has for them.

What is more confusing to me is how some Christians talk this way as well. They speak of one god who was legalistic, rigid, demanding and dangerous — an old god who brought down fire from heaven to consume those who displeased him — and another god who is welcoming, compassionate, forgiving and full of love — a Good Shepherd who will leave everything behind to rescue one lost sheep. It’s as if all of a sudden, God changed his mind about how he was going to run things; he changed his mind about how he wanted creation to be ordered; he changed his mind about what kind of relationship he wanted to have with his people, and so he sent Jesus to Earth to give us an update and let us in on the new plan.

This kind of thinking doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe God changed his mind. He has always wanted people everywhere to seek him out, to know him, to live in relationship with him and to build healthy relationships with others in order to honor him. When God revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he gave humanity its clearest and most direct glimpse at himself as part of the ongoing revelation that began at the beginning and is still unfolding to this day. In Jesus, men and women saw better than ever the love, compassion, wisdom and grace that God has for all people. That same love Jesus lavished on those he came in contact with, and the same desire he showed to live in intimate relationship with his followers, was not anything new — it had been God’s will all along, but somehow the message kept getting misunderstood; it still does today.

To be honest, not that long ago I had conflicting images of God’s judgment and God’s grace. I had a hard time reconciling the God that created the universe, that preserved Noah’s line in the flood, that lead his people on an exodus out of Egypt and established a line of priests, prophets and kings in Israel with the God who was born in a manager, lived as a homeless wanderer, built relationships with people that crossed all racial, economic, social and religious lines, and then died on a cross to demonstrate his own steadfast love for mankind. The Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament seemed so far apart in my eyes.

Then I decided to read the Old Testament; Not just the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, but the sacred writings of God’s prophets and priests. Imagine my surprise when I saw the love of Christ embodied in these ancient scriptures.

If any preacher epitomizes the “Fire and Brimstone” style of homiletics, Amos is the man. The book of Amos begins with harsh words for Israel’s neighbors, who have attacked their distant cousins living across the border and pillaged cities that were living in peace. Amos declares God’s judgment will literally be demonstrated by fire raining down from heaven and consuming these people. Then he turns his sight on Israel. Because God’s people have traded in real justice and loving relationships for hypocritical religion and shrewdly-amassed wealth, they also will reap their just rewards. Yet the book of Amos isn’t all doom and gloom. It is a desperate plea to the people. Amos, again and again, calls for his listeners to turn back to Yahweh, to repent, to denounce their greedy lifestyles, to stop paying lip service to God and start living in community with one another as God intends.

The first several chapters of Amos seem to be all judgment with no hope, but don’t give up! Keep reading, and you’ll learn that even when God’s people have utterly disregarded his word and turned their backs on the needs of their neighbors, the Lord is still waiting with open arms to take them back, to call them his own children again, to forgive their sins and guide them into a better life.

Listen to this funeral song I am ready to sing about you, family of Israel:
“The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again.
She is abandoned on her own land
with no one to help her get up.”
The sovereign Lord says this:
“The city that marches out with a thousand soldiers will have only a hundred left;
the town that marches out with a hundred soldiers will have only ten left for the family of Israel.”

The Lord says this to the family of Israel:
“Seek me so you can live!
Do not seek Bethel!
Do not visit Gilgal!
Do not journey down to Beer Sheba!
For the people of Gilgal will certainly be carried into exile;
and Bethel will become a place where disaster abounds.”

Seek the Lord so you can live!
Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family;
the fire will consume
and no one will be able to quench it and save Bethel.

The Israelites turn justice into bitterness;
they throw what is fair and right to the ground.

(But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion;
he can turn the darkness into morning
and daylight into night.
He summons the water of the seas
and pours it out on the earth’s surface.
The Lord is his name!
He flashes destruction down upon the strong
so that destruction overwhelms the fortified places.)

The Israelites hate anyone who arbitrates at the city gate;
they despise anyone who speaks honestly.
Therefore, because you make the poor pay taxes on their crops
and exact a grain tax from them,
you will not live in the houses you built with chiseled stone,
nor will you drink the wine from the fine vineyards you planted.
Certainly I am aware of your many rebellious acts
and your numerous sins.
You torment the innocent, you take bribes,
and you deny justice to the needy at the city gate.
For this reason whoever is smart keeps quiet in such a time,
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil so you can live!
Then the Lord, the God who commands armies, just might be with you,
as you claim he is.
Hate what is wrong, love what is right!
Promote justice at the city gate!
Maybe the Lord, the God who commands armies, will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph.

Because of Israel’s sins this is what the Lord, the God who commands armies, the sovereign One, says:
“In all the squares there will be wailing,
in all the streets they will mourn the dead.
They will tell the field workers to lament
and the professional mourners to wail.
In all the vineyards there will be wailing,
for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.

Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come?
It will bring darkness, not light.
Disaster will be inescapable,
as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear,
then escaped into a house,
leaned his hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a poisonous snake.
Don’t you realize the Lord’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light —
gloomy blackness, not bright light?

“I absolutely despise your festivals!
I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies!
Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied;
I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves.
Take away from me your noisy songs;
I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments.
Justice must flow like torrents of water,
righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.”

Amos 5:1-24 (NET)

What do you read there?

Amos reminds me, first of all, that God is inescapable. Whether we acknowledge him or not, trying to hide ourselves from God is as futile “as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake.” Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it? We cannot hide our actions, or even our motives, from the one who made the stars in the sky and the hairs on our heads. This brings us to the next point, that even if God’s big plan for the world, and for my life, seems hard to decipher, it’s important to remember that the most important task he has called us to is to live honest lives, to practice social justice, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in so doing, honor and worship him with our lives — not just with our organized religious services. “Seek good and not evil so you can live! Hate what is wrong, love what is right. … Justice must flow like torrents of water; righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.” This is the faithfulness God demands from us! This is the type of faithfulness he tried to communicate to his people through the law given to Moses, it is the type of faithfulness the ancient prophets tried to call the Israelites back to, and it is the type of faithfulness perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus.

Then there is the prophet Hosea. Working through Hosea, God took another unique approach to getting his message across to the people. While Amos courageously proclaimed God’s truth to the people until they couldn’t hear it anymore, Hosea modeled the steadfast love and forgiveness God shares with us in his own family relationships. Apparently, at the Spirit’s guidance, Hosea was lead to marry a local prostitute. After the honeymoon period, he continued preaching, and she continued plying her trade; yet Hosea was more than ready to take her back, never hesitated in forgiving her infidelity and always offered unfailing love — even to one who spurned him again and again! When the prostitute is so buried in her life of sin that she is taken into slavery, Hosea goes into town and buys her back. He pays for his own wife, like any other man in the street could, so that he can take her back home with him, forgive her once again, and try, one more time, to begin building an intimate relationship based on love, not selfish pleasure.

This is the type of enduring love the God of the Old Testament has for his people — for all people — even in the darkest of times. The writings of Amos, Hosea, Jonah and the other prophets speak of painful things — suffering, poverty, slavery and death. These hard things are a part of life, often brought into being by our own hands. These things are not God’s will for our lives, but he is committed to finding a way to work through them for the good of creation.

When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them.

They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent! A sword will flash in their cities, it will destroy the bars of their city gates, and will devour them in their fortresses. My people are obsessed with turning away from me; they call to Baal, but he will never exalt them!

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
I have had a change of heart!
All my tender compassions are aroused!
I cannot carry out my fierce anger!
I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!

Because I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you — I will not come in wrath!

Hosea 11:1-9 (NET)

The way I see it, God hasn’t changed at all.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that we have changed much either.